Of all the Revolutionary founders, Thomas Jefferson has figured the most
prominently in blacks' attempts to constitute themselves as Americans. His
life, in public and private, has long served as a vehicle for analyzing and
critiquing the central dilemma at the heart of American democracy: the desire
to create a society based on liberty and equality runs counter to the desire to
maintain white supremacy. Others of the founders held slaves, but no other
founder drafted the charter for American freedom. Jefferson, of course, did not
invent the ideas contained in the Declaration. But it is a supreme
understatement to say that his manner of expressing them has been enormously
Given the criticism he regularly receives today for not being more forceful on
the question of slavery, and for being somewhat too forceful (and wrong) on the
question of race, it is useful to remember that in his time, Jefferson had the
reputation of being a dangerous social radical. One can easily see that putting
the words "all men are created equal" into the public discourse would be
frightening--even if one doubted (as many do today) Jefferson's sincerity. What
was perceived then, and should be considered now, is that whether he believed
to the extent that we would wish him to is relatively unimportant. The more
critical point has always been how much others would take his words to heart.
Generations of blacks have taken those words to their hearts--even if they've
found themselves unable to bring along the man who wrote them. Because he was
so squarely in the path of the collision between rhetoric and reality, each
generation of black leaders (Douglass, David Walker, Martin Luther King, Jr.)
points to Jefferson or his Declaration when making their claims upon American
society. In some cases, his example is used to argue that it is folly to think
those claims could ever be honored.
Whatever the perspective, Jefferson has been useful to blacks in a way that
highlights the divide between black and white Americans' perceptions of the
world. The contradictions that make Jefferson seem problematic and
frustrating--a figure of mystery to some whites, make him more accessible to
blacks, who find his conflicted nature a perfect reflection of the America they
know: a place where high-minded ideals clash with the reality of racial
ambivalence. As this combination daily informs black lives, Jefferson could
seem no more bizarre than America itself. He is utterly predictable and
familiar--the foremost exemplar of the true America spirit and psyche.
Blacks have known (and feared) this from the beginning. The noted astronomer
Benjamin Banneker went directly to the source of the problem in 1791 when he
wrote to then Secretary of State Jefferson. Banneker sent Jefferson a copy of
his Almanac, the first such work done by a black American, to help
refute Jefferson's musings in his Notes on the State of Virginia about
the possibility that blacks were mentally inferior to whites. In the letter
accompanying the work, Banneker quoted Jefferson's own words to him about the
equality of all men and described it as "pitiable" that Jefferson could write
those words and at the same time "be found guilty of the most criminal act
which [he] professedly detested in others."
Banneker spoke to Jefferson on behalf of his "brethren" (meaning blacks), thus
acknowledging the race's social separation from whites. By invoking the
"universal Father" who gave rights to all men and stating with confidence that
Jefferson agreed with him on that point, Banneker sent a clear message: The
dueling sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the
Notes on the State of Virginia cannot be reconciled. Having put both into
the public discourse, it was Jefferson's responsibility to signal which view
should guide the American experience.
As one might expect, Jefferson's answer to Banneker was an artful dodge. The
Jeffersonian penchant (and talent) for avoiding conflict was on full display.
He gave ground to Banneker, complimenting the astronomer on his achievements,
taking care to let Banneker know that he was sending the Almanac to the
secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, the Marquis de Condorcet.
Wanting as ever to appear the good scientist, Jefferson presented himself as
open to any evidence that his suspicions of black inferiority were incorrect.
Yet he was careful not to meet the full force of Banneker's complaint.
Banneker's letter can be seen as the beginning of blacks' formal political and
personal engagement with Thomas Jefferson, save for his own slaves who always
engaged him personally. Banneker was quite right to seek Jefferson out and
challenge him on his contradictory presentation to the world. He was right, for
reasons that he probably could not have known at the time. For there is every
reason to believe that at the time of Banneker's missive, Jefferson's
involvement in the American dilemma was as personal as it could be. The story
of Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman on his
plantation, long denied by white historians, has been an article of faith among
black Americans. While some whites read Jefferson's writings against
miscegenation as foreclosing his involvement with a black woman, blacks seem to
view the split between Jefferson's public pronouncements and his private
behavior as standard operating procedure. The majority of black Americans have
white ancestry dating from the time of slavery. Because of their own family
situations, they understand how that game was played. The public recitation of
the catechism of white supremacy (done for the sake of the community) is not
enough to ward off all the thoughts, feelings, and impulses that can exist
within individual human beings.
When in 1998 the results of DNA tests on Jefferson and Hemings descendants,
along with evidence from the historical record, supported the truth of the
Jefferson-Hemings relationship, the reaction in the black community, as
presented in the press, was unanimous: "We told you so." In the black community
the Jefferson-Hemings liaison stands along with the Declaration of Independence
as evidence of the deeply conflicted nature of American society, and blacks'
struggles with the precariousness of their existence in the United States. It
is easy to see why the story of a white founding father of America, his black
mistress, and their black offspring would capture the imagination of black
Americans. To the extent that American racism seeks to establish whites'
greater claim to America because of their racial connection to white founding
fathers, the knowledge that a group of blacks are "closer" genetically to
Jefferson than all whites who are not Jeffersons is an irony too delicious to
go unappreciated. Nathan Irvin Huggins once observed, "The Sally Hemmings story
. . . ties a people to the founding of the nation, reinforcing birthright
claims." While this is undoubtedly true, it tells only part of the tale. The
rejection of the Sally Hemings story can be seen as a denial of black ties to
the founding of the nation and a rejection of black birthright claims. It
certainly has been interpreted in that fashion....
Douglass Adair's interpretation of the Hemings question is instructive. Despite
its flaws, Adair makes the deepest and most thoughtful attempt to analyze the
Jefferson-Hemings controversy. He was virtually alone among his generation in
perceiving that, in order to come to grips with the story, one has to come to
grips with Sally Hemings. He sees that Hemings was no stereotypical slave
woman. She had traveled and seen Europe. She had led an existence very
different from that of other blacks at Monticello--or anywhere in the country
for that matter. She was, he believes, Jefferson's wife's half-sister, a woman
of beauty who had accepted "middle-class" values of monogamy. What man could
not love a woman like this? She was perfect--for Peter Carr. Adair offers the
length of the putative Hemings-Carr relationship, spanning twenty years of
childbearing, as evidence of the depth of Carr's passion for Hemings. Adair had
no trouble in portraying the nonentity Peter Carr as having been passionately
attached to Sally Hemings, even though he married another woman in the midst of
their supposed long-term love relationship. If Hemings was so wonderful that
Peter Carr could have loved her in some fashion over many years, why is it
impossible for Jefferson to have done so? By the terms of Adair's own analysis,
it was not impossible. It was simply problematic, because Jefferson's "love"
has deep symbolic meaning to whites. As it turns out, his "love" plays an
important symbolic role for blacks as well.
Just as the rejection of the truth of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship can be
seen as a way of insuring that blacks do not have a literal claim to connection
to the founders, the insistence that Jefferson could not have formed an
emotional bond with Hemings serves similar ends. Once again, an item of value
(the love of a founding father) is enhanced through the exclusion of blacks. We
may try to get at this by thinking of the Ayers-French observations about the
gap between white and black views of the Jefferson-Hemings affair.
What is the symbolic value to blacks of viewing Jefferson and Hemings as
lovers? Love and sex are great levelers. Lovers are vulnerable to one another.
If affection existed between Jefferson and Hemings, Hemings would necessarily
have gained some measure of power over Jefferson, in the same way that women
typically exert power over heterosexual males. The novel Sally Hemings,
is based on just this notion. Hemings's slave status is never obliterated,
but in the confines of her intimate relationship with Jefferson she, on
occasion, exercises power over him. In this scenario, the familiar responses
between males and females are more elemental than the legal relationship that
was imposed on them. In a small but important way, the humanity of Hemings is
reemphasized. Jefferson's humanity comes back into focus too. She is raised. He
is cut down to size. Thus, two of the major requirements for black progress
(restoration of black humanity and obliteration of the cult of the godlike
white person) are fulfilled.
As is too often the case, the very thing that some blacks find empowering
(Jefferson in thrall to Hemings) is threatening to some whites. Certainly the
cult of the celibate Jefferson, the Jefferson who diverted his sexual energy to
political and philosophical endeavors (or to building Monticello) is of
enormous importance. He was too busy creating a nation to be bothered with
creating passion and children with Sally Hemings. Sex, particularly with a
black person, is impure and signifies decadence. This is the very opposite of
what is required to be a builder of nations and empires or, for that matter,
fine homes. In addition, the thought that Jefferson, even in moments of private
passion, could have been under the influence of a black slave would be cause
for alarm. It is no accident that Fawn Brodie's suggestion, based on her view
of Jefferson's personality and the duration of the relationship, that Jefferson
had an emotional connection to Hemings drew almost hysterical responses from
some quarters, responses that seemed wildly out of proportion to the occasion.
However, there seems to have been something at stake that was very powerful,
and unspoken. In the course of excoriating Brodie's biography of Jefferson,
John Chester Miller sarcastically accused her of saying that Jefferson and
Hemings had lived in "idyllic bliss" until the end of Jefferson's life. In
another venue, Miller described Jefferson's accusers as having claimed that
Jefferson had "prostrated himself at the feet of" Sally Hemings. Why exaggerate
matters in this fashion? Brodie's description of Jefferson and Hemings did not
come close to saying that they lived in idyllic bliss. In her presentation,
they seem as much hounded as happy. Why did Miller transform the allegations
against Jefferson into a charge that he was prostrated at the feet of Hemings?
How does a claim that a man was sexually involved with a woman and may have
gained some emotional sustenance from her translate into his being prostrated
at her feet?
There are undoubtedly some unresolved gender-related issues in this
formulation, but the racial one is striking. In Miller's mind, apparently, any
moment of equality between black and white, however small, was equated with
black domination, a thing to be resisted above all else. It is the
historiographical equivalent of the "tipping" phenomenon. When a neighborhood
or apartment complex gets too great a representation of blacks, whites move
away, fearing control by the "others." Sociologists have shown that the number
of blacks could be as low as 10 percent and whites will perceive the
neighborhood as being taken over by blacks.
What is to be made of all this in the aftermath of DNA and the collapse of the
traditional view on Jefferson and Hemings? If blacks and whites were fighting a
symbolic cold war over the affair, as it seems they were, can the combatants
come to agreeable terms about what this story means? The vindication of blacks'
views on this subject creates an opportunity and obligation to move beyond
seeing Jefferson and Hemings as symbols. Given what Jefferson and slavery mean
to Americans, black and white, the pair will always have some symbolic value.
The knowledge that blacks' contributions to our understanding of this piece of
history were not merely symbolic, but were real and concrete, is extremely
important. It reminds us that there is much work to be done, many more things
waiting to be discovered about the Hemingses and Jefferson. What we find may
change our view of who they were and what relationship we bear to them.
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