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TAKING A LOOK AT THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AN AMERICAN FOUNDING FATHER

Sally Hemings: A Novel - Barbara Chase-Riboud

As a general rule, I rarely do re-reads. That's because I have plenty of other books on my TBR List, clamoring for my attention.

But a few weeks ago, the Barbara Chase-Riboud historical novel, "SALLY HEMINGS" came to mind and rooted itself there. I had previously read it almost 40 years ago when I was in high school. While idly checking through Amazon.com, I saw that an updated edition of "SALLY HEMINGS" had been published. I thought that maybe by reading it, I would learn something more about this African American woman and her connection to Thomas Jefferson that had been dismissed by most Jeffersonian scholars and American historians as untrue when the novel was first published in 1979. 
And thus, I set myself to re-reading "SALLY HEMINGS." 

Reading the novel was a rediscovery for me. Most of its details had been lost to me over time. So, I felt very much like I was reading it for the first time. Reacquainting myself with Sally Hemings' life - from her meeting with a census taker in her cabin on the Monticello estate in Albemarle County, Virginia, in 1831 to her journey to Paris as a 14 year old in 1787 with one of Thomas Jefferson's daughters (Maria - who also happened to be Sally Hemings' niece because Jefferson's dead wife was also Hemings' half-sister!; Jefferson in 1787 was the U.S. Minister to France), who was in Hemings' charge --- was a wholly absorbing and fascinating experience. 

In the hands of an inept writer less knowledgeable on the subject of slavery and its place as a deeply entrenched fixture in the life, culture, and economy of early America, this novel could have ended up as an overworked melodrama. Chase-Riboud takes the reader on a wide-ranging journey through Sally Hemings' life and the lives of the slaves on Jefferson's estates, as well as many of her family members -- both black and white. She also provides an in depth look at Thomas Jefferson in terms of his relationships with his family and slaves that also reinforce what is known of the historical Thomas Jefferson from people who knew him (e.g. John & Abigail Adams, their son John Quincy Adams, the painter John Trumbull, and Aaron Burr). I especially liked learning something about the lives of the children Thomas Jefferson had with Sally Hemings. This is a novel I recommend to anyone who not only enjoys a good, engaging story - but also is open to learning a more complete history of the impact that slavery and racism had in the lives of several of the 'Founding Fathers' from the very inception of the United States as a democratic republic in 1789.

One more thing worthy of mention: There is also an Afterword in which Chase-Riboud goes into some detail about the struggles she experienced in writing "SALLY HEMINGS" and trying to get it published in 1979. She also enlightens the reader about the efforts of many of America's Jeffersonian scholars and historians of the early Republic years to discredit Chase-Riboud, her novel, and the possibility that an intimate and longstanding relationship existed between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. (Since January 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation has accepted the findings of a DNA study, "combined with multiple strands of currently available documentary and statistical evidence that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, and that he most likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemings's children appearing in Jefferson's records.")