Archive for history

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on January 22, 2009 by thebibliophile

All Roads Lead to Monticello: The Hemings Family & Threads of Justice

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on December 3, 2008 by thebibliophile

 One of my favorite high school teachers was fond of remarking that “all roads led to” our school. If we were studying a historic period in U.S. history, he made a point to making a connection between the event or historic figure, and the campus we occupied, or our illustrious alumni. As an ominous reminder that there was no escape from high school, and a hint of what we were expected to achieve as alumni, the statement carried weight. Of late, I’m hearing this phrase in a new light, as it seems that all of my interests somehow lead back to the Hemings family of Monticello. 

William Monroe Trotter, one of the co-founders of the Niagra Movement (from which he broke, in part becasue of DuBois’ decision to engage white allies), amd he also foundedThe  Boston Gaurdian, a paper dedicated to racial equality and Black news. Trotter, in a symbolic coup, locatd The Boston Gaurdian, in the same building that had once housed William Lloyd Garrison The Liberator. Trotter used his paper to attack Booker T. Washington as an apologist and assimilationist. As a contemporary of DuBois, with whome he attended Harvard, Trotter as an intellectual thinker, strategician, and “race man,” was on par with DuBois in terms fo the caliber of his commitment to African Americans and his intellectual prowess.  Trotter, unlike DuBois, was far more volatile and in some cases militant.

Throughout his career, Trotter lived on Sawyer Street in Dorchester – incidentally only three miles from his counsin’s: the Hemmings. Trotter, like Anita Hemmings, was a descendent of Thomas Jefferson, through his mother’s family (who were originally from Virginia). Trotter’s mother was a descendent of Mary Hemings, Sally’s sister. According to the oral history of the family, in addition to fathering children with Sally, Thomas Jefferson also had children with Mary Hemings; Trotter was a descendent of this branch of the family.  Mary and Sally Hemings were the half-sisters of Martha Skelton Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s wife (and Jefferson’s own cousin). Yet another example of how deeply entangled the Jefferson and Hemmings families are.

Often overlooked in history, Trotter was a phenomenal strategician and leader, who is eclipsed by DuBois, largely because Trotter was erratic, confrontational, and emotional. Trotter, like his great-great uncle James Hemings, who Annette Gordon Reed discusses in her new book on the Hemingses’, commited suicide. You can learn more about William Monroe Trotter here and about Mary Hemings here. This is why I have to read Annette Gordon Reed’s, The Hemingses of MonticelloFirst, I’m delighted that someone has invested the time, scholarship, thought, and nuanced understanding to write about the Hemings family. Second, I feel like buying this book for each and every teacher, who ever told me – insisted even, that Thomas Jefferson did not, could not, never would have had children, with one of a womyn that he kept in bondage.

Which leads me to some of the research I’ve seen about the “one drop rule.” Modern interpretations seem to attach the “one drop rule,” for its archaic sense of race, and because it “forces” people with African ancestry, to identify as Black, biracial, or non-white or risk being accused of “passing,” involved in self-hatred, or denial. I find this puzzling, because this interpretation fo the “one drop rule,” is even less nuanced than the original ideology, but in reverse. Furthermore, it seems to miss an underlying layer of the “one drop rule,” while also over-accusing people of color or being color conscious. I don’t at all defend the simplistic ideology of early the “one drop rule,” I do, however, acknowledge that it did cause many Black and African Americans to expand the definition of “blackness” and in many cases to definte “blackness” as multiracial and bicultural. African Americans could not have survived life in the United States without nuanced understandings of identity, including an idea of multiracial Blackness, that still made one Black, and an ability to be bicultural – both in the modern sense of being able to code switch, but also being able to as Richard III says in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, “remember how to seem,” in the presence of white Americans. 

Scurilous and oppressive as the “one drop rule” was, in its prevention of self-definition, it also helped to foster a cohesive community among Black Americans, encouraging us as a culture (though not always successfully or in healthy ways) to identify and claim many different ways of “looking,” while also claiming Blackness. That in turn meant that we as a cultural group could survive in a country that despises the notion of the hint of blackness. What lay behind the “one drop rule,” in its simplistic equation, not unsimilar to what Native Americans have faced with blood quantum rules, is a deep hatred of “blackness,” a determination to maintain a white supremacist society that privileges notions of whiteness, and which allowed the suppression, repression, and opppression of U.S. citizens in order to perpetuate an economic system that married race and economic disenfranchisement. Incidentally, the idea of “one drop,” also extends to blood quantum, that has prevented many African Americans with significant Native American ancestry from being recognized by either tribes or the U.S. government.

I’m puzzled when I see the idea of “multiracial whiteness,” (and I am still processing why) unlike the “multiracial Blackness,” the idea of multiracial white identity, seems an inherently white supremacist notion, because the goal is to claim whiteness – and all the legal, social, and cultural benefits that whiteness proffers, the Black identity. It also seems to work to absolve, phenotypically “white looking,” multiracial people, from the desire or action of passing; to recuse them from the denial of multiracial identity. The destruction of the idea of pure whiteness – that white identity in the U.S. is pure, and not, as Black, Native American, and American identity, intrinsicly multiracial, seems an admirable goal. And I suspect, one of the next frontiers in confronting racism and white supremacy. It’s not my sense, however, that the goal of declaring multiracial whiteness is to interrogate and complicate our notions of race. It seems yet another attempt to deny, both our country’s and any given individual’s, connection (genetic or cultural) to any form of blackness or the African American community, identity, or culture. The tangle we find with Anatole Broyard, Anita Hemings (both of whose parents identified as African American), or any of the many millions of Black Americans who’ve passed in U.S. history, is that culturally many were rasised within the African American, and raised to identify with a non-white identity, so the later abandonment of a multiracial Blackness is suggestive of denial and “passing,” as opposed to a simple choice of self-declaration.

It is a wonder, given the abuse, terror, and torment of slavery, Reconstruction, and racial politics in America that more multiracial Black people, chose not to “pass” as white. Many people, on both sides of the color line, did not survive the pressures of race in this nation. That’s clear from the tragic deaths of William Monroe Trotter and his ancestor James Hemings.


Posted in Uncategorized with tags on November 10, 2008 by thebibliophile
How can I not post the amazing speech which President-elect Obama gave on Tuesday night. In August, I admired Obama’s speech, however, I didn’t feel that it stood in the full power of the moment. Now I understand,  that President-elect Obama, wisely chose to wait to stand in that moment until it was absolutely clear that the historic moment was his, when it had been earned, and he knew the check would not come back “insufficient funds.” This speech stood in the full moment of history – naming and claiming the history that created it and the work we have ahead: