Saturday, March 18, 2017


Over my lifetime the Jefferson/Hemings thing (in popular telling) went from hushed denial to a tale of star-crossed romantic love. I am not sure which is worse.
Having spent the past five years immersed in research on the Jefferson and Hemings families for two historical novels I wrote, I was thrilled to learn that Sally Hemings’s room at Monticello will be reopened. I’d grown tired of hearing her described within the confines of two roles: “Jefferson’s concubine,” as her son called her, and “slave.”

Also, the confines of actually being enslaved.

When Hemings was 14, she was assigned to accompany Thomas Jefferson’s youngest daughter, Maria, to France, where Jefferson was serving as American envoy. According to Hemings’s son Madison Hemings, at 16, Sally was pregnant with Jefferson’s child, a son who didn’t live long.

After her owner, Jefferson, raped his young teen slave, presumably repeatedly.

Perhaps 16-year-old Sally Hemings was simply outmatched in a debate with a persuasive, powerful, 46-year-old man. Or perhaps she saw a chance to improve life for her family. Perhaps she just missed her family. We’ll never know what she thought or felt.

But opening up the room where she lived at Monticello will force us to acknowledge her as a person who did think and feel, who lived her own extraordinary life and left her mark on our history beyond the role she’s thus far been assigned, as merely a footnote to a scandal.

Ah, those master-slave debates, in which the masters invariably won. How did that happen? Some things will forever remain a mystery.

Raise your hands if, before reading this piece, you didn't consider a person, Sally Hemings, to be "a person who did think and feel." Anyone? You over there, just scratching your ear? Ok, no one then.

I guess someone has a novel to sell in which these fascinating new ideas, such "is black slave a person who did think and feel?", something which has never before been explored with such detail and care, will be addressed.

Personally, I can't wait to read the "debate" scene!