According to her official bio, Gordon-Reed has been interested in Thomas Jefferson since her childhood in then still-segregated east Texas. In elementary school, she read a children’s biography of the third president, narrated by a fictional slave boy. At 14, concealing her status as a minor, she joined the Book-of-the-Month Club to receive Fawn Brodie’s biography, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait. Her fascination with Jefferson continued during her time as a history major at Dartmouth College and a student at Harvard Law School, where she was a member of the Law Review.
Whereas Gordon-Reed’s first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, was strictly historiography, The Hemingses of Monticello is, as its subtitle suggests, a family saga. During a recent phone call from her office at Harvard Law School, where Gordon-Reed is a visiting professor this semester, the author shared some of her thoughts on the differences between the two books, and on how the colonial period in America helped define who we are today.
BIRMINGHAM WEEKLY: In the first pages of The Hemingses, you described an elemental existence in which slaves were merely property, devoid of humanity, let alone legal rights: you called it “otherworldly.” If you will, talk a little a little about how you were able to travel back into that world and endow the Hemings family with personhood for our present day.
GORDON-REED: The idea was to start from basic principles of what Virginia was like and how the Virginia regime of slavery got started. What it meant was seeing people as property. First, there’s the matter of how you decide who is a slave: It was decided through the rule that the birth follows the status of the mother. In the case of Elizabeth Hemings, even though her father is white and free, that doesn’t mean anything because her mother is a slave. Then you move from there to thinking about racial categories and how even though she is part-white, that doesn’t matter. The only reason they mentioned the category of mulatto is to say that they were just like Negroes. Anybody who had African ancestry was going to be a slave because he or she was born of an enslaved mother.
I moved from the blueprint for slavery — of how to treat people as property — to realizing that even if people are treated like property, they are not pieces of land or pieces of furniture. This whole system is there on paper but the reality of life makes something quite different. You realize that slaves are not inanimate objects; they’re not horses and they’re not cattle or land. The idea is to get people to think about them, to think about the Hemingses by talking about her, about her mother, about her children, by talking about them as Martha Wales Jefferson’s sisters and brothers. In most historical accounts, Robert Hemings is referred to as “Jefferson’s slave Bob,” or James Hemings is “Jefferson’s slave Jim,” or “Jimmy” or “James” or whatever. No one else is ever making the point that we’re talking about people who have a blood relationship to his wife. That, I think, draws the reader in because you see them in a different light.
You see the complexity of the institution when you have family members owning members of their own family. The goal is to make people identify with the Heminges and to say, “What if I were in that situation?” Obviously, in most biographies of Jefferson or books about Monticello, he is the focus. People are asked to see the world through his eyes. I wanted to do something different.
The subtitle of your book is “An American Family.” Part of the power in what you’ve done, I think, is in giving them names.
Yes. And talking about them in relationship to one another. Because usually, as I said, it’s “Jefferson and James,” or “Jefferson and Robert” or “Jefferson and Sally Hemings.” This is a group of folks that he has a connection to and these people are related to his wife. They’re in a weird situation — that’s the “otherworldly” aspect of it because it doesn’t seem like anything we can imagine now.
In the introduction, you make the argument that slavery is “not just the oppression of a nameless mass of people... it blighted the lives of millions of individuals in ways that we can feel, if we allow ourselves to do that. During your writing process, what was the point where you were allowing yourself to feel it?
Certainly in looking at Jefferson’s farm book. I talk about that in the beginning of the book — the feeling of that — of thinking of the names in that book not just as a list of names but sort of recognizing that they represent human beings and families that were in this particular situation, these unimaginable circumstances.
It really hits home for me in the parts of the book [in which I write about] Jefferson separating family members. Kids at that time were thought to be grown when they were about 12. I have two kids. When I was finishing the book, my daughter was 16 or 17, my son was 12 or 13, and I thought about it often: What would it be like to have somebody just take them and give them to be somebody’s maid? And you’d have no say about that. What I say about allowing yourself to feel this — I think a lot of times, people shut down from that because it’s just too horrible to contemplate.
Also, it’s not that long ago. It’s not like Europe or China, where you’re talking about 5,000 years of history. This is not so long ago in human history. America is a young country. In that sense, these things were going on just yesterday.
Between your earlier book and this book, how do you ultimately assess the many contradictions of Thomas Jefferson? You have gotten to know him as a scholar, but also have a totally different view of his relationship with this family.
On some level, I think I came to grips with this awhile back. I would say I have a better understanding of him. It’s interesting because some readers say that the book made them less sympathetic to Jefferson and some say it made them more sympathetic to him. I came out more sympathetic to him, I think. He’s an exasperating figure in lots of ways, and, to me, an interesting figure obviously. I kind of understand how he rationalized his position, surrounded by these people. The world of slavery to him, on a day-to-day basis, was this family. And he treated this family in a way that allowed him to see himself as a good man. He thought, “I am taking care of these people. The women don’t have to go out into the fields. The men get to go out and work on their own and keep their money. They don’t get whipped.”
The people down the mountain — he was aware of them, certainly, but they aren’t the real close contact to slavery that he has on a daily basis. And so I think through them, he sees himself as a benevolent person. Why does that make him sympathetic to me? It means there was a conscience there that I think he was trying to assuage. I think it’s inadequate to us, but I think it was definitely there.
I wonder what that says about how we measure it, if it is inadequate to us.
We measure it the way we do because Jefferson is a very controversial figure now because of his slave ownership — in ways that Madison isn’t even though Madison owned slaves too. Washington also owned slaves. He freed his slaves upon his death, which is great, but still. To free people after you’ve enslaved people all your life is still problematic. He, I think even more than Jefferson, could have done something. Washington had more prestige than Jefferson during his lifetime and now. I think he was really the only founding father who could have, if he had committed himself to it, made a real difference.
But Jefferson, because he wrote the Declaration of Independence, is held to a very high standard. It’s a way of saying, “Well, look the contradictions. Look at his hypocrisy. He said this and he did that.” People do that kind of thing all the time — have a set of intellectual beliefs that they don’t live up to. We all do that. But he’s a special target and I don’t quite know why, other than the Declaration. That seems to me to be inadequate given that we’re talking about a founding generation. The first five presidents — except for Adams — were all slaveholders. Why single him out?
Both in the writing process and in your thinking about these people, how was this book different than your first book? Is it a departure from the more formal scholarship?
I think they're both scholarly. I mean, my God, this book has more than 2,000 sources. But the first one is an analysis of historiography and this book is a narrative — even though there's a section in there where I break away from the narrative and become very analytical (what my editor calls "those analytical chapters"). It's different in that it's telling a story. The first book is me analyzing the historiography — writing about and critiquing what other people have written. I looked at lots of primary sources, but the bulk of it is me looking at what other people have written. This book is more me in the archives — in England, in Virginia, in various places. It's more storytelling than the first one. It's about people but in a different kind of way than the first book.
What did it take out of you to transform dry research into a cohesive and compelling narrative?
It's a difficult thing to do because there are so many different moving parts. For instance, at some point I'm going to do a biography of Jefferson, and when you have one person that you're following, the life itself suggests a structure. This [book] was tough because there are multiple people, multiple generations, different things happening. You know, sometimes people are in Paris and important things are happening back in Charlottlesville, so you have to figure out how to structure it beyond saying, "Meanwhile, back at the plantation..." It was difficult structurally because of the number of people and the way you have to go back and forth between those things. In the first book, talking about what other people have written, you just kind of go from one to the next. In this kind of book, to keep a narrative thread running throughout is tougher. You can proceed chronologically, which is what I do, but when you have parallel lives going on, that can make it tough.
How long did it take you to write The Hemingses of Monticello?
About 10 years.
How did you know when you were done?
(Laughs) My editor said, “Stop! Quit it! We’ve got to get this book out!”
Really, I knew when I was done because [Jefferson] died. They had to leave the mountain because everything had to be sold because he was bankrupt. So that was a good place to end it. For the second volume, I’m going to pick them up out of Monticello. Because of Jefferson’s death, I knew where it was going to end. What all I would put in before I got to that point was the real issue.
Has your life changed tremendously since the publication of the book and all the honors it’s accrued?
Yes. I’ve been traveling a lot and it’s very tiring, but I can’t complain about that. What has changed is the kind of stuff you want to have happen. You want your work to be well received. What has changed for me is all that goes along with that. It’s mainly the number of places I get asked to go to. And “Pulitzer Prize winner” — I don’t have a middle name, but “Pulitzer Prize winner” has become a third name. Or truthfully, it’s become my first name. That’s been interesting to me. I never noticed that people did that with other people, but now that it’s me, I’ve noticed. So one thing is that people see you in terms of the prizes, and the other big change is getting asked to go places and do things. Soon, I’m kind of calling a halt to that because you can’t get any work done.
Well, I’m glad that you accepted the invitation to Birmingham. Tell us what you’ll be discussing with us here when you come to speak at the Birmingham Museum of Art in conjunction with the Yale Art Show.
Primarily, I’ll be discussing the book. And what I want to do in the next book. And I’ll answer people’s questions, of course.
The First Lady, Michelle Obama, recently learned genealogical details of her lineage. She found that her great-grandfather [Dolphus Shields] was a well-regarded businessman here in Birmingham, but also that he had been the child of rape inflicted on her great-great-grandmother [Melvinia Shields] in 1859 by the white man who owned her. How do people of color come to terms with family revelations of this sort?
It's hard for me to say. I guess one way people deal with it is by not talking about stuff like that. The way a lot of people cope is to just not discuss it.
Maybe Texas is different, but I don't really recall people in my community talking very much about white ancestors — from rape or otherwise.
Slavery itself, the institution, was such a horrible thing. The individual things that happened in it were obviously horrible, but I think the way that most people cope with these things is just by going forward.
You know, we're talking about her great-great-great-, however many greats- back grandmother... You can feel empathy about that, but the only thing to do is go forward. People can only choose to go forward and not let revelations like that rule their lives today. Slavery itself you don't but behind you, but the individual things — you just realize that those are things that happened and you have to go on.
Annette Gordon-Reed will speak in the Steiner Auditorium at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA) on Friday, Oct. 23. The free program begins at 6 p.m. and will be followed by a book-signing. Copies of The Hemingses of Monticello will be available for purchase in the museum gift shop. The event is being held in conjunction with the exhibition “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery,” on display at the BMA through Jan. 10, 2010. To learn more, call (205) 254-2565 or visit www.artsbma.org.