Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Although her physical characteristics allow her to pass as white, the psychological impact of renouncing her black identity deeply affects Harriet, who can never feel fully at home in either the white or the black world. She can never tell her secret to her family, because to do so would endanger them: Her husband could be jailed, and her children could be sold into slavery were the truth to be known. Harriet thus suffers a crisis of identity that lasts throughout her lifetime. This identity crisis is represented metaphorically by the absence of Harriet’s fingerprints, which were accidently removed in a laboratory accident.

The novel also questions who and what make up a family. Thomas Jefferson is Harriet’s father, yet he never acknowledges her as his daughter and never frees her. Sally Hemings is her mother, yet she refuses to accompany her daughter North where they could both live as free women. To whom then does Harriet owe allegiance? Her decision to live a life free from the daily toil and drudgery of slavery cannot be discounted, but what then of her family ties? She must live in isolation, not knowing even the identities of her siblings, in a world where she would be rejected if the truth became known. Her husband cannot fully know her, nor indeed can her own children.