Annette Gordon-Reed and the Future of White Studies


My wife chairs a department of English at a small private university in the midwest. She once reported that a colleague of hers, in discussing the merits of multicultural studies, said, “If I have a choice between Sojourner Truth and Thomas Jefferson, I choose Jefferson.” It has always struck me that not only is the dilemma a false one, but that it is literally impossible to “choose Jefferson” without also choosing multicultural studies, if the topic is to have any honest relationship to American history. Jefferson provides the most apt illustration one could wish for.

Annette Gordon-Reed’s two books about the Hemings family – slaves of Thomas Jefferson – are uniquely significant for bringing into sharp relief the problem of white studies. As you see in the example above, the problem of white studies is that we tend not to recognize its existence. We think we have a choice between Sojourner Truth and Jefferson.  We think when we read mainstream history and biography from respectable, distinguished, scholarly authors, that we are getting a balanced, accurate view of the past. But if we exclude minority points of view, what we are actually getting is a series of exercises in American exceptionalism.

American exceptionalism is built into our history, as it is built into the fabric of our institutions – government, education, journalism, religion. It’s a term with many meanings, but I use it here to mean the idea that America is imbued with unique values that tend to immunize it from criticism and give it license to purport to lead the world and to stand apart from it as a special place. It is the sort of idea that we saw in the 2008 presidential election when Michelle Obama was attacked as unfit to be First Lady by virtue of having admitted to being, at times, ashamed of her country. Being exceptional, America is not to be imagined as having any cause for shame. Consequently,  First Ladies can never be ashamed of their country, and Presidents cannot be married to women who would make such admissions. This attitude is more deserving of the term “political correctness” than are any of the attitudes usually associated with the term.

In fact, there are a number of present and past events, policies, actions of our government and /or our culture which one might reasonably find shameful. Some examples: slavery, the Dred Scott decision, segregation, lynch law, genocide against the Indians, the Mexican War, Plessy v. Ferguson, the stateside internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, the Korematsu decision of the Supreme Court upholding the Japanese-American internment, the Warren Commission,  the Vietnam War, the second Iraq War, and sexual torture at Guantanamo. That’s only a sample.  You may disagree with some of my picks, or you may have different picks of your own: philandering in office by JFK or Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter giving away the Panama Canal, sixties hippies, whatever. The point is, it’s not crazy or even unreasonable to be sometimes, maybe even often, ashamed of aspects of one’s country, yet we seek to keep such reasonable feelings walled off from our institutions so sharply that the people we elect or choose to represent those institutions must effectively deny their humanity and become icons representing the fiction that America is a special and morally untainted and untaintable place.                           

One form of this exceptionalism is the racism inherent in the historiography surrounding our third president.          

Gordon-Reed’s first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, An American Controversy, reveals, among other things, that the defense of Jefferson against the charge of fathering children by his slave has been, in its way, as racist as the original charge itself, as first publicly made by James Callender in 1802.  That is, while the nature of the allegation of misconduct, for Callender, centered largely on its being an act of miscegenation, the historical defenses against the charge have been based largely on the reaction that such a charge was unthinkable, rather than unlikely. Apparently, the idea of a Founding Father “committing miscegenation” was, ipso facto, a terrible thing. Today, even the phrase “committing miscegenation” sounds racist.
Gordon-Reed’s second book on the subject, The Hemingses of Monticello, assumes the Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship as a given, and goes much more deeply into the nature of a quintessentially American experience – the experience of slavery – in a way that can only be made vivid for us by the understanding that there is no such thing as a white or black American experience, but that one experience necessarily involves the other.  The fact that the two most famous biographers of Jefferson to recognize this reality – Fawn Brodie and Gordon-Reed –  are both women and one of them is black, underscores the perception that to write history is to imagine a plausible past using an extant record, and the ability to imagine is deeply affected by one’s personal experience. That’s why minority writers are essential.

The history of American law as it impacts on racial issues is best understood by reading black American authors, such as Lerone Bennet, Jr., Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, and others. Perhaps the best precursor to a reading of Gordon-Reed is to be found in the Harriet Jacobs memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. That book  takes us into the heart and soul of slavery, as a system in which white slaveholding males had free sexual access to their black female slaves, and no law protected the women from the men. The legal system is at the heart of that book. It is presented to us by someone who experienced its ill effects.       

Gordon-Reed’s study of the Hemings family goes even more deeply into the effects of the legal status of slaves and their masters than does Jacobs’s memoir, which is chiefly concerned with the issue of attempted forcible rape or duress. To deal with the Jefferson-Hemings affair, one must necessarily examine the whole panoply of negotiations, accommodations, and psychological effects in a system where it was not uncommon to have “out-law” families living side-by-side with “in-laws.” Gordon-Reed quotes a Vermont educator named Elijah Fletcher, who visited Monticello about two years after Jefferson’s retirement from the presidency in 1809, and who interviewed the former president’s neighbors before making the following observation on the well-known rumors as well as the commonness of the master/slave liaison:


            The story of black Sal is no farce – That he cohabits with her and has

            a number of children by her is a sacred truth – and the worst of it is,

            he keeps the same children slaves – an unnatural crime which is very

            common in these parts. This conduct may receive a little palliation

            when we consider such proceedings are so common here that they

            cease here to be disgraceful –

                                    – HM 617.

It was much more complicated than Fletcher knew. On the one hand, the commonness of the arrangement was evidenced by the fact that Jefferson seemed to have married into the practice. Sally Hemings was the daughter of Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles and his slave mistress, making Sally the half-sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife, to whom Jefferson had given a promise on her death-bed that he would not remarry. These were discoverable facts. But what Fletcher could not know as he castigated the former president for enslaving his own children, was that each of those children was being groomed to be set free upon reaching adulthood; and that, in all likelihood, this plan was an agreement negotiated in Paris some twenty years earlier when, as Jefferson’s slave/son Madison Hemings said, his mother became “Mr. Jefferson’s concubine.” (HM 106).

The likelihood of a negotiation is suggested by the fact that France in the 1780s adhered to a “Freedom Principle,” which provided that slaves were no longer slaves once on French soil.  To prevent an influx of colonial black slaves, exceptions were made for visiting slaveowners who registered their slaves, but Jefferson never registered James and Sally Hemings, the slave children of his father-in-law, during their time with him in Paris (HM 172-177). Both James and Sally could have brought freedom suits in sympathetic Parisian courts. Why they did not do so is a matter of intriguing speculation in Gordon-Reed’s book, but we know what Jefferson’s treatment of the Hemings family was thereafter.  He had James trained as a chef in French haute cuisine, and later gave him his legal freedom. He made Sally the seamstress of Monticello, with access to his private rooms. His sons by her became carpenters and   violinists (careers reflecting Jefferson’s personal enthusiasms), and the four children of the liaison who survived to adulthood were set free, two by a secret arrangement to run away, and two by a provision in Jefferson’s will (HM 648). The likelihood that this result began as a negotiation with a teenage mistress who had other options than to return to Virginia with her owner/lover, is discussed in the large context of a life (Jefferson’s) devoted to pleasure and harmony, as much as to duty.

Apparently, it takes a historian who is both black and female to imagine for us, in plausible and documented fashion, the nature of lives lived under the impact of such a negotiation and accommodation – lives which are neither monstrous in their deliberate cruelty nor part of the Southern antebellum myth of happy darkies on the plantation. This is a quantum leap forward from the contribution of Fawn Brodie, a white female historian, who in the 1970s was able to imagine that Jefferson could have loved Sally Hemings and she him. Brodie made us believe it was true, but Gordon-Reed shows us what it must have been like.

Without insisting on it, and without ever saying it in so many words, The Hemingses of Monticello makes us understand what no book about Jefferson can possibly make us understand without both acknowledging the Jefferson-Hemings liaison and going deeply into the social and legal attitudes of the time and place with precise emphasis on this type of relationship, namely: that Jefferson likely loved his “black” family and walked a cultural tightrope in seeking to protect their interests, while at the same time protecting the interests of his “white” family.

This fact struck me most forcibly in the final chapters of Gordon-Reed’s book, where she describes Madison Hemings’s perception that his father, while kind to him and to his Hemings siblings, was more open in his fatherly affections to his legitimate grandchildren, who were close to Madison in age (HM 595-596).  A modern reader’s first, natural reaction to this form of discrimination is to see it as deplorable and racist; but, thanks to Gordon-Reed’s complete examination of what it meant to be, in her words, “separated by class, race, or legal status” from one’s own children, we come to see it as something quite different. We learn to ask the question, “What benefit would be gained if Jefferson had openly acknowledged his slave children and treated them exactly as he did his other children?”

            The short answer to this question is Gordon-Reed’s conclusion that Jefferson treated them in such a way as “to make them the best thing he could think of, free white American citizens.” (HM 600).  They were, in fact, “legally white” (HM 597). Some of them did “enter the white world,” and “took white spouses and left blackness completely behind” (HM 601). Openly acknowledging them as his children (which Jefferson apparently never did) would not have served this purpose. Gordon-Reed deals with this fact and describes the Jefferson-Hemings life at Monticello as a “predicament.” (HM 600). It was a predicament precisely because of the nature of American history, the cultural and legal systems in place in Virginia at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Simply put, there can be no real “choice” between Truth (Sojourner or otherwise) and Jefferson.  The truth of American history is necessarily multicultural. That is who we are. “White studies” are doomed, because they do not reflect the truth.


                                                                                                                                                          C.W. Owens


Works Cited 

Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello. NY/London: W.W. Norton. 2008. (HM).

Gordon-Reed, Annette. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville/London: U. Press of VA. 1999.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  Published with Douglass, Frederick.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Intr. Kwame
Anthony Appiah. Notes by Joy Viveros. NY: Modern Library. 2000.