A Most Dangerous Woman

Before the DNA, there was Sally Hemings, The Novel

Even today I think the Jeffersonians would put up a bitter fight against me having control of the visual image of Hemings, though my book has been called the definitive portrait of Hemings. Americans have short memories, dictated, in particular, by visual media. We believe the movies. We always have and we always will. So a movie of Sally Hemings is still the most dangerous of all representations we could have of her.

That DNA tests were done at all can be traced back to the public debate generated by your book. So why haven't you been quoted in the recent news coverage? I don't think it's because everyone has amnesia. And I don't think it's because I live outside the country. There is a political reason my point of view has been ignored. I have always posited the Hemings-Jefferson relationship in a complex, ambiguous way. It's easy to fall back on stereotypes and see her as the powerless slave and him as the exploiter. But the image I projected is not this black and white. She is neither rape victim nor Angela Davis, and Jefferson isn't hero or villain. Everything about their story is a shade of gray. And it's not just whites who are uncomfortable with this picture, but blacks as well.

Do the DNA findings offer any symbolism as we near the millennium? The story of Jefferson and Hemings embodies the love-hate relationship that exists between white and black Americans, and this intimate and almost Shakespearean interaction began with the invention of America itself. If we don't come to terms with this relationship, we can't come to terms with anything. It's the amalgam Hemings and Jefferson represent that upsets old-guard historians so much. They're delighted there's something called "black history" because it gets them off the hook. But the story of whites and blacks in America is not two separate histories, but intimately entwined, and Hemings and Jefferson symbolize this on every level.

Barbara Chase-Riboud: Everything that rises must converge.
Jean-Loup Sief / Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Barbara Chase-Riboud: Everything that rises must converge.

Research: Kandea Mosley

« Previous Page