2008 National Book Award Winner,
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
W.W. Norton & Company
Interview conducted by Meehan Crist.
MC: When did you decide to write The Hemingses of Monticello, and why? Did your reasons for wanting to write this book change at all as you worked on it?
AGR: I first thought about writing this book when I was working on my first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy back in the 1990s. That book was about the historiography on the Jefferson and Hemings relationship. One of the things that bothered me was that the Hemingses, enslaved people, were treated in history books as if they had no individual identities and lives that were worth being careful about. You could give Sally Hemings a father for her children on one person’s word alone—no contemporary circumstances to back up that person’s assertion. There’s no way to say you care about, or respect the personal dignity of a person and be that reckless with her life. It occurred to me that it was easy to dismiss enslaved people in this way because so few of the details of their lives had been written about. It’s easier to be careless about people when you don’t have any sense of connection to them. It’s hard to have a connection, or develop a “stake” in them, when you don’t know them personally. I had the idea, perhaps naïve, that I might be able to rectify this to some extent by introducing them to the American public as individuals.
Jefferson was an inveterate record-keeper. So, there is actually a good amount of information about certain members of the family. I thought, “Well, why not draw on that, along with information from other sources?” I could do something that is rarely done: present a portrait of slavery through the eyes of enslaved people. The more I looked at the record, the more convinced I became that this approach might be useful to scholars and informative to the public in general.
MC: What questions drove you as worked on this book? In other words, what was it that you hoped to better understand by writing it?
AGR: I really wanted to get a sense of, and convey to readers, the way slavery worked in the day-to-day lives of people. We know what the big picture of slavery meant to the enslaved. But I wanted people to understand that this was not just the oppression of a nameless mass of people. It blighted the lives of millions of individuals in ways that we can feel, if we allow ourselves to do that. I want readers to identify with, say, Robert Hemings, who had a wife away from Monticello and wanted to be with her and their children. The tension between him and Jefferson as he negotiated his freedom so that he could join his family, I think, puts a really human face on the toll slavery took on family life. We know the poignant drama of enforced separations. But here we see a more quiet desperation: we have a husband and father using what means were at his disposal to be able to live with his family. Or Mary Hemings who asked to be sold away from Monticello to live on Main Street in Charlottesville with Thomas Bell, a prosperous white merchant who left her and their children his house and property. And then you compare them to the other enslaved people down the mountain—the majority of people at Monticello—who had few real chances to affect their lives in meaningful ways. We see the differences in individual circumstances while understanding that there was no “good” or “easy” way to be enslaved.
MC: What was the most unexpected thing you learned in the course of your research? Did it change the book in any way?
AGR: Well, one thing that really floored me was a letter written by William Short, a man who was Jefferson’s secretary while he was serving as Minister to France. Short wrote to Jefferson in February of 1798. He had stayed behind in Europe when Jefferson left and had done a turn as an American envoy in Spain. In the letter he proposes a solution to America’s racial dilemma. He basically says that intermixture between blacks and whites was the only answer to the problem. There were so many more whites than blacks that eventually blacks would be bred out. He also challenges Jefferson on his writings in Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he says that intermixture with blacks was undesirable. He asks Jefferson for his opinion. The letter is fascinating in and of itself. Short’s idea was radical for the 1790s. It’s radical for today. But what is even more astounding is the context of the letter. Jefferson received it three months after the birth of Beverley Hemings, his son with Sally Hemings. I was familiar with other interesting parts of the letter--it’s rather long—but reading it closely, I thought, “My God! What would Jefferson think about getting this kind of letter at that moment in his life?” He was already doing what Short suggested should be done, but he could never, ever say that. So much has been written about Jefferson and the Notes. We have a sense of the contemporary public reaction to it, but here we have a dear friend, a man he loved, who directly challenges him about one of the most problematic, to modern ears, notions in the book: that racial intermixture should never take place. Short asks Jefferson for a response to his idea twice over the course of a couple of years, and Jefferson didn’t respond. He didn’t take the opportunity to defend his statements in the Notes or recant them. It didn’t change the book in any substantial way, but it drove home for me even further the truly excruciating dilemma Jefferson faced with the Hemings children; the tension between his life as a public man and as a private man.
MC: How does your experience outside the nonfiction literary world—as a teacher, a journalist, a parent, a novelist, etc—inform your work as a nonfiction writer? How has it informed this particular book?
AGR: Well, certainly having children made me view the system of slavery in a personal light. I am a black American woman, a descendant of slaves. Slavery has always had a personal aspect for me, though I am able to maintain enough detachment from it to do the work of scholarship. What I mean by that is that I try not to let my personal preoccupations fix how I view the material. But whenever I wrote about separations among family members, I thought of my children, and that had we lived a century and a half ago—the blink of an eye in history’s terms—we would all be slaves and subject to the same thing. That’s arresting.
MC: What part of your book was the most thrilling to write, and why?
AGR: The second section on James and Sally Hemings’s time in Paris was a definite high point. It was thrilling because it was a whole new world to explore through research. People talk about the pair’s life there as if they were still in Virginia. They were born slaves in Virginia, so wherever they went Virginia slavery controlled their lives. That’s flat wrong. Jefferson knew his power was severely diminished there—he said it was—and James and Sally Hemings knew that, too. It was wonderful to be able to show how these two African Americans lived in that freer environment.
MC: What is the one thing you wish people better understood about slavery?
AGR: That the people I am writing about were living under deep oppression, but they were not non-functioning, non-hopeful people. There’s a tendency to write about enslaved people as if they were, for lack of a better phrase, mentally deficient or perpetually cowed. Even people who write about slavery with great sensitivity overall sometimes fall into that trap. The vast majority of enslaved people were uneducated, of course. But that does not mean that they did not have innate intelligence and capabilities.
MC: The books nominated for the National Book Award in nonfiction this year all seem to investigate great tragedy. How do you see the relationship between the act of writing nonfiction and the reality of human suffering?
AGR: Historians try to deal with life in the past in all its aspects, and suffering is one inescapable part of human existence. We do it on an individual level—when we confront personal turmoil or lose loved ones, for example. We also do it on a large public scale, when we are at war and systematically destroy lives and, sometimes, whole societies. If you tell the human story truthfully, and in an expansive way, you must deal with the fact that suffering is part of the human condition. Tragedy is a part of the human story.
MC: At this disturbed cultural and political moment – reading is in crisis, the economy is in crisis, our country is at war – how do you see the role of the nonfiction writer? How do you see your work on this book as an engagement with that role?
AGR: For me, writing history is about leaving a truthful record for those to come about a world that has already passed. If people will be reading my work in the future, I would like them to be able to measure their world against the one I’m describing, to see how far we humans have, and have not, come from those days; what things endure, and what things do not. That’s one way of defining who we are as human beings. If you read, say, Marcus Aurelius you can see things that seem utterly familiar. At the same time, there will be things that are totally foreign; practices and beliefs that have gone by the way side. Identifying those recurrent themes, good and bad, I think can encourage us to strive to do better by learning what to pitch overboard or grabbing hold of things that might contribute to human progress.
Meehan Crist is reviews editor at The Believer, and her nonfiction book, Everything After, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, and is currently an Olive B. O'Connor Fellow at Colgate University.