Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Still in Denial

Via P6, I've just come across this Time magazine article that gives a more recent look at the Hemings-Jefferson connection, and the state of relations between the two branches of the family.

This was the first time in six years that the Monticello Association, which comprises some 700 descendants of Jefferson, had held its annual reunion without a horde of reporters and photographers in attendance—or the extended family members who had triggered the controversy. The once obscure association, which administers the graveyard at Monticello, got caught in a media storm in 1998, after a DNA study confirmed to the satisfaction of many that a male member of Jefferson's family had fathered at least one child with a mulatto slave named Sally Hemings (she gave birth to at least six, and possibly seven, children in all). If that Jefferson was the third President, as many historians believe, it means at least some of Sally Hemings' descendants were Thomas Jefferson's too. After a very public invitation on The Oprah Winfrey Show in November 1998 by an association member, dozens of Hemings began attending the group's annual reunion, albeit as guests, not members.

Getting invited, as it turned out, wasn't the same as being welcome. While a handful of association members supported the Hemings' inclusion, most did not. In 2002, the group voted 74 to 6 to deny them full membership. The already strained relations turned decidedly frigid last year when the association restricted the number of Hemings allowed to attend its reunion and attempted to bar them from setting foot inside the graveyard at Monticello. Paulie Abeles, the wife of the association's president at the time, even admitted to having secretly infiltrated an online discussion group that the Hemings had been using, in order to spy on their messages. "It was just an ugly, ugly situation," says Lucian Truscott IV, the Jefferson descendant and association member who originally invited the Hemings.

So, what began as an extended-family reunion has disintegrated into a bitter family feud between Jefferson's white family and his black one. For the first time since the DNA results came out, not a single Hemings attended the association's annual reunion this past May.


It would be easy to chalk up the entire family squabble to racism. After all, a primary reason the Hemings liaison was widely doubted before the DNA results were published was that testimony from former black slaves was dismissed by white historians as unreliable gossip. Blacks were not the only ones who supported the story, however. Numerous white journalists in Jefferson's time reported the story and believed it to be true. Jefferson's fellow Founding Father John Adams, who had seen Hemings' beauty firsthand (she was known as "Dashing Sally"), also seemed to believe that Jefferson had had an affair with her and called it a "natural and almost unavoidable consequence of that foul contagion in the human character—Negro slavery." But even today, several Jefferson descendants interviewed by Time said they could not believe that he would become sexually involved with a slave, even one as young and beautiful as Hemings. "Jefferson could date any eligible woman in the world," says John Works, a white descendant. "Why would he have an affair with a 15-year-old slave?"
Why indeed? Perhaps because she was young, beautiful and close at hand (and completely under his thumb)? It would indeed "be easy to chalk up the entire family squabble to racism", but in this case, it would also be right. I don't think it's the only reason for the rejection of the Hemings clan by the officially recognized descendants - there's probably also a desire to preserve the secular sainthood of the man from whom they all seem to draw so much of their self-esteem, a halo which would be tarnished by evidence that he wasn't above sexually exploiting a slave and denying the paternity of the resulting children - but it would be highly surprising if racism weren't also a major factor behind the chilly reception the Hemings have recieved. The stigma of having black blood or black relations is still so strong in many eyes that to acknowledge such a thing would wreck havoc with many people's self-respect.