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Truth and Celebration: Stories of Black American History with Prof. Annette Gordon-Reed

Truth and Celebration: Stories of Black American History with Prof. Annette Gordon-Reed
Truth and Celebration: Stories of Black American History with Prof. Annette Gordon-Reed

We don’t know the faces or names of many enslaved Black people in American history. Some left a small mark of their existence in the very bricks of the buildings their hands built, yet they remain voiceless because their story has been hidden away.

Historians like Annette Gordon-Reed know that through sharing the stories of enslaved people, we remember their humanity and preserve historical truth in the process. She’s a Harvard University professor and the award-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello and On Juneteenth. With her lawyer-like approach, she’s brought light to stories once expunged from our history and provided a view of the road to Juneteenth through her books.

In this episode of the Branding Room Only podcast, you’ll hear about the national implications inherent in The Hemingses’ story (and connection to Thomas Jefferson) and Juneteenth. Annette will discuss her own experiences with celebrating Juneteenth, what the country should learn from the experiences of enslaved people, and more!

2:15 – Annette’s personal branding definition, three-word description of herself, favorite quotes, and hype song

4:30 – The importance of reading and music in Annette’s life as a child

6:31 – Annette’s non-traditional career trajectory as a lawyer, author, and professor

10:09 – What motivated Annette to write about the Hemingses and Thomas Jefferson

15:43 – The need to understand the truth in shaping the legacies and personal brands we hold dear

18:28 – The significance of Juneteenth and why Annette wrote her book on it

24:57 – Traditional Juneteenth celebrations Annette grew up with in Texas and newer ones she’s seen integrated into the holiday

29:29 – The good and (potential) bad about Juneteenth and its importance in the context of American history

36:37 – How Annette wants people in the future to remember her contribution to preserving a piece of American history

38:31 – Finding fun and continuous growth in humbling activities

42:27 – Annette’s one uncompromisable aspect and Branding Room Only quality

Connect With Annette Gordon-Reed

Annette Gordon-Reed grew up in Texas and went to Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School. Annette practiced law for seven years and then went into academia as a law professor. Her first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, was published in 1997. In 1998, DNA corroborated the thesis of Annette’s book. Since then, she has written and edited 6 other books, including Vernon Can Read, A memoir with Vernon Jordan and, most recently, On Juneteenth.

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed

On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed

Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir

Mentioned In Truth and Celebration: Stories of Black American History with Annette Gordon-Reed

“This Is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan | Youtube (Official Music Video) 

“Scherzo Op. 39 No. 3 in C Sharp Minor” by Chopin | Youtube (Pogorelich)

PaulaTV: Stagville Plantation Fingerprints of Slave Children

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Sponsor for this episode

This episode is brought to you by PGE Consulting Group LLC.

PGE Consulting Group LLC is dedicated to providing a practical hybrid of professional development training and diversity solutions. From speaking to consulting to programming and more, all services and resources are carefully tailored for each partner. Paula Edgar’s distinct expertise helps engage attendees and create lasting change for her clients.

To learn more about Paula and her services, go to or contact her at [email protected], and follow Paula Edgar and the PGE Consulting Group LLC on LinkedIn.

Paula Edgar: Welcome to The Branding Room Only Podcast where we share career stories, strategies, and lessons learned on how industry leaders and influencers have built their personal brands. Now, let’s get started with the show.

Hey, y’all, I’m really, really excited for you to hear this next conversation that I had with Annette Gordon-Reed. She is a professor, she is an author, she is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and she’s fantastic.

She is a scholar on both the experiences of Thomas Jefferson as well as the Hemingses who were the enslaved family who were enslaved by Thomas Jefferson as well as about Juneteenth.

You all know that I am privileged enough to have a lot of people who want to be in conversation with me and I have been blessed enough to not have to go and ask a lot of people, but I specifically wanted to have this conversation.

So I reached out to a good friend of mine who happens to be her husband to ask for him to help me to get this conversation and I can’t wait for you to hear it. It is fantastic. Listen up.

Hi, everyone. It’s Paula Edgar, your host of Branding Room Only. Very excited for the conversation today. Guess what, y’all? My guest is Professor Annette Gordon-Reed and she is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University. She is also the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, and she’s also the author of On Juneteenth. Professor Gordon-Reed, welcome to The Branding Room.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Thank you for having me.

Paula Edgar: So excited for this conversation. A little bit of background. Your husband, Justice Robert Reed is one of my favorite people.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Oh, cool.

Paula Edgar: So I was very excited to have this connection. In fact, the first time that I had a chance to even read one of your books is because he recommended something and he often will send me content about you. He’s super proud of you.

Annette Gordon-Reed: He’s a great publicist.

Paula Edgar: He really is, he really is. I’m really trying to hire him. Let’s get started. I ask everyone on the podcast, what does a personal brand mean to you? How do you define it?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, I think it’s synonymous almost with the notion of reputation, how people view you as a person, and what it is that you’re doing in the public sphere. It’s about who I am and what people think of me. You want people to think well of you. That’s my brand, is my reputation.

Paula Edgar: Love that, which is a perfect tee to describe yourself in three words or short phrases.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Wow.

Paula Edgar: That’s one.

Annette Gordon-Reed: I’m intense, I’m quiet, loyal.

Paula Edgar: Love that. I love that. Okay, so do you have a favorite quote?

Annette Gordon-Reed: There are lots, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” Ecclesiastes. I think it’s an important thing to keep in mind. It’s a difficult thing to keep in mind because you want the good things to go on and on and on, but “A time to rend and a time to sew,” that’s a favorite quote of mine.

Paula Edgar: It was also one of my mother’s favorite ones. Thank you for reminding me about that and bringing that up. Do you have a hype song, which is essentially when they’re going to get full-on Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, what song is playing in your head? Or if you’re having a bad day, what song are you playing to pick yourself back up? It could be the same song or different ones.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, I have a number of them. Strangely enough, when I’m working on stuff, I like, this is old school, Montell Jordan’s This Is How We Do It. It’s a good song. I like the piano, I like to listen to the piano, so there’s a particular piece by Chopin, a Scherzo and C minor that I like a lot. That’s just instrumental, so there are no words to it. But the hype song This Is How We Do It, I’ve always liked that.

Paula Edgar: Well, we’re going to include both of those in the show notes. There’s that. Okay, so tell me a little bit about how you grew up and how that shaped your brand.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, I grew up in a small town in Texas. The town that I was born in had fewer than 3,000 people. Then we moved as a baby to a town that had probably fewer than 5,000 people. My mother was a schoolteacher. My father owned a couple of small businesses, a store, and a funeral home at one point.

It was a typical lower, I guess in general, we would be lower middle-class people. Yeah. For the Black community, we would have been middle class, I guess you could say. Not well off, but not really poor either.

My mother was an English teacher and was very much interested in education. She read to us and in the summers, we had classes for half in the mornings in the summer, so we wouldn’t fall behind.

I had piano lessons. Sometimes we went to the theater. I know they didn’t have a lot of money, so I don’t really know how they managed to do all that, but they did. It was something that was important for them for us to do.

Yeah, so it was a house that always had books in them. Both of my parents read and talked about what they read, newspapers, and all those kinds of things. It was a home where reading was always something that was important, and also music.

Paula Edgar: Which is a good connection to what you do as an educator now, right?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. No, I mean, if my mother were alive, she wouldn’t be surprised at all at what I’m doing now because she wasn’t consciously training me to do this, but the kinds of stuff that she put into, even my father too, and the kinds of discussions we had made me fit for the kind of things that I do now.

Paula Edgar: Love that. That’s your upbringing, tell me about your career journey.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, I started out practicing law at a law firm on Wall Street. That’s not what I went to law school to do. I’m not really sure, I didn’t have a plan in mind when I went to law school. I knew I wanted to be a lawyer because I knew that lawyers end up in different places. They’re not always in a courtroom or anything like that.

I started out practicing law. When I didn’t have the time to do the writing that I wanted to do, I switched to academia. I got a job at New York Law School here in New York City. My requirements were that I had to be in the city because I was married and I had two kids and I couldn’t just pick up and go anywhere.

I was at New York Law School, supposed to be writing a law review article about prisons, about prisoners’ rights, and ended up writing my first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.

To my good fortune, it went well. It was well received and it became an important book before the DNA testing was done on descendants. Basically, the DNA corroborated what I said in my book. That really set me off on the path to history because law professors are typically writing law review articles but I didn’t do that and went on to write this book that did very, very well.

It was an unconventional journey to a history department, but I got a job at Rutgers Newark in the history department and I stayed in my LS and then I wrote The Hemingses of Monticello, which won a lot of awards and it changed my life. The first book changed my life too, but this changed my life in a major, major way.

That’s how I ended up at Harvard, because of the response to the book. People ask me about my trajectory, and I can’t say, “Well, first you do this, and then you do that,” because that’s not what happened with me.

This is such a circuitous route to where I am, which I guess is a message too for young people, is that you don’t really know where things are going to go, but when opportunities arise, you have to be prepared to take them on.

I don’t have a traditional trajectory, but that’s it. After this, everything unfolded from writing the books. In the meantime, in between those two things, I did a book with Vernon Jordan.

I helped him write his memoirs, which was not a thing that academics typically do, but I wanted to do it because I knew who he was and I knew who I would meet with him. That’s true, you become like one degree separated from everybody if you know him because he knew everyone. That’s another piece of the puzzle that’s not standard but has been really important.

Paula Edgar: Wow. Yeah, I mean there are a lot of lessons just in that one little chunk, is to know that it’s not a straight line to anywhere anymore.

Annette Gordon-Reed: No, no.

Paula Edgar: And to be open to opportunities. But when you just laid that out, what made you even want to write about Thomas Jefferson and the Hemingses at all?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, what made me want to write about it is I had been reading about Jefferson and Monticello and slavery from the time I was young, from childhood as a young person.

It intrigued me that the way people responded to this story, because I knew that in slavery, slave owners, enslavers had children with enslaved women all the time, that was not something. But for people to treat it like this was some big deal because it was Jefferson, and treat it in a way that meant that they would ignore the words of African Americans who had been enslaved, who talked about Monticello and talked about Jefferson, and they would build up the words of his legal white family, even though they were saying things that were not true, usually when people try to convince you of something by saying things that aren’t true, that affects their credibility, but that wasn’t happening in history.

Tom and Sally is interesting, but the main thing is, how do you listen to the words of people who were enslaved? I mean, it seems to me that it’s more important to pay attention to their words than to burnish the image of the people who were enslaving them.

It was really about the way history is written. When you’re writing about two, particularly the founding fathers type people where you make other people’s stories lesser in order to build them up, that’s what it was really about. I wanted to show the double standard in seeing evidence.

It’s not only just about the writing of history, but it’s about African-American people in general. There was a time when Blacks couldn’t testify against whites. Their testimony is way less than. You still see that process working itself out. I thought this particular story had a bigger message than just did Tom and Sally have kids together.

Paula Edgar: Right. I’m so glad I asked you the question because it’s almost like a given, unfortunately that that dichotomy exists in so many things where Black voices and Black perspectives are diminished and not given credibility at all.

Especially in this country, the founding fathers, when you think about brands, that is the lore of America is a part of who we are as a people. So to have that shaken even a little bit feels like, “Oh, but this is who we are.” But it’s also the truth is who we are too.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Exactly, yeah, it’s not just one thing and it’s not just all to the benefit or to the glory of one group of people. Particularly not people who are enslaving folks. I mean, you would think that their stories would be much more suspect because they’re the ones who have the reason to lie and to try to make themselves look good. That’s what really motivated me to write the book.

Paula Edgar: Wow. Whenever I think of someone stepping into their magic, which is what this sounds like, I read a lot of things, I’m like, “Someone should do something.” I’m like, “Who’s going to pay?” But to be able to actually say I’m going to do this, particularly when you are doing something totally different doing law.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Yes, yes. I didn’t even tell anybody, except my husband, that I was writing a book. I was working on this thing furiously. Fortunately, this was before I had tenure. Typically, you’re supposed to be writing, as I said, law review articles to present to people.

It’s law in the sense that it’s a law professor in the first book looking at evidence, looking at how historians used and I would say misused evidence. I think it has a message for, I talk in the book like I talk to my students about here’s a case, here’s one side, here’s another side, here’s evidence, here’s corroborating stuff. It did have that flavor to it, but it wasn’t traditional. Luckily, it was successful, it was okay with the school for me to do it because it worked.

Paula Edgar: Yeah. We have that in common because actually, I worked at New York Law School as well back in the day, and I didn’t realize that connection.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Oh, wow.

Paula Edgar: We also have a slight Vernon Jordan connection as well. I remember the last time that I saw him, we had a conference or like a reception and we were talking and I was talking about how I went to boarding school. I went to Deerfield Academy and he’s like, “You got into Deerfield Academy?” I said it because I knew that his grandchild was there. I was like, “Yes.” It was funny because he was obviously being funny, but he was very charismatic.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Yes. He was very charismatic. Oh, you went to Deerfield? I went to Dartmouth and there were a lot of people from Deerfield who came to Dartmouth.

Paula Edgar: Yes, they’re both big D’s and green.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Yeah, big D’s and green, so it was a feeder school in some ways.

Paula Edgar: Absolutely is a feeder school. Tell me, because we started talking about the brand piece of this and in the United States and the American lore, like I was saying, Thomas Jefferson is a big brand.

I think about how Hamilton was so successful and how we hear the stories of all of the things of our forefathers. Then you counteract that with some of the hard truths that exist. I’m a big believer in there’s a yes and there’s an and. There’s lots of value that you bring and also [inaudible] slave on her.

When you think about the personal branding and historical figures and how we really hold on to the lore of it all, do you think that it’s helpful for us to understand the story and the truth of the story in terms of shaping actual legacy?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Oh, definitely. It has to be both of those things so you don’t get the true picture because then you don’t understand, “Well, why are these particular things happening?” I mean, I know we have a story about who we say we are, but then there are all these other problems.

Well, if you get the complete picture, then you understand why some of these problems exist and why they haven’t been solved and how intractable they are. You have to do both of those things. I know there’s a tendency with the founding fathers or whatever to want to, you think it all has to be positive or people aren’t going to appreciate the things they did.

But you can appreciate the things they did, even as you talk about the things they didn’t do and would have been better because it’s about a journey that this country has been on and we have been on in this country, particularly African-American people from slavery, out of slavery to Jim Crow and to still working towards some notion of the declarations of equality and so forth. But it has to be a realistic picture of these things. It can’t just be all sweetness and light.

Paula Edgar: Right. Yes. I think about what’s happening across the country and so many places, including Texas, and wanting to have history be less painful and less harmful to people, even though history is history, like from multiple perspective, it’s still history.

My family lives in Florida so I have a lot of challenge in thinking about the fact that there’s a lot of erasure, well, wanting to have a lot of erasure of the experiences of Black people nationally.

All right, so I think this is a good segue to talking about On Juneteenth and talking about your connection to Juneteenth and the book that you’ve written On Juneteenth. You’re from Texas. You come from the home and the heart of Juneteenth. Can you maybe give a little bit of context for the folks who may not know, but hopefully at this point, there are not a lot of people, just a little bit about Juneteenth and then to talk about why you wrote the book.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, Juneteenth is a shortened version of June 19th, 1865, which was the day that the United States Army came to Galveston, Texas to announce the end of slavery in Texas and issued General Order No. 3 saying that slavery was over, and it’s a day that Black Texans have celebrated since 1865, essentially, since the moment it took place.

I mean, the more formal, I think maybe the first formal ones were the following year, but it’s the longest continuing celebration of that, of the holiday. It doesn’t mark the end of slavery in the United States because that doesn’t happen until The 13th Amendment is fully ratified in 1865 in December, some months later.

But I think it’s important because it was the end of the military effort to maintain the system of slavery because the Confederates kept fighting even after Lee surrendered in April of 1865, they kept fighting, and in Texas, the last battle was in Texas.

They finally surrender in June, and that’s when Granger can come in and say, “Slavery is over here.” It was a jubilant day for people, even though it was also a dangerous time because people who resented this very often enacted violence to stop people from celebrating.

During researching for the book, I found some instances of people in a town where a couple of dozen people were whipped for celebrating. Can you imagine celebrating the end of slavery but then you know the people who own them, because they see that as a loss and it was a loss to them?

I wrote this book because I’d written a piece, I’ve been thinking about Texas because I’d written two pieces about Texas in the years immediately before I wrote this one. One for The New Yorker and one for The New York Review of Books. I did a review of six books about Texas. The New Yorker Review was in the spring of 2020. Then we had the pandemic.

Paula Edgar: Yeah, we did.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Some people got puppies and some people started yoga, or whatever. I wrote a book. I was here in New York, as you know, sort of ground zero for all of this and we weren’t doing anything except going out to Central Park and taking a walk and then coming back in and staying.

This is such a surreal moment to even think about this. I decided with the urging of my editor to write about Juneteenth, to do a short book that would be a history, but also a memoir, which I had never done before. It was the kind of writing I did when I was growing up. I always wanted to be a writer, so I would write short stories, essays, and things like that growing up.

It took me back to those days and it took me back to the Vernon Jordan thing, except now I’m writing about my life instead of helping him write about his. My editor says this, in June, right after the holiday, he says, “We can do this if you could deliver me something by September.”

That’s what I did and I delivered the book in September in time for the following Juneteenth. And it was good. It was interesting. I mean, neither my parents are alive and I found myself thinking about them when you’re thinking about mortality and you think in the middle of a pandemic.

I missed them and I thought, one of the good things about the book is if I could talk about them and our lives together, that would bring them back in a way. It was emotionally satisfying to me and intellectually satisfying to me. It was fun to do, to remember growing up in the ’70s, being a kid in the ’70s, what that was like in Texas.

Yeah. The book came out in May. Then the president, a couple of months later, a month later, I guess, signed a bill and I was invited to go to the White House to witness that. It was a wonderful moment.

Paula Edgar: It must have been surreal.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Yeah, yeah.

Paula Edgar: It must have been. I mean, even hearing about it, because again, you put yourself in the right line and opportunities happen, but I’m sure that having your book at that time was not a bad thing. You weren’t regretting having a book at that time when it’s a national holiday.

Annette Gordon-Reed: No, not at all. My editor, Bob Weil, is a genius. He’s a great editor, but he’s also savvy. He was the one who insisted, “Don’t put this off. Let’s just do this this year and get me something by September, something short,” and that’s worked out really, really well. It’s kind of hard to write short in some ways.

Paula Edgar: Especially by yourself.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Yeah. But I mean, it did, as I said, resemble the kind of writing that I was doing when I was younger and not like the books, not like the history books, but I enjoyed myself doing it.

Paula Edgar: Yeah, it’s your history book.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Paula Edgar: When I was thinking about, all of the people who were my listeners and who watched on YouTube know, I love wearing bright colors and I always wear good, bright glasses, but I deliberately was like, “I have to wear red today because we were talking about Juneteenth.”

I would love if you would just share about how it is celebrated. What are some of the traditions that go into celebrating Juneteenth?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, the traditions that I grew up with were it’s a community holiday. You can do one or two things. I mean, people sometimes go to a park. If they’re in cities, there are public parks. There are commemorations of them.

When I grew up, it was basically a community celebration. My grandmother and grandmothers and mothers are around. People and grandfathers would barbecue. Barbecue goat is a part of the menu.

We didn’t eat goat, but that’s something that was a part of it. You’re supposed to have some kind of red drink, and someone pointed this out to me, I hadn’t thought about this that much but usually, it was hibiscus. It started out as hibiscus tea, not Big Red or what we have now as red soda water, as we called it.

But people think it’s a West African tradition because in the West Indies, they’re sorrel. Every place has a red drink that somehow gets figured into all of this, so the roots of this apparently predate the new world, essentially. People think that this is something that comes from Africa. So having red things is important.

Firecrackers, I can’t believe our parents let us have, our grandparents, my grandfather bought us firecrackers and said, “Now be careful.” We have kids now, you can’t imagine doing that, but.

Paula Edgar: Come back with that arm.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Come back with your arm, come back with your finger. The parenting in those days was really, really different than it is now. I don’t know if it’s better or worse, but firecrackers, too much soda water, barbecue goat, and in my family, because we were in Texas, my grandmother had gotten a recipe for tamales.

She made tamales, and tamales are a holiday food. People would order dozens of them from her and she would make them. She was selling tamales to raise money for the St. Luke’s United Methodist Church to build a new church. That was also a part of it. You see the Texas connection there. There’s the soul foodstuff. You would have that typical fare. But it was also tamales would be a part of it.

Paula Edgar: I love that, that mix of culture that happens wherever you bring in new people.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Exactly, people talk about food appropriation, but people do that. That’s what people do. That’s what food is. It’s already coming from when there was Katrina. A lot of people from New Orleans moved to Houston. Then we started seeing stuff that I had never seen, crawfish boils, crawfish.

Now, I knew that there were crawfish. A restaurant might occasionally have something like that. But I ride around Texas now and I see signs. I mean, it’s for barbecue, crawfish boils. I’m like, “What? Where is it from?” But that’s the influence of all these people who moved into that area. So we now have another culinary part of these in Texas.

Paula Edgar: I love that. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Netflix documentary High on the Hog. Have you had a chance to see that?

Annette Gordon-Reed: No, but I know about it. I know about it.

Paula Edgar: Yeah. They talk about Juneteenth and celebration and food. There was one person who spoke who talked about, there’s not really, so your point of thing as food appropriation, because everybody has access to food, but there is food appreciation. It’s important not to forget where these traditions and where these things come from.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Exactly. No, so as long as you’re not claiming that you discovered this, it’s appreciated, everybody brings all this together and it’s great that some of the parts make this whole really good.

Paula Edgar: It’s true. My family is from Barbados and Jamaica and I just got back from both of the places actually for a spring break recently. When you said goat, I was like, “Goat!” Obviously, sorrel is a big part of our tradition as well. I love that that is a continuation of our African roots.

Tell me what you think about Juneteenth and its importance in the context of American history, and this good and this bad.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, the bad part of it, I’ll start with that, is potentially that it becomes rote. It becomes like a day for a mattress sales and stuff like that. You don’t really think about the importance of it.

I think also I gather that there is some small degree of resentment on the part of some people who say, “Well, we have our days too.” In Virginia, it’s April. I mean, emancipation was a process. It wasn’t just one thing that happened one day and then everything was okay. It was a process.

But what I’m hoping is that Juneteenth can be like an umbrella for that, that you talk about the fact that as the Army of the United States rolled across the country and as African-American people themselves left plantations, that emancipation was a process. This is an occasion for us to stop and think about that. I think that’s a good part about it.

The day asks you to think about history, which is I think always an important thing. It’s a way of connecting us to the people who came before us and you remember the struggles that they had.

I mean, one of the factoid facts that I learned in writing the book was the five men in Houston, Texas, former enslaved people who pooled their resources, pooled their money, saved their money and bought land in Houston for a commemoration of Juneteenth, so they would have a place to come and note the day, which I think is an amazing, extraordinary thing, because what it means is that they assumed that generations to come would remember that day and wanted them to and wanted them to have a place to do it.

It’s an amazing connection between the past and their present, but also their future. They just took it for granted that their descendants would remember this. I think that’s a very powerful thing for people.

Any day that you can think about history, think about family, I mean, I encourage people, one of the things they might do is to have young people in their families take a family history on Juneteenth, an occasion to talk to your grandparents and your great-grandparents, anybody who’s living about what their lives were like, that that’s an important thing to do. I think there’s so much positive that can come out of it.

Paula Edgar: I love that as a thing because we—oh, I shouldn’t say we because I don’t do this—but a lot of see the person in the time they are now and forget that they have a story. Everybody has a story, and with our families, we just get aunty, but we don’t think when aunty, what she did when she was younger. That is something that can be done across racial boundaries like that.

Annette Gordon-Reed: No, it’s not just Black people. Everybody can do that. Everybody should do it. We’re going to have some interesting stories about the pandemic. I still don’t think we’ve come to grips with what happened to us because it seems so bizarre that for this period of time, the whole world pretty much almost came to a halt in a sense.

It’s still affecting us, but it would be important to have oral histories about this time period for people to think about how it affected them personally.

Paula Edgar: Yeah, oh, my therapist says, “We’ll be talking about this for decades.” Because anytime there’s an unexpected or unintentional pause, we learn more about ourselves. That for some was great and for some was very challenging.

In that sense, the work that I do in DEI and in consulting, I said that when George Floyd happened in 2020, when we were having the pandemic, I don’t know that it would have had the same presence and focus or catalyst that was if it wasn’t that we were all sitting in front of the television.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Oh, I think you’re right. Oh, I think you’re absolutely right. It galvanized us and it focused us in a way. Also, it galvanized people about Juneteenth. There was a huge increase, I read this in traffic, about Juneteenth as a holiday.

With George Floyd, people were thinking about, “Well, how did we get here? What is this all about from slavery and then how did slavery end?” Then to Juneteenth, there’s just a pickup in this. People focused on things in ways that they wouldn’t have if we had not had that pause.

Paula Edgar: Yeah, in the reflection, when I was a young child, I think probably for the same reason you have, my mother and my father were both very avid readers and they would talk a lot and make us talk a lot, and have conversation, but one of the first times that I went to the South, other than Florida, is I went to North Carolina and I took my daughter.

I’ve always had this connection to the ancestors and the experience of enslaved people and really feeling like that energy. We went to a plantation and I was so upset that we missed the tour.

I wanted to just see and I wanted her to understand what our experience in this country had been to see some of the things and the man who was the caretaker saw how upset I was and he offered to take us out, just she and I.

I’ll put this in the show notes so people can see what I’m talking about. But one of the things, and it sits with me still to this day, is he showed us these bricks. The bricks had fingerprints in them, tiny fingerprints. He had my daughter put her hand up to the fingerprints. It was like, you cannot say anymore that we don’t remember the few people and the experience of enslaved people that has made this country what it is.

So the more that we remember, and yes, it is painful, all the way around, it’s the only way that we can really, I think, hope that we don’t go backwards. Saying that now, with all the backlash in every way and all the erasure that’s happening, it is even more important for us to remember what we have been through and so history and historians like yourself are needed and necessary in this space.

How would you like future historians and future folks to think of you and your legacy and what you have added to the American landscape in terms of your work?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, obviously I hope that they would think that what I’ve done was useful, that it sparked conversation, that it sparked of the scholarship. Historians always get supplanted because you find new information, things or styles change, even the terminology changes as time goes by.

But I would want to be thought of as somebody who made a good faith effort to make the stories of African-American people who were voiceless in many ways, to give them a voice in a way, to get people to think about them as people.

I mean, The Hemingses of Monticello is an attempt to make those people, those Hemingses, live as individuals because I think we understand stories and we understand history better through the lives of people.

You don’t really get a chance to do that very much with enslaved people because we don’t know that much about them. It just so happens that this family of people lived in a place that a lot of attention has been focused upon, but also were connected to a man who kept a lot of records.

Some of them were literate so they were able to keep some of the records as well. Certainly, the oral history of that family is something that’s quite strong. I’d like to be someone who is useful, who added something to the conversation that would advance things and make things go forward, even from where I left it, that somebody else picks it up and goes for it forward.

Paula Edgar: I love that. Okay, so we’ve talked about your work, we’ve talked about your impact, what about the fun stuff? What do you do for fun?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, I have a new dog, which you might hear in the background. At some point, she tends to howl at sirens as they come by.

Paula Edgar: All the time.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Moving to Manhattan is an interesting concept. That’s not something I knew was going to happen. So playing with a dog is fun. About five months before the pandemic, I started taking piano lessons again. I’d taken piano lessons from 5 to 11 and then I just stopped.

I just stopped, and I rarely touched the piano in the following few years, and then after a certain point, never. I found a teacher, and I’ve been taking piano lessons, and that is a lot of fun. It’s humbling.

He said, “There are some things I can do that you wouldn’t have been able to do if you had not had the lessons before. You wouldn’t be able to do them so quickly.” Because the muscle memory is to some degree there, but in some ways, it’s not.

I’m comfortable as a writer, I’m comfortable teaching, doing those kinds of things. But to go and do something where you’re not so great at it, it’s humbling and it’s just important because it really shows you who you are, the kinds of things that matter to you, the kind of perfectionism that’s not always so great because that can prevent you from taking risks and doing things, so that’s fun.

Going to movies with my family is fun as well. Yeah, those are the things. Sometimes binge-watching silly shows.

Paula Edgar: I love that you started taking piano lessons again because of exactly what you just said. My therapist whom I talk about all the time, everybody knows, she says it both begins where comfort ends.

If we continuously aim to be in a space where we’re a little bit uncomfortable, we’re always growing. Oftentimes, I think people feel like, “Okay, well, I’m out of years old or I’ve done all these things so that’s it.” But I love hearing about continued growth because I just think that that’s what keeps us alive, literally doing additional things and learning.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Oh, yes. Yes. Just to take you out of your comfort zone, as it turns out, the music department at Harvard is about five minutes from my office and they have practice rooms there. It’s a humbling experience to go in there because there are students there and these are the serious music majors and you walk past the practice rooms which are soundproof when you’re in them, but you can hear things.

But you hear these young people who are there just doing all this stuff and I’m just going along with mine as well. I wonder what do they think about what I’m doing because it’s not up to them, but it puts you in your place in a way, it is a growth experience. That has been really meaningful to me to do it.

I mean, I’m not going to become a concert pianist or anything like that, but to have a teacher, and it is so funny because when you get praised from a teacher, it’s like you’re six or seven years old again. That’s such a weird situation to be in, but I appreciate it.

Paula Edgar: Well, I want the invitation to the recital. There’s that. Okay, so I ask folks on my podcast the same two questions, I’m going to ask you them. One is this: it’s your stand by your brand, what is one aspect of your personal brand that you will never compromise on?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Integrity.

Paula Edgar: Yeah, yes, yes, yes, yes. Love it, love it, love it. Okay, next one. Branding Room Only is a play on the term standing room only because I think I’m clever. The question is, what is your magic? What is the thing about you that people will be in a room with only standing room only to experience or witness about you?

Annette Gordon-Reed: I think I can talk to people at whatever level I find them. I try to write in a way so that people who can read from anybody and any level can understand what it is that I’m saying and I try to speak that way as well.

I think I present the same face to people. I don’t dumb things down for people. Audiences appreciate that. My readers appreciate that. I’ve gotten letters from people and people say to me that that’s one thing that I feel like I’m talking to them and speaking directly to them. I think that that’s important.

Paula Edgar: It absolutely is. I think of some professors that I had who are very much like, “Oh, I am professor.” There’s that because there’s perspective, but it is also lovely to be able to be in conversation with someone and feel as if you’re equally heard and being fairly treated in the interaction.

Annette Gordon-Reed: Because I want people to feel that they’re a part of it because they are.

Paula Edgar: Yeah. I have thoroughly enjoyed having this conversation with you. I thank you so much for spending some time with me in The Branding Room. We’re going to put links to all of your books and anything else you want in the show notes. But if there’s any way that you want folks to connect with you or to find out more about you, let us know. What’s that?

Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, the books are the way to get to know me, particularly On Juneteenth, because that’s my most personal thing. What I write is how you know me, and that’s in my books.

Paula Edgar: I love that. Well, thank you for being a guest on this show today. Everyone, go and tell everybody about this episode because they need to learn them some things and it’s important for us to hear about where we’ve been to figure out where we’re going to go. Make sure you subscribe, you download, and you tell a friend. I’ll see you all next time in the Branding Room, bye.

Wasn’t that an amazing conversation? I learned so much at even, again, being in the space where I often will talk about the experience of Juneteenth and what it meant for us Americans, but hearing the preeminent scholar about Juneteenth speak about her own personal experiences, as well as what we as a country and world really should take away from the experience of enslaved people, particularly through that lens of Juneteenth, as a celebration, as well as a commemoration of the experiences of African-American people in this country was really a truly special experience for me.

So I would love for you to share this with everybody, particularly in your workplaces and spaces because we need to make sure that we don’t forget history because it’s important for us to honor it in all of its challenges while we press forward into better spaces. We still got to look back in order to go forward. As always, I thank you for listening. Make sure you download, like, and share, and I’ll see you next time in the Branding Room.