`Blood' tests evidence of Jefferson's family ties

Review: `Frontline' takes a close look at the data suggesting Jefferson is the father of slave Sally Hemings' children.

May 02, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

When the PBS series "Frontline" is on its game, no one on television does in-depth reporting and informed analysis better. In "Jefferson's Blood," an examination of what the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, means to us today, "Frontline" is at the very top of its game.

The report, which is produced by Thomas Lennon and narrated by author Shelby Steele, revisits the headline-making DNA results released in 1998 that all but prove Jefferson fathered at least one of the six children to whom Hemings gave birth.

I say "all but proved" because "Frontline" actually goes back to the retired researcher who did the study "on a whim" and asks him what he knows to be true.

Contrary to press reports of the time, Dr. Eugene Foster says that all he "scientifically" proved is that a male descendant of Jefferson's white family is also descended from Hemings.

As he points out, that doesn't mean Jefferson is the father. Another Jefferson male -- Jefferson's brother or an uncle -- could be the father.

But when you couple the DNA evidence with a study of the more traditional historical records of Jefferson's visits to Monticello and Hemings' pregnancies, what you have is a 99 percent probability that Jefferson fathered one of Hemings' children.

The mounting consensus is that he probably fathered all six.

The time and effort "Frontline" spent to responsibly report what DNA evidence did or did not "prove" in an effort to set the public record straight is typical of the attention to detail and commitment to getting the story right that characterizes the entire report.

From DNA, "Frontline" moves into the larger story it wants to tell.

As Steele puts it, "This is a story of Thomas Jefferson, his descendants and the mysterious power of race. Is Jefferson still heroic? Are his descendants black or white? Does race make family impossible for them? Or can they comprise a family despite race?"

The report jogs back and forth between Jefferson at Monticello and his descendants today, many of whom are wrestling with their racial identities.

The picture that emerges of Jefferson is fascinating -- a man losing his moral compass on human rights as his financial dependence on slavery deepens.

His children with Hemings, who were seven-eighths white, were considered black and served as slaves.

A letter is cited in which a guest at Monticello explains how startled he was at dinner one night to look up and see that the slave serving the meal was the spitting image of Jefferson. It was Madison, one of Hemings' children.

Near the end of his life, we see the great Jefferson reduced to compulsively compiling a crackpot mathematical formula to determine at which point of mixed racial heritage a white person becomes black, or vice versa.

It's as if he were trying to silence his conscience or soothe his soul with the feverish figuring of percentages.

The very best part of "Jefferson's Blood," though, is in the way it explores racial identity with Jefferson's descendants. We meet a family in Ohio, the Coopers, in which some members consider themselves white while others identify as black, despite all descending from the same grandparents.

If nothing else, after 90 minutes, you understand how much race is a social construct, despite most of us being taught that it is purely a matter of biology. You also start to appreciate how little we really understand about race despite all the media talk surrounding it.

In February, CBS exploited the Jefferson-Hemings relationship with "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal," a reckless miniseries full of speculation and outright fabrication.

"Jefferson's Blood" is television listening to its better angels, and offering us the chance to more completely understand our world, in light of what happened some 200 years ago at Monticello.

Tonight's TV

What: "Jefferson's Blood"

When: 10 to 11: 30

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)

In a nutshell: Non-fiction TV at its best

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