A few months ago Annette Gordon-Reed, professor, attorney and historian, launched her new book The Hemingses of Monticello. The book comes four years after DNA evidence finally quieted most critics that had claimed that Thomas Jefferson couldn’t possibly be the father of the children of the enslaved Sally Hemings. (Click the first link for video of her conversation with Charlie Rose.)
A while back, I caught up with Gordon-Reed for a brief chat— about history and women’s sexual power; how working at Rikers Island prepared her for controversy; and how it felt to raise a 15-year-old daughter while writing about a teenager who became pregnant by a President.
First of all, thanks for an incredible book. I think of it almost like a painting — it has all these layers and layers, and we kind of watch you apply each one. With each, the picture gets clearer and clearer.
It looks from the outside that you’ve reinvented yourself a few times, like most women at this point in our lives. On the way to becoming a breakthrough historian, you went from ow did you go from the uptown New York law firm Cahill ,Gordon & Reindel to general counsel for the New York City Board of Corrections?
Starting out at the firm, I learned how to work hard, and how to do the right thing. But then I saw an ad in the newspaper for this small, obscure agency. What the Bd of Corrections does is oversee the Dept of Corrections, and what we did is draw up minimum standards for the treatment of inmates.
In addition to helping set standards for religious observances, and so forth, my main job was to hear inmate appeals, for disciplinary hearings – which meant that I spent a lot of time going to Rikers Island.
That’ll change your life, right there.
Especially then, when we were hovering between 19,000 and 20,000 inmates at Rikers and area jails. It was eye-opening, though also in many ways frustrating and depressing — to see so many young people behind bars.
No wonder you decided to jump to academia.
Well, I’d always wanted to be a writer. I tried to do it as a lawyer, but I couldn’t make the time. Becoming a law professor gave me the chance. I’s thought about getting a doctorate in history —but I couldnt tell my husband, after he moved here with me from Southern California, thanks, I’m gonna stop working. Being a law professor, you’re supposed to write and publish. I thought about writing about the law, but then I went back to my first love — history.
Did your skills as a lawyer prepare you to handle the controversies around the Jefferson and Hemings families?
I knew that Jefferson is, will always be, in some ways a contentious figure. Especially after I decided to take on what people have written abt Sally Hemings. Continue reading