Grave Matters at Monticello

American Family Reunions

We cruise the aisles at Wal-Mart and eat chicken-fried steak at Shoney's. This routine alone is enough to keep me coming back, but really why I go is to hear the same family stories told year after year. A favorite involves my great-great-grandfather, Jack Johns, an African American, and my great-great-grandmother, Anna, his Jewish wife; they fell in love while working as domestics at a plantation near Bishopsville, South Carolina, shortly after the Civil War. Who said interracial coupling first blossomed in the Age of Aquarius?

My holidays are synonymous with a trip to Hartsville, South Carolina (about an hour upstate from Columbia, the capital), for my annual family reunion, which brings together relatives from around the country. On the topics of race, sex, and hair, there's always plenty to report. This year, I noticed what an openly multiculti family we've become. Our mixed ancestry, like that of most blacks, is not news. The news is the family's sense of comfort with it. In the future, I see our gathering evolving from a black family reunion into what one might call a historically black reunion of Americans.

In June, another cousin of my generation will marry, as folks used to say, "outside the race." And a highlight of this year's reunion was the wedding video of yet another interracial couple. The family sat around eating Cheez Doodles and enjoying the obvious devotion between two middle-class kids from Palo Alto. "Love, we are standing here in the fullness of your presence," said the minister, and no one in front of the VCR batted an eye. A far cry, I imagined, from when my white mother and black father tied the knot in 1958, their union still illegal in most Southern states.

Corbis / Bettmann

It's no sweet irony that despite the current state of my family, the state of South Carolina exists in an entirely different stratosphere. In November, South Carolinians voted on whether to abolish a 103-year-old ban on interracial marriage. This Jim Crowmanaged to remain part of the state constitution despite Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that struck down miscegenation laws in 1967. (Alabama is the only other state that still has such a law; there is currently a campaign to remove it.)

South Carolina voters ended up siding against the ban, but only by a two-thirds margin. Several state representatives wanted to keep it. Said Representative Lanny Littlejohn, Republican from Spartanburg, just before the vote, "I think God has a perfect plan, and man has screwed it up." Here's to the new millennium. Whose American future will prevail—Mr. Littlejohn's or my family's?

One family reunion in particular has made headlines of late, though in this case the parties were brought together by means of a test tube. Last month, DNA tests confirmed that Thomas Jefferson fathered a child with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. The Jefferson-Hemings link has been a hotbed of contention for 200 years. And the DNA "bombshell," as some saw it, reignited the debate about our third president's character and legacy. Was he the architect of American equality struggling with the question of slavery, or a slave owner who warned against race mixing while feasting on taboo sex across the color line? Or just another human specimen of contradictions?

Before DNA sent mainstream scholars scrambling to revise their canons, they happily bypassed stacks of circumstantial evidence and oral history from black families attesting to the relationship. The most damning clue all along, to my mind, is that Hemings herself was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, née Martha Wayles, who died young. Martha's father had six children by Sally's mother. (Historians have long accepted oral history accounts of the black Wayles children, but not of the black Jeffersons.) Jefferson romantics like to claim the president was immune to the ethos of slave owner as sultan, but he was surely surrounded by it, and not just philosophically.

African Americans didn't need DNA to give credence to the Hemings-Jefferson story; we just look at our rainbow of skin tones and our family trees full of European and Indian ancestors. Without question, the concubinage of black females was central to American slavery. And given that nine out of our first 12 presidents owned slaves, one can only imagine how many other colored descendants of note are among our ranks.

The only scoop from Monticello was no scoop at all. The real issue, as talk-radio host Earl Ofari Hutchinson told Don Terry at the The New York Times, is "why there was such denial for so long among historians and so many whites."

Indeed, the presumed crime of race mixing looms large here. (More attention was paid to Hemings's race than to the fact that she was three decades Jefferson's junior, Lolita's age when accounts say their relationship began.) Jefferson's sex with Hemings suddenly became a "crime more heinous than the crime of his legal ownership of her," to quote Annette Gordon-Reed, whose Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy examines the racial protectionism that litters Jefferson scholarship. And while we're on the subject, one of the least-explored crimes of American slavery was that whites didn't just own and rape their African property, but committed the offspring of these unions, their own flesh and blood, to bondage as well.

Next Page »