The new novel Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, by Stephen O’Connor, is generating attention and, from some corners, outrage because it depicts a complicated and not entirely negative relationship between its two title characters. In a positive review published last week, Ron Charles of the Washington Post writes that
O’Connor dares to imagine both [Hemings’s] hatred and affection for her famous owner. Under slavery, [Hemings] writes [in a fictional memoir that is part of the larger novel], “one’s very desire to live a decent and ordinary life can be an unending source of humiliation.” In this intimate, blazingly candid memoir, we see her repulsed by Jefferson, horrified by her position and outraged at his endless equivocations and deferrals. And yet, we also see her in love with the president and capable of considerable resistance to him. In O’Connor’s telling, she is a person with the emotional capacity to understand Jefferson’s tortured soul without excusing him for enslaving so many of the people who make Monticello possible. In a different way, she emerges just as conflicted as the man who owns her.
Now cue the outrage. Writing for Vox.com, Constance Grady sums up what she says many people find revolting about such a depiction:
By all accounts, Jefferson’s sexual relationship with Hemings spanned several decades, beginning when Hemings was a teenager and Jefferson was in his 40s. It was not, in any sense of the word, consensual: Hemings was a child, and Jefferson literally owned her; she was not in any position to give or withhold consent. What Jefferson did to Hemings was rape.
I’ll get to this issue of rape, but first it’s worth noting a number of inaccuracies that pop up here and elsewhere in Grady’s short piece. Jefferson, for instance, did not have a sexual relationship with Hemings “by all accounts.” Certainly not by his account, or by any account from Hemings, or by the accounts of his family members. And it is only until relatively recently that historians have argued for such a relationship.
Elsewhere, Grady writes that “DNA evidence has proved that Jefferson and Hemings had six children together …” This isn’t true. As our entry on Sally Hemings makes clear, the DNA evidence shows that “a Jefferson male” fathered at least one of Hemings’s children. The test also demonstrates that it wasn’t one of Jefferson’s nephews, and because of this and other evidence, historians have come to believe that yes, Jefferson probably did father Sally Hemings’s children. The DNA does not, however, prove that fact.
I insist on this point only because if we are to have a productive conversation about Jefferson and Hemings, then we need to have a clear understanding of the history—what it tells us and what it doesn’t.
Here’s another problem. When Grady calls Hemings a “teenager,” she employs a term that did not exist in Hemings’s day, in part because it describes a position in society that also did not exist then. In the eighteenth century, people were children and then they were adults, and they often took on adult responsibilities much earlier in life than we do today. That fact does not excuse rape, of course, but to call someone a teenager introduces into a historical context a modern-day understanding of age and responsibility.
Grady then confuses matters when, one sentence later, she refers to Hemings as a “child.” Hemings was born around 1773 and may have entered into a sexual relationship with Jefferson as early as 1787, when she was fourteen. Does that make her a child or an adult? By the standards of her day, she was much closer to the latter than to the former, I think. Again, it should go without saying that this does not excuse rape. However, a word like “child,” as it is used here, seems designed to generate outrage, not historical insight.
To confirm that outrage, Grady turns to Twitter, quoting in particular the writer Roxane Gay:
This brings us back to the larger, and more important, question of rape. It makes sense to me that an enslaved woman, by definition, could not consent to sex with her master. To be a slave meant lacking the power to say no. And yet Gay’s assertion here, at least to me, seems too reductive. And Ron Charles’s description of the fictional Hemings, quoted above from his review, strikes me as truer to the complex reality of being human.
To test my own assumptions, I turned to Annette Gordon-Reed‘s Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Hemingses of Monticello (2009). Gordon-Reed’s discussion of rape and consent in the context of slavery begins on page 314 and I encourage you to read it in full. She argues against the long-standing, racist assumption that black women were “inherently licentious” and couldn’t be raped because they “always consented.” And she notes that female slaves, in particular, were in no position to consent. Without power, she writes, how could they consent?
Gordon-Reed calls this the “no possible consent” rule and suggests it ought to influence the way we think about “the vast majority” of instances of sex between master and slave. In fact, she writes, assuming power to be the only criterion by which we judge such situations, then the rule might also extend beyond slavery, where white supremacy exerted itself with a force that significantly reduced an African American woman’s ability to resist.
This might strike Roxane Gay and many others as reasonable, but it also leads to problems. After all, we are making assumptions about whole groups of people, black and white, and from those broad assumptions determining the truth about consent in a particular situation. Such reasoning, Gordon-Reed writes, is “problematic.”
It suggests that the individual personalities, life stories, and dignity of enslaved women are meaningless or, in the case of “dignity,” even nonexistent. The [“no possible consent”] rule also imposes a version of eternal childhood on them, no matter what their circumstances in life. Ironically, that choice, though made for different reasons, eerily echoes slave owners’ construction of all enslaved people as “children” who lacked the ability and power to make rational decisions and who needed to be kept in slavery to protect them from the vagaries and harsh realities of living as free people in a hostile world.
Gordon-Reed goes on, at some length, to suggest evidence in favor of a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings that was more complicated than “Thomas Jefferson was a rapist. Why can’t y’all just accept that?”
One is not obliged to accept her argument, or the novelist Stephen O’Connor’s, for that matter. But both writers do us the welcome favor of assuming that history and the people who populate it are complex.
IMAGES: Stephen O’Connor and his novel, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings