March 01, 2012

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By Kathryn Kopchik

LEWISBURG, Pa. — The Griot Institute for Africana Studies' spring lecture series, "Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: An American Origin Story, Interdisciplinarily Considered," continues through March and April with several lectures and a performance.

Julia Jefferson-Westerinen and Shay Banks-Young, descendants of Hemings and Jefferson, will give the talk, "The Affairs of Race in America: A Conversation in Black and White," Wednesday, March 7, at 7 p.m. in the Forum of the Elaine Langone Center at Bucknell University.

Banks-Young and Jefferson-Westerinen grew up in different worlds, the former in an enterprising black neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, and the latter in a world of country clubs and servants. The revelation of their ancestry continues to generate controversy with widespread disagreement over its authenticity among historians.

Jefferson-Westerinen, who is white, is a former educator turned businesswoman. Banks-Young, who is black, is a preventive health trainer and a poet who has hosted her own public affairs talk show.

"In this presentation, the audience will have the opportunity to listen in on their conversation, hearing these articulate women discuss the many differences and similarities they share," said Carmen Gillespie, director of the Griot Institute and professor of English at Bucknell.

Although the assertion remains controversial centuries after it was originally made public, most contemporary historians concur that the preponderance of evidence suggests that Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings had seven children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.

The Griot series, which seeks to examine various narratives about the Hemings/Jefferson affair in terms of their historical and contemporary resonances and significances, continues with:

  • 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 Genetics: The DNA Tests," 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
  • 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.

Contact: Division of Communications


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