Sally Hem­ings was not Thomas Jef­fer­son’s ‘mistress.’

Es­say­ist Britni Danielle on how our lan­guage hides the true na­ture of slav­ery

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @Brit­niDWrites Britni Danielle is a Los An­ge­les-based writer who ex­plores the in­ter­sec­tions of race, gen­der and pop cul­ture.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists at Thomas Jef­fer­son’s Vir­ginia plan­ta­tion, Mon­ti­cello, are un­earthing the room where Sally Hem­ings is be­lieved to have lived, al­low­ing for a new way to tell the story of the en­slaved peo­ple who served our third pres­i­dent. The ex­ca­va­tion has once again re­minded us that 241 years after the United States was founded, many Amer­i­cans still don’t know how to rec­on­cile one of our na­tion’s orig­i­nal sins with the story of its Found­ing Fa­thers.

Just be­fore the Fourth of July, NBC News ran a fea­ture on the room, set­ting off a spate of cov­er­age about the dig. Many of these sto­ries de­scribed Hem­ings, the mother of six chil­dren with Jef­fer­son, as the for­mer pres­i­dent’s “mistress.” The In­quisitr, the Daily Mail, AOL and Cox Me­dia Group all used the word (though Cox later up­dated its word­ing). So did an NBC News tweet that drew scathing crit­i­cism, though its story ac­cu­rately called her “the en­slaved woman who, his­to­ri­ans be­lieve, gave birth to six of Jef­fer­son’s chil­dren.” The Wash­ing­ton Post also used “mistress” in an ar­ti­cle about Hem­ings’s room in Fe­bru­ary.

Lan­guage like that elides the true na­ture of their re­la­tion­ship, which is be­lieved to have be­gun when Hem­ings, then 14 years old, ac­com­pa­nied Jef­fer­son’s daugh­ter to live with Jef­fer­son, then 44, in Paris. She wasn’t Jef­fer­son’s mistress; she was his prop­erty. And he raped her.

Such re­vi­sion­ist his­tory about slav­ery is, un­for­tu­nately, still quite com­mon. In 2015, Texas rolled out what many saw as a “white­washed” ver­sion of its so­cial stud­ies cur­ricu­lum that re­ferred to en­slaved Africans as “im­mi­grants” and “work­ers” and min­i­mized slav­ery’s im­pact on the Civil War. One con­cerned par­ent spoke out, forc­ing a text­book publisher to re­vise some of the teach­ing ma­te­ri­als.

In a speech at the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion last year, Michelle Obama re­minded Amer­i­cans that no less a sym­bol of our gov­ern­ment than the White House was built by those in bondage. In re­sponse, then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly of­fered a softer, gen­tler take: Those en­slaved work­ers were “well fed and had de­cent lodgings pro­vided by the gov­ern­ment,” he said. That they had no choice in their food, lodg­ing or whether they even wanted to do the back­break­ing work of build­ing Wash­ing­ton by hand was nowhere to be found in O’Reilly’s ver­sion.

That same san­i­ti­za­tion of his­tory hap­pened again with the Hem­ings news. On Twit­ter, some users de­fended the “mistress” la­bel, sug­gest­ing, es­sen­tially, that Jef­fer­son and his slave may have truly loved each other. One per­son even went so far as to won­der whether “Hem­ings’s ex­alted wis­dom and beauty com­pelled Jef­fer­son’s love” and whether “she was per­haps not a vic­tim but an agent of change?”

Jef­fer­son could have forced Hem­ings into a sex­ual re­la­tion­ship no mat­ter what she wanted, though. And it’s im­pos­si­ble to know what Hem­ings thought of Jef­fer­son. As with many en­slaved peo­ple, her thoughts, feel­ings and emo­tions were not doc­u­mented. Ac­cord­ing to Mon­ti­, there are only four known de­scrip­tions of the woman who first came to Jef­fer­son’s plan­ta­tion as a baby on the hip of her mother, El­iz­a­beth Hem­ings, whom Jef­fer­son also owned.

Jef­fer­son, an avid writer, never men­tioned Hem­ings in his work. He did, how­ever, grap­ple with is­sues of eman­ci­pa­tion through­out his life. In his “Notes on the State of Vir­ginia,” Jef­fer­son spent a sub­stan­tial sec­tion at­tempt­ing to an­swer the ques­tion, “Why not re­tain and in­cor­po­rate the blacks into the state, and thus save the ex­pence [sic] of sup­ply­ing, by im­por­ta­tion of white set­tlers, the va­can­cies they will leave?” De­spite fa­ther­ing Hem­ings’s chil­dren, Jef­fer­son ar­gued against race mix­ing be­cause black peo­ple were “in­fe­rior to the whites in the en­dow­ments both of body and mind.”

Other slave-own­ing founders rose above the times to change their minds about the dread­ful in­sti­tu­tion — in­clud­ing Ben Franklin, who be­came an out­spo­ken abo­li­tion­ist later in life, and Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, who freed his en­slaved ser­vants in his will. But Jef­fer­son did no such thing. He owned 607 men, women and chil­dren at Mon­ti­cello, and though some ar­gue that he “loved” Hem­ings, he granted free­dom to only two peo­ple while he was alive and five peo­ple in his will — and never to her.

Ro­man­ti­ciz­ing Hem­ings and Jef­fer­son’s so-called re­la­tion­ship min­i­mizes the deadly im­bal­ance of power that black peo­ple suf­fered un­der be­fore the Civil War. It also ob­scures our col­lec­tive his­tory as a na­tion that moved from be­ing built on the blood, bones and backs of en­slaved African Amer­i­cans and in­dige­nous peo­ple, to be­ing the im­per­fect, hopeful and yet still un­equal coun­try we are to­day.

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