Reed & Chase-Riboud: Sally Hemings

Annette Gordon-Reed recently won the National Book Award for her non-fiction work The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. NPR notes that Reed is the first black woman to win the award in her category. Check out NPR to hear her read from the novel or read the excerpt yourself.

Well, while I could talk about Reed in this post, I’ve decided to talk about Barbara Chase-Riboud, an author who was originally criticized and critically hailed for bringing up the subject of the president’s forbidden love affair. According to Wikipedia (again, I recognize that this isn’t a scholarly source, but neither is this blog):

While Chase-Riboud first established her reputation as a sculptor, she gained wide-spread attention and critical acclaim for her writing with the publication of her novel Sally Hemings in 1979. The book, a fictional account of Hemings’ sexual and romantic relationship with her Thomas Jefferson, earned the scorn of most Jefferson scholars who, at the time, denied that any such liaison took place.Nature was unable to rule out the possibility that Jefferson was the father of Hemings’ children In 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which oversees and operates Monticello, concluded that “although paternity cannot be established with absolute certainty, our evaluation of the best evidence available suggests the strong likelihood that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a relationship over time that led to the birth of one, and perhaps all, of the known children of Sally Hemings.” Specialists, however, continue to debate whether Hemings and Jefferson engaged in a romantic and sexual relationship. Chase-Riboud, as well as other writers and scholars including Winthrop Jordan and Fawn M. Brodie maintained that Jefferson fathered five children with Hemmings, an American slave of mixed racial heritage. Hemings was nearly 30 years younger than Jefferson and happened to be the half-sister of his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson. Scholars such as Sidney P. Moss dismissed these claims as the “Jefferson miscegenation legend,” contending that the Jefferson-Hemings affair was devoid of factual basis. The tide of public opinion began to change in 1998, when DNA evidence reported in the scientific journal.

Happy reading, ya’ll!


4 thoughts on “Reed & Chase-Riboud: Sally Hemings

  1. My mother had Chase-Riboud’s book, and I picked it up sometime in the late ’80s, when I was in my early teens. Even though I by then understood How Things Went Down before Emancipation, I still remember the book as incredibly shocking. I’ve often thought of picking it up again to find out whether it still would shock me.


  2. Jenx67, I am flattered to be your scholarly blog of limited choice. 😉

    WriteBlack, I watched the Sally Hemings movie, and I don’t know if I’m interested in investing any reading time on the subject. It’s a shame, but I feel like I know the story already.


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