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Stop Calling Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress

Yet Jefferson was no mere slave owner. He fathered seven children with his slave and mistress Sally Hemings. Martha died young, and Jefferson never married again. Here she argues that while historians have paid a great deal of attention to the so-called Middle Passage -- in which slaves were shipped, in utterly inhuman conditions, from Africa to the Americas -- the story of the slaves has largely been lost to history.

NBC News called Sally Hemings Thomas Jefferson's mistress. She was his slave.

And what better family than that of Jefferson? When Jefferson was minister to France in the s, he called for the year-old Hemings to join him. It was probably in Paris that Jefferson and Hemings began their sexual relationship, against the backdrop of a society in which there was a black community -- most of whom were free.

Ultimately, Hemings returned with Jefferson to Virginia to be with her family. The relationship between the two was hardly clandestine. Although Jefferson was the father of biracial children, he looked upon African Americans as inferior to whites.

Stop Calling Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress

He did grant freedom to some of his slaves, but generally he opposed abolition. This is the contradiction: that slavery existed alongside the establishment of a free government for white men.

Such a government was a great achievement in comparison with the European monarchies, which withheld genuine freedom from their populations. Still, when it comes to slavery, the Founders fell prey not just to contradiction but to tragedy, the repercussions of which haunt America to this day. And yet, upon reflection, is it too controversial to say that, despite the evil of slavery, Jefferson was the product of another time?

When Hemings left Monticello, she took three items that belonged to Jefferson: an inkwell, a shoe buckle, and a pair of his glasses.

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She lived in Charlottesville with her sons until her death in Even though the poems are inspired by history, they are necessarily works of my imagination. Although I've let creativity take precedent, it has remained important to me that Hemings was not just fodder for my artistic pursuits, in the same way I did not want her to be an aside to Jefferson's history and legacy.

I also wanted to render her experiences and emotions as complex as I believe they likely were over the course of her adult life. For these reasons, I've developed my version of Hemings through imagining some of the more intimate moments of her history. I've done this in the poems included here, envisioning the birth and death of her first child, her potential jealousy of the freedom her sister Mary was able to attain in , her sexual desires, her complicated feelings when Jefferson was dying, and her grief about never being able to know Harriet's children because she passed into white society.

I recognize there is a violence in inhabiting the voice of a person who has no voice in history. I've grappled with that violence; however, my hope is that I've done less harm than good by trying to render Sally Hemings a mother, a daughter, a sister, a woman, a human being.


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