By Mark Sconce
By now, most Americans are aware that the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States fathered at least one and probably five other children with a house slave girl by the name of Sally Hemings.* But I wonder how many know, as historian Annette Gordon-Reed writes in her book, The Hemingses of Monticello, that “…slave women were unprotected against rape. Forcing a slave woman to have sex against her will was considered a trespass against her owner. If her owner raped her, it was no crime at all. What the violation meant to the woman was irrelevant.”
And, as our own Lakeside historian, Fred Mittag, points out, “Sexual exploitation was a part of it. Many a Southern white boy had his first sexual experience in a slave shack. It turned out that arch segregationist Strom Thurmond had a black daughter. The woman by whom he had his black daughter was his mother’s maid. He was the 1948 Dixiecrat nominee. He wasn’t that far removed from the slave holder.
“The college textbook said that Jefferson’s wife had died and he was far too vigorous a man to be sexually inactive, so he turned to Sally Hemings. That was about how it was worded. There was no consideration, of course, as to how she might have felt about it.”
Poet prodigy, 18-year- old Sojourner Ahebee, Philadelphia, PA, recently spoke about her new poem Valentine for Sally Hemings wherein she speculates how Sally might have felt about her 36 year relationship with Thomas Jefferson.
“This poem was sparked after my completion of a history paper that touched on Thomas Jefferson and the way in which his historical legacy has been presented to the average American citizen for centuries. This poem rose from a place of great frustration and indignation for the sexual abuses put upon Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s slave. I wanted to understand Hemings´ history as a means of understanding all the historical tension that Black women in America still carry with them to this day. Through Valentine for Sally Hemings I wanted to question our often contradictory ideals of American liberty/freedom, and Thomas Jefferson’s political and personal life which offered a plethora of contradictions waiting to be addressed.”
The following proves again the power of poetry:
Valentine for Sally Hemings
there’s a dead jefferson in every black girl’s belly,
an unknown hunger for something stolen.
I found a poem in these parts, in the belly of a black girl.I was told to look in the garage,
into the person I almost liked,
at the bottom of an odd blue sock buried
in my dresser drawer:
the hiding places of my life.oh, but if you only knew
the way I wanted to love the dead president,
rescue him from the depths of a stomach,
feed him the warm soil from a Virginia plantation,
feed him pages from my history books,
heavy with lies.but then I heard Sally scream,
and wondered what she’d think of me,
I heard Sally scream
and wondered what all the black girls
with bloated bellies would think of me
in my confusion:
the way I mistaked his breath, smelling of lavender and france,
when this scent was made of more potent stuff,
of a black girl’s blood against white sheets.I went looking for a poem
in the darkness,
a love poem for Sally,
a dead man haunting the hallways
of a breaking girl.
*The 1998 DNA analysis (exact match) removed most doubts.