During early 19th century presidential discussions, political tongues wagged about Thomas Jefferson’s rumored relationship with Sally Hemings. Sally was a slave. Was she also the mother of several of Jefferson’s children? And what about those children? What did they think? How did they feel?
JEFFERSON’S SONS: A Founding Father’s Secret Children, by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley, Dial Books For Young Readers, 2011
What did Thomas Jefferson’s secret children know? What did they think about the man whom “everyone” knew fathered them, but a man their mother strictly forbade them from calling “Papa” or any other familial name.
Authors of historical fiction don’t make up the history. They read widely and research deeply. Usually an author’s note tells the reader what is real and what is not. Author Bradley studied Jefferson, his house, his family, and visited Monticello several times, picking the brains of historians there. She invites readers to explore the Monticello kid-friendly website. Her own website is also helpful.
That being said, since slaves were prohibited from reading and writing, a written account of thoughts and feelings would be rare. While we probably won’t ever know what Jefferson’s children really thought and felt, Bradley’s fictionalized characters, based on Sally’s children, surely come close. Readers will understand the deep sadness expressed by one son at the gulf between his mother’s children and their biological father. This boy, who receives better care, better clothes, even better work, with never an outward explanation for this favoritism, still wishes he were the child of the blacksmith, a slave who has a warm, loving relationship with his child.
Sally is a very strong character, keeping her children in line and thereby keeping them safe. She has endured and survived and she is determined that her children will also endure and survive. Although Thomas Jefferson promised her that each child will be set free when he or she turns 21, Sally believes it is better to pass for white than be freed. Freed slaves must carry papers subject to loss or destruction. They always remain at risk, at the mercy of greedy, unscrupulous slave catchers.
Instead, Sally works to send Beverly and Harriet, her light skinned children, into the world with new identities, but bearing the heavy burden of keeping their past a secret. She is adamant that their own children will have a much better future because they will never know--and must never know--they were born to former slaves passing as white.
Jefferson’s Sons is told from three points of view, two boys who are sons and one who is a close
friend. All three are slaves. Their lives and their liberty or their lack of liberty give rise to the question: just what did Thomas Jefferson mean when he wrote, “all men are created equal”?
And what do your children think?