2017 is not likely to be remembered as a great one for the nation as a whole. For some of us, however, on an individual level, the year was not all bad. I had a book come out, which I didn’t neglect to mention whenever the opportunity arose. Another high point was the S-USIH Conference in October, and in particular, the keynote by Annette Gordon-Reed.
I don’t have to tell anyone at this forum about the significance of Gordon-Reed’s work, but as I’ve sh
ared the experience with those outside it, I’ve had to find a way to sum it up for them. Through a combination of historical and historiographical work, and in a relatively recent and relatively short time, Gordon-Reed has clarified a part of the American story, a story that turns out to be so central that I can’t imagine any overview of American history–any US History survey course, for instance–that could possibly consider leaving the story out. That’s an impressive scholarly achievement, to say the least. Therefore, what a gift it was to be able to sit in a room and listen to Gordon-Reed talk about this work, about the Hemingses, and about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson–the story, as she referred to it from at least one perspective, of Sally and Tom.
In my classes for many years now, since I read The Hemingses of Monticello, I’ve told this story, and I have to say that I’ve distrusted, from time to time, my telling. On one level there’s the basic distrust I feel when telling any racially charged American story. As a white male, might there be something unreconstructed inside me that interferes with the telling or sways interpretation? But more to the case was a distrust I’ve felt in my response to the story.
That response might be described as a kind of final speechlessness. What the story says, ultimately and exactly, I’m unable to articulate. Among the many other stories I tell in this class, the one about Hemings and Jefferson stands fairly alone in this way. What I mean to say is that when I tell a story in my US History survey class, I tend also to tell my students what to do with it, how it supports some more general argument. This story defeats my ability to use it to support some larger thematic arc, other than the point that if we want to understand the American story at all, we could do worse than to start with Sally and Tom.
A moment came during Gordon-Reed’s presentation that deeply moved me. It was a feeling of confirmation that her response to the story was not very much different from my own. Now that I’m sitting down to write about it, I wish I could remember that moment more exactly. What triggered this feeling of confirmation? It was question she asked, perhaps, or a bit of body language–a shrugging of the shoulders, a slight raising of the hands. The message conveyed was that the story has not yet offered to her a final meaning. The story isn’t done with her yet. It isn’t done with us yet.
Most of the time, when I talk about Hemings and Jefferson, students seem to take it in stride. Teenagers and college freshmen are good at taking things in stride. I was the same way at their age. I didn’t like to let on that there was any information out there that could disturb me. In this case, the prospect that the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence owned the woman who gave birth to his children seems to confirm for my students a base cynicism. “You can’t surprise me by how hypocritical people are or how empty are their pronouncements.”
One student in my class this semester, a teenager, an African American, happened not to have this typical demeanor. He didn’t make an effort to hide his lack of knowledge or to downplay that it mattered. Astonishment, disturbance–you could see him working things out. He wasn’t afraid to ask questions, though often, by the time he got around to asking one, so much time had passed that I had to backtrack a ways to supply an answer. As I talked about Hemings and Jefferson, I saw these operations going on across his face. We were almost finished and moving on to the next bit, when he frowned and raised his hand. “Did he rape her?” he asked.
I repeated the fact of their age difference. I reminded that Jefferson owned Hemings. Then I said, “That’s a complicated question that I can’t answer satisfactorily. But the question you ask is the right one.”
From the other side of the room came another question, again from an African American, this time a young woman. She was more sophisticated than her classmate. She entered into the class with clearer concerns and seemed to be in some early stage of politicization. “Why don’t they teach us this?” she said. She was speaking low, almost muttering, but I heard her and had the impression that the rest of the class did, too.
“I am teaching it to you!” I said with a chuckle, answering maybe too quickly and defensively, having felt a tick of tension rise in the room.
“No, I mean,” she said, still speaking low, “before now.”
This time I let the comment have its full weight. “Why do you think that’s important?” I asked.
“It could make some people angry,” she said.
Most of the time, my inclination is to step in and articulate to everyone the meaning of everything. It’s the teacherly thing in me–“the sickness to teach,” as the late language educator Earl Stevick referred to it. I didn’t do that this time, not because I’ve recovered from that sickness but because this is the Sally and Tom story, and as I’ve said, that’s a story that renders me speechless. So I let the remark stand for a couple of long beats and said nothing. I hoped the rest of the class would hear it the way I heard it.
Later, in October at the S-USIH conference, as I listened to Gordon-Reed, the episode came back to me. The recollection added a dimension to her talk, and in turn, her talk put a kind of coda on what was, for me, the realest moment of the semester.
Since I’ve written this piece, I’ve listened to Ray Haberski’s and Andrew Hartman’s conversation about the conference in their podcast, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids.” They speak at some length about the Gordon-Reed keynote and bring out points more general and more reflective on its relation to intellectual history at large than does this rather more personal take. But it’s clear that Gordon-Reed’s presentation made an impression on them, too. Recommended.