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Author Offers New Look at ‘Hemingses of Monticello’

National Book Award-winning author Annette Gordon-Reed speaks about her book, "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family" and what sparked her interest in the family's complex history.

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  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    He is one of the most important figures in American history, and it is one of the most famous addresses in the early history of the country.

    But in recent years, we've learned much more about Thomas Jefferson and life at Monticello, particularly his relationship with a woman he owned, Sally Hemings, and the interrelated lives of slave-owners and slaves.

    Annette Gordon-Reed first wrote about this in 1997. Now she's expanded her research and historic reach in a book called "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family," which won the 2008 National Book Award for Non-Fiction.

    Annette Gordon-Reed teaches law at New York Law School and is professor of history at Rutgers University.

    Welcome and congratulations.

    ANNETTE GORDON-REED, Author, "The Hemingses of Monticello": Thank you so much.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Your subtitle, "An American family," now, for you, this is both a particular family, but also speaks to something larger?

  • ANNETTE GORDON-REED:

    Well, it talks about the beginnings of slavery, the beginning of African-Americans and European-Americans' life in America, which extends to the United States, but back before the United States was actually a country.

    And so I really wanted to talk about an enslaved family and to sort of show them as a family that sort of bore the weight of this terrible tragedy of slavery, but endured during it. So it's not — it's to make enslaved people live as people, not as sort of a monolith.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In your introduction, you write about the anonymity of American slaves generally, but it's a little different, I gather, for the Hemings family?

  • ANNETTE GORDON-REED:

    Yes. Jefferson was an inveterate record-keeper and a compulsive record-keeper. And because of that, he also wrote many, many letters.

    There's lots of information about the Hemings family as a group. And I thought that it would be a good idea to sort of write about them, as I said, as a family, keeping slavery in mind, the overlay of slavery in mind, but to see the day-to-day life of slavery in the 18th and 19th century.