By Sikivu Hutchinson
Sally Hemings, the black female slave who was raped and forced to bear children by third American president Thomas Jefferson, died in Charlottesville.
At his last press conference in the aftermath of white terrorist violence in Charlottesville, President Trump sarcastically noted that, since Jefferson and Washington owned slaves, their monuments, like those of white Confederates, could be next in line for removal. In his repeated failure to unequivocally blame white nationalists for the bloodshed and murder in Charlottesville, Trump inadvertently highlighted the problem of fixating on Confederate monuments in a vacuum. Statesman racists like Washington, Jefferson and other “founding fathers”, are rarely viewed through the same withering public lens as Confederate standard bearers, even though they were at the forefront of enshrining white supremacist policies that codified the hypocritical lie of American democracy.
In 1791, shortly after the publication of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, black scientist Benjamin Banneker wrote a letter rebuking Jefferson for his white supremacist views on African Americans:
[B]ut sir how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of those rights and privileges which He had conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.
As Christopher Deaton notes in a recent article about Banneker’s letter, “Jefferson built Monticello into a machine. He came to realize the birth of black children on his property was providing him a 4-percent annual profit.” He presided over a mini-manufacturing hub, fed his white family on the profits of a nailery worked by black boy slaves the same age as young Baron Trump, and viewed slaving as the most profitable “investment strategy” a good businessman could pursue. Generations of Hemings’ family worked at Jefferson’s plantation estate and kept its enterprises running. As a Virginia state legislator, Jefferson “blocked consideration of a law that might have eventually ended slavery in the state”.
In mainstream America, the furor over white supremacy and organized white supremacists has obscured how the U.S. profits from the institutionalization of white supremacy every second of every minute, hour and day. Jefferson and company made their vast personal fortunes and national reputations on the back of slave labor. They laid the foundation for a Western empire which is still powered by the exploitation of low wage black labor and bondage; from service industries to prisons. In the popular imagination, Jefferson’s predatory history has often been spun as a revisionist comment on complicated family lineages and the cultural intrigue of DNA results (for example, the genealogy company Ancestry DNA recently featured an ad with Douglas Banks, one of Jefferson’s black descendants, expressing pride about his presidential heritage and how he got his nose from his famous white ancestor. Banks fails to specifically name Sally Hemings).
Despite historical efforts to parse and nuance his “relationship” with Hemings—who was only fourteen years old when he famously took her with him to Paris—school children force fed the image of Jefferson the American visionary should be taught that he was a predator slave master whose vast wealth was forged in black blood. As African American historian Annette Gordon Reed (author of landmark scholarship on Hemings/Jefferson) has argued, Jefferson’s status as a kind of tortured philosopher planter, rather than a slave master, was crucial to shaping romanticized notions about his statesmanship. Echoing this criticism, a Chicago pastor has called for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to rename public parks named after Jefferson and Washington. And why not? Taking down Confederate statues without a willingness to engage the full legacy of slavery, and the ways in which so-called founding fathers enforced racial terrorism, is merely a stopgap.
Indeed, conservative and centrist commentators keep telling us that the violence in Charlottesville was not representative of the “American values” slain protestor Heather Heyer was fighting for. The domestic terrorism of unhinged white supremacists, fueled by bloodthirsty screeds on the Daily Stormer, is an embarrassment to the illusion of American exceptionalism perpetuated by the Bushes, the Joint Chiefs, and the business titans who rushed to decry Trump’s “moral equivalencies” but still cosign his racist neoliberal imperialist policies. Calling out violent troglodytes is a necessary smokescreen for these corporate multinational and military white supremacists. As Jefferson’s spiritual heirs, their brand of white supremacy is represented in the very institutions which perpetuate global capitalist terror and inequality in finance, jobs, housing, education, military deployments and drone warfare.
As Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway acidly commented about the divide between Jefferson’s public persona and his deeds, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.”Sally Hemings, her life and influence stand as powerful testaments to the real American values that Jefferson embodied.