Image of Thomas Jefferson Alongside Black Descendant Holds ‘A Mirror’ to America

Shannon LaNier, a TV news anchor, has complex feelings about being descended from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. "He was a brilliant man who preached equality, but he didn't practice it. He owned people. And now I'm here because of it."Drew Gardner / Smithsonian Magazine

By Shamar Walters and Maia Davis – Shannon LaNier, a TV host in Houston, is pictured in a photo in Smithsonian Magazine alongside his direct ancestor, Thomas Jefferson.

Shannon LaNier, a ninth-generation descendant of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, wore the same sort of outfit as his famous ancestor for a Smithsonian Magazine article, “American Descendants.”

But LaNier, who is Black, said in the article in the magazine’s July issue that he chose not to wear a wig for his likeness of his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.

“I didn’t want to become Jefferson,” LaNier said. “My ancestor had his dreams — and now it’s up to all of us living in America today to make sure no one is excluded from the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

LaNier, a TV host in Houston who co-wrote a book about his family, “Jefferson’s Children: The Story of One American Family,” also said of the third U.S. president, “He was a brilliant man who preached equality, but he didn’t practice it. He owned people. And now I’m here because of it.”

The Smithsonian article features pictures by British photographer Drew Gardner who, about 15 years ago, started tracking down descendants of famous Europeans such as Napoleon and Charles Dickens to see if they would “pose as their famous forebears in portraits he was recreating,” the article said.

Then Gardner thought of the U.S.

“For all its travails, America is the most brilliant idea,” the photographer said. Gardner “especially wanted to challenge the idea that history is ‘white and male,'” the article said.

Other famous Americans featured alongside their descendants in the article are Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

LaNier posted the photos of himself and Jefferson on Instagram, saying the magazine article “is helping hold a mirror” to America.

The side-by-side images show that Jefferson “not only took part in creating this country but also it’s people… black, white, brown, yellow & red!” LaNier wrote.

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