Tag Archives: James Hemings

Make Space for Ghosts: Lauren Klein’s Graphic Visualizations of James Hemings in Thomas Jefferson’s Archive

In “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings,” Lauren Klein discusses a letter by Thomas Jefferson to a friend in Baltimore which she accessed through Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition , a digital archive which makes about 12,000 and “a significant portion” of 25,000 letters from and to Jefferson available to subscribers of the archive. In this letter, Jefferson asks his friend in Baltimore to give a message to his “former servant James” to illustrate how a simple word search would fail to identify that “James” as his former slave James Hemings, the brother of Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s slave and probably mother of five of his children.[1] Drawing our attention to how the “issue of archival silence – or gaps in the archival record – [which remain] difficult to address” in graphic visualization, Klein notes that the historians who built the Jefferson Papers archive added metadata to indicate that the James referred to in the above-mentioned letter was James Hemings [664]. I wonder what the metadata looks like; I wonder whether it provides sources or reflection, and what the extratextual conversation going on at the back end of the archive, if conversation it is, reveals.

While meta-annotation may appear to be a good way to fill the gaps of archival silence, Klein argues that adding scholarship as metadata creates too great a dependence on the choices the author of the archive made. The addition of metadata to the letter to the friend in Baltimore makes me wonder where in the archive metadata was added, where not, and why. Are all the gaps filled? Had metadata not been added to the letter Klein discusses, an analysis of the archive could conclude that Jefferson never makes any mention of James Hemings in the letter he wrote to his friend in Baltimore in 1801 to try to find Hemings, or in the ensuing correspondence between Hemings and Jefferson through Jefferson’s friend, in which Jefferson tries to hire Hemings and Hemings sets terms that were probably not met [667]. A word search in the archive, however, pulls up only inventories of property, documents of manumission, notes about procuring centers of pork and cooking oysters (Hemings was Jefferson’s chef) and finally a letter in which Jefferson asks whether it’s true that Hemings committed suicide [671]. How, asks Klein, do we fill in the gaps between the pieces of information we have? She concludes that we can’t. How do we show the silences then, she asks; how do we extract more meaning from the documents that exist – letters, inventories, ledgers and sales receipts – “without reinforcing the damaging notion that African American voices from before emancipation […] are silent, and irretrievably lost?” [665].

Klein calls for a shift from “identifying and recovering silences” to “animating the mysteries of the past” [665] but not by traditional methods. Instead, Klein says that the fields of computational linguistics and data visualization help make archival silences visible and by doing so “reinscribe cultural criticism at the center of digital humanities work” [665]. Through visualization Klein fills the historical record with “ghosts” and silences, rather than trying to explain away the gaps. The visualizations she creates are both mysterious and compelling, and bear evidence in a way that adding more words does not.

[1]Sarah Sally Hemings (c. 1773 – 1835) was an enslaved woman of mixed race owned by PresidentThomas Jefferson of the United States. There is a “growing historical consensus” among scholars that Jefferson had a long-term relationship with Hemings, and that he was the father of Hemings’ five children,[1] born after the death of his wife Martha Jefferson. Four of Hemings’ children survived to adulthood.[2] Hemings died in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1835. [Wikipedia contributors, “Sarah ‘Sally’ Hemings”]