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Viewpoint by Leonard Pitts Jr.: Jefferson's descendants and the term ‘African-American'

May 09, 2002

This is for everybody who hates "African-Americans." Meaning the term, if not necessarily the people it connotes.

Our scene is a mountaintop in Virginia, home to a mansion called Monticello, which was, in turn, home to Thomas Jefferson. And a slave named Sally Hemings.

She was half-sister to Jefferson's wife, Martha, born of a sexual relationship between Jefferson's father-in-law and a black slave. After Martha died, the story goes, Jefferson began a relationship with Hemings. During his lifetime, it was whispered that the nation's third president had fathered a child or children with her. Hemings herself said the same thing, a testimony that was passed down through generations of her family but routinely ignored by historians, members of the Jefferson clan and other defenders of the great man's legacy.

Then, four years ago, the bomb was dropped: DNA tests indicated that someone in Jefferson's family was indeed the father of at least one of Hemings' children. Most observers felt that this revelation, combined with the oral history, was as close to absolute proof of Jefferson's paternity as we're ever likely to get.

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But it's not close enough for the Monticello Association, the group of 700-plus acknowledged descendants of Jefferson and his wife. Last weekend, after years of contentious debate, the family voted overwhelmingly against recognizing Sally Hemings' grandchildren as kin. A recommendation to create a separate — presumably, equal — group for heirs of the Jefferson slaves was killed without a vote.

And here, perhaps, you're wondering what this has to do with people who hate "African-Americans." Call it a challenge to their presumptions.

Most of those who disdain the label seem to consider it an example — of which they say there are many — of black people choosing to withdraw themselves from the American mainstream. The reasoning is that, by embracing terms like this, or magazines like Ebony, or institutions like Miss Black America or organizations like the Congressional Black Caucus, blacks are forever drawing attention to their separateness. Forever electing to stand apart.

But the truth is that, historically, blacks have done just the opposite. Have attempted in the macro what the Hemings did in the micro. Blacks have done everything we could think of to get "in." To be accepted as members of the American family. Used painful hot combs to straighten our hair to the texture of whites'; employed harsh chemicals to lighten our skin so that it looked like theirs. Danced the buck and wing on a railroad platform and bent low over a college text. Struck a tough pose to hide suffering, laughed like mad when nothing was funny.

It worked for most of us about as well as DNA did for the Hemingses.

Nobody will ever be able to say with absolute certainty whether Thomas Jefferson slept with his slave. But it's more than probable. He wouldn't have been the first white man who did it. Or lied about it.

Some white Americans seem to have a visceral difficulty in coming to terms with that ugly reality of our racial past. In recent years, spin doctors have cast madly about for another Jefferson male — any other Jefferson male — upon whom to pin paternity. Producers of a 2000 TV miniseries framed the probable rape of a slave as some sort of star-crossed love affair. Now the Jeffersons refuse to acknowledge the Hemingses as kin.

You wonder about their need to deny. And, too, about the Hemingses need to prove.

I'm occasionally asked why they crave recognition from those who disdain them. I always struggle to answer. Always wind up caught between my indignation over the principle of the thing and my gnawing sense that there is, yes, something demeaning about always begging to be acknowledged. Caught, in other words, in an ambivalence with which African-Americans are ruefully familiar, one those who hate the term seldom truly comprehend. You believe in America. You've believed in it as long and as fiercely as anyone. And yet …

Sometimes, you get tired of freedom's broken promises and equality's little lies. Sometimes you get tired of pleading for entrance to places you are unwanted.

You wonder if it wouldn't be better to create places of your own.

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