Chase–Riboud, Barbara 1939–
Barbara Chase-Riboud 1939-
American novelist and poet.
Chase-Riboud is an acclaimed African American artist and novelist. Critics commend her bold exploration of sensitive and contentious issues such as miscegenation, slavery, sex, and racial and gender equality. A writer of historical novels, she has attracted controversy for her fictionalization of the life of historical figures as well as for her own vigorous defenses of her literary work, most notably her well-documented legal battle against Steven Spielberg's company, Dreamworks SKG, for copyright infringement in the mid-1990s.
The only child of middle-class parents, Chase-Riboud was born in 1939 in Philadelphia. Her mother's family members were descendants of slaves who had escaped across the Canadian border on the Underground Railroad. As a young woman, she became interested in art, particularly sculpture, and she attended Temple University in Philadelphia to study fine art. She received her B.F.A. in 1957. She was then accepted at the prestigious Yale Graduate School of Art, receiving her M.F.A. in 1960. In the following years, she gained an international reputation for her artistic works, which are found in a number of major museums and private collections. In the 1960s she was one of the first American women to visit post-revolutionary Peking, an experience that figured in her first collection of poems, From Memphis and Peking (1974). In 1975 Chase-Riboud worked as a lecturer for the U.S. State Department in Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Tunisia, and Sierra Leone. Her first novel, Sally Hemings (1979), generated critical controversy for identifying an actual figure from history and fictionalizing dialogue and situations. Some scholars dismissed the premise of the book, claiming there was no evidence that Hemings was Thomas Jefferson's lover. It was a bestseller, however, and received a Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for best novel by an American woman. In 1998 she was awarded the Carl Sandberg Poetry Prize for best poet after the publication of Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra (1987). The next year she received the Design Award from the U.S. government for her monument to the African burial ground in lower Manhattan called Africa Rising. In the late 1990s Chase-Riboud sued Dreamworks SKG for similarities between the script for their movie Amistad and her novel Echo of Lions (1989), both of which chronicled the true story of the legal battle to free a ship of African slaves after a slave rebellion on the ship Amistad in 1839. She later settled with Dreamworks for an undisclosed sum. Her recent novel, Hottentot Venus (2003), was given the American Library Association (ALA) award for best fiction in 2004. Chase-Riboud splits her time between Rome and Paris.
In Chase-Riboud's first novel, Sally Hemings, she focuses on the much-rumored romantic relationship between Thomas Jefferson and the African American slave Sally Hemings, alleging that he was the father of her seven children. Drawing on the research of other historians and historical documents on the Jefferson-Hemings affair, she wrote about the challenges of a master-slave relationship and the nature of the bond between them, in the process producing a compelling meditation on race, gender, love, and power. These themes are also central to her next novel, Valide (1986). In the late 1700s a young girl is kidnapped in Martinique, transported to the harem of the Ottoman sultan, becomes his favorite concubine, and bears him a son who later becomes sultan. She is then appointed the valide, the administrator of the sultan's harem. Echo of Lions, Chase-Riboud's next novel, further explores the slave experience. When a group of Africans are brutally kidnapped and brought to America on a slave ship known as the Amistad, they stage a rebellion, take over the ship, and attempt to sail home. They are tricked into landing on Long Island, however, and are taken into custody. A legal battle ensues, and in the end the men are released and sent home to Africa. In The President's Daughter (1994), Chase-Riboud chronicles the story of Harriet Hemings, the daughter of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, who as a young woman passes as white, marries a wealthy white man, and becomes an abolitionist. Her most recent novel, Hottentot Venus, tells the sad story of Sara Baartman, a South African woman who becomes an exhibit in a freak show in London's Picadilly Circus. Exploited by her husband and English society, she becomes complicit in her own victimization through fear and helplessness and dies at the early age of twenty-seven.
Critics have recognized Chase-Riboud as an accomplished artist and novelist whose works are built around historical figures and explore issues of racial and gender inequality. Many scholars have addressed Chase-Riboud's "fictionalized history," with several reviewers asserting that the genre allows her an effective means of acknowledging the significant role miscegenation has played in the American consciousness. Others have derided her for identifying an actual figure from history and fictionalizing dialogue and situations; for example, several critics and scholars have attacked her novel Sally Hemings for inaccuracy, contending that Jefferson was not the father of Sally Heming's children. Later DNA tests proved these critics wrong—Hemings's descendants were also descended from Jefferson. Chase-Riboud's strong defense of her work against perceived copyright infringements has attracted much attention, particularly her high-profile case again Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks SKG studio and its film Amistad. Critics have also investigated the relationship between her art and her fiction, both of which emphasize and explore African American culture and traditions.
From Memphis and Peking (poetry) 1974
Sally Hemings (novel) 1979
Valide: A Novel of the Harem (novel) 1986
Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra (poetry) 1987
Echo of Lions (novel) 1989
The President's Daughter (novel) 1994
Hottentot Venus (novel) 2003
Ashraf H. A. Rushdy (essay date summer 1995)
SOURCE: Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. "Representing the Constitution: Embodiments of America in Barbara Chase-Riboud's Echo of Lions." Critique 36, no. 4 (summer 1995): 258-80.
[In the following essay, Rushdy discusses Echo of Lions as an informed critique of the U.S. Constitution and analyzes how Chase-Riboud locates her novel within the framework of historical documentation.]
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be …
African Americans, as Michael Harper noted in an interview with James Randall, have always taken "the sacred documents" of America "more resolutely than those obsessed with power and violence" (24). The document that has primarily attracted the attention of black polemicists from David Walker on has been the Declaration of Independence. "See your Declaration Americans," writes Walker in 1829, and "[h]ear your language, proclaimed to the world, July 4th, 1776" (75). "What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?" asks Frederick Douglass on July 4, 1852, "Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?" (II.188-89). In the background of both these writers' texts, however, looms the other "sacred document" of America—the Constitution of the United States of America.
In his critical interrogation of the hypocrisy of celebrating American liberty, Douglass investigates the Constitution within what we now call an "antifoundationalist" rhetoric. "I hold," declares Douglass, "that every American citizen has a right to form an opinion of the Constitution, and to propagate that opinion, and to use all honorable means to make his opinion the prevailing one." The document, he notes, is variably interpretable and if it is "interpreted, as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document" (II.202). Having destabilized the interpretation of the Constitution as a pro-slavery document, Douglass maintains that according to "its plain reading" there is not "a single pro-slavery clause in it." Houston Baker states that David Walker also recognizes that behind the Declaration lies the other document, in which Americans hear their language—the language, Baker notes, "of the founding discourse of Euroamerican culture" (140). Walker knew that "such discourse as the Constitution had to be survived and syncretically refigured if African freedom and community were to become American realities." Walker's "refiguration" involves taking a document that "writes itself on the enslaved body of the African" and altering the terms and relations of both constitution (body) and Constitution (discourse). What Walker does in the end, in Baker's view, is to write a document—the Appeal—that "emerges as a new covenant, a new constitution embodied in the African" (141).
The African American representation of the Constitution had much to do with the question of how the Constitution represented African Americans; and that question has everything to do with the relationship between the document and the bodies it inscribed. To answer one of the crucial issues raised at the Constitutional Convention in 1787—the means of apportioning representation—the drafters of the Constitution determined a system of calculating population by "adding to the whole Number of free Persons … those bound to Service for a Term of Years … [calculated as] three fifths" of a whole person.1 In the fifty-fourth Federalist paper, James Madison defended this provision because slaves are "considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects as property." Therefore, the "federal Constitution … decides with great propriety on the case of our slaves, when it views them in the mixed character of persons and of property" (339). Madison's compromise of having a slave represent three-fifths of a human being raises the question of the body as a divisible entity, the question of how a political document detailing the terms of representation (and called the Constitution) can ignore the question of physical integrity.
The contemporary United States, Patricia Williams suggests, not only condones but generates principles that lead to "partializing social constructions" (221). Part of the reason that the United States has not achieved a "unified social vision," she comments, is that society does not teach us to look at others as parts of ourselves (62). Having noted that this division between other and self operates under the conditions of a "rhetorical event," Williams goes on to point out that within the market economy of what Fredric Jameson calls the "cultural logic of late capitalism" we abide by commercial "claims that make property of others beyond the self" (11). She designates that systemic "disregard for others whose lives qualitatively depend on our regard" as "spirit murder" (73). Turning her attention to the legal history of slavery, she notes that slave law is both "fragmenting and fragmented." It divides the world into a white slavemaster possessing "pure will" over a black slave denied any will in a relationship falsely designated as one of "total interdependence." Slave law, that is, is part of the code for constructing social beings as "partial" entities. What Williams calls "truly total relationships," which are premised on the basic belief that others are parts of ourselves, require "images of whole people dependent on whole people" (221). Wholeness, though, for African Americans is an issue that carries with it both socialized and historical problems. After making a career of studying the "intersection of commerce and the Constitution" (17), Williams discovers at least one institution to which she may trace the difficulty of the African American quest for wholeness. "As black," Williams writes, "I am still evolving from being treated as three-fifths of a human" (147). Williams provides us with an exemplary meditation on the process of private black identity, and the intersection of that process with contemporary social forces and public historical documents. The Constitution is crucial to Williams's meditation on the difficulty for establishing African American images of wholeness.
Traditionally, African American writers and orators have claimed the liberty of interrogating and revising conventional American history, including the history of the Constitution.2 Their intervention in the history of the Constitution takes on various forms. Some authors write stories about the implicit tension between property and personal rights in the founding document. As John Callahan notes about Charles Chesnutt's fiction, the tales represent a persistent struggle "between property and the more fluid pursuit of happiness as primary human rights" (53). Others write more directly about the history of the documents. Derrick Bell constructs a narrative in which the civil rights lawyer Geneva Crenshaw actually appears at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and addresses the delegates from the perspective of the late twentieth century (And We Are Not Saved 26-50). Dick Gregory polemically and wittily takes apart what he calls the "myth of the founding fathers" (88-130). Yet others use the Constitution as a metonymical representation of the process of discovery about the relationship of the black self to the white nation. Meridian, the eponymous heroine of Alice Walker's 1976 novel, remembers how one day in high school while "reciting a speech that extolled the virtues of the Constitution and praised the superiority of The American Way of Life," she faltered and seemed to forget her speech. Responding to her mother's question about her failure of memory, Meridian says "that for the first time she really listened to what she was saying, knew she didn't believe it, and was so distracted by this revelation that she could not make the rest of her speech" (121). These writers who challenge the conventional representations of revolutionary American history, and, especially, the traditional representations of the Constitution of the United States of America, are writers who, in John Callahan's phrase, "struggle to imagine and realize a truly inclusive and vernacular democratic culture in this country" (xiv).
Barbara Chase-Riboud joins this tradition of African American writing and by using a variety of strategies challenges the Constitution in her most recent novel, Echo of Lions. That challenge is mostly articulated in terms of a famous husband and wife—John Quincy Adams and Louisa Adams—struggling to define themselves in terms of the document that defined the place of his father and her mother-in-law in American history. In attempting to understand better what an American family can be, John Quincy and Louisa Adams articulate a challenge to the Constitution in terms of what we might call the "issues of Dred Scott."
To comprehend Chase-Riboud's complex of ideas about the Constitution, we have to recognize how she represents a primary historical document within her fiction, and therefore how she situates what she calls her "non-fictional novel" within a framework of historical documentation (Echo of Lions 375). In her first novel, Sally Hemings, Chase-Riboud noted that she had included authentic "documents" in her novel because they were not only "central to the story of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson," but because they also represented "the sea on which their small and private boat sailed" (vii). The documents incorporated into that novel range from the private letters of Jefferson to the public census of Albemarle County, from the 1826 list of slaves to be sold from Monticello to the excised portion of the original Declaration of Independence. Echo of Lions also has documents from the public and private spheres: quotations from the excised portion of the Declaration of Independence (219), and from John Quincy Adams, and part of the decision of the Supreme Court in the trial of the Amistad captives. But she does not quote in the novel the historical document at the heart of Echo of Lions, the Constitution of the United States of America.
Like Patricia Williams implicitly and Houston Baker explicitly, Chase-Riboud brings out the manifold meanings of "constitution." She teases out the polysemous nature of the word and like Patricia Williams, traces an initial tension between the body of the subject and the body politic, between Constitution and constitution, to the document of the Founding Fathers. In fact, one of her ongoing concerns in examining slavery has been to trace precisely the ways documents record, circumscribe, and liberate bodies. A striking instance of this occurs in Sally Hemings. After talking to black Sally Hemings, Nathan Langdon, the census taker for Albemarle County, records her in the census as being "white" (and also records the race of the two sons still living with her as "white") (16). This automatically changes the legal status of both sons, Madison and Eston. They can now appear in court, as Langdon reveals to Sally, and "testify against anybody on earth" (50). Sally responds with indignation at Langdon's effrontery. As she says in parting, "I'm tired, Nathan. I'm tired of white men playing God with my flesh and my spirit …" (51). In her latest novel, Chase-Riboud is interested in demonstrating the effects of definition on those who are defined—on those who, in Williams's words, are "casually inscribed by definitional demarcations" that depend on a destructuring of the self (16).
The Constitution is more than an implicit presence in Echo of Lions ; it literally frames the book. Chase-Riboud dedicates the book "to the memory of my father, who believed irrevocably in the Constitution of the United States of America" (11). The narrative is full of characters related to the Constitution. In one scene, John Trumbull and John Quincy Adams are sitting in front of a replica of Trumbull's "painting of the Signing of the Constitution" (303). When Adams is deciding to take on the case of the Amistad captives, he points out that he is doing so in order to demonstrate the violation of "our most precious treasure, the Constitution of the United States" (240). Even people who had nothing to do with the Constitution become related to it. Nathan Langdon, the former census taker in Albemarle County, Virginia, who had recorded Sally Hemings's race as "white," is introduced in Echo of Lions as one who acted for the "sake of history … and the Constitution" (281). In Sally Hemings Langdon acts only for the sake of history (15-16). The most important event of Echo of Lions, the victory of the Africans in the Supreme Court, is declared a victory for that document: "The Constitution of the United States had been tested and had not been found wanting. Justice had triumphed over prejudice and Sympathy, and slavery and the usurpation of the power of the Office of the President. Black men had appealed in the highest court of the land and been heard. John Quincy Adams was satisfied" (340). In commemoration of the Supreme Court victory, the printer Henry Braithwaite designs a new type font and calls it "Cinque Constitution Boldface" (342). The novel's close reminds us forcefully of how short-lived that victory really was. Chase-Riboud points out in the epilogue the relation between the 1841 victory of civil rights in the Amistad case and the 1857 defeat of those rights in the Dred Scott case, which affirmed property rights against civil rights. In quoting the essence of Justice Roger Taney's decision in the Dred Scott case—"a Negro was not a citizen with standing in the courts or under the Constitution" (374)—she shows that the Constitution is as much a weapon of oppression as a tool of liberation. In the end, Echo of Lions demonstrates fairly clearly that Barbara Chase-Riboud is not so thoroughly dedicated to the document of the Founding Fathers as her own father had been. And she is not because the Constitution is a document that has been used to misserve African Americans—men and women—and all American women.
To offer a multiply informed critique of the Constitution, Chase-Riboud could not have chosen a more representative court case than that of the Amistad captives. When the case was finally brought to the Supreme Court, according to some accounts, the Constitution itself was put on trial. The most recent historian of the Amistad case, Howard Jones, notes that the essential "issue throughout the affair was a conflict between human rights and property rights" (11). This conflict in the case of the Amistad captives is essentially the conflict at the heart of the Constitution (Bell, Not Saved 7, 34-35). As Jones points out, the main question the abolitionist lawyers for the Amistad captives put to the court was, did "the law of nature permit an attack on slavery, despite the Constitution's tacit approval of it?" (11).
One of those lawyers, John Quincy Adams, who was ambivalent about whether or not the Constitution condoned slavery, put the matter in an interesting way. First of all, he argued that the Constitution recognized "the slaves, held within some of the States of the Union, only in their capacity of persons—persons held to labor or service in a State under the laws thereof—persons constituting elements of representation in the popular branch of the National Legislature…. The Constitution no where recognizes them as property" (30). Adams chooses to ignore or repress the fact that to use slaves as "elements of representation," they are calculated as "three-fifths" of a "person." On the whole, the Constitution plays a minor role in Adams's defense of the Amistad captives; he refers to it to level a charge against President Van Buren in his argument before the Supreme Court, that is, his charge that Van Buren's attempt to assume control over the judiciary was a breach of the "whole fabric of the constitution" (29; cf. 76-79, 82). In defending the captives Adams refers to the document that actually contains reference to the "laws of nature"—the Declaration of Independence.
When Adams pled the case of the captives, he studiously excluded the Constitution from his argument. He began his case by doing so explicitly: "I know of … no law, statute or constitution, no code, no treaty, applicable to the proceedings … except that law, (pointing to the copy of the Declaration of Independence)…. I know of no other law that reaches the case of my clients, but the law of Nature and of Nature's God" (8-9; cf. Echo of Lions 330-31). Adams's declaration, of course, contradicts the sixth article of the Constitution, which declares that the "supreme Law of the Land" is the "Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States." By positing the Declaration and its assertion of natural law as the basis of any rights, Adams sets up a confrontation between the "inalienable rights" of individuals and the rights of property, between the Declaration and the Constitution. Midway in his argument, when he summarizes the case against slavery, he reinforces the terms of this confrontation by arguing solely on the basis of the Declaration of Independence (82-83). And he concludes his case by affirming that because the Declaration of Independence maintains that the "Laws of Nature are … identical with the laws of nature's God," then that document should be "the foundation of all obligatory human laws" (126). Having implicitly made the case that the Declaration of Independence represents civil rights and the Constitution property rights, Adams perorates his argument by giving a summary of the course of his own legal career. In his penultimate appearance before the Supreme Court in February and March 1809, he had "addressed [the Court] in support of rights of property." Now, in his final appearance (thirty-two years later) in November and December 1841, he stood before the Supreme Court "to plead the cause of justice, and now of liberty and life, in behalf of many of my fellow men" (135). Justice Joseph Story's verdict suggested that Adams had made his point. It was, wrote Justice Story, "the ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression, and to apply force against ruinous injustice." It was a "remedy," he noted, "never provided for by human institutions" (qtd. in Jones 190).
The Amistad case, then, becomes for Chase-Riboud an excellent example of what Bell, following the early example of Charles Beard (324-25), noted to be the essential tension in the Constitution and what Chase-Riboud herself suggests is the essential tension between the two founding documents of the United States. Making the Constitution an important element of her novel gives Chase-Riboud an opportunity to do what she does best—that is, to represent the conflict between the public framers and defenders of the nation's documents and the private individuals whose lives depend on them, and who suffer because of how those documents are used or abused. In Echo of Lions, the Constitution is the public document in the background of private lives; she uses the private lives of an ex-president and his wife to offer her multiple critique of the Constitution.
In Adams's mind his meeting with Joseph Cinque, the Mende leader of the Amistad mutiny, embodied the meeting of the United States and Africa. "He, John Quincy Adams, considered himself, by virtue of his public service, his age and his name, to be the embodiment of the United States of America. He considered Joseph Cinque the first and probably the only glimpse he would ever have of a black man unpolluted by slavery. This then, he decided, was a conversation between America and Africa, not between the Republic and the slave" (296). Their meeting, in Adams's mind, was between two ideals (the United States and Africa) rather than between an ideal gone awry (the Republic) and the reason it went awry (slavery). When Adams denounces the intrigue between the executive and judiciary powers in the handling of the Amistad captives, and in more general terms the handling of slavery under the Van Buren administration, Cinque responds with what becomes a running refrain haunting Adams's sense of his own historical position: "But Mr. Adams…. You, too, were the president of a slave-holding republic" (301). It is brought poignantly home to Adams that "America" did not exist, that it had never existed, and that, if he fancied himself its embodiment, he was also considered by others to be one in a series of leaders of a "slave-holding republic." Cinque may not be a slave, but he is becoming one by virtue of the way the United States treats persons of color. He is, as Adams notes, a "black man unpolluted by slavery"; but his history, which Adams chooses to ignore, is no different than those of the millions of slaves in the Republic in 1840. He has been stolen from Sierra Leone by slave dealers, transported through the middle passage on the Tecora, sold in an auction in Havana, and has undergone another, minor middle passage on the Amistad. Once he reached the shores of the United States he was placed in immediate confinement because he was considered property on the basis of his color and his having been the object of a commercial transaction recognized by the Constitution. Adams is right to acknowledge that Cinque is not "a slave." But because he is a black in the United States, he is also not free.
After this encounter with Cinque, Adams sets out for Trumbull's studio. There, under that painting of the historic scene, Adams expresses remorse at his previous political actions. He tells Trumbull that he voted for the Missouri Compromise because he "believed it was all that could be done under the Constitution." Now, in hindsight and after his troubling meeting with Cinque, he wishes he had it to do over again. "I would have been wiser to have persisted in the restriction upon Missouri until it should have ended in a convention of the states to revise and amend the Constitution" (306). He knows that a convention of that sort would have dissolved the Union in 1820 and produced a "new union of thirteen or fourteen states unpolluted with slavery." Adams views the Constitution and the country it represents as flexible entities, capable of being reformed (both morally and physically). He goes further and states that he is thinking of moving for a "declaratory act that so long as an article of the Constitution of a slave state, say, North Carolina or Georgia, deprived the colored citizen of Massachusetts, for instance, of his rights as a citizen of the United States within a slave state, then the white citizen of the same Georgia or North Carolina should be held as an alien within the commonwealth of Massachusetts, not entitled to claim or enjoy there any right or privilege of a citizen of the United States" (307).
There are several things worth nothing about Adams's outburst of revolutionary ideals. First of all, his argument is in strict accordance with the spirit of the sixth article in the Constitution: "This Constitution … shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding." Adams takes this article to mean that in cases where the constitution of a slave state does not agree with the Constitution of the United States, the latter would prevail to the extent of having non-slaveholding states deprive Southern white citizens of their rights in direct proportion as slave states deprived any black citizens of theirs. This requires a belief that the "Constitution is color-blind," as Supreme Court Justice John Harlan wrote in 1896, dissenting to the Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that established the "separate but equal" doctrine.3 But in 1840 (and, as others maintain, in 1990), the Constitution was not colorblind; and Adams is mistaken when he declares that "There is nothing … in the Constitution that condones slavery" (307). According to Adams, slaveholding states "insist on hiding behind states rights and the Constitution." Contradicting himself in precisely the way that the Constitution contradicts itself, Adams notes that the spirit of the sixth article of the Constitution is effectively displaced by two other stipulations. First, the third section of the fourth article declares, "nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular state." Second, the tenth amendment, the last in the Bill of Rights, states that the "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." While wishing that the Constitution did not condone slavery, Adams implicitly recognizes that it does. The slaveholding states can use both "states rights" and the "Constitution" to make their case.
Second, Adams uses precisely the same language that will be used to maintain exactly the opposite argument in the Dred Scott case. The phrasing Adams employs to discuss the possibility of barring whites from membership in a political community—"to claim or enjoy there any right or privilege of a citizen of the United States"—will be the phrasing Justice Taney uses when he frames the question at the heart of the Dred Scott case: "Can a negro whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights and privileges and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen?" (60 U.S. at 403; qtd. in Blaustein and Zangrando 160). Ironically, whereas Adams speaks about how the rights of whites ought not to be respected so long as those of blacks were not, Taney's answer to his own question is that blacks had "no rights which the white man was bound to respect" (162). The difference, of course, is that whereas Adams is willing to challenge the Constitution, Taney is unwilling "to give to the words of the Constitution a more liberal construction in their favor than they were intended to bear when the instrument was framed and adopted" (165). Ironically, the Missouri Compromise, which in retrospect Adams wishes he had used to put the Constitution in a state of crisis and the union in a state of reform, is the law that allows Taney to maintain that "Dred Scott was not a citizen of Missouri within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States" (165).
Whereas Adams represents a relatively revolutionary attitude toward the document his father had defended from abroad, Trumbull represents the conservative view of the Constitution (which we can call the perspective of the propertied). Rather than looking at it through the eyes of those it misserves, Trumbull looks at it through the eyes of those it benefits. "I think you would do much better," he advises Adams, "to leave the Constitution alone…. No slight occasion should tempt us to touch it. Better rather to habituate ourselves to think of it as … unalterable. Let it stand as it is. New hands have never touched it. The men who made it, your father, have done their work and have passed away. Who shall improve what they did?" (307). John Adams does not number amongst those who "made" the Constitution, as Trumbull intimates. Unable to attend the Philadelphia convention because he was in London representing Congress at the Court, he wrote Defense of the Constitutions of the United States in early 1787. A historical survey of various societies, ancient and modern, Adams's tract was widely read by the convention delegates. His contribution was not direct, although Trumbull implicates John Quincy Adams's father in the drafting of the Constitution.
What Trumbull does is attempt to prevent what we may call "family resemblances" from becoming a problem. There is no better way of conducting oneself politically, Trumbull implicitly notes, than by performing what is expected in the "name of the father" (to employ a useful Lacanian shorthand). As Lacan writes, the "name of the father" has "from the dawn of history" been identified with "the figure of the law" (67). Trumbull posits a paternal law as the only way to avoid an illegitimate insurrection. Adams knows that Van Buren and others consider Cinque to be the "reincarnation of Nat Turner … as a ghost, an unnameable specter of insurrection and liberty" (297). Defending him, and criticizing the document of the Founding Fathers, would make Quincy Adams part of an illegitimate revolution. In his Supreme Court argument, Quincy Adams does indeed rebel against the "law" (and thereby against the "name of the father"). The basis of his Supreme Court argument had been a devaluation of the Constitution as the document signifying the "supreme Law of the Land." This questioning of "family resemblances" is significant because it raises the question of the other meaning of "constitution"—that is, the "character of the body."
At the end of their discussion, Adams takes out an engraved portrait of himself and shows it to Trumbull. There is a "signed bullet hole in the head" (309). Adams gives Trumbull the letter that accompanied the portrait:
Gracious heavens, my dear Sir, your mind is diseased on the subject of slavery. Pray, what had you to do with the captured ship? … You are great in everything else, but here, you show your weakness. Your name will descend to the latest posterity with this blot on it: Mr. Adams loves the Negroes too much—UNCONSTITUTIONALLY.
When the Virginian regards Adams's love for the Amistad captives and their brethren enslaved in the South as "unconstitutional," he means that it goes against the document that founded the nation. But the racist Virginian's letter also suggests another way of considering an "unconstitutional" love. Perhaps Adams's love for Cinque is weak because it exists only as the love of an idea instead of the love of another human being in whose personal fate he is interested. It is an "unconstitutional" love because it lacks enough investment in it. It would be grossly unjust to characterize Adams's response to the Amistad captives and to African Americans generally as being what Patricia Williams called "spirit murder"; however, it is also not fair to characterize it as being what is required to restore a "unified social vision." The structure of that emotional response requires what we can call constitutional love.
When he meets Cinque, Adams is seventy-three years old. Yet, in those seven decades he had "never broken bread with a black man, had never had more than the most elementary conversation with his black servant. He had never received a black man in his home, had never introduced a black man to his wife, had never prayed with one" (296). And when Adams meets Cinque, the only thing that occupies his mind is how radically different they are. "He had nothing in common with this young man, thought Adams, not a thought, not a feeling or one experience or emotion. Not one word or action in their respective lives would ever have coincided, nor would he ever be able to make clear to Jo-seph Cinque the simplest reason for any act of his life, any desire of his heart or any fear of his spirit, or principle of his honor. His face was an inexhaustible black, as if he, Adams, had rambled into a starless night" (296). Their differences are so basic that they may well be called constitutional differences. We should attend to the way Adams's thoughts go from how he differs from Cinque in desires, fear, and principles to how he differs from him in skin color. That is what constitutes Adams's belief in "family resemblances" before he meets Cinque.
After he has talked to Cinque and heard the sentence that put his presidency into critical perspective—"You, too, were the president of a slaveholding republic"—Adams begins to realize the relationship between the document he has regarded as colorblind and the importance of breaking down the laws and social mores prohibiting physical relations in the United States between people of African and of European descent. A remarkable scene prior to his meting Cinque represents this idea clearly. While reclining in her bath, Louisa Adams tries to persuade her husband to take on the case of the Amistad captives. Cinque she says, "is a man, unfortunate, illiterate, unprepared, unknowing of society's laws, but a man with an inalienable right to liberty and justice as a free man" (285). Louisa Adams cleverly employs the language of the Declaration of Independence in a way Adams will imitate in his Supreme Court summation. But at this moment, as he looks at his wife in her bath, there is another kind of constitution in his mind.
John Quincy Adams blanched. His affectionate wife was sitting naked, speaking of a black man.
"Mrs. Adams, I don't think your bath is the place to speak of Joseph Cinque."
"But what do you mean, Mr. Adams?" Louisa almost laughed. "He's not here. Only the idea of him."
"We will discuss this when you are dressed, if you insist."
After she completes her bath and dresses, Louisa speaks briefly about Cinque. She remarks that there is a deep "hatred of black men and women" in white America and abundant "dangers" for any "white man" found "defending Negroes or freeing them or loving them." Adams replies with some humor: "My dear Louisa, I may defend Cinque and I hope to free him, but I assure you, my dear, I am not in love with him!" He then shows her the engraving of himself with a bullet hole in the head that he will show to Trumbull at the end of the next chapter.
Between his showing the picture to Louisa and his showing it to Trumbull, Adams goes through an important education. Meeting Cinque teaches him two things. First, he learns to recognize a basic historical truth for what it signifies: he had been the president of a slaveholding republic. Second, he learns that he is not constitutionally different from Cinque. Adams's initial response to Cinque had been to note their physical differences. Suggesting another way of regarding fellow human beings as they relate to one's self, Cinque's initial response to Adams is to recognize their basic sameness before attempting to negotiate their various differences. Upon meeting Adams, Cinque reads not his color but his features: "I can read in the face before me the heritage and integrity of a house, the pride of a lineage and clan, the mark of a true warrior. John Quincy Adams is one of my kind. He is of my race" (293). Cinque then gives Adams the supreme title of Mende respect, "Marda—Grandfather." Chase-Riboud shows the difference between seeing a true "family resemblance" and seeing only an idea that needs to be defended. Adams tells the truth when he reports to his wife that he does not love Cinque. And the Virginian, little knowing it, also tells the truth when he describes Adams's love for blacks as unconstitutional.
Chase-Riboud's own attitude toward the concept of "difference" is probably best exemplified by an intriguing parallel she constructs. Without realizing it, Adams's deep reflection on the fundamental difference between him and Cinque—"He had nothing in common with this young man …" (296)—exactly echoes Cinque's reflection when he evaluates how he differs from Adams: "And I think I have nothing in common with this Marda, not a thought, not a feeling, not one act nor emotion. No word or action had ever coincided in our respective lives, nor will I ever be able to make clear to this man the simplest reason for any act of my existence, any desire of my heart, any fear of my spirit or principle of my honor. Yet my life depends upon him …" (294). Obviously, Cinque and Adams do have words or actions that coincide in their respective lives. Their first similarity is that they are both wrong about the depth of their differences.
In the end, after his discussion with Trumbull, Adams rejects the painter's warning about making himself illegitimate by not believing the Constitution "unalterable," and instead places himself in a posture of rebellion against his father's beliefs. Although he knows the abolitionists have recruited him precisely because they "thought the name Adams, armed with the sword and shield of the Constitution, was enough to convince" the Supreme Court of the legitimacy of their case, Adams takes on the case to distinguish himself from his father and to criticize the document with which his father is associated. "‘I,’ said John Quincy, ‘am not a … John Adams’" (305). In his next statement to Trumbull, he says: Cinque "calls me Grandfather" (306). What Adams is doing here is realigning family connections. He denies one set of "family resemblances" in order to assert another. He is less his father's son than he is Cinque's grandfather. From considering himself the "embodiment of America," he now jokes about calling himself "Adams, il africano, from now on" (306). The Constitution, Adams comes to recognize, is not colorblind. It was a document written by the propertied whites it was meant to serve—and that included his family. Only when he is able to grasp the significance of a larger family resemblance can he understand the past and the future. As he says, when he recounts what he knows of Mende philosophy, "I begin to believe that the idea of the present is much less attractive to them than either the future, which is the succeeding generation, or the past, which is the ancestors" (306). By accepting the responsibility for the title of "Marda—Grandfather," Adams rewrites his place in history so that he belongs to another set of ancestors. As he says, he is not a John Adams. At the same time, he also assumes a responsibility for working toward a different future than his father could ever have countenanced. Having resolved to take on the case of the captives, he tells Trumbull that a victory in this case "would be a revindication of everything America stands for and the future of the black man in this country." To Trumbull's question—"You think he has a future?"—Adams responds: "‘If the Union must be dissolved,’ he said slowly, ‘it is precisely this question upon which it ought to break! If slavery be the destined sword to sever this Union, the same sword, believe me, will sunder the bonds of slavery itself’" (309). In other words, if there can be a future for either the United States or the black man, Adams will give the future to the latter. That is quite a concession from one who went to meet Cinque believing himself to constitute the very embodiment of "America."
John Quincy Adams represents one aspect of Chase-Riboud's critique of the Constitution. In articulating the idea that the document of the Founding Fathers is not "unalterable," as Trumbull believes, he enacts a revolution against paternal authority. In this, he constitutes Chase-Riboud's own racial critique of that document and enacts her own questioning of her father's "irrevocable faith" in the Constitution. In just the same way, Louisa Adams represents one aspect of the gendered critique of the Constitution. Just as John Quincy considered himself to be the "embodiment of the United States of America," so does he consider Louisa to be "American womanhood personified" (278). The symbolic gesture Adams made to signify the consummation of his education was to show Trumbull the portrait of himself with a bullet hole drawn in his head (309). He makes that gesture only after he has articulated his wish that he had permitted the conditions for a crisis in the Constitution and thereby created a non-slaveholding Union—that is, only when he listened to what Cinque told him about his place in history. The process of Adams's education begins when he listens to his wife, who persuades him to take on the case of the Amistad captives. At the end of the scene of Louisa Adams in her bath, John Quincy shows her the same picture he later shows Trumbull. Just as his showing the picture to Trumbull signifies the completion of his re-education in the politics of color, so does his showing it to his wife signify the end of her re-education in the politics of gender.
Two things are worth noting about this scene. First, Adams does not show Louisa the letter from the Virginian (309). He will show her part of the story about how slavery is dividing the nation, but he will not tell her the complete story. Adams's act of offering Louisa only a partial story finds a parallel in Cinque's meditations on his return to Mendeland. As he sets out toward Sierra Leone aboard the Gentleman, Cinque thinks about his wife Bayeh Bia and his son Gewo. Thinking about his return, Cinque decides that he will tell Gewo the "whole story … just as it happened, sparing nothing, even to reliving it." He then decides that he will "hide the worst from Bayeh Bia. She will consider us gone to war and returned whole, with our victory and our scars and our souls intact" (369). Just as Cinque and Adams had shared the same thoughts about their basic differences, so does Cinque replicate Adams's act of attempting to hide historical facts from his wife. Each man, in the end, is shown to be wrong in thinking his wife's constitution incapable of bearing the burden of the truth. Second, being shown this portrait of her husband provokes Louisa into thinking about her relationship with her mother-in-law and her attitude toward the previous generation's struggles in defining the place of women in the Constitution. Upon seeing the portrait, Louisa Adams "thought of a letter she had read only yesterday, signed Abigail Adams. Don't you think me a courageous Being? her mother-in-law had written. Courage is laudable, a Glorious virtue in your Sex, why not mine? (For my part I think you ought to applaude me for mine.) Exit. Rattle" (286).
Abigail Adams plays somewhat the same role for Louisa Adams that John Adams plays for John Quincy. Just as John Quincy lives in the shadow of his father's accomplishments, burdened by the document associated with his generation, Louisa lives within a family and in a house dominated by the spectre of her husband's mother. "The house, she knew, belonged more to her mother-in-law Abigail Adams than it would ever to her, even now. She was resigned to it. She was resigned to everything concerning the Adamses" (239). However, the image of Abigail Adams is less repressive than it is educative for Louisa. In rebelling against his father, John Quincy saw that there had never been what he called "America"—that nation embodying and practicing the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. Not rebelling so much as learning from Abigail Adams, Louisa comes to appreciate the moment when "America" could have aspired to the practice of those ideals. Louisa uses the history of her husband's parents' marriage to understand better her present situation. For her, history is intimately connected to the moment in which she lives.
It was Abigail's voice she listened to these days. That quintessential puritan woman, frugal, independent, diligent, courageous, self-righteous, ardent in love, who had only yearned for a room of her own, and for the men of the Constitution not to forget the ladies. For months she had been discovering a woman she wished she had known better. She and John Quincy had been going through her mother-in-law's letters, searching for a clue to their own dilemma. Louisa read and reread the passionate, intelligent, urgent words of the woman she had so feared when she was alive: clues to happiness, dignity, femininity, farming, child-raising. This was, thought Louisa, the American woman before being somehow left behind in the rush to form a nation of white men.
From Abigail Adams, Louisa learns what "America" could have been. Louisa, who in her husband's eyes is "American womanhood personified" (278), reads what indeed an "American woman" could have been if "America" had aspired to its articulated ideals.
Again, the Constitution plays the same fundamental role in Louisa's reassessment of her relationship with her mother-in-law as it had played in John Quincy's struggle with his father's ideals. To make the Constitution the focal point a character has to misrepresent history. Just as Trumbull had falsely ascribed to John Adams a role in the ratification of the Constitution, so does Louisa here misrepresent Abigail's address "not to forget the ladies" to the "men of the Constitution." The letter in which Abigail Adams made this request of John Adams is dated March 31, 1776, and her invocation is rather aimed at the men of the Declaration: "I long to hear that you have declared an independency—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors" (Book of Abigail and John 121). Besides making the Constitution the document at issue in this debate, Louisa's invocation of Abigail Adams's letter also points out how a failure to entrench the rights of women in the founding documents of the nation will eventually lead to an internal struggle. As she concludes that letter to her husband: "If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation" (121). Or, as she phrases it in a letter of May 7, 1776: "I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken" (127). Although Louisa misrepresents the historical occasion of Abigail's letters, she also captures an essential truth that Abigail seemed to intuit. As she noted in a letter of August 14, 1776, six weeks after the birth of the nation, she dreamed of a political establishment in which education was equally available to sons and daughters in order that "our new constitution may be distinguished for Learning and Virtue" (153). By "constitution" here, Abigail Adams, somewhat like the Virginian who wrote a letter to her son, probably means "the nation." Like the Virginian, too, she seems to suggest the implicit bond between physical beings and political formations, between the body of the subject and the body politic.
Louisa learns from and is inspired by her mother-in-law's words. Immediately after reading Abigail's letters, Louisa Adams begins to write a journal that she entitled The Adventures of a Nobody (242). She considers herself a "nobody" (first of all) because her historical role, like that of Abigail Adams, is defined only in relation to her president husband. Her journal, though, defies that definition. In it, she records the adventures of a woman who shows incredible physical strength, moral courage, and political conviction. In the bitter winter of 1815, she showed incredible physical courage when she set out from St. Petersburg to travel to Paris, taking with her a baby and three servants—"unprotected by any man" (241). "That journey," she writes, "is the only event in my life that defined me as a person. I relied only upon myself. I demonstrated that under such circumstances, a woman is equal to a man at least as one holds a cocked pistol, the great equalizer" (241). When John Quincy recalls the same scene, he remembers that while his wife was travelling for fifty-two days in an unheated carriage in a Russian winter through a landscape populated by desolate French and Russian soldiers, he had been "sleeping on feather beds in the Hague and Paris; all that while he had performed the most important task of his life, peace for the young republic" (279). While he luxuriates in physical comfort and defends his country's Constitution, which does not define Louisa as a "Person," she undergoes tremendous constitutional discomfort and defines herself as a "person" through her own actions. Reflecting on his wife's courage, John Quincy realizes that "this same woman who still believed herself so weak was strong, stronger than he" (280).
Moreover, Louisa shows moral courage when she defies her husband in Berlin in 1805. Offered a box of rouge by the Queen, Louisa accepts it against her husband's orders. When he forcibly grabs her and drags her to a wash basin to wipe off the offending rouge, she rebels again and wears the rouge publicly, defying him to control her choice of physical appearance. John Quincy flees her presence and runs out of the palace. Louisa gains the victory for control over her own body: "she had actually frightened John Quincy Adams…. Defiance: a little went a long way with her" (277-78). Louisa, in short, had defined herself as a "person" and asserted control over her own body. These, of course, are the twin issues involved in the document that defined some people as "persons" and others as "three-fifths" of a person.
From her own struggle to define herself and control her body, Louisa emerges with a set of revolutionary political convictions; like her mother-in-law, she abhors slavery and thinks that the key phrase in the document supposedly representative of the nation's founding should apply to all people. She declares to her husband that Joseph Cinque has an "inalienable right to liberty and justice as a free man" (285) in precisely the same way Abigail Adams had expressed herself to her husband in 1776 in wondering how Americans can claim "passion for Liberty" while they are "accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs" (The Book of Abigail and John 120). In Chase-Riboud's novel, the great abolitionist Angelina Grimké states Abigail Adams's sentiments: "women and slaves might have achieved equality in a single document: the Declaration of Independence that began our revolution" (276). As her sister Sarah iterates, "the cause of anti-slavery and the cause of women's rights are one and the same" (277).
Having attested to Louisa's physical strength, her political mettle, and her moral conviction, we can now examine the expression of her struggle with her mother-in-law. As she records in her journal, at the end of her Russian journey she felt she had assumed a more important place in her husband's life than had his mother: "For the first time, I am the only and most powerful woman in Mr. Adams' life" (242). Years later, when she starts to listen to "Abigail's voice," Louisa comes to realize that she is not in a competition with her mother-in-law. John Quincy Adams had already rejected the parental figure who truly represented the oppressive force. When Abigail wrote to her husband regarding the emancipation of the slaves, John Adams did nothing. When "Abigail had pleaded with John Adams" to "Remember the Ladies," John Adams "had found the very idea of female equality laughable" (239). So, when John Quincy declares that he would rather dissolve the union than condone slavery in it, he is "only reflecting his mother's fervent wish" (276). When he declares on the floor of the Senate that "The word ‘woman’ is an expression much dearer to me than that of ‘lady,’" he is again articulating his mother's feminist opinions (276). The case of the Amistad captives becomes, then, as Louisa recognizes, the crux in John Quincy's struggle between his parents' diverse influences. "I … am not a … John Adams," he declares (305). Concomitantly, as Louisa attests, "by defending Joseph Cinque, Quincy Adams championed the demands of his mother; by liberating him, he honored her memory" (276). Just as John Quincy recognizes that he is not his father, so does Louisa recognize that she cannot hope to assume the place of her mother-in-law. She also learns, though, that she can do things Abigail Adams could not.
John Quincy fulfills his mother's political vision by taking on the case of the Amistad captives. Inversely, Abigail Adams is like her son John Quincy in abhorring the idea of slavery but doing nothing tangible to end the practice of it. John Quincy, we recall, had never dined with, spoken to, prayed in the company of, or hosted a black person in his home. Abigail Adams, too, holds her antislavery convictions in isolation from the people she is putatively defending. As Sally Hemings notes upon meeting Abigail Adams in London in 1787, when she introduces herself as "Mistress Polly's slave," Abigail Adams's face settles into that "of a rich white lady eyeing a poor darky slave." She utters one word—a sudden intake of breath, "What!"—and it is, Sally Hemings informs us, the first time "Abigail Adams had ever seen or addressed a slave of her own country" (Sally Hemings 72). As her son would do some half century later, Abigail responds to Sally by noting, first and foremost, her color: "A white slave!" She initially refuses to house Sally, claiming that she "won't have a slave, black or white, under" her roof (73). Eventually she allows Sally to stay, but everything Sally does annoys Abigail (77). In love with the idea of an America without slavery, Abigail Adams, like her son, does not take it upon herself to know the people behind her idea. As John Callahan notes in another context, in "interracial relations the African-American often becomes the cynosure, the bearer of burdens, and finally the metaphor for freedom in the nation" (239-40). What the African American does not become in this situation is a whole person. For John Quincy to overcome his willful segregation of his world, and to know (constitutionally) the people whose freedom he found it easy enough to speak for, he had to meet, talk with, listen to, and feel a personal (indeed familial) sympathy for Joseph Cinque.
Louisa Adams goes further than mother and son. The night she was to have her discussion with John Quincy about Cinque's "inalienable rights," she goes to the Washington jail to visit the fugitive slaves who had been captured. As she looks into the scarred and degraded faces of these men and women, Louisa Adams comes to understand what slavery as an institution means to the bodies of the individuals it brutalizes. Before this, her knowledge of slavery was confined to reading newspaper reports: "Louisa had often read the advertisements for fugitive slaves, but until now they had meant nothing to her." Now, she looks at the people who are, as she will later point out, constitutionally the same as she and yet denied their freedom because of their color. She peers into "face after face" and comes to the alarming (and enabling) realization that it was "humiliating to be on the other side of freedom. She was shocked at her inability to pronounce anything but the worst banalities, embarrassing even to herself to realize how poor any gift was when the only gift, the only thing that would make them smile, was liberty" (283-84). As she peers into the faces of real people, she is troubled by a question that keeps turning in her head: "What does this have to do with me?" (283). She returns home, settles into her bath, and converses with her husband about the "inalienable rights" of a black man. That is her immediate action in answer to her perplexing question.
Louisa Adams's more important action occurs six years later, the year her husband dies at his desk in the House. Louisa Adams buys "the title to a slave woman named Julia and freed her. She wrote in her Adventures of a Nobody that she was ‘as glad as if I was buying my own freedom’" (Echo of Lions 374). It is only when she feels herself constitutionally involved—when another person's freedom is imbricated intimately into the question of one's own freedom—that she performs an act of true sympathy. Julia is not just a theoretical issue for Louisa Adams; she is a person, and now a free person because of Louisa's act. The purchase and manumission of Julia in 1848, in effect replicates the story of another slave whose freedom was purchased in December 1846 and whose significance to Echo of Lions Chase-Riboud notes on the next page—namely, Frederick Douglass (375).
Louisa Adams's action is simply recorded in the epilogue to Echo of Lions. Chase-Riboud does not editorialize one way or the other. There is a hint that if every "nobody" had such as "adventure," slavery would have ended long before it did. There is also a suggestion that her action is comparable to that of another she records in her epilogue—John Quincy Adams's reading before the House a petition from forty-six citizens of Haverhill, Massachusetts, praying to dissolve the Union of the United States (373). While her husband attempts to do what he had failed to do in 1820 during the Missouri Compromise, Louisa Adams frees a solitary individual. On the one hand, had Adams succeeded he would have dissolved the Constitution; but he failed. On the other hand, Louisa Adams succeeded in ensuring that there was one less body suffering in slavery. There are diverse places for politics, Chase-Riboud seems to be saying—the body, the court, and the nation. John Quincy would dissolve the union to promote a nonslaveholding republic. That decision he made after he met Joseph Cinque. Louisa Adams would free any person she could free because she had responded to her own question about slavery in America—"What does this have to do with me?"—by answering, "Everything."
In the epilogue, Chase-Riboud tells a story that mediates the diverse actions of Louisa and John Quincy Adams. On April 6, 1847, eight months after Douglass was manumitted and a year before Julia was freed by Louisa Adams, a young couple filed a petition in Missouri circuit court requesting permission to bring suit against Irene Emerson in order to establish their right to freedom. Their names were Harriet and Dred Scott. Chase-Riboud notes the relationship between this event and the one that has occupied her novel. In 1856, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who had sat on the Supreme Court during the case of the Amistad captives, delivered the majority decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Dred Scott v. United States that "a Negro was not a citizen with standing in the courts or under the Constitution" (Echo of Lions 374). The case of Dred Scott v. United States casts a gloomy shadow over the case of the Amistad captives in Echo of Lions. It provides the final evidence that there is no such thing as "a story of slavery with a happy ending" (Echo of Lions 341). It also provides Chase-Riboud's challenge to the Constitution with what I am calling the "issues of Dred Scott"—the ideas expressed by John Quincy and Louisa Adams in their respective responses to slavery.
Taney's decision had no bearing on Dred Scott's ultimate fate. In the end, Dred Scott was manumitted because of a white citizen's money. In fact, his freedom had to be rented also because he and his wife had to post a bond of one thousand dollars to continue living in Missouri (Fehrenbacher 293). For the final sixteen months of his life, before dying of tuberculosis on September 17, 1858, he lived to employ Patricia Williams's useful term, as a "slave who was unowned" (21). Like Julia, the slave bought and freed by Louisa Adams, Dred Scott represented the gaining of freedom within a system that did not grant him any rights. One issue of Dred Scott, then, is the question of how an individual can gain freedom in a country constituted on the principle that some are propertied and others property. That is the issue Louisa Adams answers by freeing Julia. She attempts to obliterate what Williams calls "spirit murder" by responding with constitutional love. The "issue" for Louisa Adams is for an individual person to feel so wholly involved in the freedom of another that she acts to gain that other person's freedom with the same tenacity as if she were maintaining her own liberty.
The other issue of Dred Scott is the system itself and, more particularly, the document used to uphold it. That is John Quincy's issue. Both in his personal wish that he could have created a crisis situation in the Constitution in 1820 and in his continuing role in Congress of presenting petitions calling for the termination of the Union, John Quincy represents the insurrectionary desire to denounce and repudiate the Constitution. For him to have come to this conclusion, John Quincy also had to learn what constitutional love means. He had to change his thinking about what responsibility each per- son who was granted rights by a document that constitutionally denied them to others had to denounce, repudiate, and attempt to bring into contempt that document. In this marriage of true minds, one spouse works at attaining freedom for those for whom she feels a constitutional love while the other works at ending the tyranny of the document that made legal the subdivision of African American bodies.
In her treatment of the "issues of Dred Scott" and the representation of the Constitution, Chase-Riboud belongs to a tradition of African American writing that began with David Walker's Appeal and intensified with the Dred Scott decision. Her method of writing tentative resolutions to the "issues" seems to be especially indebted to another writer in that same tradition. I am someone, writes James Baldwin, who was "once defined by the American Constitution as ‘three-fifths’ of a man, and who, according to the Dred Scott decision, had no rights that a white man was bound to respect." In a country with such a Constitution and such a judiciary, Baldwin continues, there is simply no possibility of a real change in the African American community's situation "without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure" (115). That change, though, Baldwin maintains, must work at more than the structural level. Baldwin resolutely asserts that while structural changes are being sought and fought for, while attempts are made at systemic refiguration of the Constitution, what is equally and "desperately sought and so cunningly avoided" is what I have called a constitutional love. "Love," writes Baldwin, "takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word "love' here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being," or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth" (128). It is a love, Baldwin intimates, that requires us to think of others as parts of ourselves. "One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself," he points out, and "after all, one can give freedom only by setting someone free" (117). Like Baldwin, Chase-Riboud also articulates a change to the Constitution at two levels, arguing for the equal necessities of systemic change and personal love. While John Quincy tries to bring about radical changes in the political structure of the United States, Louisa Adams gives freedom (and herself) by setting Julia free.
In the end, Louisa and John Quincy Adams are not the most important characters in Echo of Lions. John Quincy Adams is important to the story because he is one of the defense lawyers for Cinque and the Amistad captives; his ruminations on the Constitution and the crisis in the Union he wishes he had the courage to effect are significant because they echo within this narrative the sentiments of those black Americans responding to the Dred Scott decision with defiance. Likewise, Louisa Adams is a relatively minor character in this large and rich novel; her action of buying Julia and freeing her is meant to highlight the intent of individual actions like those that manumitted Frederick Douglass and Dred Scott. In terms of the novel as a whole, though the ways that John Quincy and Louise Adams are represented pale beside Chase-Riboud's exquisite portrayals of the majestic Joseph Cinque or the noble James Covey or the lively and wise Vivian Braithewaite. Nonetheless, the representation of the Adams family is important because this is a novel about disturbing "family resemblances," disrupting the tyranny of polarity of colors, and revealing the ways that a constitutional love can provide a measure of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Likewise, the challenge to the Constitution is but one aspect of Chase-Riboud's complex novel. Her examination of a historical document is also just one aspect of her general critique of conventional historiography. She asserts that one form of writing can answer the failings of history as it is now written and that one motivation for that form of writing can enable the examination of historical documents. That form of writing is biography and the motivation is constitutional love. Regarding one set of privileged, racially defined family resemblances over another potential set of family resemblances leads to "spirit murder." Taking an attitude that those different from oneself are beyond the pale of regard leads to the reification of such differences. Countering this "spirit murder," Chase-Riboud presents an Afrocentric philosophy of unity and continuity. As Cinque summarizes: "I believe, as my ancestors did, in Fate. I believe in the onward rush of history beyond our birth and our death. I believe we are, black and white, Gewo's long biography in which all the faults and all the joys of the world are One" (368).
Joseph Cinque speaks these words on the day he leaves America and sails toward Sierra Leone. "Gewo" is both the Mende word for God and the name of Cinque's eldest son. As he sails towards Sierra Leone, he decides that he will tell Gewo the "whole story … just as it had happened, sparing nothing, even to reliving it" (369). It is his story to relive in order to spare his son's living it. Tragically, Cinque will return to Mendeland only to discover that his whole family and his whole village have been captured and transported into Western slavery. It is the last piece of evidence in this novel that there is no such thing as a happy story of slavery as long as slavery exists. So long as some members of the human family are enslaved to others, there cannot be a happy story.
Chase-Riboud uses John Quincy and Louisa Adams to show how individuals come to realize that "family" is an expansive term. Each struggles with a family ances- tor in order to determine that the Founding Fathers' document did not create what the Declaration of Independence proclaimed. The final word on family resemblances, though, comes from Vivian Braithwaite, the doomed daughter of Henry Braithwaite the printer. Her last words to Cinque as he prepares to go back to Sierra Leone are to "remember us, the orphans of the one-way voyage" (368). We are, she says, "orphans, standing on the blank page of America, waiting to be acknowledged" (367). Vivian Braithwaite is doomed not only because she dies in the novel, but also because she is an "orphan" in a story about family resemblances and a non-entity in a country whose founding fathers produced a document that is a blank page to its black population.4 Chase-Riboud's response to the image of an orphaned people, like her response to the whitewashed document that orphaned them, is to point the way toward a communal social vision in a different color: "all our voyages, all our biographies, become one. In sanctified Black" (365).
1. All quotations from the Constitution come from "Appendix B" in the Colliers' Decision in Philadelphia (375-87). All quotations from the Amendments come from the copy reprinted in "Appendix II" in Kethcam's The Anti-Federalist Papers (363-41).
2. I have discussed elsewhere the different kinds of revisionary strategies employed by contemporary African-American writers in their confrontations with the historiography of American chattel slavery—Charles Johnson ("The Phenomenology of the Allmuseri") and Toni Morrison ("Daughters Signifyin(g) History").
3. Justice Harlan wrote the dissent to the Court decision. The words have been ascribed to him by Zinn (200). The more popular version credits the counsel for the defense Albion W. Tourgée with the phrase. According to Blaustein and Zandrando, Tourgée's exact words were: "Justice is pictured blind and her daughter, the Law, ought at least to be color-blind" (296). In his dissent, Harlan argued that the Plessy judgment "will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case" (163 U.S. at 559; qtd. in Blaustein and Zandrando (295).
4. In the final paragraph of this "nonfiction novel" Chase-Riboud points out that "Braithwaite" is "a family name on my mother's side" (376). This gives a nice closure to a text that began with a dedication to a father who believes irrevocably in the Constitution and represents an offspring (John Quincy) who chooses to follow his mother's political ideals over the document of his father's generation.
Adams, John Quincy. Argument of John Quincy Adams Before the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of the United States, Appellants, Vs. Cinque, and Others, Africans, Captured in the Schooner Amistad, by Lieut. Gedney, Delivered on the 24th of February and 1st of March, 1841. 1841. New York: Negro UP, 1969.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. "There Is No More Beautiful Way: Theory and the Poetics of Afro-American Women's Writing." Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s. Eds. Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Patricia Redmond. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. 135-63.
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. 1962. New York: Laurel, 1988.
Beard, Charles. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. 1913. New York: Macmillan, 1935.
Bell, Derrick. And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice. New York: Basic Books, 1987.
———. Race, Racism and American Law. 1973. Second edition. Boston: Little, 1980.
Blaustein, Albert P., and Robert L. Zangrando, Eds. Civil Rights and African Americans: A Documentary History. 1968. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1991.
The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784. Ed. L. H. Butterfield, Marc Friedlaender, and Mary-Jo Kone. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.
Callahan, John. F. In the African-American Grain: Calland-Response in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction. 1988. Middletown, CT.: Wesleyan UP, 1989.
Chase-Riboud, Barbara. Echo of Lions. New York: Morrow, 1989.
———. Sally Hemings. New York: Viking, 1979.
Collier, Christopher, and James Lincoln Collier. Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787. 1986. New York: Ballantine, 1987.
Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. 5 volumes. Ed. Philip S. Foner. New York: International Publishers, 1950-1975.
Fehrenbacher, Don E. Slavery, Law, & Politics: The Dred Scott Case in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.
Gregory, Dick. No More Lies: The Myth and Reality of American History. Ed. James R. McGraw. New York: Harper, 1971.
Jefferson, Thomas. The Portable Thomas Jefferson. Ed. Merrill D. Peterson. New York: Penguin, 1975.
Jones, Howard. Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Ketcham, Ralph, Ed. The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates. New York: Mentor, 1986.
Lacan, Jacques. "The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis." Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock, 1977. 30-113.
McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: Norton, 1991.
Purvis, Robert, "[Resolutions Regarding the Dred Scott Decision, 1857]," The Liberator (April 10, 1857). Aptheker 392-94.
Randall, James. "Interview with Michael S. Harper," Ploughshares 7.1 (1981): 11-27.1
Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. "Daughters Signifyin(g) History: The Example of Toni Morrison's Beloved." American Literature 64.3 (September, 1992).
———. "The Phenomenology of the Allmuseri: Charles Johnson and the Subject of the Narrative of Slavery." Black American Literature Forum (1992).
Walker, Alice. Meridian. 1976. New York: Pocketbooks, 1986.
Walker, David. David Walker's Appeal, In Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, To the Colored Citizens of the World, But in Particular, and very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America. 1829. Ed. Charles M. Wiltse. New York: Hill, 1965.
Williams, Patricia J. The Alchemy of Race and Rights. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.
Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper, 1980.
Emma Waters Dawson (essay date 1997)
SOURCE: Dawson, Emma Waters. "Witnesses and Practitioners: Attitudes toward Miscegenation in Barbara Chase-Riboud's Sally Hemings." In Recovered Writers/Recovered Texts: Race, Class, and Gender in Black Women's Literature, edited by Dolan Hubbard, pp. 1-14. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Dawson investigates the diverse attitudes toward miscegenation displayed by the characters in Sally Hemings.]
In 1979, amid widely varied critical reception—much of it controversial—Barbara Chase-Riboud published an epic novel, Sally Hemings. Prompted, in part, by Fawn Brodie's 1974 biography Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, Chase-Riboud revisions history as she reinserts into it the slave woman's voice.1 She adapts to fiction the life and experiences of Sally Hemings, the reputed mistress of American statesman Thomas Jefferson. Basing her novel upon the much disputed thirty-eight-years' affair between Jefferson and Hemings following the death of his wife—the half-sister of Sally—and resulting in the birth of seven children, Chase-Riboud raises many questions about their illicit and illegal love affair.2 As the slave mistress of Jefferson, Hemings was placed in a highly contradictory position—connected, yet excluded from the dominant discourse of American politics. She had no recognizable public presence. The novel Sally Hemings captures Hemings's public presence, places her at the center of American political discourse, and questions the issue of marriage and property.
Hemings's public voice is silenced not only because she is an unmarried woman but also because she has the blood of Africa flowing in her veins; consequently, she does not conform to the dominant ideologies of womanhood which excluded her from the definition of woman.3 Chase-Riboud recovers and reconstructs the vibrant presence of the enslaved Hemings, whose voice is silenced by the political and sexual ideologies of the nineteenth century. She produces an alternative American romance—one that counters the official national romances of George and Martha Washington and James and Dolly Madison.
Though consigned to live in darkness (shadows), Hemings fires the emotions of Jefferson. Their love disrupts the social text, for it reveals a split between public and private self-representations. Specifically, it is the notion of a private romance between master and slave expressed through Jefferson's ritual visits to her cabin at the end of the road that forms the link between his ruminations on race and our continuing debate on race and rights. Of Sally Hemings, Chase-Riboud states, "That she loved [Jefferson]—in the way we interpret love today—is still a question…. it still hangs in the air, even after you've read the book. And you will have to make up your own mind" (Wilson 13). Significantly, the novel challenges conventional notions of what was possible for black slave women. In her quiet way, Chase-Riboud's Hemings transgresses the boundaries of slave etiquette. Finally, the novel challenges us to read African American women's literary tradition in new ways.
To assist in this process, I suggest an examination of the diverse attitudes toward miscegenation, as believed, questioned, professed, voiced, lived, and affirmed by the characters in the eighteenth-century Albemarle County, Virginia, setting where American cultural etiquette has relegated the Jefferson-Hemings love story to the back pages of American history. Passed down from generation to generation, this dramatic love story, nevertheless, survives in black folklore.4 Within the parameters of an 1830s setting, Chase-Riboud, through flashback technique, explores the consciousness of various characters and affirms codes of conduct for the practitioners and witnesses of miscegenation.
Despite condemnatory rebuttals by apologists who have defended Jefferson's character and not Hemings's, Chase-Riboud published her work as fiction, not history; consequently, the present discussion will consider Sally Hemings as a novel based on historical fact. I will survey the text in its adherence to features of the novel such as chronological progression, continued presence of leading characters, the dramatic re-creation of a world through action, dialogue, and images which recall this larger than life love story between Jefferson and Hemings. Through a series of shifts in the consciousness of various characters and fragmentary dialogue, Chase-Riboud reveals the unsanctioned romantic codes that caused love to blossom in the heart of master and slave. Thus, the novel is an attempt to revision, reclaim, and empower an African American slave woman denied her place in historical texts. In effect, Chase-Riboud re-creates the 1830s Albemarle County, Virginia, setting with its easy gentility that masks the cruel nature of "the peculiar institution."
By depicting the various interactions between slave and master, black and white, and male and female through shifts in consciousness and dialogue between characters, Chase-Riboud transforms Sally Hemings into a vehicle of rage directed not only against the ironies present in Thomas Jefferson's personal "history" but also against the principles of the Founding Fathers, resulting in her empowerment of a black female slave protagonist never freed by her master and lover. The proximity of this comely slave concubine to the "apostle of freedom" posed a clear and present danger to our national myth of Anglo-American superiority.
The central theme in Sally Hemings, however, is miscegenation and the effect of the power of love between slave master and concubine, manifested not only through the relationship between the fictional Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings but also through other relationships: public official-slave, parent-child (master and slave), slave woman-slave mistress, slave mother-daughter, slave master-slave mistress, and male-female slave. Through a careful review of the historical record, Chase-Riboud juxtaposes the characters to reveal their corresponding and opposing attitudes toward miscegenation. She empowers Hemings through dialogue, snippets of conversation, testimonials, and indirection. Through backhanded compliments and unconscious slips of the tongue, characters depict a woman of great integrity. The net effect is that Chase-Riboud provides Hemings with a measure of authority unknown to her in real life.5
My purpose here in focusing upon the black female protagonist and her assertions and reactions to the behavior of others is to establish Chase-Riboud's empowerment of the black female slave. Hemings, as metaphor for slave women, displaces the criticism heaped upon her by historians and other critics of oral history.6 Specifically, I intend to examine Chase-Riboud's development of the theme of miscegenation and its meaning to key figures in the novel who either witnessed or practiced miscegenation within the dramatically recreated experience of slavery in this historical romance. By representing the tension between Jefferson's desire to be a gentle lover in private and his public objection to social intercourse between whites and blacks (his concord with prevailing political and sexual ideology), Chase-Riboud illuminates the chasm between the proper mulatta and respectability.7
Chase-Riboud recognizes the problem of unity in her historical reconstruction. As a partial solution, she introduces the seven sections and a majority of the novel's forty-five chapters with quotations from an ecumenical array of political personalities and social critics (e.g., Abigail Adams, Thomas Carlyle, Margaret Douglas, Edmund Burke, Friedrich Engels, Mary Boykin Chestnut, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and W. E. B. Du Bois) on the contradictions inherent in both slavery and love. The cumulative effect of these quotations serve to remind the reader of the racist and sexist attitudes that inform America's august national documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. In spite of state-sanctioned oppression, the democratic impulse of love transcends the socially constructed barriers of class and caste.
The epigraph that introduces chapter 1 sets the tenor and tone of the historical romance and ironically foreshadows events to unfold. Jefferson's own words from the privately published Notes on the State of Virginia (1790) function as metaphor for the new Republic's struggle with the dark night of its national soul and present the reader with the difficulty many American citizens have in transcending race and color: "There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us" (162).8
In this astute analysis, Jefferson acknowledges that the institutionalization of slavery began the nation's descent into sin. Miscegenation is the scarlet letter of national shame. Miscegenation derives from two Latin words, miscere (to mix) and genus (race), to denote the abstract idea of the mixture of two or more races.9 The mulatta is the physical manifestation of white, male America's libertine manners—and of its strident refusal to acknowledge patrimony. In the retelling of the Jefferson-Hemings romance, Chase-Riboud places a human face on this contradiction in the American national character.
The novel begins in flashback in Albemarle County, Virginia, twenty-six years after the death of Thomas Jefferson. Chase-Riboud develops first the relationship existing between the public official and slave through the consciousness of the white census taker, Nathan Langdon, and his thoughts on the "myths" of slavery as he approaches the cabin of Sally Hemings and her two sons, Eston and Madison, the only remaining two of the five living children who have not yet "strolled away," that is, passed for white. Langdon recalls his northern education and his experience of convincing northerners about the realities of slavery and dispelling popular tales to establish that Virginian slave owners did not own thousands of slaves that they starved and beat, that the slave owners' and slaves' breeding habits were not aberrant, and that neither possessed an inordinate number of abnormalities, such as "tails, two heads."10
Chase-Riboud explores the consciousness of a white public official as his southern white male perspective questions others' (northerners') misconceptions about slave ownership, treatment of slaves, and irregular physical and sexual dispositions of slave owners and slaves. Langdon, who embodies the sensibility of the landed gentry, disclaims such myths while simultaneously relying upon a belief in the inherent, "Godgiven" superiority of whites over blacks. He accepts uncritically the offspring of slave master and slave as proof of sin against the moral order. Langdon represents the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century southern, white, male slave owner and his peculiar attitude toward miscegenation.
Pondering his inability to explain the system to northerners so that they might understand, Langdon asserts to himself that the intimate nature of miscegenation hybridizes a superior and inferior race; "to intermingle them was an error against God, Nature and Society. No matter how many mulattoes, quadroons, octoroons, metis issued from lust or passion" (8). The expectation that either party engaged in miscegenation should have behaved in an ethically straightforward decorum is somewhat presumptuous and incredible when such liaisons were deemed illegal and taboo despite the pervasiveness of its practice. Hence, at the core of Langdon's belief system is a society vastly different in its protocol for masters and slaves as well as for men and women.
Even after the New England-educated Langdon visits the home of Sally Hemings, a former slave who looks white, he finds it extremely difficult to address her as a respectable woman. Her gentility negates everything he has been taught to believe about the supposedly inferior race. When the census taker meets the much discussed but seldom seen mystery woman of Albemarle County, her very presence causes the rumors of her affair with Thomas Jefferson to recede into the background. No longer the invisible woman, Hemings calls into question the irrational basis for the racial stereotypes that trap her outside of history. Full of ambivalence, Langdon resolves the conflict in a manner consistent with his socialization in a white, patriarchal society. He refuses to acknowledge that Thomas Jefferson could be guilty of miscegenation—a tabooed practice if acknowledged publicly.
Accordingly, Langdon analyzes the implications behind the rumored affair between Jefferson and Hemings when he considers Sally Hemings's rumored identity and the liaison with Jefferson, concluding that the statesman may, indeed, have violated the law against miscegenation (17). Langdon not only records the ages, family status, and occupation of Sally Hemings and her two sons, but he also writes in their race as white. As census taker, he denies the American slave woman Sally Hemings her rightful place in history. Chase-Riboud's depiction of Langdon's identifying Hemings as white illustrates his manipulation of public documents and symbolizes how history may be altered by the recorder, whether he be historian or census taker.
Interestingly enough, historian Fawn Brodie alludes to the one missing record in the letter-index volume recording Jefferson's incoming and outgoing letters for the critical year of 1788. Jefferson went on vacation to Holland and Germany while he was ambassador in Paris; Sally Hemings accompanied him there as maid to his two daughters. Brodie wrote: "This raises the question whether or not someone at some time went through Jefferson's papers systematically eliminating every possible reference to Sally Hemings. Letters from Jefferson to Sally's brothers, and from her brothers to him, are extant. But no letters or notes exchanged between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson have yet ever found their way into the public record" (301). The novel Sally Hemings, therefore, becomes a necessary response not only to historical texts but also to white, male reality manifested in the control of history. Hence, in changing Sally Hemings's racial identity, Langdon also erases Jefferson's "sin" and legal violation, miscegenation—actions depicted and implied through Chase-Riboud's creative response to Langdon's character (21-22).
Chase-Riboud also explores miscegenation through a parent-child relationship in shifting consciousness to center upon the offspring of a mixed relationship. The chapter's maxim characterizing the state of this relationship also excerpts from Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, 1790. It reads: "The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities" (22).
Literally, this epigraph relates to the behavior of the slave owner's white child. As he becomes heir to his parent's property, he assumes the father's conduct. Because the prevailing code of conduct dictated that the white father not acknowledge his slave offspring, his children followed suit, resulting in generations of perpetual silence, as well as a lack of self-identity for the mixed offspring. In the context of the Hemings' family status as former slaves in Virginia, where it was illegal for free blacks to reside, Sally's son Madison tries to understand his mother's refusal to leave Monticello. Through his character, Chase-Riboud imagines the impact of miscegenation upon the offspring of such a liaison. Madison, for example, realizes gradually that his mother is mute on the subject of his paternity; her silence on his origins is consistent with the way slave children were reared. In his or her confrontation with the silence of history, the slave child's main source of information regarding paternal identity remained older slaves, mammies, and whites' conversations. Received in such a covert manner, the information provided bitterness, pain, and humiliation "without alleviating the burden" (26).
Manifesting "odious peculiarities," as Jefferson described the effect of slavery upon children, Madison recalls his self-inflicted pain which prompted him to butt his head against the fence, producing blood, because "he couldn't understand why his father didn't love him" (26). Built out of impotence, Madison's rage is the result of miscegenation's effect upon the offspring, yet it is also indicative of the erasure of self-identity that characterizes the plight of slave children.
Chase-Riboud's depiction of the legacy of the slave son in her historical romance is similar to the recent characterization of Golden Gray in Toni Morrison's latest novel, Jazz (1992). After learning the identity of his father, Gray, a child of mixed parentage—the white mistress and black male slave—initially seeks his father, Hunters Hunter (Henry Les Troy or Lestory), in order to kill him. However, in comparing his emptiness (the loss of a father) to an amputated arm, the character reveals the feelings and emotions of the mulatto offspring who has been raised ignorant of his father's identity. Though Sally Hemings and Jazz contrast the racial identities of the fathers, both children still experience a void in their lives life—a lack of self-identity.
A rhetoric of silence undermines the ideology of motherhood in the slave community. Truth is corrupted; motherhood is a lie, for it is incompatible with the ideology of slavery. Placed in an untenable position, the slave mother tries to comply with her dual and contradictory roles as worker and concubine. In "Somebody Forgot to Tell Somebody Something," Barbara Christian comments on the challenge before the African American woman writer. The African American woman writer must recover the voice of the black woman and displace a deafening silence surrounding her active role of heroic resistance. The cost of this silence still undermines the social fabric of the African American community. It stunts the vitality of the community, as is evident in the concern that post-World War II generation of African Americans have for their children's lack of knowledge of their history (326).
Similarly Chase-Riboud sees a parallel situation in post-revolutionary America. Sally Hemings maintains a deafening silence as she strives to protect the identity of her children's father. In a cruel irony, she protects the identity of Jefferson, a Founding Father of the new Republic, while simultaneously blocking their just claim to their patrimony as sons of the founder. The post-revolutionary setting of the novel serves to heighten the irony. This Founding Father did not intend for freedom to apply equally to the enslaved Africans, even if they had his blood flowing through their veins. Jefferson's public denial of Hemings underscores the pervasive influence of the tabooed behavior not only upon them, but also upon future generations. Future generations are heirs to the denial of patrimony. Figuratively and literally, the curse of the father would be visited upon future generations. It is in this sense that Chase-Riboud's re-creation of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship is a mediation on history. Surely, the exploration of miscegenation via the adult examination of childhood knowledge underscores the pervasive influence of the tabooed behavior not only upon the couple involved in the illicit relationship but also upon future generations.
In the Albemarle County setting of 1830, Sally Hemings flashes back to an earlier time, 22 August 1807, when her mother, Elizabeth Hemings, dies at age seventy-two. Present at her bedside are Sally and Martha Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson's daughter and Sally's niece, since Martha is the offspring of Jefferson and his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, Sally's half-sister. John Wayles, another white slave owner, fathered both Martha Wayles Jefferson and six of Elizabeth Hemings's twelve children. It is through this bedside scenario of the women's interactions with each other that Chase-Riboud develops relations between slave mistress and slave woman concubine, the slave woman's compliance to her dual roles of worker and concubine, and the oral inheritance from slave-mother concubine to slave-daughter concubine.
On her deathbed, Elizabeth recounts her life—serving the passions of John Wayles and running his household for eleven years—her connection with his white children (especially Martha), and her love for both the black and white children. Elizabeth's confession implies an ethic of laboring benignly as a mammy figure, yet adapting to her forced state without malice. Certainly, the scene responds to historical fact, for, according to C. Minrose Gwin, "it is not the smallest irony of the slavocracy that its codes of conduct demanded moral superiority from white women and sexual availability from black, yet simultaneously expected mistress and slave woman to live and work in intimate physical proximity" (39). Continuing inquiry into another relative effect of miscegenation, Chase-Riboud describes "a strange and southern circle of complicity: the concubine, daughter, the mistress and the slave; the aunt and the niece. The three women reflected the intricate and convoluted ties that bound them one to the other: blood, love, servitude, hate, womanhood, time" (28).
The bonds of family revolve around the white slave master, who—as father, master, husband, and lover—creates feelings of love, servitude, hate, and acceptance.11 Though the slave master's role is framed by the connection existing between slave mistress and slave woman, Chase-Riboud focuses on the bond between slave mother and daughter. She creatively inquires into another relative effect of miscegenation, the code of silence regarding the slave master's miscegenation in a patriarchal society. However, in Elizabeth's deathbed account of John Wayles's dying and not freeing her or any of her children, Elizabeth reminds Sally of the advice she has given all of her beautiful daughters: "Don't love no masta if he don't promise in writing to free your children. Don't do it. Get killed first, get beaten first. The best is not to love them in the first place. Love your own color if you can, and if you're chosen, get that freedom for your children…. He never promised and I never asked. I just expected. A terrible thing for a slave to do. Expect" (31).
Elizabeth's admonishment gives valuable insight to the study of the link between written language and power, for without written documentation to free them, both Elizabeth and Sally, two generations witnessing and practicing miscegenation, remain merely a slave master's concubine, his legal property. In her deathbed litany, Elizabeth Hemings announces to Sally and Martha why Jefferson years earlier had lost a case defending a mulatto claiming freedom because his great-grandmother was a white woman who had a child by a black slave father. She tells them that the state of Virginia did not want to hear anything about a white woman committing miscegenation, for they felt that all of her babies would be born black. Furthermore, she tells them, such a white woman found guilty of amalgamation risked being sold into slavery for five years and having her child sold for thirty years. She wonders why the law did not apply as well to a black woman having a "white" baby.
In "The Darkened Eye Restored," a cogent review of black women in the making of American literary history, Mary Helen Washington shows that two generations later a caravan of black women scholars fulfill her expectations. Busy about their mother's house, black women scholars explore the manifold dimensions of the life lived by their foremothers and smash pernicious stereotypes. Drawing upon feminist cultural history and literary theory, they drive a truth train across the missing pages of American history, picking up the stories told by their wayfaring sisters. Washington notes, "Their literature [black women writers'] is about Black women; it takes the trouble to record the thoughts, words, feelings, and deeds of Black women, experiences that make the realities of being black in America look very different from what men have written" (35). In the above passage, Chase-Riboud not only captures the material conditions under which so many black women were forced to live but she also reveals the willing suspension of belief on the part of many white women. Hence, Chase-Riboud considers the sexual determination of both black and white women in exploring Elizabeth's testimony to the power the slave master wielded. She confesses her errors in mothering Sally and her daughters in the only way she knew how. She ultimately real- izes that her vision of the perfect slave had coincided with Jefferson's vision of the perfect woman. The mother dies full of contempt and love, convinced her daughter not only loved Thomas Jefferson, but also that Sally "was still childish, rancorless, detached, except for that which concerned what she loved" (39).
As Barbara Christian reminds us, "Re-memory is a critical determinant in how we value the past, what we remember, what we select to emphasize; what we forget" (1990, 333). When Sally recalls a scene that occurred more than twenty years earlier, she forces herself to acknowledge both her mother's and her own past. She realizes that both she and her mother had erred in their blind trust of their masters/lovers. At a time when Sally feels her aloneness, she remembers the urgency of her mother's dying confession, as well as Elizabeth's reprimand years earlier in the spring of 1795, after her return to Monticello following Sally's sojourn in Paris. In Elizabeth's advising and reproving Sally, the mother points out the trapped state of both women. She upbraids Sally for foolishly returning from her state of freedom in Paris to slavery in Virginia, endangering her life, gambling with her fate as a slave woman, and testing the power of love in her liaison with Jefferson. Elizabeth justifiably voices her disapproval of the affair as a mother who has not only witnessed miscegenation but also practiced it as well. She rants: "You forgot the first lesson of slavery, your blackness. And you forgot the second, loving somebody you ain't got no business loving…. The man you got has no business loving, either. He's put himself in danger as well—don't forget that when you start feeling sorry for yourself. In danger from his own white folks, loving somebody, he, with all his money and power, ain't got no right to love" (209).
The abolitionists' slogan that complete power corrupts is nowhere more apparent than in Elizabeth's assessment of Hemings's and Jefferson's violations of the slave woman's and slave master's ethics of miscegenation. Sally recognizes years later the full impact of her daring to love Jefferson at the coinciding of two pivotal events in the novel: Langdon's altering of Sally Hemings's racial identity and the insurrection and execution of Nat Turner. Finally, Sally understands the meaning of power.
Chase-Riboud's epigraph foreshadows Sally Hemings's reaction to the news of Nat Turner's insurrection and alludes to another effect of slavery upon its practitioners: "With the morals of the people their industry also is destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself, who can make another labour for him" (41). Though Jefferson's reference is obviously to the proprietors of slavery, Chase-Riboud innovatively structures the novel so that the epigraph ironically predicts Sally's acknowledgment of her powerlessness in her affair with Jefferson. "In her loneliness and weariness," Sally recalls, "she had failed to remember the first lesson of Black womanhood: never touch a white man" (47). She echoes her mother's sentiments, yet her knowledge of Langdon's altering her history forced Sally to act independently and assert herself in a way that she had never done in her life. She explodes and informs Langdon of her tiredness of white men playing God with her flesh, spirit, children, and life. Unlike the woman she had been at her mother's death, the fifty-four-year-old Sally denounces Langdon in telling him: "Instead of being black and a slave, I'm now free and white. … You've left me nothing of my own. Not even my color! … I can't forgive another man" (58-59).
Sally's denunciation is a precursor of the silent scream in Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose (1987). Dessa screams her rage to herself at the scene of miscegenation involving her male slave friend Nathan and the slave mistress Rufel by exhorting, "Can't I have nothing? Can't I have nothing?" (175). Both scenes challenge conventional notions of what is possible for black women characters, dissenting from exclusively subordinate roles; moreover, dissenting not only empowers the characters but also retrieves the collective history of the black slave woman.
Sally Hemings's personal quest for self-assertion extends to the depiction of communal support. It is another man, however, in the figure of Nat Turner, who spiritually saves Sally in her efforts to face the consequences of miscegenation affecting her throughout her life. The chapter's epigraph anticipating this emancipation reads: "The spirit of the master is abating that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing … for a total emancipation" (63). In 1831, Sally forces her son to take her to Jerusalem, Virginia, to witness Nat Turner's execution, preceded by the insurrection itself, which forces her to face "the truth of her life: she had loved the enemy" (64).
Ralph Reckley observes that Chase-Riboud never lets the reader forget "Sally Hemings is Black, female, slave…. And while the character is deluded into believing that she is something more than property, the realization slowly comes to her that she is, and her love for Jefferson becomes an ambiguous, bitter thing" (35). In realizing the error in her action, Sally comes to see Turner as a real symbol of power. She finally understands, "This man had killed her enemies. For her! He had taken them on and fought them to his last breath…. He had stood while she had done nothing for herself all these years except submit" (65). Though Sally's attendance at Nat Turner's execution signals her support of a black man on a collective quest in the slave community, it also signifies her individual pursuit of self-assertion by affirming the unity of the aggregate racial struggle against slavery. By witnessing Nat Turner's execution, Sally is empowered, even though she had thought she knew all about real power, having spent forty years of life daily with Thomas Jefferson and having witnessed Jefferson's friends and enemies seek power or pay homage to it. Nat Turner's insurrection, however, magnifies the significance of power for her as Chase-Riboud explores Sally's psyche and reveals that Sally
had never understood until now, however, why men lusted after it with such ferocity; why they fought, killed, slandered, flattered, begged, worshipped, begot sons in its name. All the Burrs, the Hamiltons, and the Washingtons that she had seen come and go had never been able to convey the meaning of it as well as this black man about to have terrible things done to him. He was now being dragged, spit upon, and kicked. He seemed half-crazy; wounded, a hunted animal, caught. Yes, this man's dignity had become real power to her.
Sally Hemings asks forgiveness to God for ever having loved Thomas Jefferson, for as Chase-Riboud notes in a hard tone, "He didn't free her because he didn't want to—men don't free what they love" (Kissel 4). Relative to Chase-Riboud's assessment, Reckley reminds us that "possibly the most valuable character in the novel is Sally herself, for she begins her relationship enamoured of her master, and she ends that relationship hating him" (35). Thus, Chase-Riboud's examination of the powerfully rumored relationship between Jefferson and Hemings reclaims and empowers yet another invisible black slave woman who was a victim of miscegenation. The exploration of the theme of miscegenation and the effect of the power of love between slave master and concubine illustrate the pervasive influence such an illegal liaison had not only upon the fictional lovers but also upon others, such as the white male census taker, the slave children, the white mistress, the black slave mother, and even the black male slave.
In daring to imagine the romantic coupling of black and white historical figures, one famous and another obscure, Barbara Chase-Riboud provides us with a dynamic meditation on history. She rips the veil that covers the official white male-dominated texts of United States history. She questions the void in these historical texts; she reclaims in Sally Hemings an intimate vision of the black slave woman's experience. Through her project of historical reclamation, Chase-Riboud forces the reader to revision history. She moves Sally Hemings from the darkened wings of history and places her beneath the bright lights at center stage.
Through her manipulation of character consciousness and dialogue, Chase-Riboud presents Sally Hemings as a well-rounded character, replete with her ambivalence for the man who forces her into the contradictory role of concubine and mother. From her object position, Sally Hemings draws on the politics of black women's sexuality to exert control over her life. In concert with men and women in her community, she challenges the conventional notions of prescribed social space for black women, departs from exclusively subordinate roles, and dares the reader to dismiss her humanity. As a result, Sally Hemings becomes infinitely more powerful and resonant than the void in the American slavery experience could ever be.
1. In this regard, Chase-Riboud's novel is similar to many other works written by contemporary African American women novelists: Margaret Walker's Jubilee (1966), Gayl Jones's Corregidora (1975), Octavia Butler's Kindred (1985), Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose (1986), Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) and Jazz (1992), J. California Cooper's Family (1990), and Paule Marshall's Daughters (1991). All of these novels are fictional responses to a historical void—the dismissing of the American slave woman's experience.
2. Revisioning history, however, is characteristic of the African American literary tradition as is evident in William Wells Brown's Clotel; Or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (London, 1853).
3. Hazel V. Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (New York: Oxford UP, 1987), 6. See also Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Iola Leroy (1892; Boston: Beacon, 1987).
4. Consider the recent controversial article by Laura B. Randolph, "Thomas Jefferson's Black and White Descendants Debate His Lineage and Legacy," in Ebony 48.7 (July 1993): 25-29. The article examines the question whether Jefferson fathered children by or even had a sexual relationship with Hemings. It points out that the controversy has been debated for almost two centuries, even causing a major scandal in 1802, during Jefferson's presidency, when a Richmond newspaper published an article about the affair. A celebra- tion of Jefferson's 250th birthday in April 1993 and a seminar at the University of Virginia on "Jefferson, Race, and Slavery" recently rehashed the controversial discussion between the opposing factions.
5. Through their silence or overt denial of its existence, early biographers of the Jefferson-Hemings affair, such as Henry S. Randall and James Parton, ignored its larger implications. John Chester Miller postulates that Hemings fabricated the relationship to excuse her commission of out-of-wedlock motherhood and miscegenation. He conjectures that Hemings's naming a man of Jefferson's high station as the father of her children tempered both acts. In "Clotel, Thomas Jefferson, and Sally Hemings," CLA Journal 17.2 (Dec. 1973): 147-75, W. Edward Farrison counters such arguments by noting that while Jefferson was living he never seemed to have affirmed or denied a liaison with Hemings.
6. Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1980), 35-71. See also Carby 20-39.
7. Valerie Smith, Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987), 2.
8. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787; Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1955). This slender volume originated in 1781 as a body of information on Virginia for a small audience of French statesmen and intellectuals. Jefferson opposed publishing the enlarged manuscript, in part because of his strictures on slavery. Intended for strictly private circulation, Notes was published in an anonymous edition in France in Age of Revolution: 1770-1823 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1975): 176-77.
9. Daniel Aaron, "The ‘Inky Curse’: Miscegenation in the White American Literary Imagination," Social Science Information 22.2 (1983): 171. See also Werner Sollars, "‘Never Was Born’: The Mulatto, An American Tragedy?" Massachusetts Review 27 (1986): 293-316.
10. Barbara Chase-Riboud, Sally Hemings (New York: Avon, 1979), 3. Subsequent references to Sally Hemings are from this source and referenced in the text.
11. Christian, Black Women Novelists; C. Minrose Gwin, Black and White Women of the Old South: The Peculiar Sisterhood in American Literature (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1985); Anne Firor Scott, The Southern Lady from Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930 (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970); and Carolyn Alpine Watson, Prologue: The Novels of Black American Women, 1891-1965 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985) are a few critics who discuss the corresponding images of the southern white lady and the loose black and the mammy as they appear in fact and in fiction in American history and literature.
Aaron, Daniel. "The ‘Inky Curse’: Miscegenation in the White American Literary Imagination." Social Science Information 22.2 (1983): 169-90.
Brodie, Fawn M. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. New York: Bantam, 1974.
Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Chase-Riboud, Barbara. Sally Hemings. New York: Avon, 1979.
Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1980.
———. "Somebody Forgot to Tell Somebody Something." Wild Women in the Whirlwind. Ed. Joanne M. Braxton et al. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1990. 326-41.
Dabney, Virginius. The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal. New York: Dodd, 1981.
Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution: 1770-1823. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1975.
Farrison, W. Edward. "Clotel, Thomas Jefferson, and Sally Hemings." CLA Journal 17.2 (Dec. 1973): 147-74.
Gwin, Minrose C. "Green-Eyed Monsters of the Slavocracy: Jealous Mistresses in Two Slave Narratives." Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Bloomington: U of Indiana P, 1985. 39-52.
Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins. Iola Leroy. 1892. Boston: Beacon, 1987.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. 1787. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1955.
Jordan, Winthrop D. White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1968. 430-36.
Kissel, Howard, "Sally Hemings: Little Fictional Embroidery." Chicago Tribune 3 July 1979, sec. 2: 4.
McHenry, Susan. "‘Sally Hemings’: A Key to Our National Identity." Ms (Oct. 1980): 35-40.
Morrison, Toni. Jazz. New York: Knopf, 1992.
Randolph, Laura B. "Thomas Jefferson's Black and White Descendants Debate His Lineage and Legacy." Ebony 48.7 (July 1993): 25-29.
Reckley, Ralph. "The Love-Hate Syndrome of Master-Slave Relationships in Sally Hemings." 20th Century Black American Women in Print. Ed. Lola E. Jones. Baltimore: Morgan State UP, 1991. 33-43.
Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.
Sollars, Werner. "‘Never Was Born’: The Mulatto, an American Tragedy?" Massachusetts Review 27 (1986): 293-316.
Welter, Barbara. "The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-1860." Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Athens: Ohio UP, 1976. 21-41.
White, Deborah Gray. Ar'n't I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: Norton, 1985.
Williams, Sherley Anne. Dessa Rose. New York: Berkley, 1986.
Wilson, Judith. "Barbara Chase-Riboud: Sculpting Our History." Essence 10.8 (Dec. 1979): 12-13.
Pollard, Cherise A. "Self-Evident Truths: Love, Complicity, and Critique in Barbara Chase-Riboud's Sally Hemings and The President's Daughter." In Monuments of the Black Atlantic: Slavery and Memory, edited by Joanne M. Braxton and Maria I. Diedrich, pp. 117-29. Münster, Germany: Lit Verlag, 2004.
Considers the issues of rights and paternity through an exploration of the ways in which Sally Hemings and The President's Daughter "critique the national historical record, and engage in constructive commentary on American literary history."
Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. "‘I Write in Tongues’: The Supplement of Voice in Barbara Chase-Riboud's Sally Hemings." Contemporary Literature 35, no. 1 (spring 1994): 100-35.
Explores the role of supplemental voices in Sally Hemings.
Additional coverage of Chase-Riboud's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Black Writers, Ed. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 113; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 76; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 33; DISCovering Authors: Multicultural Writers; Literature Resource Center; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2.
"Chase–Riboud, Barbara 1939–." Black Literature Criticism: Classic and Emerging Authors since 1950. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/chase-riboud-barbara-1939
"Chase–Riboud, Barbara 1939–." Black Literature Criticism: Classic and Emerging Authors since 1950. . Retrieved January 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/chase-riboud-barbara-1939
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