It's been a while, hasn't it? But, then, it usually is, once the serious writing for Women in the World of Frederick Douglass got underway, and then the book was published, and then the talks. I had two other ideas for books, one of which overwhelmed the other. Then, my dad died, which kind of blew a hole in my world and I lost interest in everything. That became a whole other story; and just as I was finding my balance, other things came up like teaching online, and pay cuts, and schools closing, and no retirement, and layoffs, and this ongoing disaster from which the world may not recover for decades, if ever.
Meanwhile, in the midst of that dark winter in which I felt nothing but loss, the marvelous Carol Berkin, who edits the series Lives of American Women found herself without an author for a book. Would I be interested? I had to think about it because, boy, it was tempting, but, boy, was I not sure that I could do it. Still, I told my mom about. The topic is one that interests her. Indeed, she was way ahead of the curve on the subject when I was not, back in the 1980s and early 1990s. (People can grow! Indeed, she showed me that, too.) My mom's response? "Do it!!!!!" Already, my mind had taken off in arranging the proposal, and her nudge -- the idea that I would do it for her -- pushed me into saying "yes."
The contract was offered to me on my birthday last year. Then the NEH awarded the project a research grant, which will be wonderful to use if the research facilities that I need to visit open again -- ever.
In addition to my mom, I have another audience in mind. The semester before Carol contacted me, I had spoken of the subject at some length to my U.S. History survey class, one in which half of the students were women, only two of whom were white. All of them wanted more. When I directed them to the key books, they took a look at the length and said, "is there anything shorter?" They only have so much time, they weren't sure if they wanted that much of a commitment. I get that. I thought, "someone needs to write a short introductory book on this woman." One that piques the readers' curiosity and directs them toward the longer, deeper work. Who knew it would be me?
So, this book will be for those women in my class and for my mom. They are my audience.
Who is the woman? Sally Hemings.
Yes! I am off of my rocker thinking I can do this! As one person, who is a Jefferson scholar, said, "why would you waste your time on a subject on which everything has been said?"
Well, I don't really have anything new to say at this point that will change the face of the scholarship. This is going to be synthetic and brief. This is for undergraduates and, again, people not sure if they are ready for the commitment of all of the other work on Hemings -- my particular favorite being The Hemingses of Monticello. (I cannot love that book hard enough! Annette Gordon-Reed shows her work. Every time I have a question -- boom!-- she answers it in the next paragraph or on the next page.)
I also want to introduce this beginner audience to the craft of historians, and I want to use her life as a way to address the big events and changes happening in her time, some which she witnessed and some which affected her indirectly. This book should be one that a teacher can assign to a survey just like the one almost every college student must take, and cover a period of time from a different perspective than the Great White Menz.
As I research this book this summer, thinking in particular about the thorny issues of Hemings' race and perceptions of what happened between herself and Jefferson, I watch Black Lives Matter overwhelm the news and force deep questions about the origins and depth of American racism into the streets in a way surpassing any other up to this point. Intersectional, interracial, intergender, inter-everything! Finally, Confederate statues that should have never been raised, topple! It is all exciting and frightening and necessary and a long long long time coming.
How does Hemings fit into this, not as a heroine, but as a woman with very limited power trying to get her family, her children, over to freedom and a better life? I know right where Jefferson fits. Yes, he was a slaveholder, but more than that. The better angels of his logic knew that slavery was unjust. At the same time, emancipation would cost him quite a bit, not the least of which was his lovely, luxurious life pursuing every curiosity. He is white people: "I'm for something just until it costs me something, and then I rationalize the reasons that 'too far' is the point where it costs me something." That is the question so many of we white people must ask.
Hemings's story is not a flip side of that precisely. Hers is more complicated because she sits on a line between slavery and freedom, black and white, exploitation and agency. She offered her children some interesting choices, too. In those choices, race become the dominant issue beyond freedom and slavery. The problem lies in that they had to make a choice and -- here's my 6 Degrees of Frederick Douglass -- one that Douglass addressed toward the end of his life with his interest in "amalgamation."
The guy I love most, I think, in this story, is Madison Hemings, the son who chose blackness while all of his siblings chose whiteness. He's the one who gave the world the "African" who was his great-grandmother, and the one sentence from the mouth of Elizabeth Hemings who was his grandmother, and witnessed the story of Sally Hemings his mother and Thomas Jefferson his father. I'm curious about Eston, and the way that his paternity and, more importantly, his maternity, passed through his descendants (Monticello has oral histories that I have yet to explore); but Madison, he seems to know who he was and perhaps he should be the next post.