Annette Gordon-Reed is the author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Univ. Press of Virginia, 1997). She spoke with PW about her latest book, Vernon Can Read! A Memoir, which she co-wrote with Vernon Jordan Jr.
PW: You're a lawyer, a historian and a scholar in your own right. How did you come to collaborate on Vernon Jordan's memoir?
AG-R: I came to my office one day, and there was a message on my answering machine from him. He spelled his name and described himself as a lawyer from Washington. When I called him back, he told me that he'd been in a bookstore in Washington, D.C., and he'd come across my book. He'd read the preface and was very much interested in the story and how it had been treated over the years. He was happy to see that someone had taken this on and had done so, he thought, in a very good and effective way. We talked periodically over the next couple of weeks, and one day he called me and said that he'd been interested in doing a memoir and he wondered if I would help him write it.
PW: Did you have any hesitation about agreeing to do it?
AG-R: I suppose if I'd thought about it more, I would have had some, but I didn't. I realized that here was this person who had had this really long life in the civil rights community, and who was now seen in a very different light. The notion of telling that story appealed to me. It was personally appealing to me, too, because when I was a little girl [in the '60s], I was the first black child in our county [Montgomery County, Texas] to go to a white school. This was long after Brown [v. Board of Education], but my school district had been holding off on integration. So I looked at him as part of that generation of people who were fighting that struggle, which I, in my own small way, had been involved in myself as a child.
PW: How did the two of you work together?
AG-R: What we did was just sit down, and I started taping him. He's a wonderful storyteller, and so much has happened in his life that the throwaway things for him would be other people's careers, almost. He has a keen sense of how he wants to be presented, so you have someone who has a feel for language, for storytelling, and has a great sense of himself, so I started with a tremendous advantage. Then it's a matter of asking him the kinds of questions to pull more of it out, and then of sitting down and shaping it.
PW: It's a very different project than your first book.
AG-R: That was a work of passion, in a way. I thought it was going to be good, and I had faith that someone would recognize that and publish it. The University of Virginia did as well as they could with the book, but it's a small press. It was sort of a shoestring type of thing. But the book was well received and then with the DNA results, we couldn't have bought all the publicity it got.
PW: What's your next book going to be?
AG-R: I'm under contract to do a book about the Hemings family. It's called The Hemings Family in Virginia, and it's not just a biography of Sally Hemings, because that would be a very short book. It's a biography of the family in slavery. I'm going to follow a couple of the descendants, and I'm probably going to stick to the 19th century. Right now, I'm editing a volume of essays called Race on Trial that's coming out from Oxford. We're going to do Plessy v. Ferguson, and Brown, and I'm writing about a woman named Celia who was put on trial for killing her master after she was sexually abused by him for a number of years. And I'm going to do a biography of Jefferson, but there's a long ways to go for that.