Can things get any better if you’re Annette Gordon-Reed? I guess a new job at Harvard and a National Book Award, and a Pulizer Prize for her latest book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family weren’t enough–she won a 2010 “genius grant!”
I remember reading Gordon-Reed’s first book about Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy(1997) back when it was first published, and being completely impressed by her thoroughness and doggedness. She not only came to her conclusions (later ratified by the DNA evidence) about Hemings’ long-term liaison and motherhood of most of Jefferson’s children through old-fashioned historical methodology, this law professor out-historianed the historians by showing in excruciating detail how the historians had colluded for two hundred years in lying about Hemings, trying to erase the evidence, and perpetuating every ugly stereotype about African American women ever imagined. When I have used that book in undergraduate classes, it’s always her exposure of the racist and sexist assumptions of white Jefferson scholars and biographers that makes the deepest and most shocking impression on the students. Suddenly, they’re thrown into an epistemological crisis–how do they know what they know, and how much of it is built on prejudice and lies? Previously confident History majors start questioning the ideological foundations of what they think they know about American history.
This epistemological crisis was too much for some historians. I remember being at the Huntington Library on a summer fellowship in 2002, and somehow Gordon-Reed’s book came up in a conversation with a very elderly white male scholar. He sputtered and blurted that her work was totally and completely without merit, and that he and dozens of other Jefferson scholars were going to publish a shocking rebuttal to her entire book that would finally set the record straight. I nodded and ended the conversation quickly–wondering at the proposed collection of essays, who would contribute to it, and how anyone could assail her meticulous and lawerly arguments. (Well, needless to say, no such volume ever appeared that I know of, and the one book that purports to demolish Gordon-Reed’s analysis has received–shall we say with charity?–decidedly mixed reviews.)
Congratulations to Professor Gordon-Reed. I hope she lives it up! Because living well is the best revenge.