Saturday, April 13, 2019
Off the Shelf: Jefferson's Daughters
Sometimes, the books I read aren't exactly volumes that have been languishing on my shelves for ages. There are times when I'm tempted to buy yet another book to add to my anti-library collection. For purely selfish reasons, this month's read was one of those instances.
I ran across a mention of Catherine Kerrison's year-old book just a couple months ago, as I was pondering the possibilities which connected me with a DNA match of African heritage. I was pretty sure I understood how that possibility existed, but my mind just couldn't get around the questions of how a culture could abide such an apparently widespread custom. Surely, I thought, there would be quite some domestic grief over the implications evident with such cases.
Of course, mine wouldn't be quite the scenario implicit in Jefferson's Daughters. I, for one, am not descended from an American president—certainly not one as eloquent as Thomas Jefferson. Nor were any of my ancestors educated in Paris while their father served on a diplomatic mission. Yet I needed to understand the views of the culture at that time concerning an apparently widespread issue: white enslavers fathering children with their enslaved women.
More to the point: what about the half-siblings? Did they each know about their relationship to the other side? How was that relationship perceived?
Obviously, answers to such questions will pull in a wide variety of examples. Every case was undoubtedly different—something I could already tell from informal discussions with other researchers dealing with the same relationship issues. Above all, I needed to be equipped to see the situations from the eyes of the culture in which these incidents occurred. Seeing that aspect of history in the American south from twenty first century eyes was not equipping me to apprehend the nuances of such relationships.
Kerrison's book—so far, as I'm not anywhere close to absorbing it all—has done a wonderful job of immersing me in the culture of the time, and unfolding the events, based on ample documentation. That, for one, will likely do my "just don't get it" twenty first century naivete some good. Not that I condone what had been done over two hundred years ago; I want to be able to comprehend how the relationships continued after the fact of behaviors we now find incredible.
To be specific, in my pursuit of the story of King Stockton and his mother, in reading between the lines in history's documentation of my McClellan family in northern Florida and my Tison family in coastal Georgia, it is quite likely that Hester, King's mother, chose her surname for more than just affinity with a mistress who greatly appreciated her. Hester may have been making a statement of just who she was related to—and not by marriage, but by descent.
As Kerrison delves into the cultural and psychological underpinnings of the Jefferson and Hemings story, it also informs me as to possible echoes in the south long after Jefferson's lifetime. Granted, I will need to follow up on this topic with much more than just one book, well written as it is. But take this as my first toe-dipping of the swimming season. I will eventually find myself immersed in the topic, and hopefully emerge from the plunge with a clearer understanding of not only Jefferson's family situation, but that of my own ancestors, as well.