Illustration by Joe Gough
“And who, by the way, was the mother of our country?”
Our nation’s historical origins began in the revolutionary age of the 1770s, when Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers set forth their protestations against the British crown. In the past 20 or so years, many Americans have taken it as fact that Jefferson established a long-term relationship with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman, mother to at least six of his children, and his widow’s half-sister. “The Jefferson-Hemings affair,” writes Clarence Walker, “given Jefferson’s place in the pantheon of the Founding Fathers, raises questions about the national identity or racial provenance of the United States . . . At the moment of its creation the nation was not a white racial space but a mixed-race one, in which Jefferson and Hemings, as a mixed-race couple, rather than George and Martha Washington, should be considered the founding parents of the North American republic.”
Race, we are accustomed to thinking, is a fiction—a “construction”—a myth older than Don Quixote. Literacy was not as commonplace when Jefferson and Hemings began their relationship, and Americans have never quite gotten over this textual and cultural illiteracy, a willful blindness, when it comes to matters of citizenship and recognition. Like any fiction worth its weight, race must be read and reread, interpreted, and examined.
With her 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriett Beecher Stowe, “gave black characters a dignity and self-consciousness that paved the way for other writers, including African-American writers, to explore the question of race in America,” as literary historian Philip Gura writes. As fate would have it, in May of the following year Stowe met a man who was soon to become the first black American novelist.
William Wells Brown was already an inspiring and accomplished man when he met Stowe in London. He’d been born into slavery in Kentucky, the son of a white father and a slave mother, and he’d traveled widely for an individual of the 19th century, free or enslaved. Brown escaped slavery, after losing his mother and his sister to slave auctions, and began a career as an author and anti-slavery lecturer.
“Like any fiction worth its weight, race must be read and reread, interpreted, and examined.”
Brown’s 1853 novel, Clotel, has for its plot the Jefferson-Hemings liaison that Walker refers to, a relationship that has fired the imaginations of Americans for more than two centuries, ever since James Callender published a scathing exposé of Thomas Jefferson in the Richmond Recorder. Callender had previously outed Alexander Hamilton’s extramarital affair with Mrs. Maria Reynolds, but when Jefferson refused to acquiesce to Callender’s threats of blackmail, he went public with the not-quite-news that Jefferson kept an enslaved woman as his “concubine” on his Monticello plantation.
Though Brown was the first American novelist to address the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, Charles Dickens had actually included a reference in his 1844 novel Martin Chuzzlewit. Dickens wrote of Jefferson, that “noble patriot . . . who dreamed of Freedom in a slave’s embrace.” It is an unattributed quote from the Irish poet Thomas Moore, who’d read Callender’s article in the Recorder.
“What better plot,” historian Jill Lepore writes, “than the shocking story that had animated the pen of Dickens himself?” Brown, according to his biographer Ezra Greenspan, was, like many Americans, long acquainted with the story of Sally and Tom. He’d published Clotel well before he met a Hemings family member, Virginia Isaacs, in Boston in the 1860s. A great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Hemings, mother to Jefferson’s Sally, Virginia Isaacs is a distant relative of mine; Sally Hemings’ brother Peter is my ancestor.
Visiting Monticello in 1796, the duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt claimed to have seen “slaves, who neither in point of color nor features showed the least trace of their original descent.”
In the summer of 2016, I stood in the back of a line comprised of descendants of Jefferson’s slaves waiting to enter the air conditioned pavilion in Monticello’s visitor center. A family directly before me looked white at first glance. But they are descendants of Sally and Tom, even prouder of their Hemings blood than they are of their Jefferson lineage. We were gathered to eat. It’d be our last meal before a family sleepover that night in Monticello’s slave cabins.
Inside, a buffet table was laid out before us, filled to overflowing with soul food. Iced tea with mint leaves to wash down the fried chicken. Biscuits barely made it into our mouths before melting. The room brimmed with joy. Some nuclear families sat together but I took a seat at a table with Jefferson, Hemings and Gillette descendants. I met Sakeena. She was wearing a purple African print dress, a headscarf beneath her Fulani straw hat. We fell into talking. I was introduced to April, Joan and Stephen, and Sakeena’s brother Gregory. Sakeena and Gregory’s forefathers and mine were given to Jefferson’s estate, after his father-in-law’s death, in 1774.
A presentation began. Any descendants of those pictured were to stand and introduce themselves. A photo of Moses Gillete was shown. April, Joan, Stephen, Sakeena and Gregory rose from their seats. More photos of the enslaved were projected. Cousin Calvin kept standing up. He stood when Jefferson’s personal servant Jupiter’s name was mentioned. He sat down only to stand again when Wormley Hughes’ name was called out. Calvin had on a red Washington Nationals ball cap with matching tank top and his teenage granddaughter Jade with him. She wore her thick hair in pigtails. I thought Jade really must love her grandfather to spend a night in the slave cabins with a bunch of distant relatives—strangers, really. Many of us were strangers to her and each other.
By the time we made it up to the mountaintop, the sun was just setting beyond the hills below. What land! I was transfixed by the view. Monticello is a kind of sylvan grove, and there is a view clear across the creasing hills all the way to the Blue Ridge Mountains. A brilliant dusk radiated from behind a cloud like the spokes of a wagon wheel. I’d never seen a sunset like that one. No one at Monticello had either, and they moved to gather us for photographs with that special sky for a background.
Afterwards, we gathered on Mulberry Row, a tree-lined walk where some of our slave ancestors lived and worked, for a bonfire. We talked quietly in twos and threes before coming together to talk as a family. A debate began with an old question. Calvin asked if any of us thought Sally Hemings could have loved Jefferson. I think they heard Gregory’s cries of dissent way down in Charlottesville. “Hell no!” he said. “Nothing about a teenage girl and her 40-something master calls out ‘love’ to these ears! Ain’t no love there!”
“She didn’t have a choice! She was his slave!” Sakeena said.
Calvin was pressing the issue. “I know about both those things but she was exercising some degree of power over him, and how about this—each one of her sisters had children by white men. What you make of that?”
Sakeena nearly leapt off her log. Gregory held her back but she couldn’t be quieted. “What I make of that?” Sakeena hollered. “What I make of that! They were raped. They were raped by the white man. They were preyed upon. What you make of that?”
Calvin was slyly smiling beneath his mustache. “I’m only asking the questions we all been hearing for, oh, two-hundred years now. Don’t got to get all worked up like that, cousin.”
“You don’t know what you trying to do!”
“Listen. Think about this. You got to think about how much power Sally’s mother had over TJ. She’d raised his wife, who loved her deeply, and she’d raised Sally. And TJ loved both of those women—those half-sisters. To think that Elizabeth Hemings wasn’t exercising some kind of control over TJ is ludicrous. She was playing him like a fiddle.”
“She was a slave, Calvin.”
“I don’t care what she was, she got whatever she wanted for her children. And she got whatever she wanted for herself, too. I think of her as the matriarch of this entire plantation.”
“Her daughters were raped by white men.”
“They coulda had relationships with these men! TJ and Sally were in a decades-long relationship. Something like 35, 40 years! When we talking about these ‘slave women’ we talking about some of the most powerful people—white or black—for miles around. You telling me Elizabeth Hemings, mother of Sally and nanny to Martha, who went way back with the family, didn’t have TJ by the wig I think you smoking something outta the garden down there.”
“Calvin, you saying the Hemings women had white lovers because their mother mighta arranged all that. What you forgetting—somehow! who knows how you forgetting this—was that they were slaves. And that they didn’t have a choice. By all accounts they were beautiful women, too, and that just made them more easily preyed upon.”
“I’m just raising questions. That’s all I’m doing. What I’m wondering is if Elizabeth Hemings was making sure her daughters got with the white man. ‘Cause look at how her grandchildren turned out! They got their freedom through the white man. They were freed, the ones that was the progeny of the white man. And Elizabeth knew full well the benefits of being white cause she was half white herself. If she had a little control over TJ and his kin or his visitors or what have you, I’m willing to bet she was angling toward having her grandchildren be freed that way. That is, after all, how Sally got TJ to promise to free her kids.”
Sakeena addressed the group, slipping her comments in before either Calvin or her brother could say anything further. “Next time you getting slave families together,” she said, “bring a therapist. We got to have some real counseling here. Our heads all screwed up and these Hemings bothering me!” We were all laughing. “Really! These Hemings bothering me. All anybody wondering about anytime I bring up that we come from Monticello is the Hemings. It’s Hemings this or Hemings that. I’m proud not to be a Hemings. I’m a Gillette. And we came like pendants with Elizabeth Hemings from John Wayles’ Guinea plantation to Monticello. And nobody ever talk about the Gillettes. We probably on the same damn ship over here! And nobody talking about us. Hemingses take up all the air in the room. See these tourists traipsing all around here earlier. Only thing they asking about is Sally. Or ‘the talented Hemings.’ What about everyone else!”
There was much more good cheer than not. But the debates were going to continue all night. Might even continue for another generation or two. I walked to find a place of solitude when I heard the cousins, those who remained by the fire pit, asking one another about escaped slaves. Who’d left? Was he caught? Heard from again?
The moon rose higher, the night sky awash with stars. I looked out toward the horizon. Down in the blue-night valleys I imagined the ruby glow of long ago campfires. Sakeena joined me. She looked mildly distressed and gestured toward the security guards who were going around turning off the lampposts. “I’m down walking by my cabin to get something and I see these uniformed men in the dark and I thought it was the KKK coming for me! Why they leaving us out here in the dark? Can’t they leave us with some light? They said they’d be taking care of us. Well, I want light to see with! We’re being left out here. But look at those stars!”
“I heard the cousins asking one another about escaped slaves. Who’d left? Was he caught? Heard from again?”
Sakeena had a flair for the dramatic. She’d traveled via Greyhound from New York. Sakeena converted to Islam “a hundred years ago,” as she put it, and sometime in the intervening century she’d traveled to Mecca for hajj. We looked out into the night. “This,” she said, “this is a pilgrimage all its own. I truly feel that way. I’m coming back to honor my dead.”
“You ever feel anything for, you know . . . Africa?” I asked. I’d been prompted by one of the cousins, who said that an aunt of hers said that she had heard from an aunt of hers, that the Monticello slaves had rubbed oil on their noses. This was supposedly proof that we were descended from some specific African tribe.
“Well, we from there somewheres but our lives began right here,” Sakeena said. “Doesn’t stop me from wearing these African dresses, though. And each year I go up to the medieval festival at Fort Tryon Park, I’m the only black person there, and I dress up as an African queen. I treat myself. I’m crazy. And you’re crazy. Why else we here except for us being crazy? Why else we sleeping in the slave cabins? My kids don’t answer the phone anymore when they see me calling. They think I should be put up in Bellevue. I want to talk to someone about all this; it’s just hard to. Not everybody wants to talk about the past . . . And I’m careful who I tell I come from Monticello. You got to be discriminating. ‘Cause not everyone cares. Actually, most people don’t care. Then they start joking with you. Most of us don’t know our history, so anybody who does they making fun of. In Brownsville they call me Mrs. Jefferson. And that just drives me nuts! Only safe place I’ve found to talk about the past? This plantation. This plantation is the only place I’ve ever found safe enough to talk over everything with everyone. Even if security leaving us in the dark. Out here. In the wilderness. Alone. Damn—we alone out here in the wilderness!”
Before I had any idea who I was—what I was composed of—I knew of a few landmarks in my New England town. We lived in Redding, Connecticut, on a wooded property no more than a mile from where Mark Twain died. The annual Mark Twain Book Fair reminded us all of our indebtedness to him. The town library had been named after him, and his estate, Stormfield, was within an easy downhill jaunt of my home. On the way to the library, a walk I undertook frequently during the summer, we’d pass the “elephant walk,” where P.T. Barnum is said to have corralled his elephants. Later, as a young man of about 13, I began working as a farmhand for a family of writers who’d purchased their considerable property from a great-granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne. American history, it seemed, was inescapable. And farm chores were inhibiting my full enjoyment of my teenage years. Predictably, when the owners of the farm left for an extended period of time, I threw parties. In honor of Hawthorne, my fellow debauchers and I nicknamed the property “Nate’s House.”
In Wendy Warren’s 2016 book New England Bound, the author recounts a visit Hawthorne made to Williams College for commencement ceremonies in 1838. Hawthorne was surprised to encounter free African Americans in New England. There were “a good many blacks among the crowd . . . a drunken negro . . . [a] gray old negro . . . [and] three or four well dressed and decent negro wenches . . . I suppose they used to emigrate across the border, while New-York was a slave state.”
“Hawthorne’s astonishment,” writes Warren, “at seeing African descent in a New England crowd and in a New England tavern, underscored just how effectively the importance of slavery to the region’s development had been erased from memory.”
Hawthorne’s great-great grandfather, John Hathorne, the only judge from the Salem Witch Trials who did not repent of his actions, presided over the courts when an enslaved Indian woman named Tituba, and at least two enslaved Africans, were accused of witchcraft. Some 24 years after his visit to Williams College, Nathaniel Hawthorne still could not perceive of the long-established presence of African-descended people in New England.
There is an historical circumstance, known to few, that connects the children of the Puritans with these Africans of Virginia, in a very singular way. They are our brethren, as being lineal descendants from the Mayflower, the fated womb of which, in her first voyage, sent forth a brood of Pilgrims upon Plymouth Rock, and, in a subsequent one, spawned slaves upon the Southern soil—a monstrous birth, but with which we have an instinctive sense of kindred, and so are stirred by an irresistible impulse to attempt their rescue, even at the cost of blood and ruin. The character of our sacred ship, I fear, may suffer a little by this revelation; but we must let her white progeny offset her dark one—and two such portents never sprang from an identical source before.
Hawthorne was mistaken; in point of fact, there were several ships named Mayflower operating in the 17th century, and the one that carried enslaved individuals was not the same that carried Puritans. “But in metaphorical terms,” Warren writes, “of course, he was absolutely right.”
More than a decade prior to Hawthorne’s mistaken assertion, William Wells Brown included in Clotel a juxtaposition of the Mayflower with a slave ship to Virginia: “Behold the May-flower anchored at Plymouth Rock, the slave-ship in James River . . . These ships are the representation of good and evil in the New World, even to our day. When shall one of those parallel lines come to an end?”
Despite Brown’s stature as a pioneering American novelist, he goes unmentioned in Clarence Walker’s writing on the mythic origins of the American people—though, of course, this is precisely what Brown was setting forth. Brown is also ignored in Annette Gordon-Reed’s magisterial studies of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, though in a colloquy on Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello Robert S. Levine stated that “Reading Clotel and The Hemingses of Monticello side by side, one realizes that Gordon-Reed, in her great history of the Hemings family and Jefferson, has written a classic African American novel of the early Republic for the 21st century.”
“What’s it like to learn about your family in history books?” I was once asked. But the reality is that we all learn about our families through history books and the literary arts. In the writings of Albert Murray and his friend Ralph Ellison, I learn we are each of us engaged in the unconscious reenactment of rituals as old as humanity itself. We eat, pray, make love and procreate, sleep, communicate, and make art. It is this last act that distinguishes human life from other sentient beings. Stories are our domain.
In a remarkable essay, “Hidden Name and Complex Fate,” Ellison describes the power of reading literature: “The more I learned of literature . . . the more the details of my background became transformed.” When, during one of his first few days in Harlem Langston Hughes suggested he read Andre Malraux, Ellison drank deeply from Man’s Fate and Days of Wrath, “which led to my selecting Malraux as a literary ‘ancestor,’ whom, unlike a relative, the artist is permitted to choose.”
“It is a human paradox that we derive our liberality, our truths, from fiction. There is sublime magic in stories, and the past is regenerated before our eyes.”
With Clotel, William Wells Brown describes how the story of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship is representative of our national and personal origins, despite what we perceive to be our racial or cultural differences. Brown takes the story back from the tabloids, back from slanderous rumors, and gives it to us. We return to our writers—like Brown, Twain, Stowe, Ellison, Morrison, and Whitehead—for a view of ourselves and our ancestors.
It is a human paradox that we derive our liberality, our truths, from fiction. There is sublime magic in stories, and the past is regenerated before our eyes. Our literary artists do not turn away from the past. Instead, they lift for us the veil of time and history so that we may find ourselves. Like a family elder unbraiding the knot of the past for us to better understand, our writers initiate the psychodrama of self-identification. History is not so very far from us, unequivocally ours to hold. We are inheritors of an outrageous fortune.