(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The President’s Daughter opens on the eve of Harriet Hemings’ twenty-first birthday. Her father, former president Thomas Jefferson, has promised all seven of his enslaved children that they can leave his estate at Monticello when they turn twenty-one. Tall, with red hair, green eyes, and pale skin, Harriet bears a striking resemblance to her father. Harriet’s mother is Jefferson’s slave-wife Sally Hemings, who was also the half sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife, Martha. Thus, Harriet is enmeshed in a complex intergenerational, interracial family and feels great bitterness toward her aged father. Compelled to find freedom at any price, she cannot comprehend why her mother has remained in slavery, but she wants above all for her father to call her “daughter.”

Harriet travels to Philadelphia in the company of Adrian Petit, Jefferson’s former valet. During their trip, Petit fills gaps in the mournful girl’s knowledge of her family history. In particular, he tells Harriet about her uncle, James, a freed slave who committed suicide after the relationship between Jefferson and his sister Sally became public knowledge. The siblings, James and Sally, served Jefferson in Paris when he was the American ambassador to France, where they were considered free people. James took advantage of this freedom. Sally, however, remained with Jefferson.

At first, Harriet has trouble in Philadelphia, where she must leave behind the identity of a black slave and assume that of a white free woman. She is terrified she will be arrested as a runaway slave. However, she and the ever-faithful Petit devise the story that Harriet comes from an important Virginia family whose other...

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The President's Daughter Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Byerman, Keith. Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. Examination of the representation of history in African American literature; helps contextualize Chase-Riboud’s work.

Dabney, Virginius. The Jefferson Scandals. Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1981. Details the Hemings family’s historical connection with Thomas Jefferson and attacks earlier Jeffersonian biographies.

Durey, Michael. With the Hammer of the Truth. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990. Chronicles accusations that were instigated by journalist James Callender regarding Thomas Jefferson’s children by Sally Hemings, including the protagonist of The President’s Daughter.

McKee, Sarah. “Barbara Chase-Riboud, 1939-    .” In Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1999. Provides an overview of scholarship pertaining to the work of author Barbara Chase-Riboud.