Belatedly, from over Thanksgiving, let me blog congratulations to my SHEAR colleague Annette Gordon-Reed on her recent National Book Award, for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. It is always good to see these mainstream history book awards going to academic historian rather than journalists or popularizers, but in this case the award is particularly well-deserved.
I do feel obliged to comment on Gordon-Reed’s recent mentions in the New York Times, which have shown a strange discomfort with the basic approach of this book and her earlier one, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (University of Virginia Press, 1997). I would define that approach as treating Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and their relatives as a really complicated family rather than as a political scandal or national shame. Accordingly, Gordon-Reed is more inclined to see Tom and Sally as a real relationship rather than a simple matter of exploitation or victimization.
Though perfectly consistent with the dominant post-1960s strain of historical research and writing on American slavery, which has emphasized slaves’ ability to carve out spaces out of independence and resistance even within such an oppressive, coercive institution, Gordon-Reed’s approach to Jefferson and Hemings seems not to sit terribly well with some white liberals, possibly of a certain age. In early October, there was a rather back-handed (though officially positive) review by Eric Foner, then this odd interview from a few days ago:
Questions for Annette Gordon-Reed – History Lesson – Interview – NYTimes.com
Your book reminds us that black and white is not as clear-cut as separatists like to pretend. Sally Hemings was the daughter of a white father and a slave mother, and three of her children grew up to live as whites.
People talk about Obama as if he were some new thing.
Right, the first interracial man!
It’s astonishing. Sex between the races was more common in the 18th century than it is now.
How do you know?
Based on the children. Slave owners had children with enslaved women.
But the women were mostly raped, weren’t they?
Undoubtedly, the vast majority of enslaved women who had children by slave masters were raped. But there were also situations where men and women of different races genuinely liked one another. Where do people think the rainbow of colors of black people comes from? Most black people in America have some white ancestry.
In that regard, Jefferson and Hemings were pioneers of our increasingly mixed-race society.
I don’t think we are increasingly mixed-race. We’ve always been a mixed-race society.
Both the NYT interview and Foner’s review were a bit fixated on the idea of defining all interracial sex within slavery as violently coerced. While that view is probably accurate in the largest sense, and certainly consistent with the moral precepts most modern Americans believe and practice, it might not always be so helpful in understanding the messiness of human relations in a time before the equality and autonomy of all individuals had been legally and socially accepted. Foner’s recommendation in the review seemed to be, when faced with a situation as messy and ambiguous as the one between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, “punt”:
Most scholars are likely to agree with Gordon-Reed’s conclusion that Jefferson fathered Hemings’s seven children (of whom three died in infancy). But as to the precise nature of their relationship, the historical record is silent. Was it rape, psychological coercion, a sexual bargain or a long-term loving connection? Gordon-Reed acknowledges that it is almost impossible to probe the feelings of a man and a woman neither of whom left any historical evidence about their relationship. Madison Hemings’s use of the words “concubine” and “treaty” hardly suggests a romance. But Gordon-Reed is determined to prove that theirs was a consensual relationship based on love.
Sometimes even the most skilled researcher comes up empty. At that point, the better part of valor may be simply to state that a question is unanswerable.. . .
Then Foner got his dander up at Gordon-Reed’s suggestion that not even allowing for the possibility of a mutual master-slave relationship might be a little racist itself:
As a black female scholar, Gordon-Reed is undoubtedly more sensitive than many other academics to the subtleties of language regarding race. But to question the likelihood of a long-term romantic attachment between Jefferson and Hemings is hardly to collaborate in what she calls “the erasure of individual black lives” from history. Gordon-Reed even suggests that “opponents of racism” who emphasize the prevalence of rape in the Old South occupy “common ground” with racists who despise black women, because both see sex with female slaves as “degraded.” This, quite simply, is outrageous.
I am not sure: As discussed recently in this space, the Federalist attacks on Jefferson when the Sally Hemings scandal first erupted were virulently racist, ridiculing Jefferson for having sex with a black woman as much as for abusing his power as a slaveowner. During the 19th century, racism and the most common strains of white antislavery sentiment (especially Free Soil and colonization) went hand in hand. In modern times, a rather complacent abolitionist piety, regarding slavery as a social crime of our forebears that we have risen above, really does run the risk of denying the humanity of everyone involved in the actual historical institution of slavery. We might to be too busy with outrage to pay the careful attention to details at which Annette Gordon-Reed excels.