A man has children with a woman who is the half-sister of his dead wife. Oh, by the way, the white man owns the black woman as his slave, and she is his junior by decades. And the man is President of the United States.
We might think families became complicated in the’ 80s and ‘90s, when the myth of the nuclear family exploded on the set of Jerry Springer. And, as a person who actually knows her ex-step-grandmother-in-law, I can safely say that things are complicated. However, the circumstances that brought together Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, makes having two dads or multiple sets of step-parents seem downright pedestrian.
While the Jefferson-Hemings story is a juicy one, The Hemingses of Monticello—as you might guess from its straight-laced title—is no breathless exposé. It is a scholarly work in which accomplished historian and law professor Annette Gordon-Reed uses her impressive powers of research, imagination and analysis to illuminate the lives of the Hemings family and reveal the institution of slavery for all its dehumanizing evils.
Gordon-Reed, author of the 1998 book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, was instrumental in making sure the nearly 40-year relationship between Jefferson and Hemings was not swept under the rug of history. Now, she has done the same for the rest of the extensive, mixed-race Hemings clan. Their varied life experiences help us better understand the personal impact of slavery on families and white Americans’ evolving perceptions of slavery during the late 1700s and early 1800s—a time when the phrase “all men are created equal” meant something very different than it does today.
The Hemingses of Monticello is not crammed with one well-substantiated, meticulously footnoted fact after another. The Hemingses did not leave much of a written record, and the most interesting sections of the book posit thoroughly-considered and firmly-grounded guesses. Here, Gordon-Reed explores the silences of history as well as the noise. What does it tell us that Thomas Jefferson’s white family members avoided writing about Sally in their letters? What can we make of the fact that Jefferson did not free Sally in his will? What was going through Sally’s head when she had the opportunity to stay in France and become a free woman, but instead decided to return to the US with Jefferson?
Despite the mountains of information available on Jefferson, Gordon-Reed keeps her focus firmly on the Hemingses. I imagine it must have been difficult to avoid the pull of Jefferson’s historical orbit. As the owner of the Hemings family, Jefferson is obviously a key player in the book, but it is really the story of Sally, her mother, her siblings, her children, and her large extended family. For this reason, the one thing that surprised me about The Hemingses of Monticello is that Gordon-Reed wraps up the story soon after Jefferson’s death. Obviously, she had to end somewhere, but I wanted to read more about what the Hemingses’ lives might have been like in the decade or so after Jefferson’s death. Perhaps the historical record became too slim, even for someone so adept at connecting dispersed dots.
The Hemingses of Monticello won the 2008 National Book Award for Nonfiction, and was on the New York Times’ list of the 100 Notable Books of 2008. “Important” and “epic” are adjectives other reviewers have used to describe this book. These are words that make you know a book must be really worthwhile, something you should read. However, they are not exactly words that make you want to rush out, buy the book, curl up on the sofa, and not put the book down until you are finished. At 800 pages, you’d be sitting on that sofa reading The Hemingses of Monticello for quite awhile.
Instead, The Hemingses of Monticello is a book to savor and mull over during the course of a few weeks, maybe even a couple months. You’ll be thinking about it for many months afterwards.
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