Interviewed by John Jeremiah Sullivan (Winter 2021) By Paris Review
Courtesy of Annette Gordon-Reed.
Annette Gordon-Reed will always be most famous for having confirmed, beyond a reasonable doubt, the centuries-old rumors about Thomas Jefferson having had multiple children with a mixed-race woman named Sally Hemings, whom he owned. In 1997, armed with only the analog tools of traditional historiography, she made a resounding case for the relationship in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. The book touched off a fierce debate followed a year later by the DNA testing of male descendants in Jefferson’s family, the results of which proved her theories. If that first book showed Gordon-Reed’s willingness to kick against consensus, the next revealed the scope of her historical thinking and writing. In The Hemingses of Monticello (2008), she reconstructs three generations of the Hemings family, whose lives and genealogies were intertwined with the Jeffersons’. (Sally Hemings herself was the child of Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles, and an enslaved woman named Elizabeth Hemings.) That book won the Pulitzer Prize for History and the National Book Award. Gordon-Reed has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a MacArthur Fellow, and a fellow of the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center. In 2010, President Barack Obama presented her with a National Humanities Medal.
Born in 1958, she grew up in Conroe, Texas, just north of Houston. She witnessed the civil rights era, in its particularly garish Texas colors, up close: when she was six years old, she became the first black student to attend Hulon N. Anderson Elementary. Over the years she has become something of a hero in her hometown, and when she goes back to visit these days, she walks past a mural of herself on the side of a building and a bust at Conroe Founder’s Plaza. Although she has for many years shuttled between New York City and Cambridge, Massachusetts—she is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard—she remains fascinated by her home state, where her roots on her mother’s side go back to the 1820s. Her recent memoir, On Juneteenth (2021), tells the story of her years growing up there, and she may someday write another book on the frontier culture of East Texas slavery.
Gordon-Reed attended Dartmouth and has documents and prints from the college hanging behind the desk in her Cambridge office. While at Harvard Law School, she met Robert Reed, whom she married in 1984; he is a justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York. For seven years, Gordon-Reed worked as an attorney, at one time serving as counsel to the New York City Board of Correction, which oversees the city’s jails. In 1987, she gave up practicing law to teach it. When I met her one afternoon last fall, in a glass-walled cafeteria in Cambridge, she told me about a day in 2000 when she had been sitting in her publisher’s office, discussing her proposal for what would become The Hemingses of Monticello. “I realized that I had never really wanted to be a lawyer,” she said. “I wanted to have a lawyer.”
Gordon-Reed has a still, almost impassive demeanor, though her eyes light up easily. In the past three decades, she has written five books, coedited two, and cowritten one with the American historian and Jefferson specialist Peter Onuf, her longtime friend and collaborator. She has permanently altered the narrative on perhaps the most mythic of the Founding Fathers, pulling him back into the human context of desire and power. She has what she describes as a realistic hopefulness about the future of the United States. The vital thing, she emphasizes, is to “keep faith with those in the past who died hoping for a more perfect union.”
I looked at your Twitter feed and saw that you’ve been playing the piano.
I think it was in the fall of 2019 that I got the idea to take up piano again, because I realized that I had, by then, lived longer than my mother—she died at sixty. It was a way of dealing with my feelings about that. She played piano herself and got me into lessons when I was a child. First I took classes with Mrs. Baldwin and Ms. Cavil in Conroe—they were nice teachers and all, but then, you know, it had to be Mrs. Tull, a concert pianist in Huntsville, thirty-five miles away. My parents were spending eight dollars an hour for these lessons, about fifty-five bucks today—money they didn’t really have. I didn’t display an extraordinary talent, but naturally my mother thought I could be a concert pianist. She wanted to expose me to things. We went to plays and concerts at Jones Hall in Houston occasionally. I went to see Arthur Rubinstein there, my first concert of any kind.
Your mother sounds like an unusually cultured person. I may be making assumptions about what was typical for Conroe in the sixties.
My mother grew up in pretty good circumstances. Her family was from Texas but she spent much of her childhood living with her great-aunt and her husband in New Orleans. They rented out houses, and at one point owned a rooming house. Jazz musicians would come and stay, people like Noble Sissle. The family had a chauffeur, a butler. My mother was really spoiled. She went to Spelman and to Texas Southern for a master’s degree but didn’t go on to a Ph.D. because she got married and had kids. A cousin of mine, after my brother’s funeral, gave me a program for a play that my mother had been in—Of Mice and Men, at Texas Southern.
What about your father?
His mother died when he was eleven, and by the time he was a teenager his father was an invalid. My father joined the army to support his siblings. He had a funeral parlor at one point, and a general store, but he wasn’t cut out to be a businessman. He was the kind of person who would give food away if people didn’t have money.
Did your confidence and drive come from your parents?
Both my parents communicated to me that I was a special person. I knew my mother believed that, and because she believed it, so did I. But there was also a sense that the world was opening up for black people in general. There were often documentaries about the black situation playing on television. I remember watching the CBS miniseries Of Black America in my favorite rocking chair, learning that America had been built “on the backs of black people.” That image stuck with me. It could be fun being a young black person at that time, thinking there was work to be done. You had to do things because you wanted to show that black people could do things.