MAXWELL:  Jefferson’s affair opens a door

11/4/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

I am mentioning the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings affair for two reasons: one a good reason; the other, selfish. I write not out of malice but in an attempt to be brutally honest about the volatile issue of race at the bottom of this founding father’s love affair.

First, the selfish reason for mentioning the affair: When I wrote a column a few months ago stating that circumstantial evidence pretty much confirmed that the nation’s most revered president had fathered at least one illegitimate child with a slave, the hate mail came in volumes. One Jefferson scholar weighed in with ad hominem attacks.

To these detractors, I now say: DNA is destiny. And I feel vindicated.

Now, to the good reason for writing about the saga: It gives the nation one of its best chances ever to discuss race civilly and with a sense of general goodwill and national purpose.

This controversy can help us stop deceiving ourselves about race. Beyond problems caused by black-white sexuality, race itself (relations between blacks and whites, not relations between these two groups and other ethnicities) seem to defy solution.

If Hemings had not been a black slave, a member of an inferior caste, but a white woman of social standing, scholars and political partisans would not have tortured themselves with denials and other forms of legerdemain for these many generations.

“The dehumanization of blacks, which began with slavery, haunts us to this very day and distorts historical perspectives,” wrote Annette Gordon-Reed, an associate professor at New York Law School and the author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.

Gordon-Reed is right. I believe, in fact, that very few whites have the intellectual and moral willingness to comprehend, let alone come to terms with, the enduring public and private effects of the more than two centuries that blacks were treated more cruelly than farm animals.

Trust me, a black male, when I tell you that the effects of racism can be psychologically and emotionally crippling. Based on racial attitudes nationwide, I dare say that few whites can imagine the private hell of being despised, of being nothing. This condition has sent more blacks to psychiatrists and to jail than anyone can calculate.

At the risk of being premature, I applaud the white residents of Jasper, Texas, who seem to be coming to terms, both intellectually and morally, with their racism. There, white men recently dragged a black man to death. After months of introspection _ where blacks and whites are speaking honestly and without defensiveness _ many whites are reconciling their pasts and forging wholesome relations with black neighbors they had previously shunned.

The key to racial understanding is personal contact _ empathy, vicariousness. In a news article, Jasper resident Nancy Nicholson shared her feelings after engaging in her first honest, public talk about race with blacks. “It was an eye-opener,” she said. “I did not know the depth of their sorrow and pain.” In response, a black minister, John Hardin, told Nicholson, “I just wish you could live in my shoes for one week and see what we go through.”

I have long argued that race can be comprehended only through enlightenment, which comes with personal experience and intimacy. Whites whose grandchildren are mixed-race are on a better footing to comprehend race than whites who have no such relations. Whites who adopt black children tend to become empathetic. Whites who date or marry blacks tend to “get it.”

In other words, people accept those they see as family, through either direct bloodline or ethnic identification. “The Jefferson-Hemings story is really about family more than just about sex, and it has broad implications for all Americans,” Gordon-Reed writes. “Now that we are free to consider the story in a fair and open fashion, perhaps we can also bring a new understanding to slavery and race and to our growth as a nation.”

Susan Taylor Martin, St. Petersburg Times senior correspondent, wrote an article in Tuesday’s issue about her being a Jefferson descendant. One of the underlying themes of the article is that, because of DNA, Martin now knows that she has a least one black relative.

Will this fact help her reconsider, or consider for the first time, some of her notions about race? She and Jefferson’s other white descendants have a golden opportunity to upgrade the nation’s conversation on race. For her part, Martin told me that she is excited about having black relatives and “would very much like to meet some of them.” I believe her.