I am not the same person now as I was when I was 14—and thank God for that. I was remarkably naive and unbearably insecure, and stuck in an environment that did nothing but exacerbate those complex internal struggles that are so typical of adolescence.
So imagine my outrage upon being continuously confronted with articles that insist on describing the affairs between Thomas Jefferson and a fourteen year-old enslaved Sally Hemings (simultaneously his slave and wife’s half-sister) as a ‘relationship.’ I cannot fathom, at fourteen, being denied the liberty to reject the sexual advances of a 44 year-old man (and not just any man, but a man who would become the President of the United States) only to have historians and writers skip over the imbalanced power dynamics and categorize it as a ‘relationship.’
The term relationship implies consent—something that neither a slave nor child can impart.
The recent fixation on Hemings stems from a shift in attitude among Monticello historians. After years of vehemently denying Jefferson’s involvement with Hemings, and then limiting any mention of her, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation is finally seeking to “demystify” Hemings and acknowledge that the former U.S. President did, in fact, have sexual relations with Hemings that bore multiple children.
And yet, we should be very, very wary as to not conflate the desire to humanize Hemings and her story with normalization. For too long in American society, we have allowed efforts to ‘humanize’ marginalized women to do so in a manner that attempts to relieve blame and accountability from their historical oppressors. Monticello’s move to paint Hemings as a well-read, well-traveled woman who was so content on the plantation that she never attempted to leave is not only irresponsible, it is quite harmful as well.
Rhetoric, particularly as it relates to historical narratives around race and gender, is never empty. The type of rhetoric that aims to portray Sally Hemings as a willful participant in sexual relations with her slavemaster, instead of a victim of psychological, emotional and sexual exploitation, is directly related to the rhetoric that paints Black women as promiscuous sexual deviants.
The consequence of this rhetoric is a culture that frequently inflicts sexual violence upon Black women’s bodies while refusing to recognize them as victims and survivors within mainstream discourses around rape, despite the fact that they are significantly more likely to fall victim to it than white women.
If we can paint a young Sally Hemings as a willing bedwench without so much as flinching, what can we do—or rather, what do we do—to the young Black women among us who are subjected to similar types of sexual exploitation? The answer is shameful and yet all too common: we blame them. We blame their body shapes, their clothing choices and the way in which they carry themselves. We have normalized sexual violence against Black women so much so that 40 percent of Black women report being coerced into sexual contact by the age of 18.
Yes, it is remarkably easier to digest the story of America’s oft-revered Founding Fathers if we aren’t forced to confront the reality that the man who declared “all men are created equal” got his kicks from preying on and statutorily raping young slave girls. It is also tempting to want to reject what we know about the horrible fates enslaved women, who were often subjected to horrifying conditions based on their gender, in favor of a more palatable narrative, one that imagines Sally Hemings and others like her weren’t actually victims and acted out of their own agency.
But that is not the reality of the situation—it never was. And for the sake of Black women survivors of the present day, we should no longer entertain it.