The definition of a relationship according to Webster’s Dictionary is, “the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected, or the state of being connected.” In simpler terms, it’s the primary way in which two things relate to one another. Many have romanticized how Thomas Jefferson related to Sally Hemings, using words like “mistress” or “affair” to describe their relationship. This is inaccurate and erases the violence of this power dynamic. Sally Hemings was owned as a piece of property under the laws of the state of Virginia and the United States of America. Thomas Jefferson was her master, her owner, and her rapist.
In a statement to Atlanta Blackstar, University of Texas at Austin professor and author of “The Heart of Whiteness” Robert Jensen explains, “Any sexual contact between a slave and a master is essentially a case of rape.” And although it’s generally accepted in an abstract manner, but it becomes insufferable for people to consider it when the logic is applied to a white person, much less tolerable when applied to one of the country’s white Founding Fathers. The questions that one needs to ask when interrogating what makes the framing of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings so asinine is: how does consent apply in the power dynamic of a slave and owner? What does the softening of this relationship do for Thomas Jefferson’s image? How does this deny the humanity of Sally Hemings? Why do “we” feel the need to limit the effects of violence and white supremacy in this context? In an effort to show that these elements solidify Jefferson as a rapist and to tell a more complete history of the historic plantation Monticello, a revamp to the grounds will incorporate Hemings’ experience as well as a more prominent emphasis on the lives of the slaves that inhabited the grounds. Hopefully this will be a genuine and accurate depiction of the lives of slave rather than just another plantation where white people learn to overlook their past.