Life and Work
Barbara Chase-Riboud was born on June 26, 1939 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Charles and Vivian Chase. During her childhood it was discovered that she was a gifted visual artist, mostly in the areas of drawing and sculpting. She attended Philadelphia’s prestigious Girls’ High which also graduated such celebrated artists as Jill Scott. Chase then received her bachelor of fine arts degree from Temple University in 1957. In 1981, she was awarded her first honorary doctorate, from Yale University. In 1996 she was awarded a second, this time from the University of Connecticut.
After college, Chase went to Paris where she married photographer Marc Riboud. They had two sons, David and Alexis, and traveled widely together. Chase-Riboud was the first American woman to visit China after their revolution. The country so affected her that she wrote what was to become her first published work, a collection of poems about China. During her transition from visual artist to literary artist, Chase-Riboud often encountered people who challenged her as a writer. To this she responded: “…writing isn’t my second choice. Writing is a parallel vocation” (“Barbara Chase-Riboud”).
The controversy continued as Chase-Riboud published her first and most celebrated novel, a book about the alleged affair between Thomas Jefferson and his slave mistress Sally Hemings. After this novel was published, Chase-Riboud reflected: “I woke up and found myself famous, at least notorious, for daring to attack Jefferson by writing about a woman old-guard historians had pronounced as only a figment of my imagination” (Jones).
Her marriage eventually ended in divorce, but Chase-Riboud continues to reside in Paris with her second husband Sergei Tosi. In 1996, she was knighted by the French government. Chase-Riboud continues writing and sculpting. She has recently published her book Hottentot Venus and won the Design Award from the U.S. government for her work on a sculpture in Manhattan that pays respect to African American burial grounds there. Her passion for pursuing her artistic themes remains steady in the face of the controversy continually surrounding her work.
Chase-Riboud published her first work in 1974, a book of poems inspired by her travels in China and Egypt entitled From Memphis to Peking. Though Chase-Riboud is known less for her poetry than for her controversial novels, critics still praise her work in this genre. Marilyn Richardson from MIT writes “The voice in these poems is vivid, graphic, and full of the language of contrast and juxtaposition of color” (3). Her second book of poems, Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra, was published in 1987. These poems were inspired by a painting of the same name.
Chase-Riboud’s most famous works are her novels. Her first was published in 1979, which has also become her most critically acclaimed. The book is simply entitledSally Hemings. It is about the title character’s relationship with American icon Thomas Jefferson. The novel began what would become Chase-Riboud’s continual emphasis in her writing on Black women who have been mostly ignored by history. One of Chase-Riboud’s most passionate themes in her life as well as her work is her belief that “…the story of whites and blacks in America is not two separate histories, but intimately entwined” (Jones). For this book Chase-Riboud received the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, which is awarded to one American woman each year who has written an exceptional novel.
In 1989 Chase-Riboud published her most controversial novel, Echo of Lions, which is the story of Joseph Cinque, a captured African in the 1800’s who sues the government for his freedom with the help of former President John Quincy Adams. This novel is based on a true story, and may sound familiar to the audience because of their experience with the Steven Spielberg film “Amistad.” Indeed, Chase-Riboud sued Spielberg for using her story in the movie without permission. The lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, but the issue remains controversial. Web pages by an overwhelming number of Spielberg fans continue to criticize Chase-Riboud for suing the acclaimed director, and accuse her of plagiarizing another document to get her own story.
In 1994 Chase-Riboud published The President’s Daughter, her follow up to Sally Hemings, about the woman that President Thomas Jefferson fathered by his slave mistress. In Sally Hemings the narrator reflects about the title character: “She had reached out beyond her triple bondage. She had clung stubbornly to the only thing she had ever found of her own in life, and love had been more real to her than slavehood. And she had survived both. This was the truth of her life” (343). The audience feels vindicated about the affair and the toll it takes on Sally when they read The President’s Daughter because love is not the only truth in Harriet Hemings’ life. The under-represented discussion of generations in American slave culture is opened up by Chase-Riboud’s work.
In her 1996 novel Valide: A Novel of the Harem, and in 2003, with her novel Hottentot Venus, Chase-Riboud let her surroundings influence her writing. After living in France for a number of years, her focus shifted away from American Black culture, and towards the African and French Black cultures. However, her central themes still remained intact, if in a different setting. Both novels focus on young Black women as their main characters, exploring how race affects their lives in tremendous ways as in Sally Hemings and other works set in the U.S. And again, each novel was published amidst a swarm of controversy.
Throughout her career, Barbara Chase-Riboud has been influenced by many diverse and important figures in American culture. Among these are Jackie Onassis, who was her editor at Viking publications, and Toni Morrison who was her editor at Random House. Now Chase-Riboud’s own influence might be felt as her works are becoming pop-culture must reads and required texts in college and high school curricula across the United States.
Publications and Awards
By the Author
Books of Poetry
- From Memphis and Peking. New York: Random House, 1974.
- Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra. New York: Morrow, 1987.
- Sally Hemings. 1979. New York: Viking, 2002.
- Valide: A Novel of the Harem. New York: Morrow, 1986.
- Echo of Lions. New York: Morrow, 1989.
- The President’s Daughter. New York: Crown, 1994.
- Hottentot Venus. 2003. New York: Doubleday, 2004.
- Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Excellence in Fiction by an American Woman, 1980
- Carl Sandburg Poetry Award for Best American Poet, 1988
- Black Caucus of the American Library Association, Best Fiction Award, 2004
- Hurston /Wright Legacy Awards, Fiction, 2004
- Alain Locke International Award, 2007
Criticism and Interviews
About the Author
- Dawson, Emma Waters. Ed. Dolan Hubbard. “Witnesses and Practitioners: Attitudes Toward Miscegenation in Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Sally Hemings.”Recovered Writers/Recovered Texts: Race, Class, and Gender in Black Women’s Literature. Ed. Dolan Hubbard. Knoxville, TN: U of Tennessee P, 1997. 1-14.
- DuCille, Ann. “Where in the World is William Wells Brown? Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the DNA of African-American Literary History.” American Literary History. 12.3 (Fall 2000): 443-62.
- Ernest, John. “The Reconstruction of Whiteness: William Wells Brown’s The Escape; Or a Leap for Freedom.” MLA. 113.5 (Oct. 1998): 1108-21.
- Henderson, Roman. African American Review. 30.1 (Spring 1996): 115-16.
- Rev. of “Hottentot Venus.” Publishers Weekly. 20 Oct. 2003: 34.
- Jones, Lisa. “A Most Dangerous Woman.” The Village Voice. 3-9 Feb. 1999.
- Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “The Limits of Artistic License.” New York Times Book Review. 23 Dec. 1997: A.18.
- Martin, Larry L. The Journal of Negro History 65.3 (Summer 1980): 275-76.
- McKee, Sarah. “Barbara Chase-Riboud (1939- ).” Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson.Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999.
- Nelson, Jill. “Hottentot Venus.” Black Issues Book Review. 6.1 Jan./Feb. 2004: 50.
- Nyman, Ann E. “Sally’s Rape: Robbie McCauley’s Survival Act.” African American Review. 33.4 (Winter 1999): 577-87.
- Pereira, Malin. African American Review. 33.3 (Autumn 1999): 536-47.
- Pollard, Cherise A. “Self-Evident Truths: Love, Complicity, and Critique in Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Sally Hemings and The President’s Daughter.” Monuments of the Black Atlantic: Slavery and Memory. Ed. Joanne M. Braxton and Maria Diedrich. Münster, Germany: LIT, 2004.
- Richardson, Marilyn. “Barbara Chase-Riboud.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. Ed. Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris. Vol. 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955. Detroit: Gale, 1984. 43-48. Dictionary of Literary Biography. 2003. Gale Literary Databases. 27 Jan. 2004. <http://infotrac.galegroup.com>.
- Rody, Caroline. “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: History, Rememory, and a Clamor for a Kiss American Literary History 7.1 (Spring 1995): 92-119.
- Rushdy, Ashraf H.A. “Daughters Signifyin(g) History: The Example of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” American Literature 64.3 (Sept. 1992): 567-97.
- —. “Families of Orphans: Relation and Disrelation in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” College English. 55.2 (Feb. 1993): 135-57.
- —. “I Write in Tongues: The Supplement of Voice in Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Sally Hemings.” Contemporary Literature. 35.1 (Spring 1994):100-35.
- —. “Representing the Constitution: Embodiments of America in Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Echo of Lions.” Studies in Contemporary Fiction. 36.4 (Summer 1995): 258-80.
- Santella, Andrew. “Free at Last: This Novel Offers Justice to an African Woman Who Could Find No Justice in Her Lifetime.” New York Times Book Review. 7 (Dec. 2003): 51.
- Seidel, Linda. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 17.1 (Spring 1998): 167-69.
- Snitow, Ann Barr. “The Front Line: Notes on Sex in Novels by Women, 1969-1979.” Signs. 5.4 (Summer 1980): 702-18.
- Wellington, Darryl Lorenzo. “Object Lessons: A Controversial Historical Figure Gets a Voice of Her Own.” The Washington Post. 21 (Dec. 2003): T.04.
- Wells, Monique Y. “Barbara Chase-Riboud, Visionary Woman.” Black Issues Book Review. 7.2 (Mar./Apr. 2005): 64-5.
- “Barbara Chase-Riboud Discusses the Subject of Her New Book: Hottentot Venus.” All Things Considered. 3 Dec. 2003.