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“Clarence Walker Can’t Say Those Things, Can He?” A Review of Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

May 17, 2009, 11:54 am

Any of us who know Clarence Walker personally are well aware that he can, and does, say those things. He is the Molly Ivins of the historical profession, a razor-witted, capaciously well-read scholar and critic of scholars, who is often seen at professional gatherings holding court in the hotel bar or leading a large group out to a fabulous restaurant. Because Clarence is my friend, I am immediately disqualifying myself as an impartial reviewer of his new book, Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.) But on the other hand, since he sent me a free copy and I enjoyed it so much, I have to express my gratitude somehow. So in an act of fandom, as well as friendship, I am going to try to persuade you to read this delightful book too.

Now, you may say to yourself, “I have read so much on this topic, and even if I have only heard or read about Thomas Jefferson’s black descendants, what can I possibly learn from another book about an ex-president’s sex life?” In this case, a lot, because it will also make you think about how history does — or does not — get written in the first place.

Now I admit that I have not yet read Annette Gordon-Reed’s comprehensive Pulitzer-prize winning book on the Jefferson-Hemings affair (it’s sitting on the summer reading pile), but even if you have done so, I am pretty confident that you will find something new in Mongrel Nation that will grab your attention. If Gordon-Reed addresses the rich facts of the case, Walker, providing concise narrative where necessary, pays closer attention to the nature and implications of the dispute. In other words, why does the sanctity of the historical profession — indeed, of the nation itself — seem to rest so critically on where and when Thomas Jefferson dipped his wick?

One answer, Walker responds, is the ongoing resistance of powerful white people — historians and other guardians of the White Republic — to the notion that racial amalgamation was foundational to the making of the United States. This, he argues, requires historians’ attention to their privileged role as producers of the past. In the course of this small book, he asks us to reconsider certain fundamental precepts of our profession that necessarily create the epistemological scaffolding within which facts are, or are not, meaningful. Among the assumptions he takes on are: that people always mean what they say (Jefferson’s writings about his revulsion for miscegenation, particularly in Notes On The State Of Virginia, have been a constant rebuttal to an alternative history of Monticello); that the history of family is the history of order and respectability (equally strong evidence suggests that respectable families remain respectable in part by lying about and condoning the sexual escapades of family members); that private convictions are consistent with public evidence (I have two words for you — Strom Thurmond); and that one can usually frame and interpret evidence by generalizing about historical phenomena, identities or power relations (all sex between white men and black women was rape; mixed-race people always identified, and were identified as, socially and culturally black; white men who established the foundational principles of democracy told the truth, kept their promises, and were ruled by reason, not lust.)

Among other important interventions, Walker provides one of the more insightful critiques I have seen as to how we might understand the web of exploitation, violence, love and choice that framed sexual intercourse between white men and black women in the plantation world. All sexual encounters are framed by power and individual circumstances, he argues; and nearly everybody lies about sex to protect their reputations. The Jefferson-Hemings debate, he points out, is perhaps one of the longest family values campaigns in American history. And it is one of the most foundational, since Jefferson’s defenders have firmly sutured his reputation as a father and a husband to his role as father of the nation. Walker does not disagree with them in this; but he does disagree that that nation fathered by Jefferson and his contemporaries was a white one.

Those of us who are devoted readers of Walker’s books (a rather large subset of whom have also been entertained over food and drinks by his biting wit) know that he can, and does, say “those things,” and he puts them in print too. Walker is an equal opportunity smasher of shibboleths. In We Can’t Go Home Again: An Argument About Afrocentrism, a Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year in 2001, he took on the cultural and academic politics of his own field with a sharp demand to replace ideology with archival labor. He doesn’t believe that history should cut its coat to serve any political fashion, right or left, and it is a joy to see such an independent intellect go to work on the Jefferson-Hemings affair. So if you are putting together your summer reading list, here are a few reasons to put Mongrel Nation at the top of it.

It’s short. There is something to be said for a book that can give you a great argument, a concise summary of everything written on a topic to date, some great laughs, and that can be read in one sitting. More historians should try this: it could do a lot for the profession.

It’s an elegant example of how to do historiography without being dull. Need I say more? Historiography is dull to many people, but those of us who love it think it doesn’t have to be. And yet, how many of my own students have dropped off to sleep after asking a simple question which I respond to by going into raptures about the debates in the field?

It calls out the racism that is part of the wallpaper of American history, but also argues that anti-racist historiography may be part of the problem too. Walker’s position on the politics of the profession is not going to satisfy those who want to do any kind of ideological work with history by drawing grand generalizations. Past worlds were just as complex as contemporary worlds are, and many of the objects of our inquiries habitually began each day as did Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, by holding two contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time. Mongrel Nation is an excellent model for taking apart larger themes in the profession that become politicized because their nuances and contradictions make scholars uncomfortable.

Furthermore, when historians who claim to base their work on nothing but fact get the rug whipped out from under them by another set of plausible facts, what prevents them from standing corrected rather than claiming — hypocritically — that such evidence is simply not conceivable because of the “character” of the individual involved? Or, if neither side can claim irrefutable facts, what causes historians to insist that the story told by the historical subject in question must be defended at all costs rather than reinvestigated? Sexuality, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is a particularly nasty location for such disputes, because historians also come to see their own interests as intertwined with preserving the “respectability” of their subjects from the cri
ticisms of what such historians view as venal, agenda-driven interest groups. The Jefferson-Hemings affair, for which DNA testing is but the icing on what appears to be a chocolate cake, is a particularly good example of this kind of struggle. By addressing the many human impulses that historians bring to the table, and uncovering the kinds of cosmic repression that has been necessary to the ongoing denial of the Jefferson-Hemings affair, Walker builds a historiographical argument about the importance of slavery and miscegenation to a broader national history.

Clarence Walker makes you laugh about the most serious things. Who else would suggest that Jefferson’s many theories about black sexuality were not based entirely on racism and/or the limitations of eighteenth century scientific knowledge, but on “fieldwork” (p. 41)? Suggest that anyone at all should be looked for in the “woodpile”? Or drop in the word “coochie” as part of a sentence summing up his argument?

Clarence Walker would, that’s who. And as for the last two quotes, you’re going to have to read the book to find them. This white girl can’t do all your work for you.

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(Persuaded? Buy Mongrel Nation here. One of my readers wrote me an irritable note asking me why I keep shilling for Amazon.com, so if this review ripped a little skin off you, you can recover by going to Powell’s and making a politically correct purchase.

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