A Look at Thomas Jefferson and Strom Thurmond's Legacy: Racial Intimacies in the American National Identity

Dr. Duchess Harris
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The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1790.

In this paper I will discuss the alleged “boisterous passions” of Thomas Jefferson and the alleged “degrading submission” of his slave Sally Hemings, along with other examples of white male/Black female relationships within the American narrative. These relationships will be examined in order to discuss the legacy of racial intimacies in the American national identity.

The erasure of Sally Hemings from mainstream historical texts is telling, particularly in light of the curiosity surrounding presidential sexual scandals, from Roosevelt to Kennedy to Clinton In scholarship since the mid-1970s, three Black women writers have tried to convey Sally Hemings’ humanity: Fawn Brodie, Barbara Chase-Riboud, and Annette Gordon Reed. In 1974 Fawn Brodie’s biography of Thomas Jefferson devoted an entire chapter to Sally Hemings.

In a review of this scholarship, Annette Gordon-Reed points out:

The crucial turn in Brodie’s approach was to treat Sally Hemings, as she had Madison Hemings, as a human being and to make full use of her humanity. That approach had not been taken by white historians up to that point and generally has not been taken by their successors. (Gordon Reed, 159-160)

She argues that “Chase-Riboud, with the help of information from Fawn Brodie’s biography as well as her own research, made Sally Hemings into “a person whom one could believe that Jefferson could have loved” (Gordon-Reed, 182). I contend that Gordon-Reed asks a most provocative question of all three scholars: “Might not Sally Hemings have thought being the mistress of a slave master a suitable role?” (164)

Keywords: -
Stream: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Gender
Presentation Type: Virtual Presentation in English
Paper: Look at Thomas Jefferson and Strom Thurmond's Legacy, A

Dr. Duchess Harris

Associate Professor, American Studies Department, Macalester College

Ref: I06P0014