Friday, April 04, 2008

Book Review: Jefferson's Children

Several years ago, my wife (Julie Lorenzen) wrote a book review for Jefferson's Children : The Story of One American Family by Shannon Lanier. That book was published in 2000. The site where the review resided is now defunct. With her permission, I am posting it here.

The review:

Shannon Lanier, author of Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family, has always wanted to tell people that he is the sixth great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. However, until recently, he has had trouble getting people to believe him. The idea that a descendant of a slave is related to our third U.S. President has been controversial. It also didn't help that Lanier's family didn't have any historical documents to back up their claim because records of slaves are rare.

For example when Lanier, who is black, stood up on President's Day and told his first-grade class he was a descendant of Thomas Jefferson, his teacher called him a liar. The history books did not recognize the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson and all Lanier had as proof was an Oral History passed down from generation to generation.

More solid proof arrived on October 31, 1998, when the Associated Press broke the news of the DNA findings linking Thomas Jefferson to Sally Hemings through the Eston Hemings line. On November 10, Oprah united members of the Jefferson family and the descendants of three lines of the Hemings family. During the show, writer Lucian K. Truscott IV, a Jefferson descendant, invited his Hemings cousins to a family reunion that May at Monticello. Eighteen-year-old Shannon, then a college freshman at Kent State University, saw the show and accepted the invitation.

At the reunion, Lanier met Hemingses who looked as white as Jeffersons, Jeffersons who refused to acknowledge the scientific evidence, and Hemingses who were angry at having to prove their lineage. Friendly and outgoing, the author was embraced in hugs by some family members, but snubbed by others. A positive outcome was that Lanier met photographer Jane Feldman. The two promptly decided to write this book with the hopes of providing more evidence of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, giving family members of both sides a chance to speak, and emphasizing the importance of family.

The result: a stylish family album of one of America's most known families. The bulk of this book is an assortment of essays by historians and family members which are accompanied by Lanier's brief introductions. Artfully taken photos by Jane Feldman, provide the faces behind the essays. In conclusion, this book has information about the Jefferson and Hemings families and messages of racial acceptance and the importance of family from which most people can benefit.

About the Reviewer - Julie Lorenzen is a writer who lives in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. She has published in a variety of periodicals including News-Photographer Magazine and Ohioana Quarterly. She is also the author of the Autism Blog.

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