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Interracial sex presented a problem for the slave holding South: above all because it resulted in mixed-race people. If white men like Thomas Jefferson acted with impunity, the results could be uncomfortably complicated. “Auntie” might really be a white planter’s aunt; which meant that she was also some other white man’s daughter, another white’s half-sister, etc. What’s a society dedicated to a racial caste system to do? Southerners ultimately learned to cope with racial ambiguity through an intricate, obsessive system of racial classification, measured degrees of genealogical purity: mulatto, quadroon, octoroon. But even if an individual’s genealogy were known or (supposedly) discernible, what to do with these people?

Annette Gordon-Reed looks at perhaps the most famous case, the early descendants of Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Her The Hemingses of Monticello provides an illuminating glimpse into interracial sexual and familial relationships in Jefferson's Virginia. Interracial sex and mixed-race people were apparently common under slavery, but the relationships were illicit and whites preferred not to talk about how all of those mixed people got there. Sometimes "Auntie" really was a white planter's aunt; which meant that she was also some other white man's daughter, another white's half-sister, etc. But that didn't necessarily change the legal or social caste relationship between them one iota.

The Hemings family's mixed background and their ties to powerful whites like Jefferson sometimes mitigated their lower-caste status, and even enabled a few to escape from it. But slavery still circumscribed whatever breathing room they won for themselves: privileged dependence on individual whites (as with Sally Hemings' concubinage); working-class status if they managed to be legally freed; fugitive status if they just ran away; and "passing" (with all the denial and sacrifice and probable guilt that implied) for those who skin tone belied the African part of their heritage.

As one reviewer put it, Gordon-Reed's work demonstrates how Southern history is a lot more like Absalom! Absalom! than Gone with the Wind.

That said, I share the disappointment others have expressed about where Gordon-Reed chooses to leave things. I would like to have known a lot more about the eventual fates of the Hemingses--free and unfree--in the years after Jefferson's death and the dissolution of Monticello.

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Anthony Diaz

December 2014

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