An American Origin Story, Interdisciplinarily Considered


Lecture and Performance Series, Spring 2012



About the Series

This series seeks to explore and examine the various narratives of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson interdisciplinarily in terms of their historical and contemporary resonances and significances. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, Secretary of State, U.S. President, and founder of the University of Virginia, during his lifetime and into to 21st century, has been implicated in a relationship with one of the more than 100 people he enslaved, a woman named Sally Hemings. Although the assertion remains controversial centuries after it was originally made public, most contemporary historians concur that the preponderance of evidence suggests that Jefferson and Hemings had seven children over the course of a thirty-eight year involvement. In 1998, DNA tests supported the allegation, yet the story remains the subject of debate. This Bucknell Griot Institute series examines the Hemings-Jefferson historical narrative in terms of its potential to illuminate the trajectory of American race relations and to examine the fundamental divisions between the ideals of the country and its realities.

Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: An American Origin Story will interrogate this narrative from multiple disciplinary perspectives and employs the expertise and artistry of guest lecturers and performers in order to present the various nuances and dimensions of the tale. The series is open to the university community and the general public. Most events will be followed by a question and answer session and a book signing by the guest lecturer or artist. The public is invited to join us on a one-day bus trip as we travel to Monticello, just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, the home of Thomas Jefferson and the home and site of enslavement of Sally Hemings for a "Behind-the-Scenes" tour of the plantation and of the buildings that constituted the slave community. Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: An American Origin Story, Interdisciplinarily Considered is a program of the Griot Institute for Africana Studies.


Series Events


2/1: Joshua Rothman's "Jefferson, Callender, and Interracial Sexuality in Eighteenth Century Virginia" lecture/discussion - 7:00 p.m., ELC Forum

Joshua Rothman directs the Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama, where he is also an associate professor of history and African American studies specializing in nineteenth-century America and the history of race and slavery. He is the author of "Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861" (2003) and "Reforming America, 1815-1860" (2010) and is currently completing a book about the expansion of southwestern slavery and the cotton kingdom in the Age of Jackson.

2/16: Jefferson's Blood, PBS Frontline film - 7:00 p.m., ELC Forum

"For years there existed a rumor that Thomas Jefferson had a long-standing relationship and several children by Sally Hemings, who was enslaved by him. Now, DNA tests all but prove the rumor true. An early hero of the anti-slavery movement, Jefferson wrote brilliantly of the corrupting influence of slavery on blacks and whites alike. Yet it is now apparent that he lived a dual live, sharing his house with his white daughter and grandchildren while his unacknowledged mistress and his children by her were enslaved by him in the same house. In a personal essay, Frontline correspondent Shelby Steele examines Jefferson's life and follows the descendents of Jefferson and Hemings as they undergo DNA testing, search out their family history, and try to sort out their place among America's blurred colorline."

2/29: Mendi and Keith Obadike - 7 p.m., ELC 3rd Floor Gallery Theatre. Followed by the opening of the sound installation "American Cypher: Stereo Helix for Sally Hemings" and screening of a related film by the artists.

In 1996 Mendi + Keith started making conceptual internet art and sound art works together. Their work generated much discussion online and offline when they offered Keith's "blackness" for sale on eBay in 2001 as an Internet performance. Their works have been exhibited at The Whitney's Artport, The New Museum, and The Studio Museum in Harlem. Their opera masquerade, "Four Electric Ghosts," was developed at Toni Morrison's Atelier at Princeton University in 2005 and commissioned by the Kitchen in New York in 2009. Mendi + Keith were awarded the Pick Laudati Digital Art Award from Northwestern University for Big House / Disclosure, a 200-hour sound installation commemorating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade. Other awards include a Rockefeller Fellowship for New Media Art, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize for Mendi's book of poetry "Armor and Flesh."

Mendi + Keith have been commission by the Samek Art Gallery and the Griot Institute to create an original sound installation entitled "American Cypher: Stereo Helix for Sally Hemings." This project uses the genetic code of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson as a musical score input into custom software to generate an original evolving soundscape. One of Sally Hemings' few remaining possessions is a single bell, given to her by Martha Jefferson (her half-sister and Thomas Jefferson's wife). The Obadikes will use the sound of Hemings' bell as a focal point in their sound installation. The sound installation will open with a gallery talk and film screening by the artists and will be broadcast in the stairwell of the Langone Center from the opening until April 30th.

3/7: Reading Group Discussion - 12:00 p.m., Willard-Smith Library, Vaughan Literature Building

We will meet over lunch to discuss "Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings" by Clarence E. Walker (2011). "The debate over the affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings rarely rises above the question of "Did they or didn't they?" But lost in the argument over the existence of such a relationship are equally urgent questions about a history that is more complex, both sexually and culturally, than most of us realize. Mongrel Nation seeks to uncover this complexity, as well as the reasons it is so often obscured" (from To join reading group, please e-mail Rebecca Willoughby at

3/7: An Evening with Shay Banks-Young and Julia Jefferson Westerinen - 7:00 p.m., ELC Forum

Descendants of founding father Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Banks-Young and Westerinen grew up in different worlds. Westerinen grew up in a world of country clubs and servants; Banks-Young grew up in an enterprising black neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. The revelation of their ancestry continues to generate controversy with widespread disagreement over its authenticity among historians. Jefferson is a former educator turned businesswoman and her "new" cousin, Banks-Young, is a preventive health trainer and a poet who has hosted her own public affairs talk show. Jefferson is white and Banks-Young is black. Now, they are looking forward to their role as a focal point for what they hope will be an honest new dialogue on these very important issues we face as a society.

In this unique presentation, entitled "The Affairs of Race in America: A Conversation in Black and White," the audience will have the opportunity to listen in on their conversation, hearing these articulate women discuss the many differences and similarities they share. They are anxious to engage the audience in their discussion which makes for a very interactive program.

3/21: Reading Group Discussion - 12:00 p.m., Willard-Smith Library, Vaughan Literature Building

We will meet over lunch to discuss: Sally Hemings: A Novel, Barbara Chase-Riboud (2009). "Chase-Riboud, an unusually gifted writer, has taken a stunning historical idea and made it sing with life. The characters and settings-the Hemings family and the Jefferson of Paris and Monticello-are vivid. Sally Hemings is a beautiful novel: the writing is eloquent, the story haunting." - Grand Rapids Press. To join the reading group, please e-mail Rebecca Willoughby at

3/21: Eric Gable's "What Heritage Does and Does Not Do to Identify: The Case of Hemings and Jefferson" - 7:00 p.m., ELC Forum

Eric Gable, Professor of Anthropology at University of Mary Washington, received his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Virginia. His teaching and research interests include political anthropology, West Africa, and Indonesia. His book, "The New History in an Old Museum," written in collaboration with Richard Handler, was published by Duke University Press in 1997. Gable's book "Anthropology and Egalitarianism" was published recently by Indiana University Press (IUP) and is an artful and accessible introduction to key themes in cultural anthropology. Writing in a deeply personal style, Gable uses material from his fieldwork in three dramatically different locales - Indonesia, West Africa, and Monticello, the historic home of Thomas Jefferson. This lecture is co-sponsored by the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and the Griot Institute for Africana Studies.

3/28: Helen F. M. Leary's "Jefferson & Genetics: The DNA Tests" - 7:00 p.m., ELC Forum

Ms. Leary served twenty-three years as a Trustee of the Board for Certification of Genealogists and was President from 1989 to 1994 and 1998 to 1999. With Thomas W. Jones, Ms. Leary authored the BCG Genealogical Standards Manual. She developed and coordinated the Professional Genealogy Track at Samford University Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research. Her extensive scholarly publications include the seminal National Genealogical Society Quarterly study "Sally Hemings' Children: A Genealogical Analysis of the Evidence."

4/11: Reading Group Discussion - 12:00 p.m., Willard-Smith Library, Vaughan Literature Building

We will meet over lunch to discuss "Arc D'X" by Steve Erickson (1994). "Erickson, who has attracted a strong following with his three novels (the most recent was Tours of the Black Clock ) and the memoir Leap Year, has now written his most provocative novel yet, an apocalyptic narrative in which he yokes his grim vision of America to the exalted vision of Thomas Jefferson." - Publisher's Weekly. To join the reading group, please e-mail Rebecca Willoughby at

4/14: Class and community trip to Monticello - departure at 6:00 a.m., return to Lewisburg by 10:00 p.m.

The one-day bus trip to Monticello leaves from Christy Mathewson Drive (behind the Weis Center) at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday, April 14. To reserve your seat, please send an e-mail to or call the office at 570-577-2123. The tour is specialized and is not available to the general public. We will be accompanied on the Roundabout Monticello tour by experts on the Hemings family and the Jefferson-Hemings narratives. The tour will be two and a half hours in length, and will include a House Tour, along with a tour of Mulberry Row - the plantation's main street - as well as the dependencies (workspaces) where many members of the Hemings family lived and worked.


4/18: "Sally Hemings: An Artistic Montage" - 7:00 p.m., ELC 2nd Floor Terrace Room

"Sally Hemings: An Artistic Montage" is a devised performance piece directed by Bucknell Professor Emeritus Bob Gainer and enacted by Bucknell professor and Stadler Center director, Shara McCallum. The piece will render excerpts from works by various creative artists who have worked on imagining the subjective realities of Sally Hemings and will weave together the play "Sally" by Sandra Seaton, excerpts from the soundscape and film "American Cypher: A Stereo Helix for Sally Hemings" by Mendi + Keith Obadike and the opera "Sally Hemings Wakes" by Garrett Fisher (click here for information about the Fisher Ensemble). Following the performance, playwright Sandra Seaton will reflect on rendering Sally Hemings dramatically during a question and answer period with audience members.