students in lounge

Words matter.

Names matter.

“She refused to return with him.” 

Here on the Palko POV, you, reader, get to see my journeys across Grounds from my point of view. I hope to shed light on current trending topics, whether that’s through my favorite fictional heroines or through historical examples from our culture’s long and mighty struggle with complex sex and gender identities. As the Center’s engagements in the University community bring me into contact with students, colleagues, alumni and others whose work is relevant to ours, I try to bring you a glimpse into the present-day perspectives they’ve shared with us.

This month, I’d like to tell you about a field trip the Women’s Center staff and interns recently took and the important challenges arising from it. This post matters deeply to me, and because it is so important, I wrestled with finding the right words. The struggle lies in the gap between my own point of view and the point of view we sought on that trip and to which we are unequivocally denied access.

“In consequence of his promises upon which she implicitly relied she agreed to return with him.”

One Friday this fall, we closed the Women’s Center to allow all of our staff members and interns to go together to visit to Monticello and the Life of Sally Hemings exhibit that opened there earlier this year. The exhibit, set up in one of the rooms of Monticello’s South Wing where Sally may have lived with her children, is as moving as it is spare.

A dress adorns a mannequin. The form of a woman is present, but she herself is not. We must settle for the dress and silhouettes projected on a screen, the technological anachronism reminding us that we cannot ever fully enter her world.

Powerful as this is, we don’t have Sally’s words. I look at the marked difference between Thomas Jefferson’s grave and Sally’s. His obelisk overshadows the rest of the grave markers in the “family” cemetery at Monticello. Sally is buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Charlottesville, of which the African American burial ground at Monticello is only an approximate stand-in. This discrepancy exemplifies for us the discrepancy between the records each left behind. Jefferson left volumes of writings. Sally’s life is known to us only through her descendants. The exhibit about Sally Hemings’ life itself necessarily relies on the account of Sally’s son Madison.

Without Sally’s words, she becomes a cipher for 21st century folks to work through their thoughts about race, power, and gender. Maybe that would happen anyway even if we had a written record of her own understanding of her lived experience. The exhibit’s display is animated with flowers and birds embroidered on her dress and just as quickly erased. Motivations and responses are as easily attributed to Sally.

Taking the traveling advice to “mind the gap,” I left the exhibit meditating on the gap between two moments in Sally’s story: “she refused to return” and “she returned.” At the age of 14, Sally accompanied Jefferson’s daughter Maria to Paris, living in France for the two remaining years of Jefferson’s term as Minister to France. In France, Sally was free. She originally refused to return with Jefferson to Virginia. After she negotiated “extraordinary privileges” for herself and freedom at age 21 for her unborn children, she ultimately returned to Monticello.

Engaging with the life of Sally in a respectful way requires nuanced consideration of agency and context. After everyone in our group viewed the exhibit, we convened for a conversation about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings with Gayle Jessup White. Gayle, who serves as Monticello’s Community Engagement Officer, counts both Jeffersons and Hemingses among her ancestors. Gayle is one of a group of descendants of Sally and others enslaved at Monticello who do not call Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings’ relationship rape. Gayle focuses on 16 year-old Sally’s successful negotiation for her future children’s freedom despite the vast imbalance of power between their parents.

This raises a dilemma that people working to bring about cultural change must work through: how do we talk about behavior, character, and ethics when norms have changed and new words describe old actions? Contemporary efforts to grapple with power inequalities tend to seek a clear label for a phenomenon rather than a deep understanding of the factors that create the phenomenon. We’re drawn toward labels even when they let us avoid the most difficult work. I’d like to suggest that we’re better served by helping people focus on the dynamics shaping a relationship than on finding the right label for it.

I do realize that it may seem like I’ve contradicted myself within this post.

Words matter. Names matter.

Labels distract from the truth.

In our desire to “understand” Sally’s point of view and relationship with Jefferson, it is tempting to map contemporary labels and ways of understanding onto the silhouette of a life. This is an intellectual shortcut that lets us sidestep the crucial demands of working for justice: to identify and rectify ways that power is still misused today. Race and gender are still bases for inequality in both obvious and subtle ways that we must strive understand before we can address them.

I see a clear difference between the need for us to say, unequivocally, that the power imbalance and life conditions that hindered Sally’s ability to consent are unacceptable and an urge to go too far in labeling her experience with 21st-century terms that erase her agency. I want to point out that this a really nuanced distinction, but one we can navigate if we acknowledge it and accept its importance.

We cannot know what she was thinking in that gap between “She refused to return with him” and “she agreed to return with him.” But we can honor her decision.

In the #MeToo era, there is perhaps even stronger impulse to label their relationship as rape. But a point of the #MeToo movement is that it is not our prerogative to label someone’s experience or lived reality.

Sally is no longer with us to tell us how she made sense of her life. Jefferson is no longer with us to account for his actions. But this is not a merely academic question. Their descendants are living memories of their relationship. If we as outsiders insist on defining this relationship without considering their descendants’ point of view, we trample over their agency. Presuming to speak for Sally overwrites her agency.

Names matter.

Had she stayed in Paris, we might well no longer remember Sally’s name.

Words matter.

But we do know her name, even though we’ve lost her words.

I’ve wrestled with honoring Sally without appropriating her. I invite you to see Monticello’s Life of Sally Hemings exhibit and to consider how the complexities of her life speak to us nearly 230 year after she returned to Virginia and to slavery pregnant with the first of six children, four of whom survived to become free as adults by the terms of the agreement she negotiated for them.