Miscegenation is all the rage! It’s been the focus of a couple of entries on this blog and will, in the coming week, be a concern of the weekly history radio show BackStory. (If you’re interested in the topic, be sure to check out the episode description and then email the show at backstory[at]virginia[dot]edu. They’ll invite you on as a caller.)
In their cultural history of Colonial Williamsburg, The New History in an Old Museum (1997), Richard Handler and Eric Gable risk the obvious when they state that the union of black and white has always fascinated the public.
In the historical imagination of many Americans,” they write, “such unions are exemplified by a standard scenario that has become a kind of archetype: an older master takes a younger slave as a mistress and they have a child to whom, as social conventions require, the master pretends to have no substantive connection. The slave mistress and the disenfranchised mulatto become the symbols for the fundamental inequities of slavery itself—or, perhaps, for the seamy side of history, the great man’s dirty linen, which the official custodians of his memory will do anything to hide. Either way, the existence (hidden, suspected) of the slave mistress and the mulatto child points to a moral scandal.
And who doesn’t love scandal? In fact, this “steaminess” has already crept into the presidential campaign. A woman who this month organized a meeting between John McCain and former Hillary Clinton supporters turns out to be the same “wife of a Thomas Jefferson family association official” who, in 2003, “masqueraded as a 67-year-old black woman on an Internet chat room in a bid to keep descendants of a reputed Jefferson mistress out of this weekend’s family reunion.”
Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings—a political scandal that has had legs now for more than 200 years!
“The great man’s dirty linen” also came up as we were editing an Encyclopedia Virginia entry on the Lynchburg poet Anne Spencer, who was an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance and only the second African American poet to be included in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Her biographer also suggested that her mother was the product of scandal. Here’s the relevant paragraph from our entry:
Spencer was born Annie Bethel Scales Bannister to Joel Cephus Bannister and Sarah Louise Scales on February 6, 1882, on a farm in Henry County. Both parents were of mixed lineage. Her father, born a slave in Henry County in 1862, was of black, white, and Seminole Indian ancestry. Her mother was born in 1866 on Reynolds plantation in Critz in neighboring Patrick County. According to Spencer’s biographer, J. Lee Greene, Sarah Louise ‘was an illegitimate child; her mother was a former slave and her father a wealthy Virginia aristocrat . . . well known in American aristocracy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.’ Rumors passed down in the Spencer family long have suggested that Sarah’s father was a Reynolds, which would have made her a close relative of R. J. Reynolds and J. Sargeant Reynolds.
We’ve been told that Spencer, who died in 1975, preferred to keep such speculation on the down low. The “steaminess” and “scandal” may seem exotic to some, but to Spencer, it was nothing to brag about.
UPDATE: See also Great Man’s Dirty Linen (Cont’d) and Vindication Nation