Reading group explores Jefferson's relationship

Courtney Bottazzi

Staff Writer

This Wednesday, the Griot Reading Group gathered in the Willard Smith Library in Vaughan Literature Building to discuss Clarence Walker’s book “Mongrel Nation.” Walker explores the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings from a contextual standpoint, discussing historical facts of the existence of their relationship and speculation about what type of relationship it was.

The reading group was joined by guests Julia Jefferson Westerinen and Shay Banks-Young. Westerinen’s great-grandfather was Eston Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings’s son. Banks-Young is the sixth great-granddaughter of the couple.

“It is easy to make the story an abstraction but when you have products of the relationship here, it makes it that much more real,” said Carmen Gillespie, professor of English.

The biracial cousins weighed in on the content of the book and the discoveries from their pasts. Westerinen found out about her genealogy in 1975 and a DNA test from her brother confirmed the historical facts in 1998. Banks-Young stated that although it was not spoken about outright, she grew up hearing the stories, especially from when her great-grandmother was still alive.

At times, the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings is portrayed as romantic, possibly to humanize Jefferson.

“I have anger. I don’t see a love story, I see a strong woman doing whatever she needs for her children. History books need to reflect the truth. I want American textbooks to have American history,” Banks-Young said.

Westerinen reflected on how she is often asked how it feels to be related to Jefferson. Both Banks-Young and Westerinen reject the “wow” factor of the relationship.

“It’s an accident of birth. It doesn’t matter what he did, it matters what I do now,” Westerinen said.

She explains that by also recognizing her black heritage, she has been welcomed by the black community.

“The bottom line is that racial prejudice is not over, and that’s why we’re here,” Westerinen said.

Banks-Young and Westerinen hope that more stories like theirs are able to surface and people can feel more open to speak of their family histories.

“So many women in America have had stuff happen that they’ve had to keep hidden. They have been told to ‘be ashamed.’ Women need to speak out loud, open that stuff up. All the men and women who were enslaved have un-coverable stories,” Banks-Young said.

Banks-Young and Westerinen continue to strive to bring about such a change that would allow for these stories to be uncovered and for American history to ring true.

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