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A Family Album That Includes Slaves and Presidents

Thomas Jefferson: DNA evidence of his liaison with slave Sally Hemings is welcome news to African Americans.

November 08, 1998|KAREN GRIGSBY BATES | Karen Grigsby Bates is a regular contributor to this page

OK, so now it's official: According to practically irrefutable scientific evidence, Thomas Jefferson really was the father of our country. Biologically and politically.

That's big news to much of mainstream America, but old news to many Americans of African descent. Although our claim about the country's third president and author of its Declaration of Independence often was shrugged away--or met with outright vitriol by the hagiographers who felt duty bound to keep such rumors of their hero far removed--it wouldn't take a rocket scientist (or a DNA expert) to figure it out. Plantations such as Monticello were communities in which black and white residents lived in fairly close proximity. Despite laws that assigned three-fifths value to black Americans, they were fully human and, like their white counterparts, subject to the same joys, angers and passions.

White Americans, however, were freer to act upon those emotions. The interracial unions in early America were almost always white males and black females. Very frequently, they were the result of coercion, either negative (fear of being sold or beaten or placed in a more difficult job) or positive (the enticement of a better job or special treatment for one's children). Far too often they took the form of rape. And sometimes they were the result of something more complicated: an amalgam of physical attraction and emotional interdependence that we'd now recognize as love, which perhaps accounted for the fact that Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson were a couple for almost four decades.

The increasing likelihood of that is a hard pill for some people--black and white--to swallow. That a paragon such as Jefferson, glorified by one of the most beautiful monuments in Washington, emblazoned on our coinage and revered not only as the architect of our country's freedom but as one of its best presidents, should also have parented at least one biracial child must make their minds spin. But for centuries, we black Americans have seen this as a simple truth: Plantation miscegenation was simply a fact of life; some elected officials were legislating against it either as they (or their children) were engaging in it. The linkage of the Jefferson and Hemings clans is simply the most prominent example of how black and white Americans have led intertwined lives for more than two centuries.

With or without DNA confirmation, this country for years now has been rethinking race and what it means. Interracial marriages have soared in the last 40 years, with California leading the way. More and more books are being published that show how the authors--black and white--worked their way backward into history to discover their gene pools were not merely one thing only but included ancestors of other races as well. In her 1992 memoir, "The Sweeter the Juice," Shirlee Taylor Haizlip found white cousins 1,000 miles away from her New England hometown. Edward Ball's 1998 history of his father's people, "Slaves in the Family," tells how he discovered the interconnectedness of his Ball ancestors with the slaves on their South Carolina property and shows how he has embraced--and been embraced by--new black cousins. Thanks to technological advancement and their own willingness to consider what was before unthinkable, thousands of Americans each year are finding their ancient roots and deciding that whoever is back there is family, period.

The late Jefferson historian Dumas Malone wrote what many critics consider to be the definitive account of Jefferson's life; I suppose he would consider himself lucky that he didn't live long enough to have one of his most cherished delusions--namely, his vehement insistence that Jefferson never had children with Hemings--refuted. For the rest of us, the DNA results may be a sort of gift as we face a new century. The recognition that our humanity transcends almost everything else we can throw in its way. The realization that the concept of being one nation, indivisible, may eventually be achieved, if we can see our way to providing liberty and justice for all. And a place in the family album.

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