Our most popular post to date is titled “The Great Man’s Dirty Linen” (June 24, 2008), and its popularity is due less to yours truly’s searing wit than to its “racy” subject matter: Sally Hemings & Thomas Jefferson. Re-reading the post, which links to this episode of BackStory on race, led me to listen again to the interview of Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello (2008). I found this comment of hers to be particularly interesting and provocative:
One thing that I’ve come to see is that race remains a very, very important thing to whites. I would say that white Americans, and I think black Americans as well, some group of them as well, are still not comfortable with the idea of interracial mixture. The idea that Jefferson could buy and sell people, separate mothers from their children, and that would not appall people, but the thing that says that now his image is tarnished is that he got into bed with a black woman, I think is very instructive to me and it’s instructive to black Americans watching people have this kind of reaction. But I’m just shocked by people who think that the Hemings story in any way diminishes him as a person that we have to deal with in American history. And it’s back to what I said before about race and how important it is to people to have this notion of a white, pure Founding Father and how his engagement with her changes that.
Feel free to use the comments section if you disagree. Here, meanwhile, is Gordon-Reed (slightly uncomfortably, I think) talking about sex, sin, and Jefferson.
IMAGE: These two images from the exhibition, “200 Years of Black Paper Dolls: The Collection of Arabella Grayson,” reflect contrasting societal depictions of African Americans in the evolution of this form of popular culture. “Topsey” (left) McLoughlin Bros., publisher, 1863, handpainted. “Sally Hemings” (right) Signed by artist Donald Hendricks, Legacy Designs, publisher, 2000. Photo by Steven M. Cummings, Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum.