A president's past yields a modern parable

Students learn about black history in Thomas Jefferson’s family

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PITTSFIELD — History can play a crucial role in our futures, if we listen to it.

In 2002, photographer, Jane Feldman, who shares her time between the Berkshires and New York City, and Shannon Lanier, the sixth great-grandson of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, worked together to publish through Random House, "Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family."

The book details, in family album and portrait style, Lanier's trip across the country to retrace the footsteps of his maternal ancestor, Madison Hemings, the son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Hemings was Jefferson's African-American slave.

With increasing discussions and divides developing across the nation regarding race and rights, Lanier and Feldman have decided to revive a series of tours and talks — originally conducted after the book's release — about the book and its themes of identity, family and the varying perspectives of American history and culture.

"We believe that one of the things that will help us all navigate through this complicated time in our history is the ability to understand where we've come from and where we are going as individuals and as a nation," Feldman said.

The co-authors recently brought their tour to Herberg Middle School, where they spoke to students from Herberg and Reid middle schools.

"They were very descriptive. I think it's important to ask about what do you know about your past, your ancestors," said Desharie Pinkston, one of many middle school students who deemed the authors' program worthy to witness.

"It's good for our society to know about stuff like that," seventh-grader Exzia Black.

"We know that history books don't always tell the truth, like it's only one side," her classmate Kenneth Jackson added.

Student Freya Root said that having people with historical connections talk with students, "can provide more relative information because they're actually a part of it. It gives you different ideas and perspectives."

The talks were made possible by each middle school's Parent Teacher Organization.

"I don't think it's ever too early to learn about this country's lineage. There's so much missing in schools' history books, and so many stories to be told," said Herberg Principal Gina Coleman, who coordinated the authors' visit.

In addition to the middle school presentations, the pair spoke last Tuesday at the Crowne Plaza, where a sizeable audience from throughout the county turned out, despite the evening's icy weather conditions. The authors also delivered a stack of signed books to Water Street Books in Williamstown and are working with other schools and festivals to return to the Berkshires to continue to the dialogue.Lanier's story offers students a unique perspective into the life of one of the country's Founding fathers and into the development of one's sense of identity.

His journey began in the first grade, when his teacher taught him a lesson in history he'd never forget.

It was Presidents Day, Lanier recalls, and he stood up and told the class that he was the sixth great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson.

"My teacher looked at me and said, 'Sit down. You're lying,' " Lanier recalls. "That hurt."

Would the teacher have made the same comment had Lanier, who has brown skin, shared the same color complexion as the American Founding Father? Who's to say?

Early articles reference how Jefferson — following the death of his wife Martha — had relations with Sally Hemings, an African-American slave the couple had inherited. But the story of Jefferson and Heming's relationship, and their children, are hardly mentioned in textbooks, if at all.

Lanier's teacher most likely never knew better. It wasn't until 1998, when a scientific study was published that genetically linked the offspring of the two through DNA evidence.

"I never knew the president had two families but later found out that most people of color knew this story. However it was white people who wrote history books," said Feldman. "My fascination was piqued about how much we don't know and what else has been kept from us."

On May 15, 1999, Feldman, along with some 80 descendants of Martha Jefferson and Sally Hemings, made their way down to Monticello, Jefferson's primary plantation, located in Charlottesville, Va. Feldman felt compelled to document this historic reunion, and subsequently met Lanier. She photographed his relatives on the steps of the estate, embodying together a spectrum of skin tones of dark mahogany and pale white, hair of blond and black, straight and curly, united by a common bloodline.

Fueled by a mutual curiosity and enthusiasm, Feldman and Lanier embarked on a historic journey into the past and present legacies of the Jefferson-Hemings children and their descendants. At several reunions, Lanier was welcomed with open arms. At others, with suspicion and disgust.

"I had another woman literally say 'Ooh, nasty, nasty, get away from me.' But I figure, if my ancestors could endure slavery, I can handle a little comment and people shaking me away," Lanier said, noting, "I think they're the unfortunate ones to miss the opportunity to know someone different from them."

In the school presentations, Lanier and Feldman emphasized the importance of learning about people's history and heritage, including one's own.

Lanier asked the students, "How do you know who you are?"

Some raised their hands and said they've talked with parents and their grandparents.

"In many cases, oral history, the telling of stories, were essential. You've got a wealth of info if you can talk to your family," Feldman said. "When they're gone, the stories go with them."

Lanier's family connections were augmented through documents, gravestone rubbings, family heirlooms like bibles with inscriptions; photographs and letters.

The co-authors also noted how people aren't always as they seem; for example how many light-skinned members of the Jefferson-Hemings lineage would go on to "pass" in society, that is, take advantage of the social statuses that came with looking like a white person, including freedom from slavery.

But the side effect of passing, is some future generations grew unaware of their black heritage, some even becoming racist, without knowing their own black blood lines.

"The big story picture is how families can come together with conflict resolution skills and get to know each other and change," Feldman said.

Asked what he hopes students think about after hearing their presentation, Lanier said, "I want them to know about their own families. There might not be someone famous in their line, but maybe they'll find someone who made a great different in their community. That, and I want them to know how stupid racism is." 


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