Library Gala Speaker Gives Sally Hemings an Identity
2010 Kornitzer Award winners announced.
As a law professor, Annette Gordon-Reed found herself sneaking into her office off-hours, not to write the law reviews she was expected to do, but to work on her first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.
Gordon-Reed told library gala attendees in the F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on Jan. 29 that it was her fascination with Thomas Jefferson—kindled by a children’s biography of him she’d read at age 12—and a nagging sense there was much left unsaid about his slave, Sally Hemings, that would lead her to write the groundbreaking and Pulitzer-winning The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.
“I’ve had an unorthodox journey to writing,” said Gordon-Reed, a native of a small east Texas town who majored in history as an undergraduate at Dartmouth. “I injected myself in my first book, and to a lesser degree in the second,” she said in a pre-lecture interview, explaining that she’s not writing as a voice of authority, but rather as someone whose own great-grandmother had been enslaved. “We all have families, and I wanted to make a connection to a reality that seems so distant and strange.”
What gets short shrift in scholarship about slavery, Gordon-Reed said in her lecture, is a sense of the slaves themselves. “I wanted to write a book that looks at Sally Hemings, and the Hemingses, as people,” said Gordon-Reed. “Sally Hemings was a daughter, a mother, an aunt.” Over the years, people like her melted away, disappearing behind the institution of slavery. “I thought I could establish a connection, and bring empathy to her story.”
At the post-lecture reception, Dean of Libraries Andrew Scrimgeour announced the winners of the Bela Kornitzer awards for outstanding nonfiction books. The faculty winner is Sharon Sundue, chair of Drew’s history department and author of Industrious in Their Stations: Young People at Work in Urban America, 1720-1820 (University of Virginia Press, 2009). Robert McParland, G’05, associate professor of English at Felician College and author of Charles Dickens’s American Audience (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010) is the winner of the alumni award.
The Kornitzer Prize Endowment was established 18 years ago at Drew by the late Alicia Kornitzer Karpati and her husband George Karpati. The endowment honors Bela Kornitzer, Mrs. Karpati’s brother, for his achievements as a journalist and author in Hungary and the United States. The Karpatis’ daughter, Noémi K. Neidorff, a resident of St. Louis, Missouri, presented the 2011 awards.
Annette Gordon-Reed was instrumental in helping Drew Magazine with a story about a racist caricature of Thomas Jefferson’s slave, Sally Hemings, that lives in Drew’s Special Collections.
Read a Drew Magazine Q&A with Sharon Sundue about her award-winning book.
Posted: February 1, 2011