Sally Hemings: Seeing Past the Slave to See the Person

Patricia Cohen – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
A snippet from a review of Annette Gordon-Reed’s new book about the Hemings family:
As Ms. Gordon-Reed spoke about how profoundly strange life in Monticello must have been, a large monitor played a short history of slavery in New York City.
Sally Hemings’s father was John Wayles, a slave owner and the father of Jefferson’s wife, Martha. After his death, all the Hemingses eventually came to Monticello.
It is almost impossible to put ourselves in their places, Ms. Gordon-Reed said. As she writes of James Hemings in her book, “A man is born into a society that allows his half-sister and her husband to hold him as a slave.” Does he grieve when Martha dies, she asks, or when her child — his niece — is buried? Did he and his brother resent the fact that the man who controlled their lives inherited the fortune that — as John Wayles’s sons — would have been theirs had they been born free white men? And what did Jefferson, who gave his enslaved servants a relative amount of freedom and sometimes considered himself a friend, suppose of their feelings?
“The connections between these two men are so divorced from anything resembling what could be recognized today as ‘normal’ human relations that they can be recovered only in the imagination and, even then, only with great difficulty,” she writes of James Hemings and Jefferson.
And then there is Sally, light-skinned and beautiful, who apparently bore a remarkable resemblance to her dead half-sister.
Ms. Gordon-Reed tries to understand why the pregnant Sally Hemings made the decision to return with Jefferson to Virginia from Paris, where the law declared her a free person and where there was a community of free Africans.
She suggests that an insecure existence in a foreign country, away from her family, would be a frightening prospect for a pregnant teenager. Jefferson promised to free their children in exchange for her coming back to Virginia; she would have a home and a powerful protector.
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