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  • "A Seeping Invisibility":Maternal Dispossession and Resistance in Barbara Chase-Riboud's Sally Hemings and The President's Daughter
  • Laura Dawkins (bio)

Beginning in 1966 with the publication of Margaret Walker's Jubilee, African American writers—as Barbara Christian, Caroline Rody, and Ashraf Rushdy, among other scholars, have demonstrated—revolutionized the genre of the historical novel, achieving, in Rody's words, "a collective return to the story of slavery unimaginable in preceding decades" and "a strategic recentering of American history in the lives of the historically dispossessed" (157–58).1 Christian has placed black women writers at the forefront of this literary development, suggesting that Sherley Anne Williams's highly acclaimed Dessa Rose (1986) and, especially, Toni Morrison's masterpiece Beloved (1987) represent the aesthetic pinnacle of what Rushdy famously named the "neo-slave narrative," but that "neither [Williams's or Morrison's] novels would be what they are if it were not for previous historical fiction by African American women" (338). More recently, Bo G. Ekelund has also credited "mainly, but not only, female black writers" with the mid-century turn in the historical novel, affirming that the "transition from historical romances featuring white heroes and Southern Belles in the antebellum South" to serious contemporary fiction centered on "histories of discrimination and oppression" has permanently transformed the American literary landscape (140). Shifting the focus of the historical novel from larger-than-life heroes to the daily lives of an oppressed people, African American women writers brought a new gravity and political engagement to a genre previously associated, according to Ekelund, with an "antiquarian and conservative" perspective (140).

Both Christian and Rody cite Barbara Chase-Riboud's Sally Hemings (1979)—a novel that, as Christian demonstrates, "digs into the myth" (335) of Thomas Jefferson's enslaved concubine—as an important precursor for Morrison's Beloved. Chase-Riboud creates a complex portrait of an African American woman whose role in American history, as Suzette Spencer maintains, had heretofore "been constructed in scholarly and public discourse primarily through scandal and through her negation as unhinging excrescence in Thomas Jefferson's sexual history" (507). Offering a long-overdue corrective to white-authored portrayals of the still-disputed relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, Chase-Riboud humanizes the iconic figure of Hemings and provides her, through the medium of fiction, with a speaking voice. However, the author dramatizes the historically obscured life of Hemings not as a way of getting at "the truth" behind the controversial legend; this truth, she suggests, remains inaccessible. Instead, Chase-Riboud recreates Hemings's shadowy past as a means of throwing slavery's sinister legacies into sharp relief, as she indicates in the author's note to the 1994 edition of Sally Hemings: "If Thomas Jefferson [End Page 792] offers himself as a surrogate for meditation on the problem of human freedom, then Sally Hemings is available for meditation on terror, darkness, invisibility, dread of failure, guilt, and powerlessness" (350). As Rushdy has convincingly demonstrated, "Chase-Riboud's accomplishment . . . is to install an effective oral countermemory into the written myth of Thomas Jefferson—a voiced memory that disrupts the myth of Jefferson at the same time as it establishes the history of the Hemings family" ("I Write in Tongues"133). Through Chase-Riboud's "countermemory," the historically "invisible" Hemings family comes to embody the suppressed histories of all dispossessed African American kinship groups.

Although it has been more than a decade since DNA tests provided strong evidence that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one of Sally Hemings's children, the historical debate about the Hemings-Jefferson story continues to foment controversy. However, scholars have redefined their enterprise: no longer intent on establishing whether or not the relationship existed, they have turned their energies to exploring the implications of the liaison for Jefferson's troubled legacy. Jan Lewis and Peter Onuf suggest—somewhat wistfully—that "perhaps the story [of Jefferson and Hemings] can be the basis for a new narrative of racial reconciliation" (8), while Scot French and Edward Ayers are heartened by the affirmative outlook of Jefferson-Hemings descendants, maintaining that "those who claimed descent . . . spoke from a hopeful vision, one in which a white man and a black woman...


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