Download Sally Hemings Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Sally Hemings Summary

(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 over freedom. Even if Jefferson had been willing to free them, free black people at that time could not legally reside in Virginia. Of her seven children, two die in infancy, three run away to the North, and two stay with her throughout her life. Jefferson promises her that there will be no white mistress at Monticello but nevertheless allows his daughter Martha to assume that role. As she grows older, Hemings increasingly suffers from the indignities and powerlessness of her situation, but her love for Jefferson survives. After his death and the sale of Monticello, she continues to live in a cabin close by with her adult sons Madison and Eston. She frequently visits the cemetery where the members of her intricately linked black and white family are buried.

Chase-Riboud’s chronological account of Hemings’s life is placed within a framing story of the fifty-six-year-old freedwoman’s relationship with a young white lawyer, a relationship that brings Hemings to a reassessment of the meaning of her life. The novel begins in 1830, when Nathan Langdon, a census taker, interviews Sally Hemings in her cottage near Monticello. A mutual attraction flourishes between the fascinated youth, who is an enthusiastic admirer of Thomas Jefferson, and the still-beautiful woman, starved for cultivated male conversation. Langdon’s interest leads Hemings to recapitulate the story of her life, a story that is the only thing of value she has. Wishing to protect Jefferson from the crime of miscegenation in the eyes of future generations, Langdon decides to list Hemings and her sons in the census as white. Furious, Hemings lashes out at another white man’s “playing God” with her body and her life; she “had been raped of the only thing a slave possessed: her mind, her thoughts, her feelings, her history.” She refuses to see the bewildered lawyer again. Subsequently, Hemings (in disguise) and Langdon both attend the trial of Nat Turner, an experience in which both see their lives nullified, Hemings because she has “loved the enemy” and Langdon...

(The entire section is 1,885 words.)