A few weeks ago, I was privileged to be in the audience when historian Annette Gordon Reed lectured at my university on her Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Hemingses of Monticello. In case you don’t know about her, Gordon Reed is the stone cold sister who basically proved—through the use of meticulous forensic evidence–that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a decades-long romantic relationship that produced children, a claim that most of Thomas Jefferson’s heirs still strongly deny. This information was in her first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy which appeared before the DNA evidence came in linking a mixed race descendant of Sally Hemings to Thomas Jefferson.
During the question and answer period after Gordon Reed’s lecture, a White man stood up in the audience and said, “Well, there’s still really no definitive proof that Jefferson was the father of Hemings’ children, is there?” And then he hemmed and hawed and said a bunch of nonsense and foolishness that I didn’t remember because I was so mad I thought I would bust something loose inside.
But Gordon Reed admirably kept it together. She replied in a dry voice that it was true that we couldn’t prove that all of Sally Hemings children belonged to Thomas Jefferson. We only had the date mapping that showed that every time Jefferson visited Monticello, Hemings gave birth no more than nine months after he left, and that Jefferson recorded these births himself. We only had the DNA connecting one of Hemings’ male children to a close male descendant of Jefferson. And we only had the oral testimony of one of her sons about his years at Monticello and his claim that Jefferson was his father. That’s all we had. (The irony in Gordon Reed’s voice was palpable.)
And then she went on to say, we actually have no proof at all that Jefferson’s legitimate White heirs are his children biologically, because all his legitimate children were women and you can’t test the DNA evidence from a maternal line of descendants. All we had were the words of those descendants of those women, and no one ever had disputed their claim, because they were White.
And that’s when that White man in the audience sat his crazy, rude self down.
I know it may seem strange, but I’ve thought about this encounter in these few days since the new biography of Malcolm X has hit bookstores, and what the legacies of Thomas Jefferson and Malcolm X have in common.
If you’ve been without the internet for the past few days, you haven’t been reading the news about Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, which is Manning Marable’s current biography of the civil rights leader. But if you’ve been online, I’m sure you’ve seen all the news about the book, and also, how upset Black people have been about a few claims made in that book, most notably that Malcolm X engaged in homosexual activity with a White businessman, back when he was Malcolm Little.
I guess I’ve been living in some Shangri-La-La Land because when I saw the news about the (alleged) homosexual activities of Malcolm, I was like, “Okay.” I didn’t get excited one way or the other. Most of my friends are Creative Writers and some of them are gay or bisexual, so I’ve learned not to trip about these things regarding the sexual surprises of historical figures, or even folks who are still alive. I just roll with it.
In the Creative Writing community, if you are homophobic, you aren’t going to have very many friends. You either accept the homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgendered identity of folks, or you get out of the Creative Writing community. It’s that way with most of the arts.
It’s not that we writers have more LGBT people in our ranks than the rest of the world, I suspect. I just think that folks feel more comfortable coming out in the writing community—at least these days. And don’t think we don’t have our share of present homophobia; it’s just that our bigots know they have to go underground with it, because the public attitude is one of tolerance in the writing community.
So I’ve been sort of struck by the level of public, African American nastiness leveled at Manning Marable—who, along with Malcolm X is dead. Marable is a man who spent twenty years researching Malcolm X, whom he greatly respected and admired, in an attempt to provide the truest depiction he was capable of writing, yet Black people are attacking him. Many are saying that Marable is trying to tear down our hero. He’s throwing tarnish on Malcolm, our “Shining, Black Prince,” and on Malcolm’s legacy of being a do-right, disciplined Brother.
Once I realized that, addition to my Shangri-La-La Land citizenship in the writing community, I also live in a real world, I saw that in alleging Malcolm was bisexual, Marable has more than just nudged up again The Black Homophobia Thought Police; he’s taken out a bat and commenced to beating them about the head and shoulders. Then he’s thrown tear gas into their ranks, and chased that with a grenade.
Even some of my academic friends who have their anti-homophobia vocabulary seriously together have been thrown by the thought of Malcolm under the sheets getting busy with a man. A man. A MAN!
Aside from the obvious question, which is, of course, why our Black princes can’t have sex with other Black princes, and still be royalty, the other obvious question to me is, how come in the Black community we love to find out all the juicy sexual gossip of White folks, like who all the famous, heroic White men in history have secretly been Black ladies’ baby daddies or who have secretly been gay or who’ve secretly been molesting children, etc?
Essentially, we want to know who did the nasty with or onto whom (in the case of rape or molestation), and hopefully this nasty took place between two folks it shouldn’t have, but when it comes it our own Black heroes’ sex lives we want to get all outraged and say stuff like, “That’s between him and his wife. The man is dead. Can’t we let him rest in peace?”
I mean, really. For those people who are so outraged, just grow up. In case you don’t get it, history is about not letting anything or anyone rest in peace, okay? Everybody historians talk about is dead. That’s why it’s, like, history.
And this is exactly why I told my students the other day that I want to be buried with a complete copy of my medical records, an unpublished memoir, and a note: “Dear nosy historians, please don’t bother cutting my bones into pieces and digging into my background. Just read the enclosed materials and get the [insert expletive noun] up out my casket.” And all those materials will be printed on acid-free paper, by the way.
The above scenario will only happen if I ever become famous, however. If I don’t become famous, nobody will care about how many people I slept with (which is none of your current business) or whether I loved my mama (and you already know the answer to that).
And that’s the whole point about Malcolm X. It is precisely because of all the good works that he did, and his brilliance as a political figure that Manning Marable spent all that time researching that man, and why we want to read what Marable wrote about Malcolm. And this is the same reason that Annette Gordon Reed spent that time researching Thomas Jefferson; we want to know about his brilliance and his sense of foresight about building this country. No matter whom Thomas Jefferson liked to sleep with, you cannot sleep on his most lasting legacy—besides all them kids he had with Sally—which is the Declaration of Independence.
These two men of different races had impact upon this country, and their words fueled the political zeitgeists of their time. Their lives meant something and still do, and people should be interested in what went into making these men up—the whole men, not just what we pick and choose to know. And we should be interested for more reasons than we just want to say to ourselves, “Well, will you look at that? He was a Rick James Super-Freak.”
In both cases, both Thomas Jefferson and Malcolm X (allegedly) had aspects of their humanity—things that went into making them the whole, brilliant men they were—that they had to keep hidden because of the social and sexual mores of their individual eras. To me, it’s not an outrage that these things are coming to light now. To me, it’s just sad that they had to keep them hidden in the first place.