Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” enunciates the most basic political values by which Americans define themselves. Although Jefferson’s ownership of slaves seems a troublesome contradiction of those values, it can be rationalized in the context of his times. Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1790) that “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” To assert that he maintained for thirty-eight years a sexual relationship with a woman whose body and children were his property, in violation of law and his own stated moral principles, calls for a serious reassessment of a national hero and also for a deeper awareness of moral ambiguity in the American self-image. That reevaluation is clearly one of Chase-Riboud’s main purposes in this novel, along with the attempt to recover the story of a black woman whose experience has been erased from historical consciousness.

Chase-Riboud also forces a reexamination of the meaning of the term “the American family.” Sally Hemings and Martha Jefferson Randolph watch by Elizabeth Hemings’s deathbed in a “strange and southern circle of complicity,” bound by...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

First and foremost, the novel is the imagined story of Sally Hemings. The bare historical facts of her life remain intact; nevertheless, most of the story is a creation of fiction. The skeletal events of the novel are well established by historical documents and common knowledge. The excitement, intrigue, and suspense, however, are created by Chase-Riboud.

The dominant theme is simply the story of the forbidden and illegal love of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. The novelist explores the possibilities for love against all such obstacles and shows that it is real, something that both lovers give themselves to. At the same time, the story is an exploration of slavery. Chase-Riboud’s intentions are not to expose the evils of slavery—this had been done, of course, a century earlier with such works as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852)—but to explore the conscience of the slaveholders. Chase-Riboud tries to show how the two races (literally of one blood) could live and survive together in one house, in one society, and in one Union. How could Jefferson have two families, one white and one black, and be at peace with himself, given the flagrant differences between the ways he treated them publicly and privately?

Intricacies of the legal system that permitted slavery are also attacked. The census taker wishes not only to know the facts of the Jefferson-Hemings lifelong love but also to understand how Jefferson could love Sally, her children, and other family members and yet treat them as he did. Moreover, after Jefferson’s death, the society permits Sally to remain in Virginia as a free woman, even though it is illegal.