Imagining Jefferson and Hemings in Paris

Posted in Articles, Europe, History, Media Archive, United States on 2012-04-22 21:43Z by Steven

Imagining Jefferson and Hemings in Paris

TransAtlantica: American Studies Journal
1 | 2011 : Senses of the South / Référendums populaires
10 pages, 20 paragraphs

Suzanne W. Jones, Professor of English
University of Richmond

In Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, cultural critic bell hooks argues that “no one seems to know how to tell the story” of white men romantically involved with slave women because long ago another story supplanted it: “that story, invented by white men, is about the overwhelming desperate longing black men have to sexually violate the bodies of white women.” Narratives of white exploitation and black solidarity have made it difficult to imagine consensual sex and impossible to imagine love of any kind across the color line in the plantation South. hooks predicted that the suppressed story, if told, would explain how sexuality could serve as “a force subverting and disrupting power relations, unsettling the oppressor/oppressed paradigm” (57-58). By rethinking and reimagining the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, contemporary novelists, filmmakers, and historians have exposed this “suppressed story,” the bare bones of which were first made public in 1802 by journalist James Callendar during Jefferson’s first term as U.S. President and then covered up by professional historians for almost 175 years.

As novelist Ralph Ellison pointed out, historical fiction must sometimes serve as the repository for historical truth when the collective historical memory has repressed the facts. In 1979 Barbara Chase-Riboud’s best-selling novel Sally Hemings allowed readers to enter the mind and heart of the shadowy figure that historian Fawn Brodie had brought back into the public consciousness in 1974, and in so doing enabled readers to believe that Jefferson might have had a long-term relationship with her. Chase-Riboud’s fictional portrait clearly upset Jefferson’s defenders, but the word that CBS might make the novel into a miniseries unnerved them, causing historians Virginius Dabney and Dumas Malone to intervene. Although they claimed that they were worried about historical accuracy, historian Annette Gordon-Reed believes that they were even more worried by the nature of the medium itself: “If a beautiful woman appears on screen as a capable and trustworthy person, […] all talk about impossibility [of a liaison] would be rendered meaningless” (Jefferson and Hemings, 182-83). Over fifteen years later, the film and the miniseries that eventually were produced have proved Gordon-Reed right. Today visitors to Jefferson’s Monticello routinely view, seemingly without surprise or dismay, a twenty-minute documentary that briefly mentions the liaison…

Read the entire article in HTML or PDF format.

Tags: , , , ,