Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman owned by Thomas Jefferson who was also his sister-in-law and probably the mother of four of his children, is a fascinating historical character. She fascinates me because she is a woman about whom very little is known, who lived out her life in close proximity and almost certainly in a sexual relationship with a man about whom we know a great deal — and that relationship colours and changes everything we know, or think we know, about Jefferson. Jefferson’s stance on slavery –he was theoretically opposed to it, yet owned hundreds of slaves and freed almost none of them within his lifetime (almost all those he did free were members of the Hemings family, including Sally’s children) — already makes him a complicated historical figure. The personal aspect of his relationship with Sally (who is sometimes referred to as his “slave mistress,” a problematic term as it suggests a relationship that is at once both consensual and non-consensual) only makes for more fertile ground for a novelist who can go in imagination where historians are not able to tread.
I read Barbara Chase-Riboud’s 1979 novel Sally Hemings many years ago, and of course was intrigued by Stephen O’Connor’s recent re-imagining of the story when it appeared last year. O’Connor’s novel is weighty, ingenious, beautifully written and, like the historical relationship it depicts, problematic and controversial. I loved it, but I’m also well aware of its limitations.
The structure of the novel itself is interesting. The bulk of it is made up of very short chapters depicting scenes from Jefferson’s and Hemings’ lives told in a fairly straightforward historical-fiction style, in the third person omniscient voice. In between these scenes are excerpts from an imagined first-person narrative by Hemings in which she tells her own version of the story and relates her feelings in her own words. There are also short segments from actual historical narratives of the time, including a memoir by one of the Hemings’ (and likely Jefferson’s) sons, Madison Hemings, short expository pieces in the author’s voice giving additional historical background, and weirder, more postmodern vignettes in which the author imagines various afterlives for Jefferson and Hemings. In one, Thomas Jefferson glimpses Sally Hemings on a subway; in another, he’s being tortured in a particularly grim version of Hell by a sadistic prison guard; in yet another, Jefferson (who died a century before the earliest modern feature films) watches a movie about his own life; in yet another, Jefferson and Hemings together visit a museum exhibit that explores their relationship. Some of these vignettes are more successful than others; there were places where I found myself wondering what they added to the overall story, but some are insightful and beautifully crafted. I can see why the author wanted to include them.
The core historical narrative — the story that unfolds through the third-person narrator interspersed with the imagined first-person voice of Hemings herself — presents two complex individuals in a complicated relationship. In this portrayal, Hemings does develop some tender feelings towards Jefferson over the years of their sexual relationship, but her feelings are never free of resentment and always overshadowed by the overwhelming fact of her (and her family’s) enslavement. It’s clear from the beginning of the relationship, when Hemings is sixteen and Jefferson is her forty-six-year-old owner, that there is nothing remotely consensual about this relationship. But it is also not straightforwardly depicted as rape. O’Connor’s Jefferson has romantic feelings about Hemings and almost courts her, while at the same time never imagining her as his equal in any real way. Sally Hemings, meanwhile, is both repelled and attracted by Jefferson. She believes she “could have said no,” yet questions that belief from various angles over the years as their relationship continues, and leads the reader to question it too.
I have read some criticism of this novel from people who believe that if the author portrays any sort of warmth or romantic (or sexual) feeling on Hemings’ part toward Jefferson, as he does, then it minimizes the fact that a “slave mistress” was, essentially and always, a victim of sexual abuse. I understand where these critics are coming from, especially if they are themselves people of colour who have a far deeper understanding of these issues than any white writer or reader ever can. As one commenter on Goodreads put it, she was never not aware that this was a white male writer trying to speak in Sally Hemings’ voice and imagine her feelings. No matter how good the writer or how much input he gets from women and African-Americans (which he did), there’s always going to be a limitation there and for some readers that will discredit the fictional voice he’s created. It might be valuable to read this book in tandem with Chase-Riboud’s Sally Hemings, as Chase-Riboud is an African-American woman writer and brings to the story a perspective that a writer like O’Connor can never fully grasp.
That being said, and respecting the views of people of colour who don’t like what O’Connor did here, I thought the portrayal of Sally Hemings was believable and respectful. The sad fact is that there are a lot of non-consensual, abusive relationships in which the victim does feel affection, sexual arousal, and romantic attraction toward their abuser. To acknowledge that these feelings can exist, and to posit that they might have existed in Sally Hemings, does not (in my mind) diminish the emphasis on her enslavement. Her feelings about Jefferson are always deeply troubled, especially when they discuss the issue of slavery and freeing slaves — he has a dozen reasons why it’s impractical at this time, which will be familiar to anyone who’s ever heard someone rationalize their own participation in a system they know to be unjust.
This novel pairs well with the last one I read which, though not nearly as strong a book from a literary point of view, explores some of the same issues in the same time period and place — Kathleen Grissom’s The Kitchen House. Both novels led me to reflect on the strange and complicated relationships within slave-owning American families that came about as a result of generations of white masters raping female slaves. Families in which a father owned some of his own children or a brother his own siblings as slaves, were by no means uncommon, and in many cases one couldn’t tell a slave from the colour of his or her skin. Sally Hemings’ children are believed to have been seven-eighths of European descent, as the product of three generations of master/slave rape. Three of the four of them, after being emancipated, went on to live their lives as white people, marrying whites and raising children who did not identify as African-American. How would a man feel towards his own children, towards his own half-siblings, towards the woman with whom he had been having sex for years (sex that he may have convinced himself was loving and consensual on her part) — while at the same time owning these people as human chattel, viewing them as his property and refusing to give them their freedom?
This contradiction is always front and centre in this book and is never shied away from. One of O’Connor’s strongest decisions, I thought, was to give several scenes very near the end of the book to the slave auction that took place at Monticello after Jefferson’s death. Thomas Jefferson’s grandson, Jeff Randolph, is now the manager of the estate and responsible for selling off most of Jefferson’s property, including 130 human beings, to pay the former president’s debts. Randolph is portrayed as a concerned and considerate white man, expressing genuine regret to the enslaved people of Monticello about this thing that he believes he has no choice but to do.
The horrific scene of the auction unfolds before Sally Hemings’ eyes. Her own children have been freed; she herself has been “given her time,” an arrangement which allows her to live as a free woman after Jefferson’s death. But the rest of her extended family and people she has known all her lives are on the auction block, and though Jeff Randolph has promised to arrange things so that many of them will be sold either to benevolent masters or to people who have already agreed to free them, he does not keep all these promises. And no matter what promises he makes and keeps, he is still selling human beings as property. Because of the deep debt in which Thomas Jefferson left his estate, Randolph feels he has no choice — yet if he were asked to sell his own wife and children to pay off debt, he obviously would not consider that an option. Ending the novel (or nearly ending it — there are a few scenes afterward) with this devastating auction cuts to the heart of the issue. For readers, Sally Hemings lives in the pages of this novel as a fully realized human being, just as she was in real life. But to men like Jeff Randolph and even Thomas Jefferson who may well have believed himself in love with her, she is first and foremost a black woman (despite her nearly-white skin) and thus a piece of property. No evaluation of Jefferson or the times in which he lived is honest if it does not squarely confront this fact, and O’Connor keeps it always before our eyes, as it must have been for Sally Hemings.