By Kathryn Kopchik
LEWISBURG, Pa. — The Griot Institute for Africana Studies at Bucknell University will host the spring lecture series, "Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: An American Origin Story, Interdisciplinarily Considered."
"The series seeks to examine various narratives about the Hemings/Jefferson affair in terms of their historical and contemporary resonances and significances," according to Carmen Gillespie, director of the Griot Institute and professor of English.
It has been suggested that Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, Secretary of State, U.S. president, and founder of the University of Virginia, had a relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his more than 100 slaves.
"Although the assertion remains controversial centuries after it was originally made public, most contemporary historians concur that the preponderance of evidence suggests that Jefferson and Hemings had seven children over the course of a 38-year involvement. In 1998, DNA tests supported the allegation, yet the story remains the subject of debate.
"Throughout the semester, the series will consider the Hemings/Jefferson narrative as an American origin story that can be used as a tool to unearth the foundations of many of our contemporary conflicts and conundrums," she said.
In addition to lectures by visiting scholars, the series will feature a PBS documentary, an original sound installation, dramatic performances and a trip to Monticello. All events are free and open to the public.
The series begins Wednesday, Feb. 1, with the talk, "Jefferson, Callender and Interracial Sexuality in 18th-century Virginia," by Joshua Rothman at 7 p.m. in the Forum of the Elaine Langone Center. Rothman is an associate professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Alabama and director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South.
The PBS Frontline film "Jefferson's Blood," will be shown Thursday, Feb. 16, at 7 p.m. in the Forum of the Elaine Langone Center. Frontline correspondent Shelby Steele examines Jefferson's life and follows the descendants 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.
Conceptual artists Mendi and Keith Obadike will share their original sound installation, "American Cypher: Stereo Helix for Sally Hemings," on Wednesday, Feb. 29, at 7 p.m. in the Gallery Theatre of the Elaine Langone Center. The installation was co-commissioned by the Griot Institute and the Samek Art Gallery.
"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)," said Gillespie. "The Obadikes will use the sound of Hemings' bell as a focal point in their sound installation, which will open with a gallery talk and film screening by the artists," she said.
Created for the Bucknell campus, the 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. The soundscape will broadcast in the downhill stairwell of the Elaine Langone Center from February through the end of the semester.
Other events scheduled for March and April include:
Wednesday, March 7: "The Affairs of Race in America: A Conversation in Black and White," Julia Jefferson-Westerinen and Shay Banks-Young, descendants of Hemings and Jefferson, 7 p.m., Forum, Elaine Langone Center.
Wednesday, March 21: "What Heritage Does and Does Not Do to Identity: The Case of Hemings and Jefferson," anthropologist Eric Gable, University of Mary Washington, 7 p.m., Forum, Elaine Langone Center. Gable will use material from his fieldwork in 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.
Wednesday, March 28: "Jefferson and Hemings: A Geneological Examination of the Evidence," genealogist Helen F.M. Leary, 7 p.m. Forum, Elaine Langone Center. Leary will discuss the particulars of the Jefferson DNA tests with a focus on the interweaving of heritage, genetics and genealogy.
Saturday, April 14: bus trip to Monticello for a behind-the-scenes tour of Jefferson's home. Seating on the bus is limited and will be confirmed on a first-come, first-served basis. Bus departs Bucknell at 6 a.m. and will return to campus by 11 p.m. To reserve a seat, contact Rebecca Willoughby at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wednesday, April 18: "Sally Hemings: An Artistic Montage," enacted by Shara McCallum, professor of English at Bucknell, 7 p.m., Terrace Room, Elaine Langone Center. Following the performance, directed by Bob Gainer, Bucknell professor emeritus of theatre, playwright Sandra Seaton will discuss the process of turning history into art.
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