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Lanier and Feldman: Thriving upon Illegitimacy

Kiernan McGinnis

[1] Oh what a tragedy to be the illegitimate son of the king -- to be endowed with all genetic right, yet deprived of all social privilege -- to be born a bastard, yet know the truth -- to live a life for which the illusions of the grandeur that could have been lay the only foundation of a twisted pride for future kin who would otherwise merely abide shame. The founding fathers of America railed gallantly against the establishment of nobility in the New World Order; notwithstanding, if hitherto one were to determine the closest likeness to an aristocracy that thrives herein, the progeny of the great intellectuals who fashioned this nation would, for certain, fill that niche. Classifying Thomas Jefferson the seat atop the order of pseudo-royals, his living descendants are thereby the most blue-blooded of any Americans; however, according to this notion, what should be made of the stock conceived as a result of the third president's enslaved paramour, Sally Hemings?

[2] The Hemings clans of Monticello were not only misbegotten children of a forbidden affair, but they also had to carry the mark of their father everyday on their skin. The idea of race is a purely American social construct, but what should be made of the people who literally teeter on the fence of blackness and whiteness? Sally Hemings was seven-eighths white, meaning that she had children born even whiter than she, but genetics has a peculiar way of manifesting traits in a unpredictable manner, leaving a hodgepodge of varying skin pigments among the six Hemings children which were neither white enough nor black enough to meld into conventional society. For this reason, the Hemingses all dispersed upon receiving their freedom -- some to live on as whites, and others to claim blackness. All the while, the story of their illustrious ancestor trickled down through the generations.

[3] Of the two women with whom Jefferson fathered children, only the Caucasian daughters of Martha Jefferson can legitimately claim that their seed has a relation to the Virginian Gentleman. Even though the Jefferson-Hemings scandal has been part of the national consciousness ever since the accusation was first made in the early nineteenth century, the saga reached a peak during the late 1990s when a DNA sample of a descendant of the son of Sally, Eston Hemings, was a verified match to a definitive Jefferson offspring. Now after over two centuries of separation, the Jefferson-Martha, and the Jefferson-Sally relatives met together at Monticello in the summer of 1999 as one massive, extended family. Unfortunately, not all of the "legitimate" progeny were open to the sudden influx of color that was infiltrating their organization. Out of contention over assimilating the Hemingses into the greater Jefferson family with all rights and privileges of "white" members springs newfound inquiries into proving the oral traditions that stemmed from slaves.

[4] Co-authors Shannon Lanier and Jane Feldman wrote the ethnology titled Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family (2000) in order for the story of the Hemingses to be heard and understood by the world. This book encompasses a collection of individual accounts of growing up as inner-race peoples presumably related to Thomas Jefferson and snippets of commentary regarding rights in the Monticello Association. Additionally, much of the narration and interviews focuses on the definition of race in America and the inner-relations between diametrically divided social strata. Essentially, slavery was not all that long ago, and the wounds have yet to heal; perhaps rectifying the neglect of Jefferson's "other' family is a crucial step toward forgiving our past.

[5] To start, most of the people accounted for in this book hail from Chillicothe, Ohio, where Hemingses sought refuge upon their emancipation from Master Jefferson. These are a peculiar people. For instance, if you were to sit in on a family reunion and see the diversity of skin hues, you might be surprised to learn that even the "whitest" looking people still classify themselves as Black. Uncle Teddy states, ‘"It don't make any difference. Y'all are related.' ‘We've got white Diggses here, we've got black Diggses here, and they're all related.' . . . ‘It doesn't surprise us if you say you're black, cause we're not totally sure what we are"' (75). Most Americans are lucky enough to know who they are, but the same cannot be said for those who land on the race line. William Dalton grew up in a black neighborhood looking like a "little white boy" (106). He never fit in with his community, and on the day that Martin Luther King was assassinated, as he describes, "I went through a serious identity crisis. I'm still going through it. Not only did I have to come to grips with my blackness, but look in the mirror every day and wonder where my whiteness came from. Now I know it goes clear back to Jefferson" (106). Other families were "whiter" and less aware of their black heritage until recently.

[6] A white woman, Dorothy Westerin provided the blood which verified her genetic relation to both Eston Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. For this, Dorothy got her picture in Time magazine; the interviewer was so taken back that "he wanted to give her a lifetime membership to the NAACP" (57). Imagine waking up the next morning as part of a different race; no physical change occurred, but the DNA verifies blackness in the blood. Nina Balthazar-Boettcher was raised as a white person, and when she found out about her relation to Sally Hemings, as she puts it, "If you're not raised as a black woman, you don't just wake up one day and say, 'Today I'm going to be a black woman.' You have to learn how" (109). More or less, race cannot be defined as having a definite ethnic link, for people of mixed descent who can pass as white can stay that way. The husband of Jackie Pettiford, a man who could pass as black or white, had a military career in which his commanding officers refused to accept the point that he considered himself to be black. His wife explains, "But on his discharge it read: Caucasian. They thought he was joking! They refused to accept him as being black" (133). In America, you should have the right to consider yourself whatever you wish to be; however, when burdened with falling on the lower spectrum of black and white, society dictates racial identities based solely on often times misleading appearances with no regard for the idiosyncrasies of the individual.

[7] The mother of author Shannon, Pricilla Lanier taught junior high school for decades, making sure to inform her pupils of her Jeffersonian heritage, much to the disfavor of her principal. In fact, arguably, if school administration had any initial clue about her heritage, she would never have been hired. Pricilla looked so white that her sons were taunted for having a "white mama." She told her sons, "'Take in my birth certificate and point out the word ‘negro'; that'll show them I'm not white'" (103). This woman spent a lifetime convincing society that she was black, often to the detriment of her career. One day she recalls her fiancé volunteering at school, and a parent coming up to her and exclaiming, "'You're not marrying a black man?'" (104). Upon witnessing this production, Pricilla's supervisor pulled her aside and explained, "'It's kind of hard when we're trying to teach kids the difference between black and white, and then there comes you'" (105). The Lanier family has been dedicated to embracing their black heritage; conversely, some Hemings descendants have completely abandoned their blackness in lieu of progressing without further discrimination.

[8] Now, for sure, if the daughters and sons of Patsy and Maria Jefferson wanted to attend Vassar College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a surname like that they would have been welcomed with open arms, yet what about the "tragically mulatto" daughters and sons of Hemings offspring? Anita Hemings was the first African-American graduate of Vassar College in 1897. According to her great-granddaughter Jill Sim, "Grandma's mother had been born [a light-skinned] black and she had to leave her black family behind to become white, an irreversible decision" (99). Anita was an "exotic beauty" who saw all sorts of attention from Harvard and Yale men. Her roommate was so jealous of amorous Anita that she had her father dig up the proverbial "dirt" on her coveted counterpart: "he found what he was looking for. . . . The beautiful and tawny fellow student Anita Hemings was indeed a Negress" (100). After such scandal enveloped the school, Anita was nearly expelled:"What white students and faculty might have seen merely as an insolent charade was in reality an agonizing and split existence" (100). Luckily she was able to slip through the cracks, and "today Anita is a great source of pride for Vassar" (100). In addition to Anita, her brother Frederick also ended up precariously graduating from MIT in 1897. These intrepid titans of equal opportunity tussled against the odds and demanded an education regardless of who stood in their way. By 1927, the mother of Jill Sim had also concluded a degree from Vassar, and her family had "faded to white" (100). These inner-race peoples were the catalyst for the ongoing racial equality movement.

[9] Oh colorblindness, what a utopian notion rarely to be reached; in America we are conditioned from an early age to segregate based upon skin tone. Many people claim explicit tolerance of all races, but are any of these people truly accepting of a biracial couple? More or less, seeing a mulatto living among blacks seems less taboo than a black living among whites. This condition has roots straight back to times of slavery. As Uncle Teddy explains, "if a slave master wanted a slave woman, her husband couldn't say anything. If she got pregnant by the master and had a child by him, she and her husband would just raise the child as their own" (74). Blacks have been dealing with the aftermath of biracial children ever since the first white man laid eyes on a desirable ebony woman. Given such adversity, these resilient peoples have embraced all of those who fall on the Negro spectrum, not always evenly, but for sure much warmer than any whites would take in a Negro.

[10] Members of the Hemings family have all sorts of progressive ideas regarding future race relations in America. One who escaped from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, said, "'If you had seen what it was like in that stairwell, you'd be proud. There was no gender, no race, and no religion. It was everyone, unequivocally helping each other"' (149). Tragedy has a great bonding power, but so does knowledge. Daniel Hemmings, presumably a white man, grew up with all sorts of racist ideas. Ironically, his surname came from Sally Hemings, and when he sought out his black family, he had a surprising experience: "I've never been accepted like that before, by total strangers" (67). As a result of this resurgence of family history in Dan's life, he "had to overcome racism because I was brought up in a prejudiced environment" (70). This type of healing has the power to change the world according to Hemings relative Charlotte Hunter: "racism isn't going to be a problem in the future" (135). Another Hemings family member, preacher William Douglass Banks, quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will sit down together at the table of brotherhood" (136). Family matriarch Jane Floyd believes that "when we're all mixed up, maybe we'll get along" (90). William Dalton, the kid from the all-black neighborhood who looked like a "little white boy," sums up the general sentiment of the Hemings family: "These days, when I look in the mirror, I don't see black or white, I see A-M-E-R-I-C-A. I see America, and what America is. This is the face of America" (108). If the Jefferson legacy imparted any values to these peoples, for sure they will all endeavor forward until "all men are born free and equal." Unfortunately, even after DNA proof, meetings in the White House with President Bush, and a family reunion on the Oprah Winfrey show, the kingly, white Jeffersons still refuse to grant the Hemingses the same privileges in the Monticello Association that they continue to enjoy.

[11] Hemings heir Edgar Forrest Love gets down to brass tacks: "My grandmother was born a slave. . . . Slavery was not that long ago" (95). Out of fear that a deluge of excessively entitled blacks claiming any relation to Thomas Jefferson would overwhelm the Monticello graveyard, as Lucian K. Truscott IV, a Martha Jefferson grandson, elaborates in regard to oral accounts, "It is a history that has been denigrated and denied by the Monticello Association because many feel that if we come to accept that Mr. Jefferson had a family with Sally Hemings, this somehow damages his reputation" (81). To provide some context, as legitimate members of the Monticello Association who can prove their lineage back to Thomas Jefferson, one would be entitled to a burial plot in the Jefferson Family graveyard. Now, the motivation to block membership is entirely subjective and predicated on a variety of reasons; however, the concern over not having enough burial plots in the cemetery is completely unfounded. But the sentiments of Robert Golden are revealing: "I'd like to see the descendants of all of the slaves who built Monticello have the right to be buried in the cemetery if they so desire. . . . I don't know why they'd want to be" (119). Denial of burial rights in the Jefferson family graveyard especially strikes a sour note, for as Nina Balthazar-Boettcher reminds us, "What speaks to me the most is that Sally stayed in Charlottesville until she dies so she could take care of that man's [Thomas Jefferson] grave" (111). Regardless, of the thousands of potential Hemings heritors, only two have even applied for a burial slot. Truscott evokes the "toxic Southern cocktail of land and blood and race" (83). This book was published over a decade ago, and the Hemingses have yet to be accepted into the Monticello Association. Even though no material inheritance can be gleaned by the illegitimate successors of Jefferson, these people are endowed with the prestige that stems from their great grandfather's blood coursing through their veins.

[12] Dr. Eugene Foster, the geneticist who verified that Eston Hemings posterity were likely related to Thomas Jefferson or a close relative, expounds, "I think that if you grow up with the belief that you are a descendant of whomever you admire, then that will have shaped your cultural heritage, your attitudes, and many other things about your life" (51). Bottom line, the amount of DNA shared with Jefferson from either the white or black scions is so minuscule that no behaviors or obviously apparent physical traits of the President are shared by anyone currently living. Besides, the lore of Jefferson told by the white families comes straight out of the textbooks, whereas the slave accounts of the Hemingses paint an even more dynamic portrait of author of the Declaration of Independence than we all share. History places Jefferson on top of a pedestal, whereas the Hemingses bring him down to their level. As Gloria Roberts, daughter of the first African American elected to the California legislature, expatiates, "we'd say, ‘Oh, that's a family trait.' . . . father would play his violin, and we'd say, ‘Well, he got that from Jefferson.' . . . Daddy being in politics, ‘Well, that runs in the family.' And when we were broke, we'd say, ‘Oh, that runs in the family too.' Because, of course, Jefferson died bankrupt" (128). Jefferson legends could morph into anything to assuage the Hemingses during eras of flagrant persecution.

[13] Gloria believes that Jefferson and Hemings "were victims of their time. I know a lot of people who feel he was two-faced, that he said one thing and did another. But he must have had great torturous thoughts. . . . He is a product and prisoner of his time" (130). To the Hemingses, Jefferson really did love Sally in every meaning of the word. In a family tale told by Joy Rotch Boissevain, "Jefferson sold one of his slaves to a neighbor because the slave and the neighbor were in love, and the slave couldn't go and live with the neighbor unless Jefferson sold her to him" (122). The typical person imagines Thomas Jefferson as that stoic face on the nickel, Mount Rushmore, and statue at his memorial, but he was much more of a lively person. Jefferson was a passionate lover and an ethically distraught individual in addition to a myriad of other descriptors. Anyway, the Hemings' accounts of Jefferson open up the opportunity for the Barbara Chase-Riboud interpretation of the infamous love affair.

[14] The living descendants of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship have broken the mold. Anthropologists and ethicists are spinning in circles trying to make sense of the reactants and products of this national scandal. The implications of Jeffersonian Bastards out there in the world trying to fit in and even prosper prove that the axioms of impartial freedom in America are too deep-seeded for the Hemingses to complacently accept their murky status. Even though these "half-bloods" have not been welcomed by the traditional establishment, they continue to fight the good fight like they have done for centuries. Sure, it would have been much easier to have been born into a family in which whiteness was all that was needed to fit in, but some of the Hemings faded to this point and were still discontent. Essentially, the Hemingses have found a way to thrive upon their illegitimacy while never forgetting their past. For certain, this book is the story of an American family. We may not all be pseudo-royal, but we are awarded with the freedoms to compete with even the most grandiose. Thomas Jefferson's legacy lives on.