Sunday, 27 October 2013

getting herstorical - Sally Hemings

Uncle Ian in the '70s, with girlfriend
When Kenny and I got married my lovely Uncle Ian, who is in the know about the history of my Dad's family, gave us a special album of pictures and stories from my families past.  Best wedding present ever.  

It's got lots of pages left blank, for us to fill in details of other branches of our families, but he's given me loads of information , and it's great to have.  Things that happened before we were born become much more relevant when we realise our families were involved or affected. 

There are plenty of pictures too, and they really help to bring the stories to life. In the stories of people's lives he's been good enough to include rumour and hearsay, as well as objective facts, which I think is great.  It gives us colour and interest, and also reveals much more than we would otherwise know about the women in the family. I mention the women particularly, because the men's actions are documented in records of their work, while the women quietly kept the home fires burning. 

It's only in the last 100 years or so that we've come to the point that we want to believe our history is objectively true.  Previous to that, it was alright for history to have some truth in it, even if it didn't reflect any actual facts.  But that's the story side of history.  Some facts have been recorded - things like births, marriages, coronations, service records, and deaths.  But these tell us an awful lot more about men's public lives than women's private lives.  We know more about women who were in the public sphere, like Queens, but even then, precious little.  If only we could look at historical figures Facebook profiles and see how they presented their own lives, rather than having to rely on those that came after them.

A Stuff You Should Know podcast I listened to the other day (on Revisionist History - American focused but fascinating - check it out here) gave the example of Thomas Jefferson.  Apparently Thomas owned more than a hundred slaves, and, after the death of his wife had a long running affair with an enslaved woman, Sally Hemings, who bore him at least six children.

Initially historians rubbished this, arguing that Jefferson wouldn't do this, but this was based on their moral values and their perceptions of Jefferson's character.  In fact, Sally was recognised as being the daughter of Jefferson's father-in-law (that was why she had his surname).  One of several children borne from a relationship he had with one of his slaves after his wife died. These lighter-skinned children would find themselves at the top of the slave heirarchy, getting the best positions in the house, yet there is no evidence that they were understood as half siblings to the legitimate (white) children of the owning family.  In the area where he lived, and among slaves owners, it was traditional for white male slave owners to take enslaved concubines, so why would Jefferson have been different?

More recently scientific advances have enabled DNA evidence to come to light, and as we have become more enlightened about inter-racial relationships, the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings has become accepted as a scandalous love affair.  Scandalous because Hemings had 1/8th African heritage, because she was enslaved (and although Jefferson did grant his children their freedom when they were 21, he did not do the same for Hemings), and because of a massive age difference.

We do not know if Sally Hemings was able to write - she was educated to some degree, but she did not leave a handy diary which would allow us to see if her relationship with Thomas Jefferson was a love affair she chose, considering the imbalance of power in their relationship.  It seems more likely to me that it was simply part of her duties, as it had been for her mother, and her grandmother.

I don't think the relationship between slave owner and slave would be scandalous at the time.  Far more scandalous (and illegal) if Jefferson had freed her and wished to marry her.  There is no suggestion of that.  What do you think went on?  Love affair?  Slave production?  Or perhaps she was impregnated by another Jefferson altogether?

Allegedly Jefferson was morally and politically opposed to slavery, and yet he owned hundreds of slaves, and freed very few.  He was president 60 years before slavery would be abolished.

History has been rightly called history, as it's generally written about Kings and military leaders, about captains and captains of industry, about Presidents.  About men.  Lots of people are looking at filling in the blanks now, but there's got to be some guesswork.
Margaret Beaufort.  Her words mean
'think of me often'
Pic from here

I love the historical novels of Phillipa Gregory .  Some of them were used to make The White Queen, which you might have watched (and you can see a medley of Richard and Anne stuff here).  She's using stories to give us an idea of what life might have been like for historical women.  Some criticise her for using stories, but all history is stories.  We need to look at what we 'know' from all angles to better understand it.

Phillipa Gregory left it to us to decide who killed the Princes in the Tower.  Some have blamed Richard III, some Margaret Beaufort, Phillipa even suggested Anne Neville might be to blame.  We will of course never know... but what do you think?

 Some other posts you might like are: