Barack and Michelle Obama:
Rewriting the Narrative of American History

Annette Gordon-Reed
22 April 2009


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Distinguished US Presidential scholar Annette Gordon-Reed puts American race relations in a historical context, with an emphasis on the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson's, complicated relationship with African Americans. The man who doubted that blacks and whites could live together as equal citizens in the American nation wrote the document that blacks look to as the promise of their right to equal citizenship in the country, the Declaration of Independence. Obama, as have other blacks, has referred to this promise and invoked the founders on many occasions. Gordon-Reed will discuss his uses of history and talk about how having a black president and black first lady – and black children– in the White House may change the racial landscape in America and the ways in which it may not change the narrative.

Annette Gordon-Reed a professor of law at New York Law School since 1992 and a professor of history at Rutgers University. She has a long fascination with the Jefferson family and her first book was Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997). It had an acclaimed but stormy reception when published in 1997, and was described as “brilliant’ by The New Yorker. In this publication she did not then take a definitive position on whether Jefferson had a liaison of nearly 40 years with a slave in his household, Sally Hemings, or whether Hemings bore him several children. News published in 1998 described DNA tests showing a near-certain confirmation of a genetic link between Jefferson and Hemings’ youngest child, Eston. So she has revisited this case again in her latest book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family which won the 2008 National Book Award for Non-Fiction and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for History.

Professor Gordon-Reed, who grew up in still-segregated east Texas, became interested in Jefferson in elementary school after reading a children’s biography of him, narrated by a fictional slave boy. At 14, she joined the Book-of-the-Month Club (concealing her status as a minor) to receive Fawn Brodie’s biography, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait. She continued her study of Jefferson’s life at Dartmouth College, where she majored in History, graduating in 1981. She attended Harvard Law School, where she was a member of the Law Review.