jefferson's blood
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press reaction
The Sun, Baltimore David Zurawik

"When the PBS series 'Frontline' is on its game, no one on television does in-depth reporting and informed analysis better. In 'Jefferson's Blood,' an examination of what the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, means to us today, 'Frontline' is at the very top of its game.

The report which is produced by Thomas Lennon and narrated by author Shelby Steele, revisits the headline-making DNA results released in 1998 that all but prove Jefferson fathered at least one of the six children to whom Hemings gave birth.

I say 'all but proved' because 'Frontline' actually goes back to the retired researcher who did the study 'on a whim' and asks him what he knows to be true.

Contrary to press reports of the time, Dr. Eugene Foster says that all he 'scientifically' proved is that a male descendant of Jefferson's white family is also descended from Hemings. As he points out, that doesn't mean Jefferson is the father. Another Jefferson male--Jefferson's brother or an uncle--could be the father.

But when you couple DNA evidence with a study of the more traditional historical records of Jefferson's visits to Monticello and Hemings' pregnancies, what you have is a 99 percent probability that Jefferson fathered one of Hemings' children.

. . . The time and effort 'Frontline' spent to responsibly report what DNA evidence did or did [not] record straight is typical of the attention to detail and commitment to getting the story right that characterizes the entire report.

. . . CBS exploited the Jefferson-Hemings relationship with 'Sally Hemings: An American Scandal,' a reckless miniseries full of speculation and outright fabrication. 'Jefferson's Blood' is television listening to its better angels, and offering us the chance to more completely understand our world, in light of what happened some 200 years ago at Monticello."

Newsday Diane Werts

"Are you white? Are you black? And why? Who says so? From the days of slavery to this year's census question on race, Americans seem perpetually concerned about color. Some of the reasons behind that are presented in starkly emotional fashion in tonight's must-see 'Frontline' report, 'Jefferson's Blood.'

. . . these 90 minutes show how Thomas Jefferson's descendants still personally struggle with 'the mysterious power of race,' as correspondent Shelby Steele puts it so well.

. . . Steeele and his white co-writer, director-producer Thomas Lennon ('The Irish in America'), present some provocative personal evidence. We meet black Jefferson descendants and white Jefferson descendants, struggling to come to grips with one another, all of them seeing the world differently. So differently that one 'white' man, who grew up with 'black' relatives, refuses to be identified in this program. Amalia Cooper says her father and some of her siblings are 'afraid that people will stop seeing them as white and start seeing them as black.'

And you think race doesn't matter? 'Jefferson's Blood' proves that even in our 'enlightened' day and age, 'society forces you to choose an identity.' Just as Jefferson and Hemings grappled privately with theirs 200 years ago, their descendants now debate publicly, as is expected at this weekend's annual meeting of the Monticello Association."

The Dallas Morning News Ed Bark

"CBS gave it the soap opera treatment in Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, a four-hour miniseries telecast during the February 'sweeps.'

Now comes the intelligent version. ... 'Jefferson's Blood,' presented under the Frontline banner, is an extraordinary look at presidential paternity and progeny.

Reporter/narrator Shelby Steele and producer Thomas Lennon explore America's continuing racial divides in a manner that is both personalized and matter-of-fact. Mr. Steele, who is black, repeatedly makes his presence known without flaunting it.

Some of his observations may be open for debate. But the overall texture and tapestry of 'Jefferson's Blood' underscores the basic banality of broadcast network newsmagazines such as Dateline and 20/20. It's the difference between sketching a landscape and scribbling in a coloring book.

. . . 'Jefferson's Blood' is a powerful, provocative blend of history and sociology. It unflinchingly looks at what he might have done, what he didn't do and how it's all come home to roost anew."

The Boston Globe John Koch

"'Jefferson's Blood' ... is at times a subtly revealing take on race that skillfully connects our nation's slave-owning formative years with the America of today. But it is also at times too distractingly eloquent to be fully engrossing as television. Narrator Shelby Steele, who writes provocatively on race and other matters, was the principal scriptwriter of 'Jefferson's Blood'. . . But his informed and gracefully probing prose often seems better suited to the page than to the screen. The result is a program that arouses a mixture of admiration and frustration, and a greater interest in 'reading' its content than listening to it and watching it. ..."

Chicago Tribune Steve Johnson

"... One of the most profound historical uses of DNA has been the recent proof, to near scientific certainty, that Thomas Jefferson did indeed father children by Sally Hemings, his slave.

In a deeply resonant 90 minutes . . . the historian Shelby Steele and producer Thomas Lennon examine the myriad implications of this finding, for Jefferson's kinfolk on both sides of the color divide and the country.

This is vivid in detailing the complexities and contradictions of Jefferson, the young idealist recognizing the essential barbarity of slavery who becomes the aged, deeply indebted slaveholder arguing the 'states' rights' position.

But it is just as vivid at using the surviving relatives to illustrate how complex and contradictory a thing race remains in this country."

San Francisco Chronicle John Carman

"...The Jefferson-Hemings story may be familiar to most Americans, largely because so many viewers watched a CBS miniseries about them, heavily garnished with dramatic license, three months ago.

Tonight, the best 'Frontline' of the season revisits the DNA evidence that proves, beyond all but the tiniest doubt, that Jefferson fathered Hemings' children.

Hemings herself was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, and three-quarters white. The children she bore by Jefferson were seven-eighths white, yet they were enslaved until Jefferson's death in 1826.

Maybe the fractions seem silly. But they aren't, because race and racial identity are still at the core of American life.

That's where producer Thomas Lennon and guest correspondent Shelby Steele, a well-known author and fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, make this 'Frontline' so special."

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