Annette Gordon-Reed on the Sally Hemings Saga

When she was in first grade, Annette Gordon-Reed made history. Although Brown v. Board of Education had passed a decade earlier, the school district of Conroe, Texas, where Gordon-Reed lived in 1963, operated under a system called "freedom of choice." Gordon-Reed's mother, a teacher at the "black" school, and her father, a local businessman, knew that "freedom of choice" really meant de facto segregation, so to challenge it they insisted that their daughter attend the "white" school. "I had a sense of being on display," says Gordon-Reed, remembering also how her grandmother went to a fancy Houston department store and bought her granddaughter a new wardrobe, so she would make a good impression on the white students and their families. "It was uncomfortable. But we had this notion that blacks, whether you wanted to be or not, were going to be judged. You represent the race."

That early, firsthand experience with the interplay of race and history informs much of Gordon-Reed's work, including her compulsively readable new book, "The Hemingses of Monticello," in which she traces the family history of Sally Hemings, the slave who had a 38-year relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Gordon-Reed, a former lawyer, also edited an anthology of essays about race and the law, and co-wrote Vernon Jordan's 2001 memoir, "Vernon Can Read!" But she is best known for 1997's groundbreaking "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy," which examined historians' treatment of the Jefferson-Hemings liaison, and made a strong case that Jefferson fathered seven children with Hemings. DNA testing a year after the book came out vindicated Gordon-Reed's assertion, and made her book a cause célèbre among Jefferson scholars. Joseph Ellis, whose National Book Award-winning biography of Jefferson, "American Sphinx," claimed Jefferson never slept with Hemings, later conceded the point, writing that it was difficult not to conclude Jefferson had been "living a lie."

Jefferson has been a subject of fascination for Gordon-Reed ever since she read a school biography as a girl. When she was 14, she joined the Book-of-the-Month Club so she could read Fawn Brodie's "Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait." "The fact that he loved books and I loved books was something that attracted me to him," she says. "I'm not really a Jeffersonian in my political philosophy. It was mainly the personality, the endless curiosity that I found and find attractive about him." The real subject of her work is the way we view the history of slavery, and how it affects our views of race today. "For African-Americans, social history almost invariably overwhelms biography, obscuring the contingencies within personal lives that are the very things historians and biographers normally rely upon to create meaningful depictions of events and lives in the past," she writes. In that respect, the Jefferson-Hemings relationship provides a trenchant case study.

Hemings and her brothers James and Robert arrived at Monticello with Martha Wayles, who married Jefferson in 1772. Hemings was also Wayles's half-sister, born after Wayles's mother died and her father had an affair with his slave, Elizabeth Hemings, Sally's mother. Wayles died in 1782. When Jefferson traveled to Paris two years later, Hemings and her brother James accompanied him. By the time they returned, the 16-year-old Hemings was pregnant. Although she could have stayed in Paris as a free woman, she chose to return with Jefferson, and lived with him at Monticello until his death in 1826.

As Gordon-Reed writes, our reaction to the idea that Jefferson, a lifelong propo-nent of emancipation, could own slaves and sustain an intimate relationship with a woman who was not only his property but his dead wife's half-sister, and that Hemings could participate in the relationship, makes up "the very complex American response to matters involving not only slavery but even more particularly race and gender." Here, she says, is where her training as a lawyer gives her an advantage: "The first thing you learn in law school is people are crazy," says the author, who also teaches history at Rutgers and law at New York Law School. "They'll come into your office and explain their motivation, and it will be totally a lie. They don't even understand themselves what their motivations are. It's not all going to fit." Historians may think that because their subjects are dead, "you don't have to deal with the consequences of their shattered lives if you're not for real." Lawyers don't have this luxury. "We're training people to deal with people's lives. Somebody's going to go to jail, somebody's going to lose a child. You have to be for real." Which may be how Gordon-Reed takes the stuff of Sally Hemings's life—the quotidian and the epic—and makes it indelibly real.