For Barbara Chase-Riboud—known to most as the literary emancipator of Sally Hemings, slave-wife to Thomas Jefferson—1999 will be the sort of crowning year that most artists live out only in their dreams. Accomplished as both a writer and a visual artist, Chase-Riboud will finally bring her two identities into the spotlight at the same time. An exhibit of her drawings opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in June. In March she’ll receive the Design Award from the U.S. government for her monument to the African burial ground in lower Manhattan, and a survey of her sculpture and drawings will be published by Harry Abrams in the fall.
The list goes on: a plagiarism suit Chase-Riboud brought against Steven Spielberg, which charged that the filmmaker used her novel Echo of the Lions as the basis for his epic Amistad, was resolved “amiably” last year. (Sources place the monetary settlement at $1 million.) And Sally Hemings, her first novel, turns 20 this year—just months after DNA findings confirmed the Jefferson-Hemings link, dramatized in Chase-Riboud’s novel but long denied by mainstream historians. The novel, along with its sequel, The President’s Daughter, will soon be published in a mass-market edition. And Oprah is considering the Hemings novel for her book club.
A reassessment of Sally Hemings, apart from its role in bringing the Jefferson-Hemings relationship to the public stage, is overdue. Dismissed by some critics as simplistic romance, the novel and its sequel are in fact astute examinations of slavery—particularly of the legal groundwork laid by the slave system, which kept blacks as second-class citizens long after slavery was abolished. I reached Chase-Riboud by telephone at her home in Paris.
Lisa Jones: Have you been following the latest rebuttal of the DNA evidence?
Barbara Chase-Riboud: I figured it was coming. Dr. [Eugene] Foster [the retired pathologist who published the findings] can do all the retracting he wants, but the DNA is simply icing on the cake. It validates the historical evidence that was there for everyone to see anyway.
What led you to the Jefferson-Hemings story? I admired Fawn Brodie’s scholarly book on Jefferson and the effort she made to introduce the Jefferson-Hemings connection to mainstream American history. Brodie was the historical basis I started with, and from there I went off and did my own research. Since I was already living in Paris at the time, I began my research here. I had the benefit of walking the same streets and visiting the same buildings that Hemings did in pre-Revolutionary France.
Jackie Onassis was your editor at Viking. How did this come to pass? Was the subject of Hemings a personal passion of hers? Before Sally Hemings, Random House published a collection of my poems and I originally proposed an epic poem about Hemings to Toni Morrison, who was my editor there. Toni said she could only get me a contract for a historical novel. So I dropped the idea altogether.
My family and I usually spend the summers in Greece. And in the summer of ’77 we went to Skorpios, where I met Jacqueline for the first time. We talked about Sally Hemings and about presidents, passion, power, and she told me that I had to write this book. She was vaguely related to the Randolphs and the Carrs [Jefferson descendants] and there was no question in her mind as to the truth of the story.
By the time I finished the first draft, Jacqueline was working for Viking as a kind of therapeutic job after Onassis’s death. She had started calling my agent to inquire about the book. The very day I turned it in, it was sent over to her. She bought it immediately. I believe it was the first book she acquired for Viking. It became a bestseller very quickly. I think the appeal wasn’t so much the historical detail, but the presentation of Hemings’s humanity—telling the story from her point of view. I’m sure it would never have achieved such success if the Jeffersonians hadn’t attacked it in front-page articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post. I woke up and found myself famous, at least notorious, for daring to attack Jefferson by writing about a woman old-guard historians had pronounced as only a figment of my imagination.
Were the film rights sold right away? Sally Hemings has been in movie option for over 20 years. Even before it was published, it was sold to CBS for a miniseries. This really upset the Jeffersonians. As long as the debate over Hemings stayed in academia, they could deal with it. They never would have tried to stop a book, but they felt they had every right to interfere with a film, which would have surely stirred public discussion on a much wider scale, and Hemings would no longer be able to occupy this realm of invisibility they had imposed on her.
What happened to the miniseries? I believe there was a conspiracy to force CBS to cancel. A network executive kept the Jeffersonians informed as to the progress of the project and eventually helped them launch a campaign against it. The miniseries was in preproduction when suddenly the head of the CBS movie section was fired. It was canceled soon afterward. Another company came along right away and took up the option. This has been going on for two decades. Actually the story is in option now as a musical, but for the first time in 20 years the film rights are available.
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.
Research: Kandea Mosley