"Frontline" examines the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings controversy. 

Mixed Emotions, Mixed Heritage

The Monticello Association will meet this coming Saturday and Sunday to again address the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings controversy, and one of the items on its agenda will be an "interim report" on the subject.

The association is the official group of Jefferson descendants that maintains the family cemetery at Monticello, and the group is deeply divided. Despite months of deliberation, the association has yet to achieve any sort of consensus on whether to admit Hemings descendants into their small but select group and therefore grant them the right to be buried in the family plot.

This, despite the fact that in January, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation came out with a lengthy report that holds that an extensive historical and forensic investigation "indicates a high probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, and that he most likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemings children."

On Tuesday, May 2, "Frontline" — perhaps the best documentary series on television — examines the issue in "Jefferson's Blood," which moves seamlessly back and forth from the 18th century to the present to recount the Jefferson-Hemings relationship and its repercussions through the centuries to today.

The repercussions, viewers of the program will find, are, above all, ineffably sad.

People — and families — are still, today, torn apart by what happened on a mountaintop in Virginia more than 200 years ago. Relatives are pitted emotionally and inexorably against one another by nothing more than race. They look alike, they share the same genes, yet one segment of the Jefferson-Hemings family has moved into the white world and has hidden its past, full of shame and, in some cases, resentment. Another part of the same family, even though an outsider would be hard-pressed to identify any difference in skin tone, clings steadfastly and with determination to its black heritage. But Jefferson blood and Hemings blood courses through all their veins.

Black. White. Both are constructs completely of the mind and of the beholder, since there is no gene that can be held to determine "race." And "Frontline" faces the obvious questions squarely: Does "race" make family impossible for Jefferson's descendants? Or can they compose a family despite the different races the descendants assert?

This special 90-minute "Frontline" focuses a portion of its examination on the Cooper family, specifically two sisters who were raised as white. They have to go back only as far as their father to find the point at which the family crossed the color line. They only recently learned of their mixed racial origin and connection to Hemings and Jefferson. The family is now deeply divided, with the two sisters and their white mother willing to confront their past and their "black" relatives, while their father insists that his face be blurred beyond recognition in any family pictures shown in the documentary.

That the question still haunts us — and them — today is what is so unspeakably heartbreaking about the Jefferson legacy.

The narrator of "Jefferson's Blood," author Shelby Steele, says Jefferson "spawned two lines of descendants — one legitimate, one not. And this bastardized part of his family would be driven by a sense of incompleteness."

What Steele doesn't say but "Frontline" brilliantly illustrates, is that the same can be said of the whole of white America and black America today.

And that is, above all, the true sadness still to be confronted.

Net Extras
A section of the PBS Web site will be devoted to "Jefferson's Blood" and additional information on the Hemings-Jefferson relationship. At www.pbs.org/frontline you'll find:
A report on the historical and scientific evidence linking Jefferson and Hemings, including DNA studies, the Memorial Foundation's report and responses from its critics
Oral histories by Hemings' children and their descendants, and other slave narratives
An interactive timeline of the Jefferson-Hemings story, from the original charge made in an 1802 newspaper to the January 2000 report of the Memorial Foundation
A quiz on slavery at Monticello, America's racial past and Jefferson's views on slavery


Latest in Miscellany


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Don Dale

Connect with Style Weekly

Copyright © 2021 Style Weekly
Richmond's alternative for news, arts, culture and opinion
All rights reserved
Powered by Foundation