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”: