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Another view of U.S. history

Tuesday, November 03, 1998

By Tony Norman

Well, looks like DNA evidence has cornered yet another American president.

This time, the man on the hot seat is Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and, until recently, reputed to be the most intellectually rigorous of our Founding Fathers.

Now that the Sally Hemings question has turned "Founding Father" into a double entendre, American history is finally free to operate on a more sophisticated level.

At an early age, most blacks learn to navigate with a more nuanced view of American history since several hundred years of slavery make veneration of these guys, well, difficult.

While white kids, bored under the weight of their assumed privilege, recite the "Pledge of Allegiance" at the beginning of the school day, their black classmates are wondering which "cracker with a white wig" is their great-great-granddaddy.

The revelation that Hemings, a slave, and Jefferson produced at least one child brings an interesting tension to American history. Suddenly, the "history" that black kids learn about is their own.

And while it isn't necessary to subscribe to a view of history that makes every president a "playa," like William Jefferson Clinton, you have to wonder why some historians were initially so dismissive of speculation that Jefferson fathered children with a slave given the preponderance of circumstantial evidence.

Why was it so outside the realm of possibility that a man who "owned" 200 humans would have a three-decade long relationship with Sally Hemings, his wife's half-sister and a woman whose life he controlled from the time she was 9-years-old. Is there some moral litmus test for slave owners I don't know about?

And what is it about slavery as an institution that puts sexual exploitation beyond the pale of presidential possibility? No one could stop him from sleeping with Sally if he got a notion to. And after Clinton, nobody will ever believe in the myth of "presidential restraint" again.

Given the scurrilous nature of modern politics, Jefferson would be grateful that the truth of his paternity was established through genetic testing and not from a sample lifted from Hemings' dress.

Even those scholars who formerly scoffed at the possibility that Jefferson has heirs cruising the 'hood reluctantly accept the DNA evidence. But if they were clever, they would've learned a thing or two from the O.J. trial.

Johnnie Cochran and Barry Scheck proved that with the right argument, even DNA evidence can be made to seem irrelevant. Conversely, the lack of DNA doesn't mean that someone isn't a descendent of a fondling, er, Founding Father.

That's why I'm calling Scheck as soon as I finish this column. He could get a judge to agree that, as one of Jefferson's descendants, I have a legitimate claim to his legacy, DNA be damned.

Admittedly, I'm from the F.W.A. (Fieldhands with Attitude) side of the family, but I'm making a claim to a piece of the American dream Jefferson helped construct. Ever since I was a kid, I've had these irrational thoughts about liberty just like he did, so we gotta' be blood.

There are cynics who'll say I have about as much claim to the third president's legacy as George and 'Weezie do, but you really can't be too sure of that today now, can you?

Forget 40 acres and a mule. I want a piece of Monticello.

Tony Norman's email is: tnorman@post-gazette.com

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