The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Above all, Harriet Hemings desires freedom, and she is willing to abandon her family and all that is familiar in her quest. At the beginning of the novel, she is angry with both of her parents: She resents her powerful father, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, for not recognizing her as his daughter and for not freeing her. She is also angry with her mother for choosing love over freedom. However, Harriet comes to forgive her father as she comes to appreciate his role in American history. She sees him in a sense as prefiguring Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, to whom it ultimately falls to free the slaves. As a wife and mother, Harriet also comes to appreciate the significance of her mother’s sacrifice.

Although a minor character, Harriet’s mother, Sally Hemings, plays a major role in the novel. She watches her children leave Monticello one by one when each turns twenty-one. Each goes off to make a life in the North, while Sally remains behind, enslaved, in the South. She clings steadfastly to this mean way of life, despite having once lived as a free woman in Europe, for love of Jefferson. It is not until after Jefferson dies that his daughter, Martha, finally frees Sally, while the rest of her family is sold off to pay Jefferson’s debts.