Sunday, May 17, 2009

"Clarence Walker Can't Say Those Things, Can He?" A Review of Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

Any of us who know Clarence Walker personally are well aware that he can, and does, say those things. He is the Molly Ivins of the historical profession, a razor-witted, capaciously well-read scholar and critic of scholars, who is often seen at professional gatherings holding court in the hotel bar or leading a large group out to a fabulous restaurant. Because Clarence is my friend, I am immediately disqualifying myself as an impartial reviewer of his new book, Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.) But on the other hand, since he sent me a free copy and I enjoyed it so much, I have to express my gratitude somehow. So in an act of fandom, as well as friendship, I am going to try to persuade you to read this delightful book too.

Now, you may say to yourself, "I have read so much on this topic, and even if I have only heard or read about Thomas Jefferson's black descendants, what can I possibly learn from another book about an ex-president's sex life?" In this case, a lot, because it will also make you think about how history does -- or does not -- get written in the first place.

Now I admit that I have not yet read Annette Gordon-Reed's comprehensive Pulitzer-prize winning book on the Jefferson-Hemings affair (it's sitting on the summer reading pile), but even if you have done so, I am pretty confident that you will find something new in Mongrel Nation that will grab your attention. If Gordon-Reed addresses the rich facts of the case, Walker, providing concise narrative where necessary, pays closer attention to the nature and implications of the dispute. In other words, why does the sanctity of the historical profession -- indeed, of the nation itself -- seem to rest so critically on where and when Thomas Jefferson dipped his wick?

One answer, Walker responds, is the ongoing resistance of powerful white people -- historians and other guardians of the White Republic -- to the notion that racial amalgamation was foundational to the making of the United States. This, he argues, requires historians' attention to their privileged role as producers of the past. In the course of this small book, he asks us to reconsider certain fundamental precepts of our profession that necessarily create the epistemological scaffolding within which facts are, or are not, meaningful. Among the assumptions he takes on are: that people always mean what they say (Jefferson's writings about his revulsion for miscegenation, particularly in Notes On The State Of Virginia, have been a constant rebuttal to an alternative history of Monticello); that the history of family is the history of order and respectability (equally strong evidence suggests that respectable families remain respectable in part by lying about and condoning the sexual escapades of family members); that private convictions are consistent with public evidence (I have two words for you -- Strom Thurmond); and that one can usually frame and interpret evidence by generalizing about historical phenomena, identities or power relations (all sex between white men and black women was rape; mixed-race people always identified, and were identified as, socially and culturally black; white men who established the foundational principles of democracy told the truth, kept their promises, and were ruled by reason, not lust.)

Among other important interventions, Walker provides one of the more insightful critiques I have seen as to how we might understand the web of exploitation, violence, love and choice that framed sexual intercourse between white men and black women in the plantation world. All sexual encounters are framed by power and individual circumstances, he argues; and nearly everybody lies about sex to protect their reputations. The Jefferson-Hemings debate, he points out, is perhaps one of the longest family values campaigns in American history. And it is one of the most foundational, since Jefferson's defenders have firmly sutured his reputation as a father and a husband to his role as father of the nation. Walker does not disagree with them in this; but he does disagree that that nation fathered by Jefferson and his contemporaries was a white one.

Those of us who are devoted readers of Walker's books (a rather large subset of whom have also been entertained over food and drinks by his biting wit) know that he can, and does, say "those things," and he puts them in print too. Walker is an equal opportunity smasher of shibboleths. In We Can't Go Home Again: An Argument About Afrocentrism, a Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year in 2001, he took on the cultural and academic politics of his own field with a sharp demand to replace ideology with archival labor. He doesn't believe that history should cut its coat to serve any political fashion, right or left, and it is a joy to see such an independent intellect go to work on the Jefferson-Hemings affair. So if you are putting together your summer reading list, here are a few reasons to put Mongrel Nation at the top of it.

It's short. There is something to be said for a book that can give you a great argument, a concise summary of everything written on a topic to date, some great laughs, and that can be read in one sitting. More historians should try this: it could do a lot for the profession.

It's an elegant example of how to do historiography without being dull. Need I say more? Historiography is dull to many people, but those of us who love it think it doesn't have to be. And yet, how many of my own students have dropped off to sleep after asking a simple question which I respond to by going into raptures about the debates in the field?

It calls out the racism that is part of the wallpaper of American history, but also argues that anti-racist historiography may be part of the problem too. Walker's position on the politics of the profession is not going to satisfy those who want to do any kind of ideological work with history by drawing grand generalizations. Past worlds were just as complex as contemporary worlds are, and many of the objects of our inquiries habitually began each day as did Lewis Carroll's White Queen, by holding two contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time. Mongrel Nation is an excellent model for taking apart larger themes in the profession that become politicized because their nuances and contradictions make scholars uncomfortable.

Furthermore, when historians who claim to base their work on nothing but fact get the rug whipped out from under them by another set of plausible facts, what prevents them from standing corrected rather than claiming -- hypocritically -- that such evidence is simply not conceivable because of the "character" of the individual involved? Or, if neither side can claim irrefutable facts, what causes historians to insist that the story told by the historical subject in question must be defended at all costs rather than reinvestigated? Sexuality, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is a particularly nasty location for such disputes, because historians also come to see their own interests as intertwined with preserving the "respectability" of their subjects from the criticisms of what such historians view as venal, agenda-driven interest groups. The Jefferson-Hemings affair, for which DNA testing is but the icing on what appears to be a chocolate cake, is a particularly good example of this kind of struggle. By addressing the many human impulses that historians bring to the table, and uncovering the kinds of cosmic repression that has been necessary to the ongoing denial of the Jefferson-Hemings affair, Walker builds a historiographical argument about the importance of slavery and miscegenation to a broader national history.

Clarence Walker makes you laugh about the most serious things. Who else would suggest that Jefferson's many theories about black sexuality were not based entirely on racism and/or the limitations of eighteenth century scientific knowledge, but on "fieldwork" (p. 41)? Suggest that anyone at all should be looked for in the "woodpile"? Or drop in the word "coochie" as part of a sentence summing up his argument?

Clarence Walker would, that's who. And as for the last two quotes, you're going to have to read the book to find them. This white girl can't do all your work for you.


(Persuaded? Buy Mongrel Nation here. One of my readers wrote me an irritable note asking me why I keep shilling for, so if this review ripped a little skin off you, you can recover by going to Powell's and making a politically correct purchase.


JackDanielsBlack said...

Uh, TR, wouldn't the location of the University of Virginia Press be Charlottesville, rather than Charlotte?

Tenured Radical said...

It would indeed, my friend: proofreading is the bane of my existence, I'm afraid.

Anonymous said...

How about Better World Books?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

You had me at "coochie."

Belle said...

Clarence is great. Thanks for the head's up!

One of my favorite experiences was watching Clarence - with his regal bearing - negotiating the crowds of a Paris Metro at rush hour. Everyone in the car regarded him in awe, but there was no getting past the crowds.

Rocketman said...

"which DNA testing is but the icing on what appears to be a chocolate cake"


Anonymous said...

This reminds me of the story of Sandra Laing (Judith Stone, When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided by Race).

For anyone unfamiliar with the story, Laing was born in South Africa during Apartheid to Afrikaaner parents. Although classified as white at birth, the government re-classified her as "Coloured" when she was about 10 because of her (non-white) appearance. At one point her father takes a blood test and breaks South Africa's unspoken race rules by claiming that Laing's coloring is due to "throwback genes" - i.e. generations of miscegenation in a system that publicly forbids it.

B. said...

I am persuaded! I'm going to check it out at the library. That's how socially correct I am. :)

Clio Bluestocking said...

How can you resist the "coochie"?

If you don't mind trading book recommendations: Walker's book sounds like an excellent companion to Gordon-Reed's, which you MUST move toward the top of your reading pile. She does three thing in the book that might enhance Walker's obviously fascinating book. First, she places the world of Monticello into a community, both black and white, in Charlottesville. Monticello no longer sits in beautiful isolation on top of the mountain, but becomes emmeshed in an extended network of relationships through, kin, work, and social status. This opens the possibility that the Jefferson/Hemings relationship was a well-known part of the local gossip. By gossip, I mean the unofficial news of the community, not just the "ooh, you know what I heard" gossip, but the "that's my sister, and those are her kids, and their daddy is Mr. Jefferson" type of gossip.

Second, she points out that part of this Hemings/Jefferson story involves two sisters. One inherited wealth from her white father, which then passed on to her husband, Jefferson. The other inherited status from her black mother, and then gave birth to Jefferson's only sons. Had those sons been white, would have inherited both wealth and status from their father. Now, given that Jefferson's daughter inherited debt rather than wealth, perhaps they didn't lose out so much in that quarter, but they and their ancestors were forbidden the connection to Jefferson right to this day.

Finally, she constantly examines the reasons that so little documentary evidence of this relationship survived. She points out places where you could expect Sally and her family to be mentioned, even in mere instructions to her about running the household while Jefferson was out of town. She suggests that the effort to erase the relationship and even Sally herself began at home, and by Jefferson's family.

Thank you for your recommendation of Walker's book -- his will go in my reading pile, somewhere toward the top! (Apologies for highjacking the thread, too.)

Leslie M-B said...

Thanks for the recommendation.

We're so very lucky to have Walker here at UC Davis. He gives some of the best talks on campus.

Anonymous said...

OK, I need this book for the paper I am struggling with right now. It is going to help me make a key point. And I'm not in field, don't read in US history enough, would have found this book if we had a university press bookstore or something like that around here, but we don't, so I found it by happening on this post. Which proves reading blogs if you pick good ones is good for research!!!

Herbert Barger said...

I have read all the posts regarding the Professor Clarence Walker and the Annette Gordon-Reed books and would like to add some comments. How about adding a few FACTS to this?

Does Professor Walker profess to have proof that TJ fathered slave children? I understand that he uses this book in his classroom. I was under the impression that historians and especially academic historians have a duty and regulations to teach facts.

You may recall that Professor Joseph Ellis at Andover was exposed by the Boston Globe (which he admitted) for lying to his students and was prohibited from teaching there for one year.

Annette Gordon-Reed has made similar claims in her latest book, claiming TJ fathered 7 of Sally's children. Where is the proof and does she also use this book in her classrooms? Our students deserve the truth and that is lacking in Prof. Walker's and Prof. Annette Gordon-Reed's books.

How do I know...........I assisted Dr. Eugene Foster with the Jefferson-Hemings DNA and NOTHING proves that TJ fathered ANY slave child. Read the Scholars Commission Report (13 full professors) who studied the issue for one year and report as a link from and NO proof of a parentage by TJ of Sally's children.

The public is being CONNED by all these claims by people with certain agendas and NO first hand knowledge of the topic.

Dr Foster FAILED to inform Nature (for whatever reason), as I had suggested, that the Eston Hemings family had ALWAYS claimed descent from "A JEFFERSON UNCLE OR NEPHEW", which translates to Randolph Jefferson, younger brother of Thomas Jefferson, who has the same DNA as TJ. I TOLD him there WOULD be a match (and there was), BUT not Thomas. After there was NO Carr match, then the only other person in the equation. as far as Nature knew, was THOMAS. If Nature had known of Randolph (and the Eston Hemings oral claim) there was NO WAY they could have written a FALSE. Dr Foster and Nature NEGOTIATED for that false title (I have e-mails from both) headline, "Jefferson father's slave's last child (A LIE).

If you want books that tell the correct research please start with the latest, "In Defense of Thomas Jefferson (this is a great EXPOSE'", "The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal", then proceed on to: "Jefferson Vindicated", "Anatomy of a Scandal", "The Jefferson-Hemings Myth", and "Jefferson, Callender and the Sally Story."

Herb Barger
Jefferson Family Historian
Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society

Kenneth W. Burchell said...

Friends (and with all due respect to Clarence Walker and others) I can tell you -- as a professionally trained historian and researcher -- that there is zero proof that Jefferson fathered ANY of Sally Hemings children. Check the facts for yourself. A good place to start is here: Hyland, William. "A Civil Action: Sally Hemings v. Thomas Jefferson."
American Journal of Trial Advocacy, Vol. 31, No. 1, 2007 If you leave an email contact or contact me directly, I'll be glad to point you in the right direction. Thomas Paine said that "Truth, in every case, is the most reputable victory a man can gain." See let us honestly seek the truth in this matter and set aside petty prejudices and pre-conceptions.

LB Samms said...

Yes, Clarence Walker can say those things, but he ignores the facts----read the truth about the Jefferson-Hemmings DNA evidence and what imminent scholars and historians say in The Scholars Commission Report and in Hyland's "A Civil Action: Sally Hemings v. Thomas Jefferson."