An American Family
By Annette Gordon-Reed
W.W. Norton. 800 pp. $35
Reviewed by James R. Sanders
Sally Hemings intrigues us for all the things she was and is: slave of Thomas Jefferson; mother of children by her master, children he later set free (though their mother was not); symbol of the complex, loaded relations between the white master class and the human beings it sought to own; symbol of oppression and race.
She has too seldom been seen as a member of a family. And this is how
The Hemingses of Monticello
by Annette Gordon-Reed proceeds. The author returns to one of the most controversial stories in American history, pulling in historians, political theorists, talk-show hosts, and even geneticists. She treated it previously in
Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy
In the present book, which won this year's National Book Award for nonfiction (Gordon-Reed is the first African American to win that award), we finally get a proper introduction to Hemings and her entire family, starting with her grandmother and ending with her children, some of whom passed for white. (Sally was very fair and may have had at least one white ancestor.) Beyond this, the book is a history of the emotions felt by members of this family as they forge lives in a divided country.
Gordon-Reed introduces the elder Hemingses and their arrival in America. We encounter the lives of "women who are held in bondage and forced to work as prostitutes or to clean others' homes and care for others' families while their own families go unattended." But the Hemingses are comparatively lucky, and evade "the systematic degradation and violence of American slavery sanctioned by state and church."
A further contrast is to come, when we see Hemings' life in Paris with Jefferson.
Appointed American envoy to France in 1784, Jefferson goes to Paris, taking James Hemings with him. Soon Jefferson sends for daughter Polly. He asks for an older white woman to escort her. Instead, Sally Hemings, 14 and light-skinned, arrives. James and Sally, American slaves, come to a country where blacks are not enslaved, and get paid for their work. The pull of such freedom may have led Sally to threaten to stay in Paris, a threat she eventually abandoned.
Paris represents a different world for Sally and James. They experience, at least for a short while, a different life in which their old one seems a distant memory. Jefferson drapes Sally in the finest clothing, shows her off, eventually makes her his mistress.
Gordon-Reed is a true storyteller - and a truth-teller. She does not turn away from the ugliness always beneath the surface of what sometimes has been portrayed as a passionate love affair. No matter what else Sally and James were to Jefferson, they also were his possessions. And much that Sally and Jefferson do in Paris has "the look of a deal between two parties who, if not operating at arm's length, were at least bargaining in a manner that seems unworthy of a man and a woman with any true emotional bond between them."
Part creative nonfiction, part social study,
goes beyond the Jefferson-Hemings relation to study the evolution of a family. With the return to Virginia, we begin to look at the Hemingses as more than slaves.
A notice of Gordon-Reed's own life is appropriate here. When in first grade, a decade after
Brown v. Board of Education
, Gordon-Reed was living in Conroe, Texas, which had "freedom of choice" schools - schools that allowed white parents to "choose" to segregate their children away from black children. Gordon-Reed's parents decided to challenge this circumvention of desegregation laws: Little Annette would be the first black student at an all-white school.
Gordon-Reed's interest in the story of the Hemingses connects with her personal experience of exclusion and social conflict.
combines the highest standards of research with stylish, vivid writing to make sure the underrepresented in American history finally get represented.