News From Her Sailor Boy (1887). Samuel S. Carr (American, 1837–1908). Oil on canvas.
A mother puts her work aside to read a letter from her son, the sailor. Her face displays her intent reading as if she has concerns for her boy who perhaps has written from a distant port. Books and a model ship, perhaps the handiwork of her son, sit on the high shelf behind her.
We have two examples of oral history, and the question must be raised squarely, Why should the demonstrably flawed oral history of a white family be taken as truth and the oral history of a black family that can be supported by a fairly large amount of extrinsic evidence be presumed a lie? What are black people, or any people for that matter, to make of this: that the words of whites carry more weight than the words of blacks and do not have to be subjected to rigorous scrutiny, or that the words of formerly wealthy aristocrats carry more weight than those of former slaves? […] In truth, this is not a simple matter of black versus white. It is, rather, a complex matter of black and white, for the Carr brothers have been treated almost as unfairly as Madison and Sally Hemings. Both men have now gone down in history as adulterers and, by some accounts, participants in a ménage à trois with Sally Hemings, solely on the basis of the conflicting and uncorroborated accounts of two people who had no strong extrinsic evidence to back up their contentions. All the normal standards for judging evidence have been abrogated, with the result that Peter Carr and Samuel Carr have served as human shields to protect the man who personified America. Their shabby treatment is instructive, for it proves that even whites whom some see as being of no particular consequence can be sacrificed to maintain certain white people’s image of themselves and America.
Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy