Sally Hemings: Slavery was not a Romantic Comedy
by Tae'Shaona Matthews
Ask me who the greatest people in the world are and I’ll say “Black women”, with no hesitation. Ashraf Rushdy said, “history is a Black woman anywhere” and I believe her. Our place in this country, though often reduced to stories of enslavement, is fundamental and expansive. The overwhelming depiction of us throughout American history has been ‘slave’, ‘mistress’, ‘animal’, so much so that we have forgotten ‘human’. We’ve forgotten ‘mother’ and ‘magic’. The strife of Black womanhood brought prosperity to this country, birthed children forced to lay down like Black asphalt in these cities. And yet so many Black women are left nameless, or if not nameless, left in infamy. This is the story of Sally Hemings, informally known as Thomas Jefferson’s mistress.
Black slave girl turned Black mistress, her story is significant but not original. In all actuality, there have always been Sally Hemingses. For centuries, Black women have been subjected to sexual violence under racial and gender oppression, so Sally Hemings isn’t exceptional. The process of her own life was in many ways a replication of the lives of her mother and grandmother who were also forced to have children with white men and slave masters (Frontline). The sexual exploitation of Black women was an integral aspect of slavery, one that not only reinforced white male dominance but also served to increase slave populations even after the slave trade was abolished. The bodies of Black women served as productive sites for breeding, manual labor, and sexual satisfaction (Thelma Jennings). So Sally Hemings was neither an exception nor an irregularity but rather a single instance of a phenomenon that has endured for centuries. She is proof of what happens when white men gain control of both people and history. She is representation for the Black women who were forgotten in the margins. Oppressed through both color and gender, her life tells the story of a darker America.
It is hard to characterize Sally Hemings beyond what we know about her position as a chambermaid and the six children she bore, since little was written about her while she was alive. The very person who owned her may very well be the only reason we know of her at all. And what a predicament that is, to know that the only thing that distinguishes Sally Hemings from any other enslaved Black mistress is her slave master, Thomas Jefferson. Historically, Jefferson rarely wrote about her, and in the mid-1900s measures were taken to hide even the barest of traces of her presence at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, which is almost understandable when you think of the reality of her situation. The rhetoric around their “relationship” has been romanticized where it exists but is generally left out of conversations.
Slave and mistress, Sally Hemings endured a lifetime of rape and bondage, unable to decide the fate of her own body. Robert Jensen, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin stated, “Any sexual contact between a slave and a master is essentially a case of rape”. If a slave master owns a slave’s body, they own their choices as well. To ask whether Thomas Jefferson ever loved Sally Hemings or vice versa is irrelevant because he owned her. She could not consent because she did not have the power to make a decision. Sally Hemings never got to write her own story. So, I will not allow historians to make it a romance; I will not give white supremacy the benefit of the doubt. The failure to address the realities of Jefferson’s participation in slavery and the sexual exploitation of Black women, specifically of Sally Hemings, must be emphasized. They were not star-crossed lovers. This is not a Shakespeare play, though you could call it a tragedy. Sally Hemings was a slave and Thomas Jefferson was her slave master. Monticello was Jefferson’s plantation; and although Sally Hemings spent most of her life there, after her death, there was very little left to show for it.
“The room where historians believe Sally Hemings slept was just steps away from Thomas Jefferson’s bedroom. But in 1941, the caretakers of Monticello turned it into a restroom” (Krissah Thompson). Work began in February of this year to reconstruct the room Sally Hemings once inhabited. Historians at Monticello are uncovering remnants of her past and attempting to remake a life that was purposely hidden under boards and tiles. Sally Hemings was lost to centuries of erasure, but now the historians at Monticello are trying to find her again, as they attempt to expand on the narratives they provide for the enslaved people who once lived and labored there. Christa Dierksheide, a Monticello historian, stated, “Visitors will come up here and understand that there was no place on this mountaintop that slavery wasn’t”.
When Monticello provides a narrative for Sally Hemings, a Black woman, slave, and mistress, they are reworking history. They are saying that her story is worth hearing and that she is valuable. They are saying that Black women and girls are valuable and not as currency or labor, but as people. Black women have systematically been kept from telling their own stories. Sally Hemings missed her chance. She died long before her life would ever mean anything to the white people on that plantation. But she matters to me. I think she matters to them now. By recreating the space she once lived in, Monticello is giving her a place in the present and in history. It’s important that Black girls see that we have history. Though at times it may appear unsavory and unkind, it is ours. We have always existed, whether on this land or somewhere else. It makes a difference to be reminded.
When I think of Black womanhood, I think of solidarity. No Black woman should stand alone in history, and Sally Hemings isn’t just Sally Hemings. Her life, unfortunately, speaks to the violent sexualization of Black women bodies. Her existence, though an expanded metaphor for Black victimhood, has also been reduced to little more than the words of a white man, the very few Thomas Jefferson chose to leave us. And what a sad lesson learned. If we allow white men to write history, they will surely make themselves saviors. This country has chosen to paint Thomas Jefferson as a hero, want us to believe Sally Hemings was a whore. But Sally Hemings was a full person, even if Thomas Jefferson didn’t believe it. It may never be known if her life was erased or simply never written, but what we do know is that her story matters, that the stories of women like her matter, and that BLACK LIVES MATTER, even if history tells us otherwise.