A Meditation on Whiteness

Laid low last week by an acute case of food poisoning, I swam in and out of cognitive ratiocination in a fog of rolling nausea. But I had some insights on race, precipitated probably by news of the reliably unchangeable British family–which of late is happily more changeable. These insights, such as they were, are on whiteness—and on families. But the American version, with two major characters.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), draftsman of the Declaration of Independence, the nation’s first secretary of state (1789–94), second vice president (1797–1801) and, as the third president (1801–09), the statesman responsible for the Louisiana Purchase. An early advocate of total separation of church and state, he also was founder and architect of the University of Virginia and the most eloquent proponent of individual freedom as the meaning of the American Revolution.

Sallie Hemings (1773-1835) came to Jefferson’s Virginia estate, Monticello, as an enslaved infant, part of his inheritance from his father-in-law, John Wayles. Wayles was not only the father of Jefferson’s wife, Martha. He was also the father of Sallie, via the de facto rape of Betty Hemings, her enslaved, light-skinned mother, one of his servants. Martha and Sallie were half-sisters and looked like full sisters, although Sallie was 25 years younger than Martha.

In 1784, Jefferson was appointed American ambassador to France. It was shortly before the French Revolution. He brought his two daughters with him, along with James Hemings (Sallie’s enslaved brother) and the now 13-year-old Sallie. Jefferson, age 44, was by this time a widower, and he and Sallie reportedly began their relationship in France.

Sallie remained in France for 26 months. The institution of slavery had been abolished there, so Jefferson paid wages to Sallie and to James, who was in training to be a French chef de cuisine. By the end of their sojourn, James had hired a French tutor and was learning the language, and Sallie was as well.

Sallie became pregnant by Jefferson during this time. She was 15. Under French law both she and James had their freedom. However, if she returned to Virginia with Jefferson, she would become enslaved again. Although her strong ties to her mother Betty and her siblings drew her back to Monticello, she refused to return until she had extracted from Jefferson a promise that her own children would, at age 21, be freed.

They did return, and, although Sallie’s first child died soon after, the records show that she subsequently gave birth to six children by Jefferson, all fathered while he was in residence at Monticello. He never remarried. Nor did he ever father offspring by any other woman, freed or enslaved. Nor do any records show that Sallie had relationships with other men. Their 40-year partnership spanned his becoming secretary of state, his vice presidency, his presidency, and his being the founder and architect of the University of Virginia. Sallie remained with him until his death in 1826. Her duties at Monticello included nursemaid-companion, ladies’ maid, chambermaid, and seamstress. We don’t know whether she could read or write, although her brothers James and Madison were literate. She was described as quite beautiful, with straight hair hanging down her back, and she is believed to have lived in the South Dependencies, the wing of Monticello accessible to the main house by a covered passageway. Her children were all trained as skilled artisans in crafts like carpentry and weaving; none worked in the fields; and all the boys were taught to play the violin, which Jefferson himself played.

Those are the bare bones of that relationship, but for people more curious I highly recommend Annette Gordon-Reed’s fine book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, or Fawn Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. Although the “Hemings controversy” was well known in Jefferson’s time (she was openly and scandalously referred to in press reports as “Jefferson’s Dusky Sallie” or “Jefferson’s Dashing Sallie”), he himself never commented on it and the furor got conveniently buried over time. When it resurfaced in the 1970s, Jefferson scholars and Jefferson’s white family descendants were outraged.

It’s taken all those intervening years for DNA tests to definitively prove that Sallie’s children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson. He eventually (posthumously, through his will) freed all of Sallie’s surviving children, Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston, as they came of age. Of the hundreds of enslaved individuals he legally owned, Jefferson freed only five in his will, all males from the Hemings family (Harriet was the only female slave Jefferson allowed to go free). Sallie’s children were seven-eighths European in ancestry, and three of the four entered white society after gaining their freedom; their descendants likewise identified as white. Madison Hemings’s Memoir is the most contemporaneous record we have.

Sallie herself was withheld from being auctioned, and was freed at last by Jefferson’s daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph—who was, of course, her niece. It was only a few years ago that the Monticello Foundation finally announced that what they believe to be Hemings’ room, adjacent to Jefferson’s bedroom, had been found and was being refurbished.

I’ve been mesmerized by the story of Sallie Hemings and Thomas Jefferson since I first encountered it. On the surface and in pretty much every way politically, it’s a tale of power over, of rape, of blatant ownership. After all, James Madison, father of the Constitution, was a slaveholder. So was George Washington, father of the country, who pursued Ona Judge, a runaway enslaved young woman, throughout his entire presidency, but she managed to elude him. This was the deep-rooted institution of slavery itself, on which half the New World was being built, the institution that monetized human bodies down to the tiniest cell–from the pregnant woman sold at auction block for her fecundity, through all the years of backbreaking labor and tongue biting silence and whippings and punishment-amputations and rape (to increase your own stock of human flesh), and terror, through sickness and death and even then into cadaver monetization for experimentation by the burgeoning New World medical profession. Nothing wasted. The neat, massive, perfected capitalist system.

But Jefferson! Keeper of the individual conscience and individual famishment for freedom! Jefferson, the great writer, the magnetic presence, the quintessential Founder! Still, any yearning to romanticize their relationship crashes into the grief in which that relationship was saturated.

True, Jefferson had tried to insert abolition of slavery into the Declaration of Independence—but it got cut out by South Carolina and Georgia. His own writings ricochet back-and-forth between finding the institution of slavery “execrable commerce” and an “assemblage of horrors” and making excuses for it. He was a master at compartmentalization. He continued to correspond with James Hemings for years, and offered him the (paid) position of chef de cuisine at the White House, but Hemings declined. Jefferson never separated or sold off any member of the Hemings family, all of whom worked at relatively privileged jobs in Monticello. But we should be grateful for this? And Sallie, would she have dared to dream of him? Would this young girl have been swept off her feet by the notoriously handsome, seductive American envoy to Paris, the revolutionary leader, the great man? And wasn’t he to be pitied after all, not old yet but a widower, and alone? Perhaps weirdest of all: what did Jefferson see in her face—the ghostly features of Martha, his wife (dead at age 34 after seven pregnancies) ? A younger, more pliable version?

Forty years of intimacy leaves a powerful trail. In 1802, when newspaperman James Callendar reported Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings, his account suggested how widely known their relationship already was, wherein Hemings appeared like “something like a wife to Jefferson.” And Gordon-Reed has criticized biographers who insist that it is ridiculous even to consider the notion that Thomas Jefferson could ever have been under the positive influence of an insignificant black slave woman. Did Sallie Hemings, Jefferson’s French-speaking bedmate and well-organized keeper of his private chambers, also serve as his counselor? Was there in fact a love story, warped and twisted, beneath the surface? Such intricacies and ironies will never be known. All we can hope to know is that there was love between mother and children, there was a perpetuated loyalty (whether enforced or volunteered) between woman and man, there was human suffering. And there was family.

This shadow family of Thomas Jefferson is exemplary of the deepest truths about American racism: the horror being not only what people who were white did to people who were black, but what relatives did to their own families. Where does this entire vast panoply of intimate relationships (complete with a baroque hierarchy of how many cross breedings were necessary to “clear the blood”) fit into a history of the family? Or is a shadow history necessary to contain it–this common assumption that a plantation owner had two families, one slave, one white? The plot thins as the blood thickens.

Look at it. See it. Madison Jefferson Hemmings, age 14, slave son with grey eyes and red hair and freckles, tall and gangling, the image of his father, standing as body servant behind the chair of James Madison Jefferson, age about the same, same coloring, same characteristics of appearance, grandson legal—the two boys looking like a possible set of twins. What does this do to the mind, the sense of reality, the reality of Jeffersonian politics, possibly the one trustable democratic tradition in America?

What does it mean: that Thomas Jefferson could seek the same woman in the features of his white legal wife Martha Wayles and her half-sister, his illegal white black continually re-categorized slave wife mistress concubine Sallie Hemings? What does it mean that in the state of Virginia sexual relations with the half sibling of your spouse was considered an illegal act of incest—and to know that and do nothing? What does it mean: that Dolley Madison could say in 1837, “The Southern white woman is the chief slave of the master’s harem”–and then leave it at that? What does it mean: to know that action is impossible–and not act? To know that action is possible—but still not act?

Jefferson, perhaps the best of the founding “fathers,” staked his life on the belief that the individual soul thirsts for freedom and can endure that responsibility, no matter what. He staked Sallie Hemings’ soul on it, too. But he never asked her permission to do so, first.

Or perhaps he did—and perhaps she said no.

Or perhaps he did–and perhaps he forgot what she replied.

Or perhaps it was her idea in the first place, but he didn’t note that, being above such petty details of ownership.

And they dare to speak of the sanctity of the family! Oh my America, there is blood on your hands—but you don’t even recognize it as your own. You don’t exist, white America, you never have. The agony you create for others is real, but has always been to convince yourself, as well as those in agony, that the illusion of your existence was real; that light didn’t move or change color when it moves, as in a red shift or in a prism.

Jefferson disowned his slave children not because they were black–which by his own racial structure of insanely pedantic blood charts they weren’t. He disowned them because they were enslaved. Yet white slaves were unheard of. If you are white, you are not a slave; if you are a slave you are not white. If you are female, you are not man; if you are human, you are not a slave. Yet Dolley Madison apparently knew…

Jefferson’s slave children, then, were unacknowledged not because they were different but because they were the same. The terror of this truth has been distorted by religion’s fake pap of brotherhood-kin-under-the-skin, which can be mouthed safely without anyone believing it because its hypocrisy is secured through lived-by truths of continual ongoing compartmentalization.

The fear is not that we are different. The fear is that we are the same.

Our own shadows precede and follow us. But only when we stand in the light.

The blood on our hands, America, has always been our own.

Old news to whoever shed it.