When Tom Met Sally

From the earliest days of the Republic, interracial relationships in America have never been, could never be, just about love stories.

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Once in a dry season I wrote an essay about my experiences with interracial dating that was published in the New York Times. To say the essay generated a little heat would be like saying certain Wall Street types took a little off the top. Although the vast majority of the 300-plus e-mails I received (not to mention the ones sent to the Times) expressed appreciation, support and even relief at an honest look at the issues I  struggled to raise, a vocal and indignant minority did not appreciate my blunt exploration of how race can complicate relationships. Let's just say your faithful correspondent was called everything but a child of God.

These missives usually fell into one of three categories. First, there were people who misread a personal reflection as a proclamation on the viability of such unions in general, particularly their own. Second, white people who, while never having engaged in an interracial relationship themselves (or even, they sometimes admitted, had any real black friends), insisted that the very existence of interracial unions says something meaningful about the state of racial equality in America. I know people like this; they enjoy seeing one or two interracial couples in the neighborhood Starbucks. Makes them feel all cozy and tolerant inside. Third, and most ardent, were the folks who believed with a deep and passionate sincerity that love is colorblind and all-conquering. To them it completely justifies itself.

I was reminded of the particular view of the world  that essay revealed last week as I interviewed Annette Gordon-Reed for the show I host, Basic Black, on WGBH in Boston. Gordon-Reed is the scholar and law professor who, with the publication of her 1997 book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy marshaled the historic evidence in support of the long-suspected, but vehemently-denied relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a woman he enslaved.

Gordon-Reed's first book powerfully and persuasively made the case for a decades-long relationship between Hemings and Jefferson. Still, some Jefferson biographers pooh-poohed the connection, until DNA evidence emerged linking Hemings' descendants to the Jefferson bloodline. Only then did they concede what had been before them all along. (Even now, with the publication this month of The Hemingses of Monticello, which expands her study of the owner/slave union, there are a few holdouts who deny his paternity.)

But these were questions largely settled more than a decade ago with the DNA evidence and publication of Gordon-Reed's last book. Once the truth was admitted, Gordon-Reed said, the conversation began to shift. Instead of: "Is it true?" people at readings began to ask, "Did he love her? Did Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings love one another?" It seemed the burning question to many Americans.

As if that made any difference at all.

We are, by and large, a soft and mushy people in America. Sentimental in a uniquely American way. We have not always been this way, but we are now; little wonder then that we tend toward a soft and mushy understanding of love. Movie after movie, song after song has taught us that love is a thing, a treasured thing, an emotion, a feeling one person somehow has for another, one that is mysterious and magically transformative.

In which case, it becomes critically important whether Jefferson loved Hemings or not. If he loved her then that love would somehow transform his legal ownership of both her and their children; it would change the contest of his proclamations on the inferiority of Africans, his passionate belief that black folks, once freed, should be shipped off to Africa, beyond "the reach of mixture." Ahem, lest they stain white American blood.

If Thomas Jefferson loved Sally Hemings, then her decision to return with him from France, where she was legally free and from which she could not have been compelled to leave, is more about her "feelings" than about her fear of starting anew in a foreign land and never seeing her enslaved family again. If Jefferson loved Hemings, then theirs becomes merely a personal story of forbidden love instead of the enduring and tragic story of how race was created, and manipulated, by people such as Thomas Jefferson himself. It becomes not the story of America, but just a simple tale about Sally and Tom.

But relationships are never solely about the two people involved. Each person carries into the mix a host of familial, cultural, religious and social bags, if not consciously, then subconsciously.  For the white American man, this involves a powerful and double privilege, one very few can acknowledge, let alone take responsibility for.

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