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Reviewed by:
  • My Name Is James Madison Hemings by Jonah Winter
  • Elizabeth Bush
Winter, Jonah My Name Is James Madison Hemings; illus. by Terry Widener Schwartz & Wade, 2016 [34p]
Library ed. ISBN 978-0-385-38343-1 $20.99
Trade ed. ISBN 978-0-385-38342-4 $17.99
Reviewed from galleys R* Gr. 3-5

Through a poignant first-person monologue, Winter imagines the peculiar upbringing of Virginia slave James Madison Hemings, son of Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved mistress, Sally Hemings. With light skin and red hair, Madison’s parentage would have been an open secret at Monticello, even if it took him awhile to confirm his own suspicions. “How could a father enslave his own flesh and blood?” he wonders, but evidence was everywhere, if he looked closely. The Hemings children were spared from brutal fieldwork; a Jefferson grandchild taught Madison to read; Madison even had a violin. Most important was the Hemings family secret—that Jefferson had promised to free Sally’s children when they reached adulthood. He indeed kept that promise, even though Sally was legally retained in bondage: “Not long after Father died, Mother simply walked away with Eston and me, down the hill, never looking back. And no one ever tried to catch her.” When Madison, now an old man, ponders his personal history, he focuses on an empty inkwell, wondering whether Jefferson might have used it in penning the Declaration of Independence, or in entering slave names into his Farm Book. Widener’s muted colors and softened features underscore Madison’s role in the background of a great man’s life and suggest the unmistakable resemblance between father and son that may have roused in each feelings of kinship and embarrassment. An author’s note discusses the Hemings family at greater length and indicates where Hemings’ 1873 newspaper interview departs from Winter’s own suppositions. [End Page 153]



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