What's Next For 'Genius Grant' Winner Gordon-Reed

Historian Annette Gordon-Reed is among 23 recipients of this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius grants." She explored the controversial relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings in a book arguing that Jefferson's slave was also the mother of his children. DNA evidence proved her right. She talks with Ari Shapiro about the grant and what she plans to do with it.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

More than a decade ago, the historian Annette Gordon-Reed explored the controversial relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings in a book arguing that Jefferson's slave was also the mother of some of his children. A year later, DNA evidence proved that her argument was right.

Since then, Gordon-Reed has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and now she is one of this year's MacArthur Fellowship winners. It's an award sometimes called the genius grant. The prize is $500,000, and Professor Gordon-Reed joins us now on the line.

Good morning, and congratulations.

Professor ANNETTE GORDON-REED (Author, MacArthur Fellowship Winner): Good morning. Thank you very, very much.

SHAPIRO: So people don't apply for this award. Tell me how you found out that you'd won.

Prof. GORDON-REED: Well, someone made an arrangement to have me take a telephone call at a particular time. And so I decided to stay home that morning to take the call. And I was watching an episode of "House," and the phone rang. And it wasn't the person I was expecting. And it was someone from the MacArthur Foundation. And he gave me the news, and I was stunned.

SHAPIRO: Tell me why you have devoted your professional life to Thomas Jefferson specifically. Why him?

Prof. GORDON-REED: Well, it started as a fascination as a child with Jefferson and Monticello and slavery. And it just developed into something that I wanted to write about. I've always loved history. And it just seemed a natural thing for me. So it - one thing led to another, and I'm sort of doing what I've always wanted to do, which is - it's a great privilege that you have, when you can work on things that have mattered to you for a very, very long time.

SHAPIRO: And you're continuing to mine this vein in a book that you're working on now, I understand.

Prof. GORDON-REED: Yes. I'm going to take the Hemingses into the 19th century, and talk about race. One line of the family goes into the white community; one stays in the black community. And it's the perfect way to see how people's fortunes are - how things unfold based upon that designation.

SHAPIRO: Now, as you talk about this history that's divided between black and white culture, you've also talked about the African-American oral tradition of history being given less weight than the traditionally white, academic,written tradition. How does your work bridge that divide?

Prof. GORDON-REED: Well, you bridge the divide with oral history, with documentary history. I think what happens is that people take the stories, or had taken the story of the Hemingses, and said that just because it's told by an African-American person, it is in the realm of oral history - and it's not real.

But you take the oral history, and you supplement it with the documentary records. Documents are always going to be important. But you can't just assume that because it's the family history of people who are not, you know, prominent or whatever, that it's necessarily people just making things up.

SHAPIRO: If you can look ahead to the future of your academic life, do you expect to keep following the Jefferson and the Hemings families up to the present day? Where do you see this going, ultimately?

Prof. GORDON-REED: No. No. This is it for writing about the Hemings family. My next big project will be a biography of Jefferson, to start from soup to nuts, go back from the very beginning and redo it. So that's on the horizon. That's what I've always wanted to do. And I think the Hemings story was sort of preparation for the bigger project, I think.

SHAPIRO: And finally, how do you expect to celebrate this prize?

Prof. GORDON-REED: Well, you know, I'll go out with my family; do something very, very nice;maybe buy myself an iPod or something. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GORDON-REED: ...which I can do now. Well, I could do it before. But, you know, I think I'm going to be pretty low-key about it. I want to save the money to do the research and travel that I need to complete the next book.

SHAPIRO: Well, thank you for your time, and congratulations again.

Prof. GORDON-REED: Oh, thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: That's Annette Gordon-Reed. She's a professor of history at Harvard University, and she's on the faculty at Harvard Law School. She's one of this year's MacArthur Genius Award winners. She joined us from her home in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: This is NPR News.

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