CW: sexual violence
This past Thursday was Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. He is turning 274. He was our third president, and our first Secretary of State.
He was also a slaveowner and a rapist.
Thomas Jefferson is often held up as one of the primary forces in the development of American statecraft. He is considered one of the nation’s foremost early intellectuals, a polymath whose academic and political achievements stand as some of the highest in American history.
He was also a slaveowner who repeatedly sexually assaulted Sally Hemings, a multiracial woman, whom he owned. Starting when she was 17, he forced her to father six children.
The narrative of Jefferson and Hemings, and its normalization throughout history, is an insidious example—perhaps one of the most pronounced—of the sexual violence inherent in slavery and the way that that violence has further normalized the sexual abuse of women of color throughout history. In the American narrative, women of color have repeatedly been painted as objects of little value other than sexual, forbidden from owning and exercising sexual autonomy, lest they be demonized. As historians repeatedly categorized Jefferson’s repeated rapes of Hemings as a “relationship” or “affair,” they erased and flattened the exploitation and subjugation inherent to slavery and the white supremacist heart of the sexual treatment of women of color since this nation’s founding.
This is not a question of semantics. It is a question of how language is used to craft reality and morality, to take the hideousness of sexual violence and to attempt to equate it with non-abusive sexual relationships. It’s a question of how rape culture is perpetuated, of how perpetrators of rape work to minimize the circumstances in which the term has power, to diminish a survivor’s capacity to claim their pain, describe their abuse, name their attacker. It’s about how systems of racist violence are neutered, reshaped to seem like products of their time, marred only by customs modern observers might not comprehend. It is about how the horrors women of color suffer at the hands of white supremacy are so often wiped from the record, deemed lesser narratives deserving of lesser consideration. It’s a question of empowering the white men in their historical mission of laying claim to Black bodies, administering legislative, emotional, and sexual ownership, and rewriting that ownership in innocuous and rosy terms that continue the denial of humanity that the initial violence began.
For years, historians refused to acknowledge Hemings’ assaults at Jefferson’s hands, denying not only that the third president’s actions constituted assault, but that they happened at all. History sought to abuse Sally Hemings. It sought to excuse Sally Hemings’ abuse. Then it sought to erase Sally Hemings from her own narrative, in the quest to preserve Jefferson’s image. Historians in the 19th century, author Annette Gordon-Reed determined in her book “Jefferson and Hemings: An American Controversy” were happy to subscribe to the narrative put forth by Jefferson’s family: that Jefferson was not the father of Hemings’ six children. Although DNA evidence has proved this claim all but false, the existence of the controversy demonstrates the willingness of history to excise the crucial truths of violence against women of color in service of the project of elevating an honorable picture of whiteness. For many historians, keeping Jefferson’s name from being tarnished was a more necessary goal than allowing closure and truth for the family of the girl he abused. Her suffering was less important than his reputation.
Look to current stories of sexual assault, to the treatment of victims. The parallel is clear.
Lionizing Jefferson is only continuing this erasure, eliminating Sally Hemings from her own story by eliminating the facts of her abuse, by painting them in some grotesque romantic light. Lionizing Jefferson is excusing the multitude of atrocities for which he was responsible, against Black Americans and Native Americans alike. Lionizing Jefferson is continuing to casually enshrine racism and white supremacist violence unquestioningly in American history, acting as though the supposed political genius of the American state is reason enough to forget the blood that was spilled along the way to historical “greatness.” Lionizing Jefferson is continuing to treat the plight of women of color as secondary to the real ugly truth of this nation’s history, despite their toil throughout history to bring the character of America closer to what it claimed to be. It is ignoring the burdens and abuse foisted upon women of color, and the nonexistent comfort and recompense offered in their wake.
Thomas Jefferson may be a prominent statesman and historical figure, but he was also an agent of anti-Black sexual violence and a perpetuator of the labels and language that are used to oppress women of color and deny them their autonomy to this day. Thomas Jefferson may have been a polymath, but he was also a sexual predator who willingly and gleefully benefited from systems of white supremacist abuse while claiming to be an agent of Democracy and Justice.
Fuck Thomas Jefferson. I hope someone shits in his cake.
For Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, remember Sally Hemings.