Sally Hemings: A Novel

Sally Hemings: A Novel

by Barbara Chase-Riboud


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781556529450
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/01/2009
Series: Rediscovered Classics Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Barbara Chase-Riboud is an acclaimed African-American novelist, poet, and sculptor. Her bestselling historical novels include Echo of Lions, Hottentot Venus, The President’s Daughter, and Valide.


Paris, France

Date of Birth:

June 26, 1939

Place of Birth:

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


B.F.A. from Temple University; M.A. in art and architecture from Yale University

Read an Excerpt

Sally Hemings

A Novel

By Barbara Chase - Riboud

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 1979 Barbara Chase-Riboud
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-679-8



It is difficult to determine on the standard by which the manners of a nation may be tried, whether catholic, or particular. It is more difficult for a native to bring to that standard the manners of his own nation, familiarized to him by habit. There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us.

THOMAS JEFFERSON, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1790

There was a white man coming up her road, as if God had ordained it and as if he owned the road.

The woman standing in the dark square of the cabin doorway knew that this was the way white men arrived. Anyway, no slave would be driving a carriage unaccompanied. And the only freedmen for miles around were her sons, Madison and Eston. She never thought of herself as free, and now, at fifty-six, with her sons waiting politely for her to die so that they could move West (why was she so stubborn about it?), she was fixed in another time and space, belonging to another epoch, an epoch which had ended for her on the Fourth of July, 1826, four years gone.

The cabin in which she stood was the most beggarly habitation for miles around. The land surrounding it was cotton-exhausted and impossible to work. Yet they worked it, her sons, with a furor and a wrenching desperation, although it was not even theirs. Freed slaves could not own land in Virginia. It was rented; expensive and worthless — eroded, hilly, evil. The cabin leaned into its own decay. Backed as it was against the boundaries of the once-famous plantation of Monticello, it too now strangled in its own undergrowth.

The carriage was approaching, the iron wheels grinding against the deep ruts of the ill-kept road. She could see that it was not really a carriage but a buckboard. And what she had thought to be horses were really a very pretty pair of matched beige-and-brown mules, fat and glossy. Her eyes followed the advance of the little buckboard without surprise, as if the event that was to take place had already been explained to her, as if she knew who would be arriving in such splendor at an ex-slave's cabin door.

Actually her eyes were never surprised. They were eyes of a deep amber yellow, mark of a quadroon, which gave her whole face an illusion of transparency. Eyes that were liquid gold in an ivory mask; windows onto banked and mysterious fires that burned day and night, absorbing everything and returning nothing to the surface. The skin was drawn, but smooth. There was no way to tell her age; neither in the lines of her face nor the contours of her body — which was small and low, compact and strong, with that wiry vivacity of congenital thinness. Her head was bound in a white cloth that darkened the skin and set off the pale and beautiful mouth with its two deep dimples on either side. In her ears dangled small ruby earrings, like tiny drops of blood, incongruous next to the faded rough black-linen dress and its black apron. She was still in mourning. Her hands, which were hidden in the folds of her apron, were small, soft, and slender, unmarked by hard labor.

The buckboard had stopped at the bottom of the orchard. The man had gotten out and was making his way up the steep path to her door. As she watched the approaching stranger, her expression changed swiftly from curiosity to anger to apprehension. There were only two reasons for a white man to be coming to the cabin: either he was the census taker from the Albemarle County Courthouse or the sheriff with an eviction notice. Either would ask the same questions: her name, her age, and if she were slave or free. Well, everybody in Albemarle County, every Tidewater family for fifty miles around, knew her name; how many children she had, and by whom; knew too that as a manumitted slave she had no right by law to remain in Virginia — unless she had been granted a special dispensation from the Virginia legislature.

If the census taker, if that's who he was, had any sense at all, he wouldn't have had to come all the way up here in the afternoon heat to ask her what he undoubtedly already knew: if she was Sally Hemings of Monticello.

The slave mistress of Thomas Jefferson had been famous in Albemarle County for as long as he could remember. At least her name was famous. Few people had actually seen her and that was one of the reasons he was making his way slowly up this wretched road: to meet Sally Hemings face to face.

Not one person in a hundred would recognize "Dusky Sally" if they saw her, he concluded. She had seldom left Monticello in all her fifty years there, yet it seemed he had always heard her name. His father had known both her masters, John Wayles, the father, and Thomas Jefferson, the lover. Nathan Langdon, who was indeed the census taker for Albemarle County, smiled grimly. He was home. He was home in Virginia, with its passions, its blood feuds, its pride, its duels, its Southern honor. And glad of it. Even in the few weeks he had been back, the energy and efficiency of his affected Northern manner had disappeared like a lizard's skin. The heat, the languid pace of the tidy, beautiful mules, the lurch of the old-fashioned but elegant buggy, the reins softly caressing the palms of his hands, all gently contributed to make him feel at home. He settled his large frame into the cracked leather of the seat and raised his eyes to the little cabin sitting on the boundary between the wilderness of a ragged pine forest and the southernmost acres of Monticello. As he did he saw a childlike figure standing in the lopsided doorway. A woman. Sally Hemings. It must be. There were no other women out this way.

The shadowed figure in the doorway stood stock-still. Why was it that she could never control the dread and panic she felt at the approach of a white man? Any white man. A familiar uneasiness settled in her stomach. There had been only one white man she had ever welcomed. And he was dead and buried behind this cabin on his little mountain.

At least Madison and Eston were not home. If there was trouble, she preferred to face it alone. Facing down an angry white man was a black woman's job, not a black man's unless he was prepared to die. But then this man just might be the census taker Madison had spoken about the other day.

She felt a strange calm. The sheriff would have an eviction notice, if he had anything, and a writ to run them out of the State of Virginia — which would suit her sons just fine, if they could leave peaceably.

Sally Hemings knew her presence in Virginia and that of her sons depended on the will and whim of her niece, Martha Jefferson Randolph. It was Martha who had manumitted her, and it was Martha who had persuaded her friends in the legislature to allow her to stay. Her life here depended on Martha, and Martha depended on her silence. Both had their reasons. So be it. They both had reasons to keep silent — reasons that would die with them. It was against the law for a freed slave to remain in Virginia more than a year and a day from the date of emancipation. The slave risked being sold back into slavery.

But she would die in Virginia, at Monticello, God willing, and not in some desert scalped by wild Indians. Madison and Eston were young and healthy. The West was their only chance; but she would finish her days here. Her sons would simply have to wait. It wouldn't be all that long.

The white man was approaching on foot. Weaving in and out of her apple orchards, the sun to his back. The pretty mules, shimmering in the heat, were stopped quietly at the bottom of the pathway. Sally Hemings heard the flutter of her chickens at roost in their pen, and felt the sun on her eyelids as she closed them against the glare.

Nathan Langdon had practically forgotten his fascination with Sally Hemings as he made his way toward the cabin. The strange destiny of Sally Hemings seemed less urgent to ponder than his own future, now that he was back.

His job as census taker would last only through the summer. He had to do it while helping to run Broadhurst. He was the heir now; his older brother, his father's favorite, was dead, a hole blown through him at point-blank range. His father was grief-stricken, unable to take even the most meager duties on his shoulders.

There had been relief and gratitude when he had announced that he would stay at home and marry. Esmeralda Wilks was rich and temperamental, and she had let him know in no uncertain terms that she was tired of waiting. It was her family who had gotten him his temporary job as census taker until he could finish his studies and pass his bar examinations. He had thought about politics as well; but not only was he too "radical" for this county, he would also be in competition with his brothers and brothers-in-law. Still, he could consider this appointment as a first "political" step to bigger and better things. He would apprentice himself to Judge Miner in Charlottesville, see more of Esmeralda, comfort his father, and run Broadhurst. At least he was rid of the necessity of forever explaining himself, his family, and his state — to say nothing of the entire South — to Northern friends, acquaintances, and reformers. One thing he never wanted to explain again was the Institution of Slavery. He could give a lecture, in his sleep, on this subject. He never again intended to endure Northerners and their impertinent questions, the sententiousness of their comments, the insulting familiarity of the exchanges.

He had managed, after years of arguments, to convince his closest Northern friends that a Virginian did not automatically own "thousands of slaves," and that he did not starve and beat the ones he had; that Negroes bred in nine months like everybody else, and that neither he nor his servants had tails, two heads, indolent or oversexed dispositions.

He always felt a general outrage that these ignoramuses could so presume on his private life and that of his kin and his native territory. Sooner or later their curiosity would get the better of their manners, and they apparently found it quite natural to ask the most unwarranted and intimate questions of a total stranger, one they considered the "expert" Southerner. They would never dream of asking such questions of their own family or class. Owning Negroes seemed to them to be a license for all kinds of forwardness.

What's more, they never seemed to be satisfied. There had always been "just one thing more I wanted to ask you." And these Northerners, he thought furiously, had been his friends. The well-bred and aristocratic sons of gentlemen and capitalists. Yet their greed for information about the South, and their fascination with slavery, knew no bounds. What had fascinated them most, especially the ladies, was not the economics, the humanity, or the Christianity of the Institution, but sex. Langdon's mouth tightened in exasperation. The only thing they really wanted to know about was the sex life of the Southern aristocrat and his slaves. They had all heard of the thousands of New Orleans octoroons, the dashing Washington mulattoes, the plantation quadroons, sometimes sired by the sons' fathers, and overseers of slave-owning families. Cross-breeding was something one didn't discuss in polite society. One didn't discuss it at all, even in the intimacy of one's private journal. It was something one relegated to that corner of the mind reserved for incest, insanity, epilepsy, suicide, and sodomy; it was sordid and unthinkable. He had never been able to explain to these morose Northerners the particular combination of cruelty and affection, detachment and possessiveness that made up the relationship between master and servant, a relationship all the more complex and intense if they were blood kin. How could he ever explain it to them? True, white men had begot and freed sons, even daughters, but the basic rule of this charged and intimate correspondence was that there was a superior and an inferior race, and to intermingle them was an error against God, Nature, and Society. No matter how many mulattoes, quadroons, octoroons, métis issued from lust or passion. He also knew that freed slaves were not allowed to remain in Virginia. Why were the Hemingses so privileged? Who had petitioned the Virginia Legislature for special permission for them to stay? And why? Or did they remain without official permission? How was it possible that, at the pinnacle of his power, Thomas Jefferson had chosen a slave when he could have chosen any white woman alive!

His heavy shoulders moved uncomfortably in the loose woolen jacket. He was not dressed for the heat. His thoughts had taken him far away, so that he was startled to find himself looking at the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, a woman old enough and fair enough to be his mother. It can't be, he thought wildly, unnerved by her physical beauty.

The woman was indeed beautiful. The face was unlined, the gaze fragile but unyielding. The eyes were almost emerald in the bluish shadow. The mouth was soft and childish in its contours, and vain. The body was well proportioned. She had removed the white cloth and her hair seemed to glow like a silk cap, the braid coiled around her head breaking into planes of light.

No sound came from the dark recess, and Nathan Langdon struggled to find a way of addressing this woman. How did one address a creature who did not exist, who was the negation of everything he had been taught to believe? There were no white slaves. There could be no white ex-slaves. There were no women who looked like this, who lived in a Negro cabin at the end of a dusty, weed-choked footpath out of time and memory, who had been loved by a great man who had never freed her. The smell of poverty and cooking hung in the interior. The woman's dress and apron were of poor-quality black linen, faded to gray and without trimmings. A window in the room let in the afternoon light, silhouetting this figure who neither moved nor spoke.

Finally, he said, "You are? ..."

"Sally Hemings." The voice was crisp and clear. "Are you the census taker for the county my son spoke of?"

"Yes, Ma'am. Nathan Langdon, at your service."

The simplest words seemed to explode into the atmosphere. Langdon caught his breath as the woman emerged gently from the shadow of the room into the light. In the brightness, her eyes assumed their true color, fringed with thick black lashes and by heavy eyebrows. The nose was slightly flared, the cheekbones abnormally high, the eyes wide-spaced. There were streaks of gray in the fine black hair, which, if loosened, would doubtless have reached her waist.

"You live here with your sons Eston and Madison?"




"Yours first, Ma'am, then your sons'."

"Fifty-six. My son Eston is twenty-two and Madison is twenty-five."

"All born in Albemarle County?"

"At Monticello."

"You are manumitted slaves, are you not? Do you have a special dispensation to remain in Virginia?"


"Former slaves of Martha Jefferson Randolph?"

"Of Thomas Jefferson. My sons were freed by his will in 1826."

"And you?"

"The same year."

"This cabin and land, the property of?"

"Cornelius Stooker of Charlottesville."


"Twelve acres."

"Yearly rent?"

"Two bales of cotton and seven bushels of corn."

"The professions of your sons?"

"Musicians ..."

Nathan Langdon raised his eyebrows. "They farm the land as well?"


"No other adults living here?"




"That is, there are three adults and no children in residence, am I correct?"

"Yes, that's right."

"Other members of your family not living at home?"


"You have other children, do you not?"

"They are listed as runaways in the Monticello Farm Book."

"How many?"

"Two — three."

"Three runaways?"


"Five children in all?"


"Two deceased?"


"Are your sons at home?"

Sally Hemings hesitated. She was alone in the house and unprotected.

"They will be coming home shortly."

"Where are they?"

"At the university."

"Can they read?"


"Can you read?"


"Vote?" The question had come automatically to his lips. Now there was an embarrassed silence. Of course they couldn't vote. They weren't even supposed to know how to read and write. It was against the law. But then they were freed now, and there was no law saying freed slaves could not read and write. Or was there? He covered himself as best he could.

"Uh ... property?" He flushed deeply. He was questioning her as if she were white. As if her sons were white farmers and musicians.

"Would you like a drink?" she asked suddenly. "Ginger beer, perhaps?"

"Thank you, Ma'am."

"Wait here. No. Come inside out of the sun. You have no hat on. It is finished, no?"

The strange involution of the sentence startled him. There was something foreign about her speech, as if she were thinking in a different language. It had no tremor of old age, but was delicious and young.

Nathan Langdon had to stoop to enter the somber cabin; quickly he took in the room. It was the most disconcerting interior he had ever seen. He had been in many slave and ex-slave cabins in the past weeks, so that he was not surprised by the simple handmade benches and tables, the rough plank floor, the whitewashed clay walls, the bits and pieces of hand-me-downs, broken, and repaired finery from the Big House, but as his stunned gaze took in the delicate cherrywood pianoforte, an exquisite onyx-and-bronze pendulum clock ticking away over the finely carved wooden chimney, the elegant dark-green leather chest with its brass fitting gleaming dully in the gloom, the French armchair, a huge ornate and gilded mirror, and, strangest of all, a French flag, a musket on which hung what looked like a small effigy or doll. He felt he had walked into the inner sanctum of some desperate and overwhelming mystery.


Excerpted from Sally Hemings by Barbara Chase - Riboud. Copyright © 1979 Barbara Chase-Riboud. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


II 1787 PARIS,
IV 1795–1809 MONTICELLO,

Reading Group Guide

First printed 17 years ago, Sally Hemmings was greeted with controversy, vilification, and praise. Utilizing documents and historical evidence, it recreated the love story of Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence, and his beautiful quadroon slave, Sally Hemings. While acclaimed by many reviewers, the novel was viciously attacked by historians, who claimed that the story was not only flagrantly inaccurate, but damaging to the American self-image. Recent DNA findings on the descendants of Jefferson and Hemings have confirmed the novel's accuracy, and given new light to this moving and enlightening story.

Spanning two continents, sixty years, and seven presidencies, Sally Hemings explores the complex blend of love and hate, tenderness and cruelty, freedom and bondage, that made their lifelong liaison one of the most poignant and unforgettable chapters in American history.


Discussion Questions

1. Does the DNA confirmation that Thomas Jefferson fathered seven children with Sally Hemings change your view of him? If so, how, and what does Barbara Chase-Riboud's novel contribute to this view?

2. Why do you think the subject of Jefferson and Hemings' union is still controversial today?

3. Why are many historians so reluctant to embrace this fact?

4. Even though Thomas Jefferson was a president, a politician, and a writer, it was widely known throughout the Richmond-Charlottesville area that he had an ongoing relationship with his slave. Clearly a man of great power, why would Jefferson carry on a largely public love affair with Sally Hemings? What does this say about him as a manand a leader?

5. The polarities of Jefferson and Hemings' homes-Monticello and Paris, America and France-were vastly antithetical. Revolutionary Paris's views on race, love, and politics were in many ways freer and more accepting than provincial America. How do you believe these two locations affected Jefferson's thinking? And how did their various constraints and liberties encourage or condemn the two's affair?

6. The media of early America was full of muckraking and scandalous rumors. When down-and-out journalist James Callender broke the news of Hemings and her children, it became a nation-wide sensation, but then was quickly ignored or forgotten. How do you think the media of that age compares with ours, and in what ways is it different?

7. Why do you think Sally Hemings chose to stay at Monticello and bear Jefferson seven children?


About the Author

Barbara Chase-Riboud won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for best novel by an American woman for Sally Hemings. A widely-exhibited and acclaimed sculptor as well as a writer, her novels include Echo of Lions and The President's Daughter. She divides her time between Paris and the United States.

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Sally Hemings: A Novel 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
dara85 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This is the ficional account of the love story between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. Many of the events in the book did occur. I believe the genealogical information on the Hemmings family is fairly correct. An interesting read if you are a fan of this era.
jeaneva on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Fascinating book fictionalizing the romance between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. DNA has shown the relationship occurred, but the reality of their love is disputed. It is truly hard to understand the actions of the man who wrote "all men are created equal" and yet held his own sons in slavery!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I kept waiting for something to happen in this book. It didn't grab me I found it very dragged out and a continuous cycle of Sally being pregnant & Jefferson leaving Monticello to come back and get her pregnant again. I didn't even see what the big romance between them was. And I didn't like the fact that Sally was so content to be her masters slave and lover with no thought or decision for herself, was the real Sally this dumb? I think I wasted money purchasing this book. But this is just my opinion. Anyone thinking of buying it go right ahead maybe you will like it better than I.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love every word of this book and it was so loving and stong it is one of my favorites about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. This book was about love and about what love was like for Thomas and Sally and the the fights agaist Mathar and Sally and all the love she got from her brother who she turned her back on this book is about an American Dragite and about how slavry was for Sally and Thomas.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The love affair between Thomas Jeffferson and his mulatto slave ( Sally Hemings ) was known as an american scandal. Sally's heart is on the side of her people yet on the side of the man she loves. Thomas does not agree with slavery but he owns slaves. Through family ties and seduction, Sally falls in love with her master while he is in love with her because she is different. Sally earns her freedom but love keeps her home. The story is so intresting and based on such truth - ive read this book 13 times. The life of Sally Hemings is a mystery that cant be discovered completely, but Barbara Chase Riboud does an excellent job informing the unknown.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was a sign of the times in Sally Hemings day. Eventhough, this book is listed as a historical fiction. I chose to believe that this is a true story. I was blown away... by all the influential people that crossed her path. This book raises so many questions. For example, how many other lives that paralleled Sally Hemings life? Thank you Barbara Chase Riboud.