Shannon Lanier and Jane Feldman
Authors of Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family
December 2000/January 2001
by Bella Stander
"Who is your family?" muses 21-year-old Kent State student Shannon Lanier. "Does it mean someone that has the same blood, or someone who loves you and has raised you your whole life? Family doesn't mean that all our skin tones match; that we all have to look alike. Family means so much more than whether our blood even matches."
Matching blood isn't an issue in most families, but it is in Lanier's because they are descendents of Thomas Jefferson's slave Sally Hemings. And thus, whether or not DNA tests conclusively validate the oral history that has been passed down for almost 200 years, Lanier and many members of his extended multi-hued clan firmly believe that they are also direct descendents of Jefferson himself.
Lanier had always "known" that he was related to TJ, but wasn't sure exactly how, and hadn't met many of his relatives. That all changed when, responding to the invitation proferred to Hemings's descendents on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" by Lucian K. Truscott IV, Lanier attended the Monticello Association's annual reunion in May of 1999. There he not only met scores of cousins, but also New York photographer Jane Feldman, author/photographer of the "Young Dreamer" book series, who was hoping to get a symbolic photograph of "an extraordinary American family" for a book she had been working on. To help her out, Lanier grabbed a microphone and summoned some 80 family members, black and white, to gather on the steps of the house for a newsbreaking image that was shown around the world.
"Just seeing the people on the stairs was mind-blowing to me," recalls Feldman. "It was such an emotional moment-history in the making." When she showed her pictures of that day to a group of inner-city teens she works with, "they went crazy, and these were kids who were never interested in history." She realized that the Jefferson-Hemings family deserved a book of its own and asked Lanier if he'd write one with her. In fairy tale fashion, Feldman showed her photos to Random House honchos on a Friday, submitted a book proposal on Monday and got the okay on Tuesday. And so Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family was born.
"This is the first book about the family from the family," says Lanier. "You read a lot of books about TJ and Sally Hemings, but never about the people behind the story, the people who resulted from it." And what "incredible" people they are, declares Feldman, who traveled around the country with Lanier, interviewing and photographing Jefferson and Hemings descendents. The book, with an introduction by Truscott, is mostly comprised of those interviews, with explanatory passages by Lanier weaving the narratives together. "I expected the Jeffersons to be accomplished," admits Feldman, "but was blown away by the Hemingses. They have the first black Vassar graduate, the first black MIT graduate, a four-star general."
Lanier and Feldman hope that their book will get people talking. Lanier, showing wisdom beyond his years, states, "We need to start dialogue between families, races, the world. A lot of people are still struggling with the hurt and pain of the past. The only way you can overcome that is to talk about it, and to educate each other. It's very important to know who we are and where we come from, and what we will teach those who come after us."
© 2000 Bella Stander