I was doing what I do on Sundays, sitting at home, reading the New York Times. A front page headline read: “Monticello Finally Opens Door Into the Life of Sally Hemings.”
According to writers Farah Stockman and Gabriella Demczuk, “Curators had to wrestle with thorny questions… And, thorniest of all, in an era of Black Lives Matter and #Me Too: How to describe the decades-long sexual relationship between Jefferson and Hemings? Should it be described as rape?”
“We really can't know what the dynamic was,” said Leslie Greene Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. “Was it rape? Was there affection? We felt we had to present a range of views, including the most painful one.”
My phone rang.
“Hi daddy. Happy Father's Day.”
My daughter's voice sounded cheerful.
“I'm sitting here eating ice cream and reading the New York Times.”
“Ooh. I want some ice cream so bad, but I'm trying to avoid dairy.”
It's good. Vanilla Swiss Almond. I'm reading about Sally Hemings. Wait, wait, wait… what do you think about this? Let me read you something.”
After reading her the headline I continued:
“Curators had to wrestle with thorny questions. How to accurately portray a woman for whom no photograph exists? (The solution: casting a shadow on a wall.) How to handle the skepticism of those unpersuaded by mounting evidence that Jefferson was indeed the father of Hemings’s children? (The solution: tell the story entirely in quotes from her son Madison.)”
“And thorniest of all, in an era of a Black Lives Matter and #Me Too: How to describe the decades-long sexual relationship between Jefferson and Hemings? Should it be described as rape?”
“Daddy, it's rape. She was a slave. She was his property. If you can't say no, you can't say yes. There can be no consent. The way crimes are reported in this country has a lot to do with the color of your skin. Our society has difficulty pathologizing the behavior of white men, so they turned it into a love story”.
I felt gaslighted by the article. Thank you for clearing that up. Some white folks make my head hurt. Only they can have that fantasy.
After more conversation, she again wished me happy Father's Day and hung up.
I continued to read the article when I came across this, “John H. Works Jr., a descendant of Jefferson’s who is among the founding members of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, accuses the nonprofit organization that runs Monticello of bowing to political correctness, and insists that the entire premise of the exhibit is flawed.”
Hey John, in a way, by maintaining narcissistic fantasies of innocents you are the one who has bowed to the political correctness of the day. And to Leslie Greene Bowman’s notion that there may have been affection between them, victims of abuse often identify with their captors in an effort to save themselves. In this case, that does not eliminate the fact that she was his property. A slave.
A very similar situation is going on at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice informally known as the Lynching Memorial that just opened in Montgomery, Alabama. From accounts I've read many white folks have difficulty wrapping their minds around the sheer number of black people lynched or even the fact that a memorial to lynching exists. It appears that some white people are straining under the weight of maintaining a non deviant image of themselves.