A couple of years ago, Kirk and I were talking about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. We had just discovered that, at the age of two, my great-great grandmother Sallie was given another two-year-old girl, a slave, who was her own first cousin. The slave child, Caroline, was (documents indicate) the daughter of Sallie’s uncle and an enslaved woman named Dinah. We were trying to wrap our heads around that – a child being given as a gift, a pet, for another human to own, and that human being her own first cousin.
So we were talking about sex between masters and slaves, Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, and I said off handedly, “Well, of course, what he did to her was rape.”
Kirk, who is a wonderful man, a deep, careful thinker, and an excellent historian, was taken aback. “Well….” he said using the delicacy and caution you would use to approach a possibly dangerous stray (me, rape, women and men, and slavery), “you know, I think it’s more nuanced than that.”
“No.” I said. “It’s not.”
My immediate, forceful, and seemingly unconsidered answer came from the fact that, as a woman, much of my life has been spent considering rape and the fact that I could be raped if I walked home alone at night, took a walk in the park, went to a bar, went out with a man I didn’t know. I have friends who’ve been raped waiting for the bus, working alone in an art studio, sleeping in their own beds at night. I’ve had conversations with friends about what constitutes rape and what doesn’t. Rape is something every woman has considered long and hard.
“OK….” Kirk, who knows this, albeit intellectually, said. “Explain.”
“Could Sally Hemings, a fourteen-year-old girl, in Paris, a country where she had no friends or family and didn’t speak the language, have said no to Thomas Jefferson? Could she have said no to him without negative repercussions?” Kirk thought about it for a moment and then said no. “Well,” I said, “if Sally Hemings couldn’t say no, then she couldn’t say yes. Without the ability to refuse, there can be no real consent. Sex without consent is coerced, and coerced sex is rape.”
“Yes,” he said. “You’re right.” Because he knows a good logical argument when he hears one.
I see this as similar to my argument, in “Southern bells,” that there can be no such thing as a good master, that the fact of believing you can “own” another human being taints everything in your life. Thomas Jefferson had been against slavery until around 1792, when he factored up the profits and losses of his plantation and noticed that the enslaved people were yielding him a predictable and reliable profit when they had children. He wrote, “I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.” In the 1790s he wrote that a friend who was having financial difficulties, “should have been invested in negroes.” Greed overcame his ideals and his humanity; slavery, the belief that you can own another human being, taints and twists you, so there can be no “good” slave owners, only bad or worse slave owners.
Jefferson once punished a slave boy named Cary – some mother’s child – by selling him “down river” to Georgia slavers. Jefferson said he did it, “to make an example of him in terrorem to others, in order to maintain the police so rigorously necessary among the nail boys.” In terrorem, an example and threat of punishment. A few years ago, a letter came to light describing how Monticello’s young black boys, “the small ones,” age 10, 11 or 12, were whipped to get them to work in the plantation’s nail factory. (It was that profitable factory that paid the mansion’s bills. This letter about children being whipped was deliberately deleted from the 1953 edition of Jefferson’s Farm Book, which still serves as a reference today for research on Monticello.)
This world of punishment was the world Sally Hemings was born into, this was the master who brought her, at age fourteen, to Paris to look after his daughter Polly. Abigail Adams wrote to Jefferson and said of Sally, “The girl … is quite a child, and Captain Ramsey is of the opinion [she] will be of so little service that he had better carry her back with him.” Adams also wrote that Sally was “wanting more care than [Polly],” that she was “wholly incapable” of looking properly after Polly Jefferson “without some superior to direct her.”
Sally Hemings was fourteen years old when Thomas Jefferson first had sex with her. She was a child herself, one who needed care. She was away from her kin in a foreign country where she knew and could speak to no one but the Jeffersons. Could that child have said no to his advances? The answer, in this case, is clearly no. But, if we look at it honestly, the answer, when speaking of sex between a master and a slave, is always going to be that the slave cannot say no without fear of reprisals, without living in terrorem.
This is why I call it rape. Because it is rape.