(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Dedicated to “the enigma of the historical Sally Hemings,” Sally Hemings is a work of fiction about historical personages and events. In the historical record, Sally Hemings and her children appear as items of personal property in Thomas Jefferson’s inventories, and “Dusky Sally” appears as the object of salacious accusations in the writing of Jefferson’s political enemies. Chase-Riboud draws on history professor Fawn McKay Brodie’s 1974 biography, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, as well as on her own examination of source documents to interpret a historical record in which white males have traditionally assumed the right to define the experience of women and black people, and in which the voice of Sally Hemings herself is silent.

Chase-Riboud imaginatively re-creates Hemings’s life. Hemings grows up happy and well cared for in a large and closely knit family; slavery rests easily on her. Like her playmate and niece, Martha Jefferson, she adores the domineering and kindly master of Monticello, Martha’s father and Sally’s owner. She blossoms into womanhood in ladies-maid status in France, where her life options are not defined by her race. She learns to converse in two languages and acquires fashionable clothing and manners. When her brother James tells her they must stay in France as free people, she asks, “What do ’free’ people do?” Hemings’s return to Monticello, though she was legally free in France, is a historical fact, one the novel must explain. Chase-Riboud’s fictional Hemings knows “as sure as death that I belonged to Thomas Jefferson” and welcomes as ardently as Jefferson does the beginning of their sexual relationship. She chooses to trust her lover’s assurance of their eventual return to France. As his responsibilities to the new republic increasingly absorb him, Hemings realizes that she and her children are trapped in her choice of love...

(The entire section is 787 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Since Thomas Jefferson’s lifetime, it has been accepted by many historians, though never officially proven, that the third president had for a mistress a slave who bore him several children. Barbara Chase-Riboud takes this matter as fact in writing the novel Sally Hemings.

The work is based in great part on facts that are substantiated by documentation and historical records. Essentially, however, the novel itself is fiction; dialogue, characterization, and plot are all creations of the novelist, who takes great license with what is known and established about Jefferson and his relationship with Sally Hemings.

The book is divided into seven chapters according to place and time; however, the arrangement is not chronological. Most of the story is told by the novelist herself, writing in the third-person-omniscient point of view. In a few of the chapters, though, Sally Hemings tells her own story from the first-person point of view.

The book begins in 1830 in Albemarle County, Virginia, after Jefferson’s death. Monticello has been sold, and Sally Hemings is living as a freed slave (and white woman) with her two sons on a small farm near the president’s old plantation. A census taker visits to get the facts of her existence for public record. Infatuated first with Sally’s story and then with Sally herself, young Nathan Langdon becomes intrigued with her beauty (even though Sally is now an old woman and Nathan is much younger) and history, and they become friends. Nathan’s curiosity about slavery, Jefferson’s two families, and race relations provide the author with a way to engage and entice the reader into concern for Sally’s circumstances. Sally’s two sons, Madison and Eston, are naturally suspicious of the white man and his motives, but they are unable to prevent the friendship.

The novel then switches in time and location to Paris, France, in 1787. Here, young Sally and her brother James, functioning as servants, travel with the Jefferson family when Jefferson is serving as ambassador to France. Under French law,...

(The entire section is 851 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Brodie, Fawn M. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1974. The controversial biography upon which Chase-Riboud’s novel is based. Brodie combines historical and psychological analysis to interpret the extensive historical record of Jefferson’s life.

Dabney, Virginius. The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1981. Dabney rejects Brodie’s and Chase-Riboud’s premise that Sally Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s mistress, analyzing their sources and disputing their conclusions. Chapter 5, “Fiction Masquerading as Fact,” focuses specifically on Sally Hemings, pointing out minor historical inaccuracies as well as rejecting its basic premise.

Energy-Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction, 1964-1980. New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2006. Exhibition catalog including work by and criticism of Chase-Riboud. Analysis of the author’s work as a sculptor helps define her interdisciplinary aesthetic and commitments.

Heidish, Marcy. Review of Sally Hemings, by Barbara Chase-Riboud. The Washington Post, June 15, 1979. A dissenting review that faults Sally Hemings for its shifts in voice and chronology, which Heidish sees as disruptive to the narrative.

McHenry, Susan. “Sally Hemings: A Key to Our National Identity.” Ms. 9 (October, 1980): 35-40. Both a review of Sally Hemings and a profile of Chase-Riboud. Includes the writer’s comments on her novel, information about Chase-Riboud’s life, and discussion of the evolution of her thought and art.

Russell, John. Review of Sally Hemings, by Barbara Chase-Riboud. The New York Times, September 5, 1979, p. III21. A laudatory review that praises the author’s ability to vivify the past in her writing.