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... the other Black experience

Thomas Jefferson raped Sally Hemings: she wasn't his "mistress"

The definition of a relationship according to Webster’s Dictionary is, “the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected, or the state of being connected.” In simpler terms, it’s the primary way in which two things relate to one another. Many have romanticized how Thomas Jefferson related to Sally Hemings, using words like “mistress” or “affair” to describe their relationship. This is inaccurate and erases the violence of this power dynamic. Sally Hemings was owned as a piece of property under the laws of the state of Virginia and the United States of America. Thomas Jefferson was her master, her owner, and her rapist.

In a statement to Atlanta Blackstar, University of Texas at Austin professor and author of “The Heart of Whiteness” Robert Jensen explains, “Any sexual contact between a slave and a master is essentially a case of rape.” And although it’s generally accepted in an abstract manner, but it becomes insufferable for people to consider it when the logic is applied to a white person, much less tolerable when applied to one of the country’s white Founding Fathers. The questions that one needs to ask when interrogating what makes the framing of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings so asinine is: how does consent apply in the power dynamic of a slave and owner? What does the softening of this relationship do for Thomas Jefferson’s image? How does this deny the humanity of Sally Hemings? Why do “we” feel the need to limit the effects of violence and white supremacy in this context? In an effort to show that these elements solidify Jefferson as a rapist and to tell a more complete history of the historic plantation Monticello, a revamp to the grounds will incorporate Hemings’ experience as well as a more prominent emphasis on the lives of the slaves that inhabited the grounds. Hopefully this will be a genuine and accurate depiction of the lives of slave rather than just another plantation where white people learn to overlook their past.

By T. McLendon, AFROPUNK Contributor


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Comment by Safiya Hazina Agyemang on March 2, 2017 at 9:31am
James, I disagree. Your great great grandmother was a child slave. A slave. Which means the conditions she was brought up in and thus excepted and what was the norm may very well included rape because what consent does a slave have? And just because one marries and then misses their oppressor because that is what their mind is used to (stockholm syndrome or even children of abuse) it undermines the situation to only pose a romanticized view when American history and the whitening of the Black experience has continually attempted to soften and make it acceptable, the horrific situations that slavery begat. To not give the account of the fact that she may have and most likely was raped by the President means we are again saying that as slaves they willingly accepted their plight and was agreeable to it. Regardless of what your great great ancestor did, and the reasons why it is safe to say that if she was brought up free and in her indigenous lifestyle, not a slave, her choices kindly would not have been the same. That does not undermine her choices because if not for her sacrifice, you would not be here. But it may not be as romantic as one would like to think.
Comment by James Nova on March 1, 2017 at 9:38pm

My great-great grandmother was a child slave. She later married one of the sons of the family that owned her. My father knew her as a child. By all accounts she stayed in the marriage voluntarily and missed her late husband. It is impossible to know what goes on between two people unless you were there in the bedroom. French accounts of Hemings in Paris relate that she appeared as Jefferson's wife or consort. We can't know. It is a disturbing redefinition of a traumatic horrific violent forced act such as rape and an insult to it's victims to include such statutory situations, if in fact violence and force may not have been involved.


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