- Our Founding (M)otherErotic Love and Social Death in Sally Hemings and The President's Daughter
The doubleness (blackness) of blackness is given as the aftermath of a determined, durative, fleshly, sexual encounter: the symbolic is cast in reference to the materiality of the miscegenative natal occasion. . . . But the deep-down love, the bone-deep love, convergence of death and love, memory and narrative (that's what recognition is), that accompanies the miscegenative origin of black/American identity is exceeded by another love: that of/for freedom.—Fred Moten
What happens if we assume that the female subject serves as a general case for explicating social death, property relations, and the pained and putative construction of Blackness? . . . What possibilities of resignification would then be possible?—Saidiya V. Hartman
In the fall of 1802, the first written reports of then-president Thomas Jefferson's long time sexual relationship with the enslaved half-sister of his late wife Martha appeared in a Richmond, Virginia newspaper. "It is well known that the man whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY" (2), gleefully reported columnist and Jefferson critic James Callender. Callender's column is considered by many to be the point of origin for the ideological war over the story of the president and the young enslaved woman dubbed "Dusky Sally" waged through newspapers and novels, in history books and on television talk shows, for the better part of two centuries.1
This article takes as its focus one particular approach to the (hi)story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: that of Barbara Chase-Riboud in her historical novel Sally Hemings and its sequel, The President's Daughter. Released in 1979 to widespread popular attention and critical acclaim, Sally Hemings's depiction of a 38-year love affair between master and enslaved concubine quickly became a staging ground for the newest round of battle over the Jefferson/Hemings controversy that had ignited with the release of Fawn M. Brodie's bombshell psychobiography of Jefferson five years earlier.2 Nearly two decades later, the publication of DNA-based evidence demonstrating a genetic relationship between the descendants of Sally Hemings's youngest son Eston and the paternal line of Thomas Jefferson spurred renewed attention to existent historical data correlating Jefferson's visits [End Page 773] to Monticello and the birth dates of Hemings's children (Foster 27–28; Neiman 198–210). With the joint imprimatur of science and History, previously-scorned accounts of a sexual relationship between Jefferson and Hemings were redeemed; Chase-Riboud's novels briefly returned to the national literary spotlight, with Sally Hemings spawning a long-awaited and widely-viewed eponymous television miniseries.
This uneven and contested reception of Chase-Riboud's two-volume saga of the Jefferson Hemings family offers a window into the ideological struggle over how Jefferson—and by extension, the nation for which he stands as synecdochical symbol—has been memorialized. In the context of African chattel slavery, miscegenation discourses have been crucial sites for producing, naming, and containing racial/gender difference. Within this broader discursive formation, the scholarly and popular conversation on Sally Hemings's relationship to founding father Jefferson has served as a vehicle for and reflection of the production of knowledge about the meaning of racialized sexuality within slavery, the character of historical and contemporary black subjugation, and the conditions of (im)possibility for the articulation and recognition of black subjectivity within the United States.
Yet as Chase-Riboud's novels underscore, the concepts upon which the Jefferson/ Hemings debate has implicitly and explicitly relied—love, freedom, violence, consent—are far from transparent. Reading beyond the textual surface of Sally Hemings and the President's Daughter, then, both requires and enables an interrogation of dominant and counter-narratives of miscegenation in the context of chatteldom. By depicting Jefferson and Hemings's relationship as not just erotic but romantic, Chase-Riboud unsettles the Manichean binary of love and coercion, calling into question the meaning and limits of erotic love and black subjection.
In this sense, both Sally Hemings and The...