Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, And The Normalization of Slave Rape Narratives

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.

  • Ronald Shields

    Hello Elizabeth,

    It is strange to say I enjoyed your article about rape. I think you are so right about our attitudes regarding history. How we think about and describe our history defines us as a people. I have been guilty of romanticizing the relationship between Sally Hemings and Jefferson. I have always struggled with the knowledge the many of the founders were slave owners. How to put that fact into perspective without denying its horror. Anyway, I am glad I came across your article. It helps me put some pieces of our historical puzzle into their proper places.


  • Michael Fox

    Im am no historian nor am I an expert on slavery and all of the dehumanizing social psychological aswell as the physical atrocities that black Americans enderured through out American history both during salvery 1619-1865 aswell as for most of one hundred immediatly following salvery with Recontruction ( 1865-1877) and the brutality and thousands of lynchings of black men and boys during the Jim Crow south 1877-1965. But I’m am truly amazed at how accurate I have always been when ever I speculated and spoke about Sally Hemings and Tomas Jefferson. With out having any historical documentation under my belt. I pretty much was right on point when ever I said do we really think that a 14 year old salve girl with no rights or protections or even considered to be no more than 3/5 th human had an consensual adult affair with her 44 year old owner. Or are white people trying despartly to spare them selves the Pain of cognitive dissonce by calling it a love affair.

    • MM

      Yes it’s about sparing themselves the pain….

  • jsilver2th

    It was wrong no doubt- in that world very much was wrong. I can’t speak for your life at 14 years but in those times a 14 year old was an adult- and not allowed to live sheltered life. All women were second class and many bound to relationships that were not “consensual” by today’s standards. In reality we will never know what went through the minds of Hemings and Jefferson. Many of the assumptions made here are based on circumstantial evidence and assumptions. Hemings may have very well not wanted to leave the plantation as she undoubtedly could see the cruel world around her and it was not a pretty place with opportunities for young blacks of any gender. Many will depict this story in a manner that suits their purposes as it is with history of all sorts. None will know the truth with certainty.

    • farah3

      Interestingly the average age of birth of first child for women in both the US and most of Europe for 400 years is around 23 years old. It drops in time of war, in time of massive displacement and when very much younger research has shown it is strongly associated with coercion. While the “age of consent’ has been lower than 17 this does not mean what most people think it means; in the UK in the nineteenth century it meant a father could give his daughter in marriage or prostitution from the age of 13. Even when it went up to 16, all it actually mean originally is that she could marry with her parent’s consent, but not without it until 18. And 14 was not an adult, adult was 21. All 14 meant was that you were expected to work and even then not an adult load, even in the cotton fields.

    • Kenya99

      That was a good try but no. No.

      If we allow that “14 was an adult”, how do you account for the power differential that would surely have informed Hemmings’ decision-making?

      The intellectual leap you make from “Hemmings could see the cruel world around her” to “ergo she must have chosen to give her body in exchange for safety” is disingenuous and is precisely why this article needed to be written in the first place.

      That you would suggest that the right to own one’s own sexuality and access to one’s body is the equivalent of “living a sheltered life” explains why Black women were (and some will say still are) sexually exploited with the shocking frequency that they are.

      That you would suggest, in 2017, that it was somehow acceptable for a slave owner to own or have free access to the bodies of his female slaves for his or his friends’/enemies’ sexual use and entertainment or as compensation for the enslaved persons’ ‘safety’, is not shocking, but it shows how pervasive and long-lasting the dehumanization of Black womanhood and manhood can be. (Cuz yeah, Black men were raped too. But carry on.)

  • farah3

    I first hit this in my BA, way back in 1990 at the University of York, England. I had just got back from a year studying in the US. We were studying a book called In Miserable Slavery which is the diary of a white overseer in Jamaica. He had a “mistress” called Phibba. Even the fact that he whipped her when she annoyed him did not prevent the tutor describing her as the man’s “mistress”. it was a long term. Well done you. it really is unconscionable.

  • Mischling2nd

    Rapes tend not to produce several children. The charge of “rape” against Jefferson is intended to make mixed whites and mulattoes more vulnerable to the ethnic/racial rape that people like you want to force on them. Why are you blacks so determined to drag white genes into your race? The truth is that you consider these alleged “rapes” the greatest honor your people could achieve. You want to marry and reproduce with the descendants of these alleged “rapes” and the more white genes (so-called “rapist blood”) the better.