Cousins, Across the Color Line

Cousins, Across the Color Line

The New York Times

Tess Taylor

EL CERRITO, Calif. — I learned about her through the comments section of an article in Publisher’s Weekly. I had recently published a book of poems crafted out of family stories, and it had been written up, along with a brief interview. In the interview, I reckon with the complicated history of my family — I am a white descendant of Thomas Jefferson — and the fact that some of my ancestors were slave owners from 1670 until the Civil War.

In the comments section, the woman, Gayle Jessup White, had written: “I am an African-American Jefferson descendant. My grandmother was a Taylor (although her mother didn’t exactly marry into the family!), a direct descendant from J.C. Randolph Taylor and Martha Jefferson Randolph” — Thomas Jefferson’s daughter. “Tess Taylor — I wonder if we share great-great-grandparents? The plot thickens.”

The story of Sally Hemings, a slave in the Jefferson household — and the children she most likely bore the third president — is by now widely accepted. That story has offered a chance for people descended from slave owners and those descended from enslaved people to begin to recognize their connections. But the situation, at least in my family, remains delicate. Some white Jefferson descendants have welcomed Hemings descendants. Others have not. Hemings descendants are not allowed to be buried in the family graveyard at Monticello, Jefferson’s home, because despite increased evidence, there is, technically, room for scientific doubt. The doubt in turn points to great historical violence: Because it was not the custom of slave owners to name who fathered the mulatto children on their plantations, we have little documentary evidence that would constitute legal “proof” of our interrelationship.

Yet the fact is that many so-called white and so-called black people in our country are actually deeply interrelated. It is highly likely that I have distant cousins I’ll never know, people who’ll never come to any family reunion. Historians have obsessed over Jefferson’s possible liaisons, but slavery lasted many generations. Among his sons, grandsons, great-grandsons and great-great-grandsons, there were bound to be other liaisons and therefore other direct lineal descendants of Jefferson and enslaved people or domestic servants.

I wrote to Gayle immediately. Frankly, I was delighted to get her note. I looked her up. I sent her an email. “Hey. It’s Tess,” I wrote. “Let’s talk.”…

Read the entire opinion piece here.

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