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Films >> Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000) >> Issue Essay >>

Is Romanticizing Rape Acceptable?

By Anne Rodriquez, with comments by Kathryn Martin, Christopher McHugh, and Anna Robertson

[1] Slavery was a terrible institution; it is one of our greatest shames for many reasons. One disgusting aspect of slavery was rape. Often, white masters raped their black slave women, and we will never know the extent of this abomination. Because the slave women were their property, the men felt they could do anything they wanted with them, that these women's bodies were their property. Furthermore, rapes beget slave children, increasing the property value of the masters.

[2] Throughout the years, black families passed down the knowledge that they were the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. Many attempts have been made to acknowledge this kinship and rectify the silence. Since the increase in genetic technology, many of the alleged descendants have confirmed their knowledge through DNA testing, affirmatively linking them to Thomas Jefferson. Recently, two films have been produced to tell the story of Jefferson and Sally, but both films inadequately reveal the probable truth of the relationship. In Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, Jefferson and Sally were portrayed as almost equals; they were equally in love with one another, and they both challenged each other. In Jefferson in Paris, Sally is seen as a bit of a seductress, and Jefferson uses his greater intelligence to persuade her into liking him. Both films do not, however, show the full impact of the influence and dominance that Jefferson had over Sally. I think that, given Jefferson's importance in the new America and given the commonality of raping slaves, the most probable description of their relationship was continual rape over the years. By closely analyzing several scenes in each film, I aim to describe the relationships and to show how inaccurate each film is regarding the probable, terrible liaison.

[3] In Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, I will look at the two biggest confrontations between Jefferson and Sally. The first confrontation is in the scene "Not to be Sold," when Sally travels all the way to the White House to argue with President Jefferson about whether or not she is to be sold. At first, it is clear that Jefferson is the master and Sally is the slave, but as the scene goes on their roles blur. Her fury and lack of fear are not typical for slave women. She is given an agency in this film that was not characteristic among slaves or even with white women of the time. Furthermore, Jefferson gives in to her; he gives her what she wants and maintains their relationship. "Now listen to me, Sally," he says, "Monticello is your home; it will always be your home. Do you understand?" His home is her home. There is no difference in their relationship. They are both distressed that their relationship cannot be public. She exclaims, "I have given you four children, Thomas, and I'm not the one sitting next to you at dinner. I want to be at your side." Jefferson doesn't know what to answer so he just quietly relents, "I know," as he hugs her tightly. They are clearly in a relationship here, one with love and challenges. At the end of the scene, he assures her, "Remember my heart goes with you," before they make love one more time before she leaves. A relationship of that sort does not seem plausible at all. It is not impossible, but the prevalence of rape cannot be ignored. Jefferson had power over the entire country at that time; didn't he have the power to rape his slaves, his own property? Sally would not have had that intelligence and agency to confront her master, the President of the United States, like that, and he would not have relinquished the power that he had as a slave-owner.

[4] The second confrontation is in the scene titled "Confrontation," and it is the argument over Jefferson's feelings about slavery. In the beginning of the scene, their proper roles are clear: Jefferson begins to yell at Sally for kissing his nephew, and Sally is sitting quietly. The change occurs when Sally has had enough and exclaims, "How dare you insinuate that I have been intimate with him? But of course you'd believe your white nephew and not your black concubine!" If a slave woman said those words to her master, I imagine she would have been beaten or at least slapped. Slaves were incredibly brave and stood up when they could, but this is not reality. It would not have been tolerated at all. Sally continues to assert her power by reading some of Jefferson's own descriptions of blacks from Notes on the State of Virginia that illustrate their inferiority. She ends with, "You disgust me!" Again, that would have prompted physical aggression, not an aggravated apology from Jefferson. She continues to quote him and yells in his face; she won't even let him, the President, speak! He is backed into a corner and doesn't know exactly what to say. He tries to preserve himself, and he tries to apologize. (see comment by Anna Robertson) (see comment by Christopher McHugh)

[5] Another change occurs when Sally shows Jefferson her scars from being beaten. He becomes horrified and extremely sorry. She claims that she hates him, and he replies, "You love me. You love me the same way I love you." He shows a little dominance here in his insistence that she loves him and because that was the first time he tells her he loves her. Jefferson becomes desperate and physically lowers himself to her by kneeling; he has given her emotional and physical power. He begs her to never leave him and promises that he will always "love and honor" her. This scene acts as a marriage for them because, as he is kneeling in front of her and asking her to promise him, she answers, "I do." Their relationship is full of love and the transference of power, which is not reality for slavery. I do not think that they feel in love, and I do not think that a man of his intellect and civic importance would give up so much power to her. This movie is not real.

[6] In the second movie, Jefferson in Paris, Jefferson does seem to have more power; he uses his intellect to patronize Sally. Rape is not implied, though, because Sally is seen as an unknowing seductress. The first scene I want to look at is in "The Immediate Task," when Jefferson gives her money and a necklace. The scene begins with him sitting down and her standing above him. She is fixing his wrist and has some physical power (such as height in this instance) over him, but it is clear that he has immense intellectual power over her. Jefferson explains that she is owed money for her help in fixing his broken wrist. He gives her the money and advises her to spend it wisely but then asks her if she wants him to keep it for her. He does not give her the chance to fully grasp that she has money, which would probably be true to reality. He explains to her, "Sally, this is your money. It'll be right here in the corner. You'll be rich soon, and then what will you do with all your wealth?" She replies that she will save it for Virginia, for they have prettier things there. Jefferson then takes the necklace out of a drawer and hides it in his hand. He and Sally play a little game of keep-away as she tries to get to the hand with the gift. Her playfulness is attracting him, but she doesn't know it. When she sees the necklace, she is surprised that it is for her, "Is that for me? . . . That's plum pretty!" She tries to get him to put the necklace on her, and he takes the bait. The thing is, however, that he might have been planning it all along. Of course the necklace falls right into her cleavage. Jefferson comes closer to get a better look at it, and she opens up her shawl to show her chest. Seductress. He picks up the necklace and traces it down her skin into her bosom. Her expression shows fear and regret. She did not necessarily want him to touch her, but he manipulated the situation so that he could. He did not rape her or violate her because he can claim that she seduced him. The audience is not sure what to make of their relationship so far. Is one good and one bad? Or are they both good?

[7] The second scene is in "Jealousy of Right," when she dances for him and he pulls her on the bed toward the end of the section. The scene begins with Sally entering his room while Jefferson is lying on his bed reading a letter presumably by Maria Cosway explaining her departure. He is clearly sad and vulnerable. Sally tries to cheer him up with a song, a sad one at his request. The audience sees that he has been crying. Although men cry, I am not sure that it would happen in front of his slave. As she hums a song, he begins to laugh at her, "I can't bear it. It'll make me sink into my grave with sadness." Still wanting to cheer him up (seduce him maybe?), she shows him a dance. She shakes her hips and lifts up her dress, her hair flowing everywhere. It seems innocent, childlike, but the film is pushing her as a seductress. It doesn't fit. In the real relationship between Jefferson and Sally, she may have seduced him some, knowingly or otherwise. But it's not committed either way in this movie. All the while through the dance, Jefferson is laughing and smiling, admiring her comedy and bright personality. Then the climax of the movie happens. She goes to pull him up to dance with him, intimate in its own right. He pulls her onto his bed, however, and lays her down. He is physically on top of her, suggesting his dominance. She looks a little fearful and innocent, but the film highlights her breasts in this scene. Jefferson asks her if she is scared of him, and she replies, "I ain't scared of you, master." The audience is led to believe that they continue to have sex. It is not rape, however. It is sex. He pulled her onto the bed, but she consented. The film did show how Jefferson dominated their relationship, but it also suggested that the relationship was subtly initiated by and definitely consented to by Sally.

[8] These films were recently made to publicly tell the story of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. Sally Hemings: An American Scandal is a completely illogical, romantic version of the relationship; they are in love and the film gives Sally agency and power over Jefferson. Jefferson in Paris is more true to reality because it portrays Jefferson's dominance and intellectual power, and it suggests that Sally is a seductress (which may or may not have been true). Both films, however, do not show the true reality of the situation. (see comment by Kathryn Martin) Jefferson was many years Sally's senior, he was the author of the Declaration of Independence, and he was her owner. Rape of slave women was extremely prevalent; Sally's own mother was raped by her owner. The problem with these fake relationships is that they show a false history. Many people will watch these films and think that they portray what actually happened. It mitigates the actuality of the relationship. The public should be shown the great age gap between them (he was her owner since she was an infant) and that rape was a more probable possibility. I do not know if she was really raped or not, but what if she was? Her descendants are descendants of rape by a President. Rape is not a sexual relationship that can be romanticized. Rape is rape, and whether or not it actually happened, the public should be aware of the strong possibility. By romanticizing the relationship, these films partake in the horrible institution of slavery.


Anna Robertson (Nov. 2009)

When Jefferson's nephew kisses Sally, another important scene jumps to my mind. Before James leaves, the Hemingses are standing in the kitchen. Peter Carr enters the kitchen, and Critta Hemings, Sally's sister, awkwardly shifts her glance away from him. It is common knowledge within the room that Jefferson's nephew had been intimate with her numerous times, and yet James openly addresses it. In an inebriated state, James says "I want you to stop raping my sister every time you come here," directly accusing Peter of raping a slave woman and treating his sister as property. Interestingly enough, no one takes into consideration the fact that Thomas Jefferson had been intimate with Sally for the past few years. While their relationship is portrayed as loving and romantic, Tina Andrews contrasts it with the rape-relationship between Peter and Critta. As demonstrated by the "Confrontation" scene, Sally, who in reality may have been the victim, has the power in this confrontational scene, while Jefferson, who may have actually been the perpetrator, is apologetic and powerless. Andrews thus consciously tells the viewer that Jefferson's nephew is raping Sally's sister, and yet Jefferson is not raping Sally. This calls into question Andrews' motivation in creating the film and ignores some very controversial questions that must be asked.

Kathryn Martin (Nov. 2009)

Both of these films desire to highlight the loving portion of the relationship between Sally and Jefferson. Yet the scenes that show their developing "love," if looked at with the correct historical background, can clearly be seen as rape scenes. Historically, masters where well known to rape their female slaves, either for merely sexual pleasure, physical dominance, or to produce more slaves for their plantations. Unfortunately, because most viewers of these films do not possess this knowledge, they do not see these scenes as rape scenes, as scenes of power struggles. Instead, to the general public, these are scenes of a developing, beautiful love story. People who have watched these films on television anxiously awaited the next chapter to be shown, not because they wanted to watch a historical movie, but because they were watching a romantic mini-series. It was also taken by many viewers to be the true story of the Jefferson-Hemings controversy. This film not only makes the Jefferson-Hemings controversy seem innocent, but it also allows the public to believe that many other slave masters could have had loving relationships with their slaves, a statistic that just is not true. One must remember that the directors of both these films were white, and they might have had a certain agenda to achieve by portraying Sally and Jefferson's relationship as an innocent one.

Christopher McHugh (Nov. 2009)

It strikes me that the situation of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson is quite unique to them. On the one side, there is a man who, history suggests, followed rationality and scientific reasoning above all else and who was also one of the few men of power to argue against the institution of slavery in the beginnings of the nation. On the other side is an educated slave who lived several years in Paris and may or may not have knowingly given up a freedom to which she had the right in order to return home with Jefferson. While the first may not have been unheard of, there were certainly intellectuals among slave owners, and, probably, slave owners who felt forced by either society or the economy to keep their slaves. The second, though, must have been rare. It seems that the education Sally received in Paris should easily be enough to give her the words to argue with Jefferson, while the preachings of Frenchmen who were disgusted by her situation might have given her the nerve. Then it seems possible that a rational man would hold in his anger, and one against slavery would guiltily take the berating as his due. Then, again, Sally was Jefferson's slave, and even he was human, with human emotions, including anger, so perhaps this is a correct assessment. It simply must be noted that the situation of Jefferson and Hemings cannot necessarily be directly compared to any other of the time period.