Freedom’s Birthright


“It’s not as though people are saying, ‘Oh, wow, we’ve just discovered that there was miscegenation.’ It’s who was doing the miscegenating that has caused the interest. To the extent that people see themselves in Jefferson, and identify him with the nation, what does it say about the nation that he had children who were of mixed race?

The notion of excluding blacks, or the will to exclude blacks, is part of some people’s hostility, at least some people’s hostility to the story, to the possible truth of it, because of its symbolic value. It’s symbolic, and it’s real, and we shouldn’t confuse the two aspects of it. Symbolically, it’s tremendously important for people . . . as a way of inclusion.

Nathan Huggins said that the Sally Hemings story was a way of establishing black people’s birthright to America.

If you look at the flip side of it, rejecting the story is a part of the rejection of black people’s birthright and claims to America.

She had experiences that the typical enslaved person, or the typical freewoman would not have had at the time. She traveled. She lived in Europe for over two years. Those kinds of experiences change us. People go on Grand Tours to Europe to change themselves. And anybody who has ever been in a foreign country knows that residence there for any length of time changes your outlook on life. But people never considered that that could have happened to her–they just saw her as slave girl, who could have been in Georgia, or Texas, or anywhere. They were not seeing her for what had actually happened in her life.

[And as “slave girl,” she becomes invisible?]

Yes, she becomes invisible. She becomes a part of a faceless mass of people who have characteristics that are largely been given to us by popular fiction, like Gone With The Wind. And she’s not a person in her own right.

Even to now, as a black . . . I went to visit my brother, who worked at an airline. He was talking about how, sometimes when he’d say things to whites, they act like you don’t know what you’re talking about. This happened all the time. There’s this constant sense of having to prove yourself, and having to do more in order to establish yourself.

So when Madison Hemings’s memoir appears and defines Jefferson in a way that historians were unwilling to have him defined, it was easier to just say, ‘Oh, he’s just a former slave. He’s someone of lower status.’ It’s not just race – class also enters into this – that people like that are not believed when they say something.

[Do we know how long Sally was in Paris?]

She was in Paris about roughly 26 months.

[And when Jefferson left, she left.]

Yes. ” ~Annette Gordon-Reed

interview excerpt from:

(c) 2014 candi dugas, llc


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