The Life of Sally Hemings: It Wasn't a Romantic Love Affair
Slavery in Early Virginia
When it comes to the subject of slavery, the conversation tends be one centered around controversy. For Black people, it fluctuates between shame and honor. For White people, it tends to be an overused subject that they're tired of hearing about. They often echo "get over it" and "it was so long ago" to avoid being empathetic and sincere. Tragedies such as September 11th, 2001 and the Holocaust are constantly regaled for their effects upon American society and European history, as if they were the only two relevant horrors in history. The willingness to honor and hold one event as being more destructive than the other is nefarious. However, on the other side, there are those who describe historical events as being better than what they were. An article on HubPages called "Sally Hemings: They Called Her 'Sarah,'" not only glosses over slavery, but even suggests that slave rape was romance.
Black people were forcefully brought to North America in 1619 and made into slaves. In the early colonial years, slavery was less rigid than what it came to be. It was more like indentured servitude. White masters held some obligation to treat their slaves fairly for working their land. In Free Blacks in Colonial Virginia, Brendan Wolfe suggests,"Rather than acting out of altruism, slave owners saw freedom as a more practical incentive than violence when attempting to motivate slaves to work" and that "Blacks and Whites often lived near one another, worked together, and socialized together. Blacks had access to the justice system and appeared to be treated equally by the courts." This soon faded the by the end of the 17th century when the number of White indentured servants to work the land decreased and the need for enslaved Black people became necessary. These circumstances shaped Sally Hemings's place in society.
When It Started
Born around 1773 in Charles City County, Virginia, Sarah "Sally" Hemings was the biracial half-sister of Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles. Hemings's mother, Betty, was half-Black and half-White, and the daughter of seaman John Hemings and an enslaved Black woman named Susanna. This puts Sally Hemings's ancestry at three-fourths European and one-quarter African. As fair-skinned as Hemings might have been, according to the 1662 Virginia slave law, enslaved children inherited the status of their mother. It should be noted that Virginia's law was a legal way for White slave owners to avoid paternal responsibility. Hemings was a year old when Martha was bequeathed property (land and slaves), which included Hemings, who was the youngest slave child.
After Martha died, Jefferson served as a minister in France. During his tenure there, he sent for his daughter and for her to be accompanied by Hemings, who would serve as a maid. Jefferson's daughter was eight or nine years old and Hemings was fourteen. While in France, Hemings could have petitioned for freedom, because of slavery being outlawed there, but her family and siblings who were still living in Virginia were likely one reason why she didn't do so. If she had been free in France, she would have returned to Virginia a slave. Another reason might have been rooted in the fact she was about 16 and pregnant by Jefferson who promised their children freedom. Jefferson was 46 at the time.
A few points should be noted here. Hemings was the half-sister of his wife and an aunt to his children. She was family and that was why he likely had an affinity to her, but, she was also 16 at the time of her pregnancy. It doesn't matter whether or not she consented to sex. She was still legally his property and therefore had no agency over her body. To suggest that his powerful fondness for her was the result of "a long-term relationship," as Karen Kay has in Sally Hemings: They Called Her "Sarah," mitigates Jefferson's sexual exploitation over Hemings. If we would consider a 40-something-year-old man to be a sexual predator for coercion and raping a minor today, then the same applies to men of the past. To also say "we can surmise that theirs was much more than a fling and they did love each other and care for each other very much and for many years" as Kay has implied is inappropriate. Implications and statements like that portray Hemings as having enjoyed being taken advantaged of and manipulated. Jefferson made a promise to free Sally's children, but not Sally if she bore their children. That was his way of maintaining control over Hemings and her children. Their relationship wasn't a result of love.
The Aftermath and What Black Women Faced
Hemings bore at least six children by Jefferson, four of whom survived to adulthood. The children—and Hemings notwithstanding—did work inside the home. Some of her duties included being a nursemaid companion, a seamstress, and a chamber maid. The children ran errands and the male heirs were afforded violin lessons. Hemings' sleeping quarters were adjacent to Jefferson's. In Historians Uncover Slave Quarters of Sally Hemings at Jefferson's Monticello, archaelogists found her 14 foot room, which was "8 feet wide and 13 feet long" (Cottman). Her room was no bigger than a cubby hole or a crawl space under a house; she was forced to bear children there and live there all of her life.
Kay, who is intrigued by history and how facts can be blurred across time, also likes how perceptions can change as well. Her line of thinking here places Hemings as a concubine, a rape survivor, and a hero all in one. Kay says Hemings probably wasn't "thinking of her life as anything exceptional," but her life "as a slave was very likely more fortunate than most...she was still not free, and therefore, not equal in the eyes of the country during her time." Which one is it? How do we know what she thought? How was her life exceptional? She was an enslaved woman living in a space no larger than a modern pantry. Although many Black people today debate on whether the house or field slaves had it worse, the amount of abuse suffered on both ends of the spectrum in a system that relied on their labor was the lowest point of American society. And as a woman, Hemings was obviously more susceptible to sexual abuse.
Danielle McGuire author of You Belong To Me, says "During slavery, White men who owned slaves could increase their property value and increase their property by impregnating Black enslaved women. So, it made sense to have sex with them, to rape them, and to have them bear children." Another accurate point she makes is "Throughout slavery, there was this sense that Black women couldn't be raped, that they were lustful, that they were highly sexual, that they desired sex all the time, that they were essentially Jezebels. And, therefore, a lustful hyper-sexual woman couldn't be raped, because she wanted sex all the time. And that justified this steady assault of Black women during slavery." Both of McGuire's points are illustrated in Hemings' life. She was a breeding ground for Jefferson's seed and was therefore doing what White men felt enslaved Black women were engineered to do. Even Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, wrote how her master would threaten to sell her away and that she should be grateful for him taking her under his roof. Enslaved Black women rarely spoke openly of the master's misdeeds.
Hemings Was a Minor, Not the Protagonist of a Misunderstood Love Story. Slavery Wasn't a Social Club, it Was an Oppressive Institution.
While Kay acknowledges McGuire's words, she paints Hemings as a hero for having to endure the hardships of being property and bearing unwanted children. But paradoxically believes the possibility that "she and Jefferson were truly enamored with each other too. In that case, she is the voice for secret romances that had to be kept hidden away and publicly denied for fear of shame to the 'owners' and likely worse for their slave/love interest." Kay is rationalizing rape as a secret love affair, because Hemings bore children by him and he kept her near. As I mentioned earlier, it made sense for Jefferson to be more trusting of Hemings because she was his sister-in-law. She had a closer familial connection to him in that regard. While it's not uncommon for a victim to fall in love with an abuser, Hemings was in no position to resist Jefferson's advances. She was his property, she was illiterate, and her entire family lived at Monticello. Hemings was inferior to Jefferson. Kay paints Jefferson as a Don Juan and Hemings as a hapless heroine, with the two of them forced to stay silent about a forbidden love. I think Kay's more infatuated with the idea of interracial sex during slavery because it crossed the color line, than she is concerned with the sexualization of Hemings and Jefferson's objectification and sexual exploitation of her.
What further makes Kay's thinking disturbing is the following quote. "I imagine as a slave, it must have been difficult for her to have a 'special' relationship with her owner--and not suffer somewhat from her peers." Slavery wasn't a social club like a sorority. Enslaved Black women were aware of slave rape and didn't talk about it for fear of retribution from the master; it's unlikely they were jealous of her position. Slave rape wasn't special and was pretty common. When a young enslaved girl reached a certain age, nothing stopped the physical prowess of the slave master, an overseer, or kin of the master. Sometimes the children were sold away, because a slave master's wife couldn't bear seeing the outcome of her philandering husband. Sometimes a master sold the children away to flex his power over the enslaved woman or for him to avoid paternal responsibilities. So Hemings was no more prone to acts of abuse than other enslaved Black women working in the fields. What Jefferson did was typical of southern White men at the time.
Jefferson Wasn't a Hero, He Owned Humans for Profit
How It Ended
At the end of Jefferson's life in 1826, he didn't free Hemings. As a matter of fact in his will, he freed the male heirs of the Hemings clan, such as her brothers and children. The two he freed formally were Hemings's brothers. Jefferson died in debt, but Hemings was excluded from being auctioned off and freed by his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph. She lived free for nine years until her death in 1835. What should be taken from Hemings' experience is that her life embodied the Black American experience for women during slavery. It wasn't pretty and shouldn't be left out of the discussion simply because it was in the past. It certainly shouldn't be a go-to comparison for manipulation to render Black people compliant. Changing the narrative of slave rape, especially when the descendants of said people carry that pain, only trivializes the destruction it caused and stifles one's ability to process events as they happened. We can't afford to have selective memories.
Sources and Resources
- Harriet Jacobs on Rape and Slavery
- Why You Can't Ever Call an Enslaved Woman a "Mistress"
- Missouri Versus Celia: A Slave Who Killed Her White Master for Raping Her, Then Claimed Self Defense
- What I Learned from Leading Tours at a Plantation: You Won’t Believe the Questions I Got About Slavery.
- Her Tale Was Brutal, Sexual. No One Believed a Slave Woman Could Be so Literate, but now Harriet Jacobs Has Reclaimed Her Name.
Questions & Answers
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