Jefferson’s Words Made Flesh

Published:September 18, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

In honor of Natasha Trethewey‘s appointment as poet laureate of the United States, VQR has commissioned from the Virginia Arts of the Book Center (a sister program of the encyclopedia) the above broadside. Printed by our own poet in residence, Kevin McFadden, it contains an original woodcut by Josef Beery, all in service of Trethewey’s poem “Enlightenment,” which appeared in VQR‘s spring issue.

What’s interesting to me is that the poem is ostensibly about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, or, more broadly, the tangles of race and the stubborn question of whether “a man’s pursuit of knowledge is greater / than his shortcomings.” But it’s also about something more personal:

I did not know then the subtext
of our story, that my father could imagine
Jefferson’s words made flesh in my flesh—

 the improvement of the blacks in body
and mind, in the first instance of their mixture
with the
whites—or that my father could believe

he’d made me better.

There are reasons why the story of Tom & Sally has such staying power, and they are not all prurient.

PS: As it happens, we are in the midst of editing our entries on both Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. We look forward to posting them in the next few months.