Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

A Preface to "From the Diary of Sally Hemings"

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

A Preface to "From the Diary of Sally Hemings"

Article excerpt

In 1999 Florence Quivar, the celebrated mezzosoprano, asked me to compose a song cycle on Sally Hemings. At first I was inclined to say no, because I had seen so many sensationalized portraits of Sally Hemings that I couldn't accept her as anybody real. This not because I doubted, as quite a number of people still seem to, that Thomas Jefferson both had a long relationship and fathered children with her; I had always been fairly sure the story was true, although a viewing of Monticello had led me to read Jefferson as a man obsessed with intellectual pursuits rather than sexual passion. What bothered me was that someone would have to write the text for a Sally Hemings cycle, and I hadn't seen anything in a novel or film or TV show that would make me want to turn to any of those writers.

Then I thought of the playwright Sanda Seaton, whom I had met around a dozen years ago. She had gotten hold of a copy of Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake, which includes a history of the 1920s musical Shuffle Along (by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake), with book by Aubrey Lyles and Flournoy Miller, the latter of whom was Sandra's great-uncle (this 1972 book by the musical theater historian Robert Kimball and myself is back in print), and she had sought me out. The quiet forcefulness of the character portraits in the two plays of hers that I had seen, The Bridge Party and The Will, had impressed me mightly. …

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