Add Washington Book Prize to the 'Hemingses' Haul

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 29, 2009

Historian and author Annette Gordon-Reed has won a literary Triple Crown with her remarkable "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family," her 798-page exploration of Thomas Jefferson and the family of slaves with whom he became intimately involved. The book has won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize and, yesterday, the $50,000 George Washington Book Prize, given annually to the "most important new book about America's founding era."

For a decade, Gordon-Reed worked on the new book -- which explores the relationship between Sally Hemings and her master, Jefferson, and their descendants -- in between day jobs as a professor of law at New York Law School, professor of history at Rutgers University and mother to two teenagers.

We caught up with her by cellphone yesterday, in midtown Manhattan traffic, as she raced from the Pulitzer luncheon in New York to the airport and the evening ceremony at Mount Vernon.

Any surreal moments today?

Certainly sitting in the ceremony with the other people and looking at the list of people who have won it before . . . and the realization that there can't have been many people in this position. It's also surreal, the response to the book, it's just unprecedented. I've heard from people in other parts of my life, cousins, people from high school.

Anybody asking for money?

[Laughter.] Not yet.

Why do so many people care about this, after so much time?

It's a different aspect of a president's life. In this book, it's not just Sally and Tom, but the entire Hemings family. . . .I just got an e-mail this morning from a man saying there were things about the institution of slavery he had not focused on until he read the book. It's new material for people who are not historians, who don't think about slavery as an institution, who are interested in how individuals coped with all this.

I was always struck by how picayune it could be. As you describe in the book, Jefferson was deciding who would get how many fish, or how much fabric -- just incredibly petty detail that he still wrote down. The president!

There was definitely a business aspect to it all. It's striking, the day-to-day mundane things, in the midst of this horrible institution, that people were thinking about. It was how life was lived.

Given your research into this racially mixed family, how would you answer this: Is Barack Obama the nation's first black president, or the nation's first biracial president?

Well, going by his own self-designation, and by the history of this country, he's the first black president. He was treated as a black person growing up, and a majority of black Americans have some white ancestry, we know that now from genetic research . . . blackness in America is by definition multiracial. I wouldn't have any hesitancy in describing him as the first black president.

Is there any written interaction between Sally and Tom? Any record of their relationship, as recorded by them? Letters or notes?

No, no, no, no, no. None at all. There are none between him and his wife, for that matter. He destroyed all those.

Heavens, why?

I think that it was something of a convention at the time. There was a sense of privacy between husband and wife, and destroying the letters was a way of keeping their relationship between them.

Was there love involved between Sally and Tom?

People often ask that. The most you can say is that it went on for 38 years. You don't think of someone maintaining a purely sexual relationship for that period of time. "Love," though, is tricky business.

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