SOURCE: Special to HNN ()
Annette Gordon-Reed is the first historian to provide a complete biography of the Hemings family (The Hemingses of Monticello, 2008) and to offer a persuasive account of Jefferson’s sexual relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings (Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, 1997). In his new book, Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, historian Clarence Walker knocks this story up a notch in his brilliant and daring book about the historical significance of the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings in U.S. history as well as the ways in which discussions of this liaison has flared up racial tensions between black and white Americans.
In addition to being a book about the Jefferson-Hemings affair, Mongrel Nation on a more fundamental level is a provocative experiment in imagining new ways to write about the past. One of the major issues surrounding the Jefferson-Hemings liaison was the decades of silence and denial that the affair sparked. Gordon-Reed shattered this silence by marshalling convincing archival evidence that Jefferson did in fact father Hemings’ children. Her book challenged generations of scholarly work that denied the relationship. Walker intervenes in this debate by accepting Gordon-Reed’s conclusions, but then investigating why the silence exists.
Drawing on the theoretical work of Roland Barthes and Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Walker argues that the production of historical narratives in the United States have both mythologized certain prominent actors from the past while simultaneously creating silences around those with less power. According to Walker, chroniclers of the American past have mythologized Thomas Jefferson, making it difficult for scholars like Gordon-Reed and others to actually present an image of Jefferson that does not glorify him. More to the point, Walker reveals how a number of historians, archivists, and writers that have been involved in preserving, documenting, and writing about the past have purposely ignored the topic of racial amalgamation, and instead have posited an image of the United States as a lily-white nation since its conception. While historians within the Academy have certainly refuted this interpretation, the mainstream public continues to embrace this vision of the American past—which, by the way, is only further buttressed by the popularity of bestselling history books and biographies on the “Founding Fathers.” Such interpretations of the past that lionize white men in power unwittingly (and sometimes purposely) eclipse the experiences of ordinary Americans whose alleged anonymous lives form the mere backdrop to the “master” narrative of American history. It is for these reasons, according to Walker, that the Jefferson-Hemings affair has been virtually ignored. When the prevailing script of the history of the nation is narrated, Hemings and her children are not provided a cue on “when and where to enter.”
In an effort to further explain how Americans have resisted acknowledging how racial amalgamation has contributed to the formation of the nation, Walker exits the late-18th century and turns to a number of contemporary examples in order to illustrate how this dynamic works. For instance, Walker points to the case of Strom Thurmond, the former South Carolinian Senator who ran for President in 1948. Similar to Jefferson, Thurmond had a sexual relationship with an African-American woman and fathered a biracial daughter, which was kept secret for decades. When news of his daughter surfaced after his death, his own relatives were shocked to learn that Thurman had a “shadow family.” Walker interprets the silence that surrounded both of these relationships as examples of the ways in which these families harbored shame not because these men had illegitimate children, but rather because these men had fathered mixed race children. In this particular scenario and in others throughout the book, Walker examines the Jefferson-Hemings relationship through a prism of contemporary examples; the past, as Walker formulates it, does not seem that divorced from the present.
In addition to examining the Jefferson-Hemings affair in a contemporary context, Walker begins the book by placing the relationship in the broader context of the Atlantic World. While Early American historians have been using the mantra of the Atlantic World as an important analytical strategy to interpret evidence from the colonial period, Walker is one of the first historians to investigate the meaning of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship in this context. By locating the Jefferson-Hemings relationship in what Philip Curtain refers to as the “plantation complex” (which includes the plantations in the Caribbean and North and South America), Walker argues that the liaison between Jefferson and Hemings does not appear nearly as aberrant as it does in the U.S. field. Walker furthers this point by highlighting the preponderance of interracial relationships between slaves and masters throughout South America and the Caribbean, arguing it is only because Americans have inherited a British, almost purist, notion of racial categories that the Jefferson-Hemings affair appears so odd to students of American history. In Surinam, a Dutch colony in South America, he explains, it was commonplace for white men to have open and public intimate relationships with enslaved women of color.
Walker’s insistence on viewing the Jefferson-Hemings relationship in the context of the Atlantic World represents his effort to rethink how history from this period should be written. While many historians would certainly agree that the rubric of the Atlantic World offers an important way to investigate the colonial period, some of Walker’s other approaches are certainly more daring. In an effort to understand the complicated ways in which interracial categories developed in the United States, Walker employs an interdisciplinary approach to a dazzling number of historical and contemporary sources. His textual references span from the groundbreaking work of colonial U.S. historian Kathleen Brown to comments made by the Brazilian writer Capistrano de Abreu to references to the 1844 writings of the German naturalist Friedrich Philip Von Marius to even Philip Roth’s contemporary novel, The Human Stain. While all of these disparate sources may appear dizzying to the reader at first glance, they offer a thoughtful meditation on the complex and varied ways in which racial categories developed in the United States and how they became powerful markers in the making of the nation. Based on his use of evidence, Walker implicitly encourages students interested in questions about the historical formulation of race to look beyond the borders of the United States for comparative examples.
Walker’s final contribution lies in the title of his book, “Mongrel Nation.” According to the underlying logic of the book, if Americans are going to continue to valorize Jefferson, then he and Hemings should replace George and Martha Washington as the “first” American couple—as the Jefferson and Hemings interracial relationship better represents the American progeny. Walker posits an image of the United States as a racially mixed nation. By dismantling the myths that have whitewashed the past and erased the interactions between whites and blacks, Walker has demonstrated both why and how the Jefferson-Hemings relationship has been ignored for generations. Even with Gordon-Reed's groundbreaking archival research substantiating the affair, which was then later corroborated by the discovery of DNA evidence, many Americans still continue to doubt if Jefferson did in fact father Hemings’s children. Walker’s book explains why many Americans continue to remain skeptical about Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings.
For Walker, the answer to this question lies in how we write history. With so many sources and historical accounts that do not chronicle the everyday interactions between whites and blacks from the past coupled with the fact that many Americans have resisted accepting the idea that racial amalgamation has been a fundamental component of the creation of the nation, it is difficult to imagine that one of the most celebrated Americans would have transgressed the color line. But Walker’s book reveals how Americans from the beginning of the nation to the present have continued to cross the color line, and that the lines between blacks and whites have never been so rigid. More to the point, it is only when we write about the past, according to Walker, that we create these divisions and view history in black and white.