Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post–Civil Rights Imagination

Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post–Civil Rights Imagination

by Salamishah Tillet

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More than forty years after the major victories of the civil rights movement, African Americans have a vexed relation to the civic myth of the United States as the land of equal opportunity and justice for all. In Sites of Slavery Salamishah Tillet examines how contemporary African American artists and intellectuals—including Annette Gordon-Reed, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Bill T. Jones, Carrie Mae Weems, and Kara Walker—turn to the subject of slavery in order to understand and challenge the ongoing exclusion of African Americans from the founding narratives of the United States. She explains how they reconstruct "sites of slavery"—contested figures, events, memories, locations, and experiences related to chattel slavery—such as the allegations of a sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the characters Uncle Tom and Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, African American tourism to slave forts in Ghana and Senegal, and the legal challenges posed by reparations movements. By claiming and recasting these sites of slavery, contemporary artists and intellectuals provide slaves with an interiority and subjectivity denied them in American history, register the civic estrangement experienced by African Americans in the post–civil rights era, and envision a more fully realized American democracy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822352617
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 07/26/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Salamishah Tillet is Assistant Professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination
By Salamishah Tillet


Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5261-7

Chapter One

All in all, Sally's story and the Jefferson it asks us to believe in, if credited as true, would require us not merely to change some shadings in his portrait but literally to reverse the picture of him, as an honorable man, painted by contemporaries who knew him well and by the multitudes of later scholars.... The personality of the man who figures in Sally Hemings's pathetic story simply cannot be assimilated to the known character of Thomas Jefferson. DOUGLASS ADAIR, "The Jefferson Scandals"

I said, "Thomas Jefferson was my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather." The teacher told me to sit down and stop telling lies. SHANNON LANIER, quoted in Anita Hamilton, "A Family Divided"

Freedom in a Bondsmaid's Arms Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and the Persistence of African American Memory

AT THE DAWN of the French Revolution, a teenaged Sally Hemings, coiffed with lovely brown curls and adorned in the finest Parisian silks, begins an exchange with Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson during a garden party at the Palace of Versailles. Awed by Paine's presence yet confident in her powers of persuasion, Hemings approaches both men by quoting excerpts from Paine's provocative pamphlet Common Sense (1776): "Weak men cannot see and prejudiced men will not see" and "We have it in our power to begin the world again." Transfixed by her wit and beauty, Paine first bows and then, turning to Jefferson, whispers, "Well, if ever there were reason to accept Washington's appointment and push an anti-slavery bill through Congress, dear boy, she is the best." In this brief scene from African American screenwriter Tina Andrews's four-hour television miniseries Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (CBS, 2000), Hemings, played by the British actress Carmen Ejigo, is the ultimate cosmopolitan and patriot. Andrews depicts Hemings as a bilingual aesthete who exudes a worldly self-assurance that matches the charisma of the statesman Jefferson. Once back in Virginia, Hemings not only ensures that her children will be manumitted, but she illegally teaches enslaved children how to read and write, privately opposes Jefferson's purchase of the slaveholding territory of Louisiana, and challenges Jefferson's scientific racism by confronting him with his own copy of Notes on the State of Virginia. Through this fictionalized Hemings, Andrews not only reminds viewers of the presence of African American women during the formation of the American nation-state, but also casts the slave-born Hemings as the ultimate heir to Paine's revolutionary rhetoric, more faithful to the democratic ideals of the nation than one of its most esteemed founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson.

In contrast to Jefferson's extensive legacy, the only remaining historical records of Sally Hemings are a bill from a boarding house on the Rue Seine, her passport, the ledgers from Jefferson's household detailing how much he spent on her clothes, the memoirs by her son Madison, newspaper accounts of her relationship with Jefferson in 1802, and the slave inventory at Monticello in which, at age fifty-seven, she was valued at fifty dollars. As a result of these material and discursive silences, there is no simple method to access her past, no way, as Hortense Spillers remarks, "to easily form in the inner ear an aural image of the sound and grain of Sally Hemings's voice, the shape and meaning of her words, or how she might have felt." In the absence of written and visual records, Andrews turns to speculation and imagination in order to reconstruct "Sally Hemings's perspective, the disregarded perspective, the slave perspective" at Monticello. Although Andrews's re-creation of Hemings is unique, her teleplay is part of a larger critical intervention by post-civil rights African American women writers such as Barbara Chase-Riboud, Robbie McCauley, and Annette Gordon-Reed, whose texts also reclaim Hemings as the symbol of a multiracial American democracy. Moreover, as these contemporary representations put forth novel and radical readings of Hemings, they continue to incorporate African American oral histories that, as Clarence Walker notes, actually kept the story of Hemings and Jefferson in circulation for some two hundred years. Until recently, when DNA validated that Eston Hemings was in fact Hemings's and Jefferson's biological son, the official history of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship included only Jefferson's correspondences, the oral testimonies of his white grandchildren, and Dumas Malone's and Merrill Peterson's estimable biographies. Through omission, redirection, or outright rejection, all these accounts disputed the legitimacy of a sexual relationship, be it romantic or coerced, between Jefferson and Hemings.

Nonetheless, the Hemings-Jefferson relationship was so significant to African American abolitionist culture that the first African American novel, William Wells Brown's Clotel: or, the President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1852), used the rumor that Jefferson had fathered slave children and that one of his daughters had been sold on the auction block for a thousand dollars as its central plot device. Brown chose Jefferson because he unambiguously embodied the contradictions that hovered around the nation's founding, for Jefferson "had written magnificently about human freedom" while "buying, working and selling slaves." Even though Jefferson is not among the main characters in Clotel, by depicting him as both the father of Clotel and a founding father of the United States, Brown depicted the incongruity between the democratic rhetoric of American civic myths and the reality of chattel slavery. Brown also cast Hemings and her children within the national allegory as tragic symbols of black non-citizenship and enslavement in the antebellum period. According to Werner Sollors, the fictional Clotel was emblematic of the lamentable legal status of nineteenth-century African Americans who had "white America as the father figure, black America as the mother," but as offspring were "the problematic, truly American heir who is denied his/her birthright and inheritance by his/her father."

Over a century later, in 1954, when Ebony published "Thomas Jefferson's Negro Grandchildren," readers learned about "a handful of elderly Negroes who traced their ancestry back to Jefferson." Similar to Brown's retelling, Ebony reframed Jefferson's real and metaphorical racial contradictions as the perfect foil against which to protest second-class black citizenship. By legitimating Jefferson's paternity of Hemings's children, these written accounts used African American oral histories to democratize perspectives of the past while simultaneously framing their interpretations of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship to directly protest black disenfranchisement in slavery and Jim Crow segregation. As Ann Du Cille writes, the "rumor" of their relationship was never simply "the idle gossip of maiden aunts, distant cousins, and community busybodies." But "the carefully guarded family records of a people denied access to their own heritage, except by word of mouth," thereby providing what Michel Foucault defined as a "counter-memory" to the official absence of Hemings from Jefferson's historiography. Rather than embrace the power of historical narratives and the authority of totalizing national myths, Foucault argued that counter-memory looks to the past for the hidden histories excluded from dominant narratives. George Lipsitz notes that for African American writers, counter-memory not only excavates buried histories, but simultaneously contests and revises hegemonic images, traditional icons, heroes, rituals, and narratives. Protesting against slavery and segregation, these earlier African American counter-memories fought for racial equality by appealing to rights and rituals of legal citizenship. In such representations of slavery, it was Jefferson, not Hemings, who emerged as the more accurate symbol for America's racial paradox and who thereby compromised democracy.

Because contemporary African American artists and intellectuals do not have to contest legal slavery or segregation, their representations of slavery in general and of Hemings in particular do not have to be realistic and are decidedly more experimental, multidimensional, and focused. The critical distance between the antebellum period and our contemporary moment gives modern-day texts, such as Barbara Chase-Riboud's novel Sally Hemings (1979), Robbie McCauley's play Sally's Rape (1994), and the historian Annette Gordon-Reed's Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997) and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008), the privilege of depicting Hemings with a measure of authority unknown to her in her real life. So while these texts do not have the same political burden to render slavery "palatable," as Toni Morrison writes, to those who were in the position to alleviate it, these contemporary writers render her a national allegory for a vexed post-civil rights citizenship. The past in this sense serves the present. Hemings did not benefit from the rights and privileges of nineteenth- century U.S. citizenship. However, rather than use Hemings as an empty signifier of the slave past, a historical womb that both mourns and mirrors black disenfranchisement, Chase-Riboud, Gordon-Reed, and McCauley interrogate the past of slavery by reimagining her as a radical black female subject. By casting Hemings as America's prodigal daughter, their texts remind us of the importance of black female corporeality to slavery's scenes of subjection and the genealogy of that subjection. This use of Hemings, in many ways, recalls what Spillers meant when she wrote that in the American practice of slavery the "quintessential 'slave' is not male, but a female." Yet for these writers, Hemings not only represents the forms of black resistance that flourished in spite of slavery. They also characterize her as America's founding mother, a crucial symbol of the constitutive relationship between slavery and the formation of the American nationstate in which black women, not the founding statesmen, emerge as the true progenitors and guardians of democracy. Through African American (postmodern) memory, Chase-Riboud, Gordon-Reed, and McCauley help write African Americans back into the nation's founding and justify black birthright claims, thereby invoking a democratic aesthetic that substitutes sanitized, racially homogeneous civic myths with the complex truths of interracial ties of intimacy. By shifting the focus from Jefferson to enslaved African Americans such as Hemings, these contemporary representations of slavery provide a radical insight into American history in which Hemings, not Jefferson, becomes the racial metonym of the nation on the one hand and a model for post-civil rights civic membership on the other.


The patriot, fresh from Freedom's councils come, Now pleased retires to lash his slaves at home; Or woo, perhaps some black Aspasia's charms, And dream of freedom in his bondsmaid's arms. THOMAS MOORE, Epistle VII

If, as Merrill Peterson argued, Thomas Jefferson is America's "mirror of the race dilemma," then Sally Hemings darkly stood on the other side of the looking glass. This dialectic between belonging and non-belonging, recognition and invisibility, not only defines the civic segregation that Hemings experienced in the antebellum culture, but was simply the logical extension of the legal and economic disenfranchisement of millions of free and enslaved African Americans. Unfortunately, stereotypes of racial alterity not only justified black non-citizenship, but the rhetoric of early American citizenship was gendered male, racialized as white, and defined against the black body. In this vortex of defining what and who belong to the nation, enslaved African American women were in a particularly estranged and subordinate position. As Patricia Hill Collins thoughtfully notes, "As the 'Others' of society who can never really belong, strangers threaten the moral and social order. But they are simultaneously essential for its survival because those individuals who stand at the margins of society clarify its boundaries." Regrettably, "African American women, by not belonging, emphasize[d] the significance of belonging."

Caught in this gendered racial discourse from 1802 to 1808, Sally Hemings was not simply denied access to feminized civic myths, such as the "mother of the nation," that were crucial to the national identity. She became a spectacle that, to quote Hortense Spillers, was "vestibular to culture" and mirrored for the society around her what a citizen was not. In both Federalist verse and prose, the image of "Dusky Sally" was the subject of more newspaper stanzas than any contemporary American female, black or white. Most famously, Hemings first appeared on the national scene when James T. Callender published the article "Reading Improves the Mind" in the Richmond Recorder on September 1, 1802, in which he described the Jefferson-Hemings relationship as follows:


It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY. The name of her eldest son is TOM. His features are said to bear a striking resemblance to those of the president himself. The boy is ten or twelve years of age. His mother went to France in the same vessel with Mr. Jefferson and his two daughters.... By this wench Sally, our president has had several children.... THE AFRICAN VENUS is said to officiate, as housekeeper at Monticello.

Callender goes on in subsequent articles to describe Hemings as a "wench," "a slut as common as the pavement," as having "had fifteen or thirty" different lovers "of all colours," and referred to her children as a "yellow litter." Drawing on eighteenth-century European scientific and travel discourse that stereotyped African women as sexual and moral deviants, Callender's article initiated the public discourse that purported Sally Hemings to be innately lewd and lascivious and therefore not simply a threat to Jefferson, but to the national racial order itself.

While Callender's publicizing of this local rumor did not directly damage Jefferson's reelection campaign, it provided fodder for the president's political adversaries. Because many contemporary newspapers continued to adapt Callender's claims, the popular press kept the Jefferson-Hemings story alive. Like Callender's story, these writings depicted Hemings as seductive and promiscuous, contrasting Hemings's womanhood to the idealized femininity of Jefferson's white wife and daughters in ways that further demonized her. In October 1802, Joseph Denzie, the editor of the genteel and popular Philadelphia magazine Port Folio, composed "A Song Supposed to Have Been Written by the Sage of Monticello":

Of all the damsels on the green On mountain or in valley, A lass so luscious ne'er was seen As Monticellian Sally. Chorus: Yankee Doodle, who's the noodle? What wife were half so handy? To breed a flock of slaves to stock, A blackamoor's the dandy.

In this song Denzie satirized the optimistic nationalism of the popular Yankee Doodle Dandee with Jefferson's love for the "blackamoor" Hemings who he insinuated was more valuable to Jefferson than a white wife because her children, as slaves, added to the value of his property. Because prevailing stereotypes defined African American women as loose and amoral, these women were more likely to experience public ridicule of their procreative capacities. Moreover, once slave women's reproduction became a topic of public conversation, so did their sexual activities. People accustomed to reading and writing about the nature of bondswomen's reproductive abilities could hardly help associating Sally Hemings's children with licentious behavior.

Under the anonym of Thomas Jefferson, the Boston Gazette published another poem:

    Thou, Sally, thou, my house shalt keep,
    My widow'd tears shall dry!
    My virgin daughters—see! they weep—
    Their mother's place supply.
    Oh! Sally! Hearken to my vows!
    Yield up thy swarthy charms—
    My best beloved! my more than spouse,
    Oh! take me to thy arms.

In this song Jefferson ignores his grieving daughters' tears and exalts Hemings, a slave woman, to the position of "more than spouse," a position that rightfully belonged to a white woman. Looking at the roles that white women and black women played in antebellum America, Hazel Carby concluded, "Black womanhood was polarized against white womanhood in the metaphoric system of female sexuality, particularly through the association of black women with overt sexuality and taboo sexual practices." Unlike Jefferson's wife and his white daughters, Hemings as a slave could clean Jefferson's home, but she should not be able to "keep" his home. In the Gazette poem, the white women weep because Jefferson has given their precarious domain of power—the home—to Hemings largely because of sexual prowess and her "sooty charms."


Excerpted from SITES OF SLAVERY by Salamishah Tillet Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. 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

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction Peculiar Citizenships 1

1 Freedom in a Bondsmaid's Arms Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and the Persistence of African American Memory 19

2 The Milder and More Amusing Phases of Slavery Uncle Tom's Cabin and Black Satire 51

3 A Race of Angels (Trans)Nationalism, African American Tourism, and the Slave Forts 95

4 What Have We Done to Weigh So Little on Their Scale Mnemonic Restitution and the Aesthetics of Racial Reparations 133

Epilogue The President's House, Freedom, and Slavery in the Age of Obama 169

Notes 179

Bibliography 195

Index 217

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