Sally Hemings by Barbara Chase Riboud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
July 4th of this year found me seperated from fireworks and backyard barbecue, alone and in my livingroom with the laptop, and a History Channel marathon of The American Revolution. While running wild on Twitter and Facebook, I got to know better the editor of the brilliant new ezine, Specter Magazine, a Mr. Thomas D. DeMary II. I don't recall the exact details of the twit-conversation any longer, but the end result was that he had to pony up and buy me a book of my choosing off Amazon.com.
Seeing as it was July 4th, I went Founding Father themed, and chose a title related to Thomas Jefferson. A paperback novel by Barbara Chase Riboud about the controversial enslaved mistress of Mr. Jefferson, Sally Hemings.
I've always been fascinated by Sally Hemings, the young one quarter African slave-girl who became the 15 year old mistress of Thomas Jefferson while he was stationed in Paris--Sally serving his daughters Martha, and Maria. She was the half-sister of Jefferson's dead wife Martha Wayles, and by all spoken accounts (for no portrait of Sally Hemings is known to survive)a beautiful young woman and the spitting image of her half sister. The fact that she was the aunt of the girls she was slave to, half sister to the dead Mistres of Monticello, and bound concubine of Thomas Jefferson whether she liked it or not seemed to sum up to me the epitome of slavery's absurdity.
The legend of the Hemings scandal, a huge story at the time Jefferson served as President of the United States, and chronicled by her own son Eston Hemings in an autobiography, faded over the decades. Covered in dust and the eventual sainting of Jefferson into a flawless man of marble.
This novel, I was pleasantly surprised to find, meticulously researched and wonderfully written, chips away the marble and granite of the beloved Thomas Jefferson, and breathes life into the breast of a slave girl who had only previously been immortalized in rude poems and brushed aside as a figment of legend.
The novel opens with a census taker in 1830 Virginia meeting an aged but still beautiful Sally Hemings, a freewoman living near the grounds of Monticello with two of her sons by Jefferson. The book almost lost me at the gate when the paragraphs breathlessly worship at the altar of Sally's "white" beauty. Great emphasis is devoted to her unlined skin, though she is past 50, her ivory complexion, her ebony hair and golden eyes that glow like a gemstone. Descriptive passages like this can sometimes leave me cold, as if to say the only woman worth writing about is one that never ages and is impossibly beautiful. I was afraid that this novel would go the way of a lurid romantic bodice ripper.
Sticking with it, however, paid off beautifully. Very swiftly Chase-Riboud takes the story of the infatuated census taker and the ageless Sally and smashes them together with a hard unflinching look of the the subject of slavery, race despite skin color, and Sally's complete embracing of her own identity as a woman of African heritage. Sally is an ageless doll at the opening, but that impossible beauty is quickly stripped away, as she begins to shed the skin of her emotional enslavement to the memory of Thomas Jefferson and Monticello.
Told from a variety of viewpoints, but mostly through Sally's, the novel jumps back and forth in time, and with great skill creates a Sally Hemings that is full blooded and real. One feels great sympathy for the fifteen year old Sally in Paris, beautiful and naive, and overcome with the love that Jefferson offers. Freedom from slavery in Paris is within her grasp, but adolescent infatuation is a stronger force that binds her to Jefferson and condemns her to a lifetime of slavery returned to Virginia. At no point is she a helpless, dim-witted concubine mistress as popular tales of the time had her. She is an intelligent, assertive, graceful woman who runs Monticello, and deftly dodges the venom sent her way by Jefferson's oldest daughter Martha.
Jefferson is shown as both the intelligent, innovative man he is famous for being, but his flaws are also not skimmed over. His inability to spend or save money properly, the hypocrisy of his idea of a free America but yet allowing slavery to fester and spread, and his selfishness in binding Sally Hemings and her children to him without ever giving them anything more than his curt acknowledgment.
This book is an important one, controversial at the time for its unflinching look at slavery, race relations, and the fallibility of a Founding Father.
Read the modern paperback edition of this book as it has an afterword by the author in it, detailing the pains she took in research, and the pain she endured upon publication of the book for being an African American woman who would dare pull back the curtain on the boudoir of an American Icon.
And I highly recommend everyone go and check out Specter Magazine at http://www.spectermagazine.com/
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