Intersections of Identity: Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings book coverThomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, a novel by Stephen O’Connor is over 600 pages, and I’ve been reading it intermittently for weeks.

A friend who I admire for his intelligence and for his depth of knowledge about writing and life in general liked the book so well that he gave me a copy as a gift. After beginning the book, I went away and left it at home. Then other priorities took precedence and I didn’t read.

It has been important to me to complete the book, not only because I want to demonstrate my appreciation for the gift, but equally as important, I want to see how I feel about a novel written by a white man about the often referenced relationship–if I dare call it a relationship given the power imbalance–between a slave master and a slave woman. Not an ordinary slave master, but Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of this country, author of the Declaration of Independence, and father of the University of Virginia, among other notable accomplishments.

The author, Stephen O’Connor, did not write this fictional biography as a traditional novel. His biography of the long liaison between Jefferson and Hemings is infused with fantasies, dreams, and meditations, including characters such as James and Dolly Madison in colorful and fantastic musings.

The author acknowledges that there is literally no biographical information about Hemings and no known photographic likenesses. In his creation of the character of Sally Hemings, O’Connor brings an important element about this slave woman. She looks like a white woman in every aspect of her physical features. I don’t know why, but this made a difference for me in reading the book.

O’Connor created a woman, not a slave without gender identity. He adds dimension to a historical character that most have only known as a slave whose children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson.

O’Connor gives us a view of the power and emotional conflict that could occur in the life of a woman in circumstances that were, on the one hand beyond her control, and on the other, we’re not sure.

Through her character, we also see what we’ve always known about Jefferson, such as his complexity and the conflict between his universal moral positions and his way of life. This novel forces the reader to see the intersections of identity within individuals and the wide variations of perceptions within groups of people, regardless of their stations in life and despite the power imbalance in the world where slavery existed.

This book defies any simplistic notions of black and white and slave and master, though as one reviewer notes, “This book is a history of oppression. . .”

For me, O’Connor’s insights as told through the voices of Jefferson and Hemings give him credibility when creating a voice for Sally Hemings. For example,

People adjust to their circumstances . . . Even if it can also be their undoing.

In reference to those who felt fortunate that Jefferson was not a cruel slave master:

Yes we were lucky, but such luck is a mere drop in an ocean of misfortune.

And so the desire to lie to oneself or to make much of small blessings becomes irresistible, and thus to further humiliation. The very songs we sing to escape our chains themselves become our chains . . . .

[Sally Hemings to Jefferson] You think it enough to speak beautiful words, but that beauty is nothing unless those words are lived.

I am partial to biographical novels and sensitive to any efforts to soften or deny the cruelty and moral degradation of slavery and, because of these prejudices, I am impressed with O’Connor’s work in adding a critical piece of Jefferson’s life by creating a persona for Sally Hemings.

Allowing one to be what he imagines himself to be…

We will celebrate our son’s birthday in a couple of days, and this occasion makes me have a moment of nostalgia about our relationship as mother and child.

I could tell you that the doctor kept telling me that I was not pregnant with him, despite the fact that I had missed my period for four months. According to this physician, if I were pregnant, the rabbit test would confirm it, and since the test did not confirm it, I was not pregnant.

I could tell you that he was born close to a month early, and it was a complicated delivery that caused him to be without oxygen for quite some time, according to the doctors. This led them to forewarn me that this child could experience some developmental or other problems. I’m grateful that their warning was not confirmed and he was a perfectly healthy baby.

I could tell you more about the pregnancy as mothers are wont to do, but what I want to tell you is that I have been in awe of this stealth child who fought hard and arrived unscathed to be the light of his mother’s life.

From the beginning, I consciously decided that because I loved him so much, I would have to fight not to allow my love to possess him. I decided that he would belong to the universe and that he was God’s child, and it was my privilege to have the role of mother in his life. Holding him close in my heart and seeing him as not belonging to me or any one person, I have always had adoration for this child that I have the privilege of calling “son.”

I have always respected him as his own entity, and I worked to play the role as parent with nuanced control, not holding the reins too tightly. Growing with him has been like performing a modern dance following the beat of a jazz composition and going with the flow. Rather than attempting to mold him into my conception of what he should be, I trustingly reinforced his unique nature and characteristics. When I think about it, it has not been so much “raising” him as allowing him to be what he imagines himself to be.

I’ve often said that he grew up like a cabbage because cabbages can grow just about anywhere. Though his dad and I did our best to provide the right conditions for his thriving, like cabbages “soil texture is not critical” for him. Because he is an only child, he was often treated as the third adult in the house, with some limitations, whose feelings and ideas were valued. I always wanted him to see the worth of his own efforts despite the opinion of others. Whenever he did something praiseworthy, rather than first telling him that I was proud of him, I would ask, “Aren’t you proud of yourself?”

With adoring, respectful love and not too much pressure from hands-on parenting in the traditional sense, I should not have been surprised at his response when he was asked by a third party what he thought had the most impact on his development as a man. He responded that his college fraternity was the most important influence on him in being who he is today. I’m also not surprised when he does not remember all the cute incidents I remember about his childhood because his childhood and adulthood, in some ways, have been seamless, in that he has enjoyed and continues to enjoy my unconditional love, devotion, and respect because I have always thought and continue to think that he is awesome.

Book Review: The Firebrand and the First Lady

Firebrand and the First LadyIn her book The Firebrand and the First Lady – Portrait of a Friendship, Patricia Bell-Scott successfully marries the kind of scholarship expected of an academic with the kind of accessibility that will make this book interesting to all readers.

I was especially eager to read this book because I’ve known Pat Bell-Scott for decades — since we were members in the National Association for Women in Education. She also is the editor of Life Notes: Personal Writings of Contemporary Black Women, in which I had the opportunity to contribute a chapter.  

As I read this book about the friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murray, my admiration for Roosevelt deepened and Murray became my hero. The book revealed new details about Roosevelt’s courage and her fight for civil rights and social justice, and showed how Murray lived many lifetimes in her time with us. She showed us that the way may not be smooth, but it is our duty to keep pushing forward, to reach for the brass ring, and to challenge injustice wherever it occurs and from whomever it emanates.

This book is contemporary in that it plots the path from overt racial segregation to what our country is experiencing today around diversity and inclusion. Bell-Scott tells us that Murray’s “first fiery essay” was “Who Is to Blame for Disappearance of Gaines?”

Lloyd Lionel Gaines was am African American who was denied admittance to the University of Missouri School of Law. It was speculated that he may have been murdered as a result of the Supreme Court decision that supported his case that the University could not deny this highly qualified applicant admission based on his race.

Murray’s essay could well define the current climate in which students are demanding the elimination of what they see as structural racism. After 55 years, the University of Missouri School of Law granted Lloyd Gaines an honorary degree. Is it any wonder that generation after generation of African Americans say they can’t wait?

Bell-Scott is a role model without peer for academics and others who have a book in them that needs to be written. She worked on this book for 20 years and the results demonstrate the time, energy, and love she devoted to this work. Truly, it is more than a book. It is a spiritual acclamation of a cross-section of the lives of two women who were most distinct in their culture and context, yet had a similar strength of purpose based on their values of equity and justice.

Didn’t win the lottery? Here’s a jackpot for you…

I had fun asking colleagues and friends what they would do if they won the $1.6 billion lottery. While some said that they would show up to work the next day just to gloat, others said that they would take some time off to adjust to their new status of being wealthy and then return to work. Each person included some statement about their job.

turn the tide book coverIf you did not have the winning number, I have a prize for you and it’s better than a consolation prize. If you are employed, this prize can Turn the tide: and help you Rise above toxic, difficult situations in the work place.

This is the apt title of Kathy Obear’s new book, launching January 19. I think Obear’s book can help you have a happier life because you will have a guide to lead you through the minefields of “losing it” or feeling shut down and disrespected, whether in your professional or personal life. If you really want to change the way you respond to others when you are in an untenable situation, you will want to learn about the seven-step process in the “triggering event cycle.”

Learning about The Triggering Event Cycle will help readers understand that the impact of their negative over-reactions do not get erased after one blows off steam and moves on. Negative over-reactions can be the trigger or stimulus for more dysfunction in the workplace or in personal relationships in the future because we get into a cycle that will demand special effort to change course. The author’s suggestions about how to find the off-ramps are particularly helpful.

There is much to like and praise in this book. Vignettes of examples of the kinds of issues that arise in work situations makes the advice easily understood and remembered. The problems experienced by Kerry (fictional or pseudonym) at the beginning of the book are so extreme, just reading about her problems could make most of us realize that our own situation is not so bad after all.

The encouragement the author gives from the beginning is comforting and puts the reader in a relaxed and receptive mood to learn. I also like that there is a guide to how to use this book. If one needs advice right away, there is a chapter for what might be “first-aid,” and then there is the sound advice of reading the entire book and doing the exercises. With this much in the opening, I was eager to get started! And, I kid you not when I tell you that I read the book straight through, beginning to end, because it captured my interest and became my priority.

In reading the book, the author’s voice in sharing her personal experiences makes the reader feel as if there is one-on-one coaching and the author really understands what I, the reader, am experiencing because she has experienced something similar or has worked with others who experienced similar reactions.

Because so many have respect for Obear and the work she does, readers will be encouraged when they read that she, too, has had to learn how to deal with triggering events and how to take charge of her reactions.

The vignettes of workplace situations are excellent in defining new concepts. Bringing the vignette of Kerry, who was described at the beginning of the book, back in the concluding section of the book, is an excellent way to demonstrate how the tools for effectively responding could be used. The practical usage of the tools is what readers will appreciate.

Your jackpot and lottery is below:

REGISTER TO DOWNLOAD MY BOOK FOR FREE ON JANUARY 19th!!

My new book, TURN THE TIDE: Rise Above Toxic, Difficult Situations in the Workplace, will be featured at the BOOK LAUNCH PARTY/webcast along with several others publishing with Difference Press on January 19th at 12:30pm ET!

Sign up, it’s free and even if you can’t listen in live, you’ll get an email with links to all the recordings AND the books to download! AND access to free offers from authors including my new 10-minute video, “What is a Triggering Event?” and the Companion Discussion Guide to lead Lunch & Learns and trainings in your organization!!! 

************************************


Register at: www.theauthorincubator.com/livefromtheauthorcastle


************************************

Oh and they are giving away lots of cool prizes to celebrate the book launches!


Hope to see you there!!
Kathy Obear

Copyright © 2016 Kathy Obear Life Coach, All rights reserved.
You signed up for updates from Kathy Obear on her book launch – “When workplace situations explode: Tools to respond when your buttons get pushed!”

Our mailing address is:
Kathy Obear Life Coach
382 Central Park West #18D
New York, NY 10025
Add us to your address book

What the Sage Learned

It’s the morning after a few days as “Sage in Residence” at California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI). I went to the University to follow the advice of Yoda, the wise one in Star Wars, and “pass on what I have learned.” What I want to pass on now are a few things I learned from the visit. I met a kaleidoscope of talented people during my visit and the University surrounded by mountains and verdant fields, despite the drought, is a gold mine for students of student affairs.

I learned that if you are the founding president, Dr. Richard Rush, and the founding vice president, Dr. Wm. Gregory Sawyer, you have an opportunity to create a culture of learning and love by the careful selection of faculty, staff, and administrators for positions throughout the University. You also have the obligation to create an ethos of intellectual curiosity and motivation to acquire more learning. I think these leaders took advantage of their opportunity and satisfied their obligation.

We’ve heard the advice of “managing while walking around.” At CSUCI, I learned that Dr. Sawyer, also the vice president for student affairs, manages by telling stories. He is the consummate story-teller and his staff affectionately number his stories as they represent particular lessons learned, expectations, and aspirations.

During my time in this academic community, I felt the respect and love throughout the University. Everyone knows one another and everyone has a story that brings a smile or laugh. Dr. Sawyer has a difficult time traversing the campus because he has connections on a personal level with everyone he meets and students and staff refer to him as a “rock star.” What he wants is for his student affairs staff to be and to realize that they are rock stars. He encourages their aspirations, supports their professional development and further education, and celebrates all of their successes.

Students chose the University for the same feeling that I experienced while on campus. They said that their faculty and staff were responsive from their first contact with the University and faculty and staff were not only supportive, they were invested in students’ success. Surely, CSUCI is building an alumni base that will give back to the University that gave so much to them.

Three take-aways that I recommend to other student affairs communities are these:

  1. As vice president, be visible and forge strong connections with students especially during this time of student activism. This will position you to work with students to meet needs and demands continuously rather than reacting to ultimatums in a manner that won’t satisfy regardless of what you do.
  2. Take assessment of the impact of the contributions student affairs makes to the mission of the University seriously and make it a priority.
  3. Reveal what is in the secret box of student affairs by creating external committees composed of representatives from every area of the college or university to review the results of your plans and learning outcomes and solicit their feedback.

If one is on the campus or in communications with students, faculty, or staff from CSUCI, you will understand why the division of student affairs has received recognition as one of the Most Promising Places to Work.

Demonstrating “The Confidence Effect” for Students

I just read The Confidence Effect-Every Woman’s Guide to the Attitude That Attracts Success by Grace Killelea. The book is an easy and quick read written in a conversational tone with anecdotes from the author’s own experiences as well as examples from other successful women. This book reinforces what other authors of leadership books have written about getting ahead. However, Killelea’s presentation style makes it easy to remember her advice with techniques such as the “4 Rs of Success” and the “IPO of Networking. ”

Though the target audience for the book is women, I recommend it for faculty, Student Affairs professionals, and all staff at colleges and universities. Why? Because while students say that their parents are their heroes, you are their role models. If you exhibit the twin goals for success that Killelea recommends—confidence and competence, students will be watching and some will be inspired to find their own paths to confidence and competence.

In addition to acquiring helpful tips on building confidence, there are some other gems that I think might resonate. For example, newer professionals in higher education or other careers often agonize over how long to remain in a position that might not be all that they would like it to be. As a role model for students and for your own success, you might want to heed Killelea’s advice:

The lane you’re traveling in right now might not be ideal; it may be full of challenges, potholes, conflicts, and politics, but the way out of it is through it. Don’t suddenly jump lanes and abandon the track before it’s appropriate to do so.

The author suggests questions to ask to help know when to switch lanes. These are the kinds of questions you will want to have handy when students seek your advice and counsel regarding their career goals. In building your own confidence through a track record of success, you can tell and show students how to move forward with confidence.

Students you don’t even know are watching you. You will want to show them The Confidence Effect.

The Martian: Important Messages in Film

What did you aspire to be when growing up and why? The power of entertainment to influence career choices is undeniable.

My favorite television show featured a doctor who always seemed the smartest person in the room because he knew why someone had died. While I wanted to keep people from dying, this show nonetheless influenced my desire to be a pathologist. Although I clearly did not become a pathologist, I still wanted to help people before the ultimate crisis.

I recently had the opportunity to see The Martian as a pre-release, and highly recommend it for students and educators. Opening in theaters October 2, this sci-fi movie directed by Ridley Scott is the best marketing piece I’ve seen to promote the study of science, technology, engineering, and math.

Playing an astronaut left behind after an expedition to Mars, Matt Damon’s character sums it up, saying, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”

As a non-STEM viewer, I also gleaned a lot from the film. Here are some of the themes that resonated with me:

  • Being a leader means that you have to take responsibility for making hard decisions that have an impact on other people’s lives as well as your own;
  • Without critical thinking skills, one cannot create scenarios about the possible outcome of various courses of action or how to respond when the unexpected occurs;
  • Having confidence in the power of one’s own knowledge is the foundation needed to resolve to tackle and accomplish the seemingly impossible;
  • Keeping a sense of humor and music in our lives is the difference between desperation and hope;
  • Writing a journal is not just a record of what has happened, it is a secret companion and place for reflection;
  • Hacking can be good;
  • Never say that there is a “failure to communicate;” there is always a way;
  • What people think or public relations should never come before doing the right thing;
  • Be prepared for negative consequences sometimes when you do the right thing;
  • Math is really handy to know and could save your life;
  • Optimism and hard work are important values;
  • Millennials don’t care if you are the boss;
  • To what end are we working — purpose is key.

Movies do influence, and seeing someone in the movie with whom you can identify strengthens the connection and acceptance of the message. Women, Latinos (as), African Americans, Asians, Caucasians, and being Hindu and Baptist with black skin could all see reflections of self in a good light in this film.

An Observation on the Eulogy

Like many of you, I was moved and enlightened by President Obama’s eulogy for Congressman Clementa Pinkney. President Obama honored those who lost their lives, and he reminded us of this nation’s history of violence based on racial hatred and prejudice. His remarks about how the deaths of those in the church stimulated “big-hearted generosity” and “thoughtful introspection and self-examination” in South Carolina and in the United States was a needed balm for all who grieve. It helps to think that these lives were not lost in vain.

I was taken with the emotion and sincerity that the President showed throughout the eulogy. However, I think he made one comment that he did not mean for us to take literally. We all know that he spoke the truth when he said that we cannot expect a “transformation of race relations overnight,” but I think his emotions were outweighing his beliefs when he said that we do not need more conversation or more talk about race. The point he was making is that we need to act on our talk. Just having conversations is not enough.

Discussions, dialogue, and discourse are the coins of the realm in colleges and universities. These are our tools and we must use the tools we have. We cannot be part of helping to achieve the vision the President painted if we don’t have the talk with our students.

I think it’s the manner in which we have historically fashioned these conversations that doom them from the start. We can’t just invite students to come to a conversation on race and expect anyone to come except those who already have what President Obama called the “path to grace,” that he described as “an open mind” and “an open heart.” A lecture on the history of racial prejudice followed by discussions won’t change a mind or heart if students have not experienced personally or vicariously through peers what it means to be the object of discrimination or violence based on racial hatred. In a world de-sensitized by violence and tragedy, empathy does not come naturally.

If we, in Student Affairs, want to participate in President Obama’s vision of not avoiding uncomfortable truths, not judging people as bad because we disagree with them, not shouting but listening, and move towards “recognition of ourselves in others, we need to set the stage for the conversations by inviting students to have conversations that are firmly grounded in the academic program of the college.

To achieve this grounding in the academic program, Student Affairs partners with faculty to expand the definition of student success to include skills essential for the workplace and for good and humane citizenship. We must convince faculty that Student Affairs can help to deepen students’ learning of the content of their courses and programs by reinforcing the content in a structured group experience where students are also learning how to influence others and be influenced by others through the development of strong interpersonal communication skills.