National Book Festival: Annette Gordon-Reed on Hemings Family, 'Race on Trial,' More

Annette Gordon-Reed
Writer Annette Gordon-Reed, writer of "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family." (Reuters)
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Annette Gordon-Reed
Author, Pulitzer Prize-Winner
Wednesday, September 23, 2009; 11:00 AM

Annette Gordon-Reed, law professor, presidential scholar and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family" (2002) and author of "Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History, was online Wednesday, Sept. 23, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss her books, her essays on racism and American cultural history.

A transcript follows.


New Haven, Conn.: Every time an actress is cast to portray Sally Hemings on film or stage, she's always clearly a woman with some African ancestors. Yet the real Sally Hemings was probably less obviously so if you saw her (granted nobody today knows what she looks like) and could probably easily be portrayed by a white actress. But for me, I think we as the audience would be confused and uncomfortable if a woman who didn't look at least a bit African was portraying a slave. That's something that Sally Hemings made me realize about how being Black and being a slave are intertwined in our culture still to this day.

Annette Gordon-Reed: You are right we don't know what SH looked like. But her youngest son, Eston, was described as being "light bronze colored" with a "visible admixture of Negro blood.". He was said to have looked more like a black person that his wife. One of his brothers, Madison, was described similarly. So, it wouldn't be wrong to portray her in a similar fashion to the description of her sons.


Washington, D.C.: What do you think of the Kindle? And, do you think the kind of reading that makes us good citizens is on the decline?

Annette Gordon-Reed: I am fascinated by it, but don't have one yet. I like the feel of holding a book and turning pages. It establishes a connection to the work that is very important. But then that's how I grew up. I want to get one to use when I travel. That's the best aspect of it in my view; that and the fact that you can click on the number to an endnote and it appears immediately on the page. That's fabulous.


Falls Church, Va.: Why has your PR team not established a Facebook page for your fans and fans of your book? And there is no central place to find out about your speaking events. I am eager to hear you speak and it is is very hard to find information.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Thanks very much for your support. That's a very good idea. People have told me repeatedly that I should have this done, and I will do it in some form. My children have forbidden me to be on Facebook, however. :0)


Harrisburg, Pa.: What are your thoughts on the proposition that some racial divisions occur over the difficulty that the races have on understanding how each other thinks about race? People whose skins are black and brown are often confronted on matters in terms of their race and think of race frequently. People whose skins are white are not confronted with racial matters and do not think about race as much by comparison, and are thus do not understand when race is brought into a matter. Greater racial understanding may occur if all better realize what others are feeling and thinking.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, I think you are exactly right. Race tends to loom much larger in the lives of blacks and browns in America than it does for whites, who currently represent the largest racial group. One could imagine how the situation may be reversed in a place, say, like South Africa where the situation is reversed. It takes work to try to see the world through the eyes of others. With all the other things we have to do in the world, doing that may be low on the list.


Philadelphia: How many Hemings family and other probable descendants of Thomas Jefferson have you met? I recall there was initial bitterness between "known" Thomas Jefferson descendants and the descendants of his slave mistress. Has this bitterness subsided or what is the state of acceptance amongst all descendants?

Annette Gordon-Reed: I've met many Hemings descendants, from multiple lines. As far as I know, and I haven't been following this very closely at all, nothing has changed. The legal descendants who accepted the Hemingses accept them. Those who do not, don't. The Hemingses remain as they always have been.


Fairfax, Va.: The detail in your book was amazing; really brought the story to life for me. After such a thorough treatment, I'm tempted to say you've told us everything there is to know. But are there still aspects of these families' stories that you'd like to explore?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Thanks very much. I won't have to time to do it now, but it would be interesting to try to do more with the lives of Robert and Dolly Hemings who lived in Richmond after Robert's emancipation in the 1790s. It would not surprise me at all if there were not references to him in the letters of people who lived in the town.


Oxford, Miss.: One point is that although Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings weren't married, it wasn't adultery since neither were married to anybody else since his only legal wife, Martha, was dead for nearly a decade by the start of the sexual relationship. Sally Hemings and Martha Jefferson were paternal half-siblings and more then one account mentions a remarkably strong resemblance between the two. I remember your NPR interview that she didn't quite understand why some people put so much emphasis on the strong resemblance between Sally Hemings and Martha Jefferson, but I'm sure you've heard different reasons. Why do you think many people focus on that aspect and why are you not one of them?

Annette Gordon-Reed: I only wonder about focusing on resemblance because we don't really know that they did resemble one another. I do talk about the fact that they COULD have. I think people focus on it because TJ obviously loved his wife, and it would not be hard to imagine him being attracted to someone who looked or sounded like her.


Kirksville, Mo.: One thing that always confuses me about Barack Obama is how he'll say "In some parts of this country, my father might have been strung up for even just looking at my mother," yet in the same breath say "My parents' love was only possible in the United States." Besides the fact that bi-racial love affairs are hardly unique to the United States, doesn't him saying his first point sort of disprove his second point or at least give one pause to think over that paradox?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, I kind of understand what he is saying. Some states were still outlawing interracial marriages up until Loving, Virginia in 1967. You are right, there are other places in the world where people of different races fall in love.


Berkeley, Calif.: My Hawaiian grandfather always used to adamantly tell me and anyone within earshot that, "It's the safest bet that the first mixed-raced President of the United States will be from Hawaii" and he died in 1959 just two months after statehood came. I honestly never would have bet he'd be right. I know, I know, Hawaiians can get a bit arrogant about the "Aloha spirit" and our melting pot, but when Hawaii gives the nation its first Black President and first mixed raced President, it's allowed to brag, right?

Annette Gordon-Reed: You sure are allowed to brag. And how prescient was your grandfather!


East Lansing, Mich.: I find a question me and my Black friends always somehow get around to is "Why do Whites like Barack Obama so much?" and there are a bunch of theories. My own pet theory right now is that while Barack Obama wouldn't be President without the civil rights movement, he wouldn't even exist without white liberalism. I mean he wrote in his memoirs that naive white liberalism (she was self-described "Adlai Stevenson liberal") is what led to her attraction to foreign culture and her relationship with his father. Whatever else, if it wasn't for his mother's white liberalism, he wouldn't be born and so white liberalism, and not simply that his mother was White, is an inescapable part of him.

Annette Gordon-Reed: He certainly wouldn't have been president without the Civil Rights movement. True liberalism implies a degree of open-mindedness about ideas and other people. That was definitely a part of his ascent to the presidency.


Athens, Ga.: I just saw your appearance on the Bill Maher show with the usually funnier David Cross. Recommend you listen to his "Answer Your Telephone" routine.

I just starting reading your Sally Heming book (although I get it's not simply about only her), but it makes me wonder about President Obama. During President Jefferson's lifetime and for centuries, the vast majority of historians completely ignore slave Sally Hemings' children were fathered by her owner, President Jefferson, and the few that did mention it, did so only to dismiss it as a politically motivated smear.

I just wonder if the historians of 2209 with be writing about how Jeremiah Wright, Antoin Rezko and William Ayres got their mutual protégé, a half-Arabic dual citizen of Kenya and Indonesian with radical Marxist beliefs, elected to the American presidency in 2008 and most people knew about it and dismissed it as a politically motivated smear.

I laugh as I type that and don't ever see that happening, but if I were living during the Jefferson administration, I'd more than likely be saying the same thing about Sally Hemings.

Annette Gordon-Reed: If any of that were true, people would be writing about it.


Falls Church, Va.: Have you sold the movie rights? Did Oprah get them? This is definitely the next Roots! Who do you envision playing Elizabeth, Sally and James? I think Wendy Davis from the Army Wives show would be perfect for Elizabeth, since she was obviously attractive and still having babies into her 40's. And of course Jeffrey Wright and the guy from prison break would be perfect also.

Annette Gordon-Reed: My agent is working on this stuff. I'm working on my next book. Yes, the guy from prison break would make a perfect Hemings.


Freising, Germany: The topic of racism in America has recently reached the world press through the politically charged topic of Heath Care. When you meet friends and acquaintances from overseas, how do you explain the topic of racism, infused with a bit of politics, to outsiders who are unacquainted and astonished at the recent efforts in that regard?

Annette Gordon-Reed: First, racism isn't just an American phenomenon. It's only because blacks have, with some success, claimed their rightful stake in American life that there is controversy. We have a long way to go, but who in Europe is even close to us on this point? It's a big deal in France when a black person gets to be a substitute anchor on the evening news.


Tempe, Ariz.: Can anybody ever have a discussion about race in America today without mentioning Barack Obama or would that just be completely unlikely?

Annette Gordon-Reed: It would be tough. We have the first black president of the US, the first black "leader of the western world" and all that. Yet, racial tensions remain. Fascinating, but not surprising.


Fairfax, Va.: As a Virginia resident, I was surprised how little fanfare greeted the Hemingses. I can understand why some descendants of the individuals in the book might feel uncomfortable discussing it (not agree; just understand), but do you think we Virginians/Americans still have trouble? Why? Even if you suggest that we got a better appreciation of Thomas Jefferson's flaws, he was also so wonderfully human (vain, selfish, etc.)

Annette Gordon-Reed: That's a great way to put it, "wonderfully human", with great points and flaws all wrapped together. I have to say, I've been talking about this subject for years now in Virginia. There have been exceptions, but for the most part the white Virginians I've encountered know what that world was like, really. There's very little game playing on the subject.


Wokingham UK: Is it likely, do you think, that by 2500 everyone in North America and Western Europe will be visibly of mixed race?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Wow, that's a long way off. Historians don't predict the future, but I would not say "everyone". Racial identities can be stubborn points for people. There will likely be many more mixed race people. And it depends on what you mean by race. Surely, for North America the Hispanic influence will be huge. People are moving south to north, not the other way around.


Blacksburg, Va.: How did you find the balance of making your book focus on one particular woman's life, ancestors, descendants and her now-famous relationship to a famous President and all its uniqueness, but also broadening it out to speak about time in late 18th and early 19th century Virginia and the effects of slavery on that society?

Annette Gordon-Reed: I tried doing that by fleshing out the context of the time period. I think the book gives a good history of the development of slavery in Virginia in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. You see the Hemingses, but you see their time as well. People can be impatient with the details, but you have to have as complete a picture as possible to understand the world as they knew it.


Madison, Wis.: If Sally Hemings' and Thomas Jefferson's relationship had been proven during their lifetime, do you really see Thomas Jefferson being the namesake of so many locations around the nation and his face on Mt. Rushmore and also on the nickel?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Probably not. I think the racial attitudes would have precluded that, despite all of his accomplishments.


Anonymous: Your book really changed my attitude on Jefferson, to the negative. Did it change yours? I know we shouldn't judge historical figures according to modern attitudes, but I find Jefferson now to be a hypocrite, a poseur and insincere. You?

Annette Gordon-Reed: That's interesting. Lots of people have criticized him as a hypocrite. He gets held to a higher standard because of the Declaration. I actually don't think that's fair. If one were to go through anyone's life with a fine tooth comb, one could find instances where a person says one thing and does another. I don't have time to engage this, but I don't find him more insincere than other figures one might study. I didn't intend this to be a negative portrayal. I think it's sympathetic.


Arlington, Va.: Ms. Gordon-Reed,

I have not yet read your books or essays. Could you provide a short synopsis of your thoughts on racism?

Also, what do you think of President Carter's declaration that the criticism that President Obama is getting is seated in racism?

Do you think Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst during the speech before a joint session was itself a racist act?

Thank you.

Annette Gordon-Reed: A short synopsis would be tough. I think racism is an almost intractable problem. We will work against it, or the most harmful aspects of it, but never do away with it totally.

I think a good deal of the opposition to the president is rooted in racism, but not all. There are legitimate differences about the role of government in people's lives. But when you see some of the signs at these protests and town hall meetings referencing his race, you know that for some people his blackness is an issue. He's right not to focus on that, though. He has other things to do.

I have a hard time believing that Wilson would have yelled that to a white president in that setting.


Anonymous: Fun Hawaiian fact.

Obama's parents married in 1961 and in that year, one of every four White women who got married that year married a non-White man.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Fact from where?


Anonymous: There has been a lingering fight between the descendants of the Hemings, and those of Jefferson. I know they once refused to allow Hemings descendants to be buried in the Jefferson compound. Is this still going on, or did your book resolve the issue?

Annette Gordon-Reed: No. The book has not, and will not, resolve this issue.


for the most part the white Virginians I've encountered : Just as there is no great monolithic Black Mindset, so is the same of other outwardly noticeable physical characteristics. If Tiger Woods and President Obama leave us anything, it is that we are all very different complex individuals who no longer want to be defined by their superficial skin color. We're all different and not boxed in by the skin color the outside world detects.

Annette Gordon-Reed: That's certainly true. There is no monolithic white "mind" or black "mind". But the history of the country and the legacies of slavery, for whites and blacks, still affect the way many Americans respond to race. It's something that we are working through.


Anonymous: Did you ever meet or talk to Virginius Dabney? He died in 1995, and ended up a real conservative whose last (I think) book was a defense of Jefferson against the Hemings charges.

Annette Gordon-Reed: No, I never met him. While researching my first book I read his autobiography, Across the Years, I believe it was. I do engaged the book he wrote about TJ and SH in my first book, so I thought I should find out about him. Yes, he had been a southern "liberal" of sorts for time.


Anonymous: You say your book didn't resolve the burial issues between the Hemings and Jefferson clans. Are you disappointed it didn't have more of an impact on these old feuds?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Not really. I am pretty much sticking to folks in the 18th and 19th centuries. That takes enough of my attention. People today are going to do what they are going to do. The story of TJ and SH is much bigger than their descendants wishes or desires.


Orono, Maine: Did you enjoy the Bill Maher show? Where can see you next for another media appearance?

Annette Gordon-Reed: I did enjoy it. It was not my usual venue. He's a bit more racy than I'm used too. I'll be at the National Book Festival this Friday and Saturday. The Saturday event will be televised on CSPAN between 11 a.m. and 1, I think. An interview and then a talk.


Fayetteville, Ark.: I know you always get the question about how come Sally Hemings and her elder brother James didn't remain in Paris since under French law, they were free.

Actually, it's not that confusing to me. I'm for a more universal health care system and I'd get universal health care in Sweden, but I'm not about to move there.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Yeah, but having universal health care or not is not the same as being enslaved or not. While TJ obviously favored SH and JH and their siblings, he could have died on the way home and who knows what would have happened to the two of them.


Ithaca, N.Y.: I'm betting there are a lot, but what are some of the still unsolved mysteries about Sally Hemings that you wanted to uncover and came close, but it's still mystery you wished you had solved?

Annette Gordon-Reed: I'm going to be doing a second volume on the Hemingses after they leave Monticello. I'll start with SH and her sons in C'ville. I'd really like to know what her life post-TJ was like.


Falls Church, Va.: Now that I got that out the way, my question is in regard to Passing. It appears that Sallie and James did not pass, it was clear they were mixed. Can you discuss TJ and SH children, would the white fathers support this effort? Did TJ support this effort?

Annette Gordon-Reed: I have always assumed that TJ wanted his children to identify as white. They were "white" by Virginia law and he wrote that when people like that were freed, they became free citizens of the United States. That was what he thought was the right answer.


Fairfax, Va: I cannot wait to read this book! I'm totally captivated by this history topic and can't wait to read what you've uncovered and are brave enough to share! My daughter is a first year college student and believe me when I tell you her eyes have been opened "WIDE" as she sits in her U.S. History class and begins to dig down and uncover TRUTH! I'm confident this entire United States is built upon this type of relationship, but kept quiet indeed. Thanks for uncovering!

Annette Gordon-Reed: Thanks very much. There is still much to be learned about American history. It's an exciting prospect.


Annette Gordon-Reed: Thanks. This has been fun.



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