s on Jefferson's familyWhen Shannon Lanier and Jane Feldman, the co-authors of Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family, met in 1999 at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's historic home, neither knew that this chance meeting would launch them both on the journey of a lifetime a journey set in motion by the mere click of a camera shutter.
Lanier, a Kent State University sophomore, had been invited to Monticello to attend the annual Jefferson family reunion, an event from which he and many of his relatives had previously been excluded. A few months before the event, a controversial DNA study had proven to the world something that Lanier had believed all his life: Thomas Jefferson had fathered children with his African-American slave Sally Hemings. Lanier was a descendant of this oft-denied union. And when an invitation to the reunion was extended to all of the Hemings family by Lucian K. Truscott IV, a descendant of Jefferson who was appearing on The Oprah Show to discuss the genealogical controversy, Lanier jumped at the chance to meet his entire family.
Feldman, a freelance photographer, was at the event to shoot a family portrait of the newly reunited Jefferson descendants a task that proved to be quite daunting. With Lanier's help, though, they were able to bring more than 80 members of the family together for the shot. Black and white, standing side-by-side, the children of Thomas Jefferson posed for their first-ever, true family portrait.
Inspired by the stories they had heard and the people they had met at the reunion, Feldman and Lanier realized that a single picture portrait was not enough to showcase the diversity that was so exemplified in this family. So they set out on a yearlong journey to capture in photographs and in writing the extensive, unique and eye-opening history of this symbolic American family. They recorded detailed oral histories and photographed more than 100 descendants of Thomas Jefferson. "It is so amazing how much information you can find out by just talking to people," says Feldman. "We were learning the personal story of this family, but also holding up a mirror to America. So many people can relate."And that's exactly what Lanier and Feldman hope their readers will be able to do: relate. "When families get together to read this book, we think they will be inspired to be interested in their own genealogy," says Feldman. And whether that genealogy includes interracial marriages, adoptions, foster families or divorces, it is likely that everyone will find a reflection of himself or herself in Lanier's story.
Gallantly, the authors did not shy away from the controversial issues that surrounded the early American family. "Many of the people we talked to, especially the elders, were initially resistant to discuss the painful issues of racism and slavery," reflects Feldman, "but once they started talking about these topics, we could see that they were healing some of their wounds through the dialogue." Feldman and Lanier hope this message is passed on to the children and families who read Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family. "Racial issues are still present today because they're not talked about," says Lanier. "The more people discuss their differences, the more similarities they will find as well." Nor did they exclude the views of those Jefferson descendants who do not accept the DNA finding. "We wanted to show all the views of family," says Lanier, "not just the ones we agree with." And indeed, several interviewed family members have differing opinions about the relationship of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. "We tried to be truthful to the voice of the family," says Feldman. Although much of the controversy that has surrounded the Jefferson family has been about blood and genealogy, Lanier and Feldman prove that it is the character and values of this diverse group of people that truly make it a family. "Family is not just about having the same blood," explains Lanier. "You are only a fraction of your original ancestor. You can create your own legacy." Heidi Henneman is a freelance writer in New York City and a member of the DAR.