Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings by Stephen O’Connor

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“Who’s going to want to see a movie about a slave-owning, slave-fucking hypocrite who’s also a total coward?”

This question might resound with our own sentiments about Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, the debut novel by Stephen O’Connor that explores the “slave-owning, slave-fucking hypocrite” who penned the Declaration of Independence with one hand while caressing the face of his slave with the other.

Or was it caressing? Could any touch from a master to his slave hold any hint of lovingness by today’s standards, and could it have been reciprocated?

Such are just a few questions that have revolved around the third president of the United States and his concubine, Sally Hemings, for over two hundred years. Yet while it is widely agreed that Jefferson fathered up to six children with Hemings, the conditions of their “relationship” can never truly be known. Historians and writers paint a picture at their own risk. O’Connor does this by vacillating between the real and the imagined.

Unsurprisingly, the picture is not very pretty, although O’Connor offers strikingly vivid depictions of things that contemporary readers take for granted—like the French Revolution and the wonder of the hot air balloon in its infancy. Much of O’Connor’s prose, and Thomas Jefferson himself, comes alive on the page:

The flame stretches, and its tip flaps into a rippling wisp of smoke as an elderly white servant lowers a lamp chimney into place. The atmosphere inside the yellow room, already dense with the sausage-and-tobacco odor of ceaselessly yammering men, is cut by the thin acridity of whale oil. It is nearly eight on an evening in June 1775, and Thomas Jefferson is thirty-two. Although he washed his face on arrival in Philadelphia, his fingertips detect finely granulated road dust along his jaw in front of his ear. He is standing against the wall, clutching his right elbow with his left hand, and keeping his right hand aristocratically poised against his cheek in an attempt to look contemplative and at ease. He is perhaps the youngest of the thirty or so men present and feels something of an interloper, given that he is at the Continental Congress only through the influence of his cousin.

But who is Thomas Jefferson? At first he is a ten year-old tinkerer whose incessant curiosity causes him to break a family heirloom, and whose moral consciousness causes him to look for his father in order to profess his mistake. But in his quest to make things right, he happens upon his parents ordering the violent lashing of a strung-up slave, for reasons unknown.

And then we leave young Jefferson—although these childish insecurities remain an issue throughout the novel—and suddenly we are spat out into a magnificent, jarring universe of fiction and fact. No perspective or format is off-limits: interview, letter, diary entry, brief history lesson. It is perfectly logical, in O’Connor’s world, to view things from literally inside Jefferson. Jefferson watches a movie about how he and his wife met. Jefferson comes across Hemings on a subway train.

And who is Sally Hemings? Despite the book’s deliberate focus on Jefferson’s hypocrisies, Hemings’s experience is at the heart of this novel. Today, the definition of consent is often so muddled that numerous sexual assault awareness websites must clarify what it actually looks like. At the top of these lists is communication—verbal and physical. As Jefferson’s property, however, Sally does not have the legal right to say “no”. As a woman who is thirty years his junior, she does not have the physical ability to fend him off should he become forceful.

Stephen O'Connor

Stephen O’Connor

Consent now appears to be very different from consent then… until it is not, and suddenly we realize that Hemings’s internal dialogue following Jefferson’s first unsuccessful attempt is painfully familiar. How many times have women blamed themselves for not being clearer in their intentions with a man? Hemings, too, expresses shame, even though she herself is a prime example of a woman who is powerless in every sense of the word:

If she could find a way to go back to when he’d asked if she would like to see a true miracle, she would say no. And when he told her to put on her yellow gown: No. And when he asked her to get into the carriage with him, she would say it was not proper for a gentleman to ride with his serving girl. And when he offered her wine, she would say, “No. I won’t drink it. No.”

More time passes. Hemings still cannot forget; in fact, she begins to explain away his actions:

I knew I could say no—and yet I didn’t. My reasons were shameful and obvious. I was vain. I was weak. I had been the baby of my family and, of course, nothing more than a poor colored serving girl—a slave…

Thus, I didn’t say no. I would smile and nod at Mr. Jefferson’s greeting; I would blushingly accept his offers of chocolate or apricot preserves; I would talk to him for as long as he would seem interested in talking to me and feel grateful for every instant…

Hemings actually starts to believe she played a part in his making advances. In today’s world, she would be accused of flirting with Jefferson while wearing too short of a skirt.

O’Connor could easily explore master-slave relations by presenting the Jefferson-Hemings “relationship” merely through the lens of attacker and victim. It would be the safer route for a novel whose primary narrator is a black female slave, particularly when it has been authored by a white male in the 21st century.

Instead, the Jefferson-Hemings “relationship” is much more nuanced. At first glance it seems relatively harmless compared to its likelier alternative—an unsettling thought in itself. Jefferson does not strike Hemings or physically force her to be with him; it appears consensual in that Hemings actively seeks out the relations, even finds pleasure in them. But in this novel, we are obliged to expand our definition of “rape.” It is much more than physical; it is psychological.

O’Connor compels us to look at both the ugliness in Jefferson’s hypocrisies and the hopelessness in Hemings’s resistance. We will always be outsiders from their story, just as we are outsiders from the experience of sexual assault until it happens to us. Why does Hemings yearn for her master and laugh when she is in bed with him, when he refuses to free her or publicly acknowledge her as the mother of his children?

Sally Hemings does not know what the future holds. She does not know that the face of Thomas Jefferson, her rapist, will be stamped on the nickel. She has no idea that Monticello, her virtual prison, will be advertised as a spring break destination. What she does know is her situation and its commonness. She is a literal product of her own mother’s rape by Jefferson’s father-in-law. “[I]t’s a good thing to have a baby with the master,” her mother tells her. “That just about the best thing can happen to a colored girl, except freedom. Especially if you got a master like Mr. Jefferson.”

The catch? “You keep your feelings out of it, everything be just fine.”

Consent relies on keeping feelings in it. Unfortunately, there are still those who use positions of power to get what they want—people we idolize, people we believe have the truest of moral compasses. What do we do with their achievements? Should Bill Cosby be honored with an exhibit with no mention of the controversy, as the National Museum of African American History and Culture plans to do when it opens this fall? Should he be struck from the record?

Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings gives voice to a woman who was treated as an asterisk for too long. We must not let the next Sally Hemings wait two hundred years to be heard.

Zakiya Harris is a writer and part-time creative writing instructor who holds an MFA from The New School. She lives in Brooklyn, where she spends an inordinate amount of time falling down random Spotify rabbit holes (usually while working on her first novel, but not always). You can find her on Twitter at @zakiya_harris. More from this author →