Excerpt from The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Hemingses of Monticello

An American Family

by Annette Gordon-Reed

The Hemingses of Monticello
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2008, 800 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2009, 800 pages

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Those who had to rely chiefly on their physical labor to amass property were at a distinct disadvantage. By the end of the seventeenth century, the white indentured servants who came to the colony hoped that, in a not too distant future, they too could own enough land to do more than subsist. Their dreams, however, were very seldom realized. That this economic and social system eventually came most fully into its own on the backs of enslaved Africans adds depravity to the overall picture of venality. Unless one is willing and able to overlook extremely important details about the fundamental nature of this society, the story of Virginia's origins does not lend itself to romanticizing. This is probably why for most Americans the national narrative begins at Plymouth Rock instead of Jamestown, even though the Virginia fortune seekers arrived more than a decade before the Pilgrims.

All this seems worlds away from where we are now, but despite its comparative remoteness, the colonial period in America, as experienced in both the North and the South, in very critical ways helped define who we are today. For one thing, it was during that period that the basic meanings of "whiteness" and "blackness" were in the process of being defined for the American population. However it has been expressed over the years, the association of whiteness with power and privilege, blackness with relative powerlessness and second-class status, began to take shape in this time and has been a persistent feature of life in America ever since. It has survived Revolution, Civil War, massive immigration, two world wars, the Cold War, and the tremendous social upheaval during the latter part of the twentieth century. Because we are still living with this, it is worthwhile for us to consider the world that greeted the matriarch of the Hemings family in the mid-1700s.

The Africans and the English

By the 1730s, the decade in which Elizabeth Hemings was born to an African mother and an English father, the institution that would define her life and those of her descendants for years to come was firmly in place. Virginia was a full-fledged slave society 116 years after a small number of Africans ("negars") arrived at Jamestown, the English colony on the James River. It was during those years that white Virginians transformed their laws, culture, and economy to make slavery based upon race the very foundation of their way of life.

The transformation was hardly instantaneous. Slavery in Virginia did not spring up overnight. It took time—spanning the last seven decades of the 1600s—for the English colonists, or the leading lights of the colony, to define the terms of engagement between Africans and the English in that corner of the New World. What they settled upon foretold a life of pain and struggle for the Africans and their progeny over many generations, and prosperity (or at least the hope of it) for the English and their descendants. Scholars have long debated the reason for this turn of events, why the Virginia colonists turned away from the labor of white indentured servants and decided to enslave Africans. Some have cited race and religion as the deciding factors, allowing men who jealously guarded their liberty to obliterate the liberty of others who were of a different color and different faiths. Other scholars suggest it was a straightforward economic calculation. Still others assert that it was some combination of these and other influences.

In the beginning, when the numbers of Africans were few, there was some ambiguity about their status in Virginia. The scant evidence that exists on this question suggests several alternative scenarios. While most Africans may have been treated as slaves for life from the very start, others became free in the years immediately following the arrival of the first group. Were these freed slaves treated as indentured servants, or had they been seen as slaves but emancipated for some reason by their owners—as happened occasionally all throughout the time of slavery in America? We may never know for certain. As the number of Africans increased—slowly at first—their labor was mixed with the indentured labor of Englishmen, and a smaller number of Englishwomen. For a good part of the seventeenth century, these two groups (along with a smaller number of Native Americans) worked side by side. In the words of the historian Philip D. Morgan, "they ate, smoked, ran away, stole, and made love together." But Morgan also wisely cautions against seeing their situations as the same. Enslaved Africans were distinguished from their white counterparts by the "sheer nakedness of the exploitation to which they were subject."

Excerpted from The Hemingses of Monticello © Copyright 2008 by Annette Gordon-Reed. Reprinted with permission by W. W. Norton. All rights reserved.

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