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When Talking About Slavery, Words Really Matter

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This is a few days old, but it is still worth a mention. When archaeologists discovered Sally Hemings’ cabin at Monticello, NBC News and many other news outlets reported it the cabin of Jefferson’s “mistress.” The problem of course is that mistress implies some sort of choice, whereas Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s sex slave. Using euphemisms, whether to protect Jefferson’s reputation or simply by accident reinforces the racial equality at the heart of the American nation that so many white people either deny or don’t want to talk about. And that’s not OK.

Language like that elides the true nature of their relationship, which is believed to have begun when Hemings, then 14 years old, accompanied Jefferson’s daughter to live with Jefferson, then 44, in Paris. She wasn’t Jefferson’s mistress; she was his property. And he raped her.

Such revisionist history about slavery is, unfortunately, still quite common. In 2015, Texas rolled out what many saw as a “whitewashed ” version of its social studies curriculum that referred to enslaved Africans as “immigrants” and “workers” and minimized slavery’s impact on the Civil War. One concerned parent spoke out, forcing a textbook publisher to revise some of the teaching materials.

That same sanitization of history happened again with the Hemings news. On Twitter, some users defended the “mistress” label, suggesting, essentially, that Jefferson and his slave may have truly loved each other. One person even went so far as to wonder whether “Hemings’s exalted wisdom and beauty compelled Jefferson’s love” and whether “she was perhaps not a victim but an agent of change?”

Jefferson could have forced Hemings into a sexual relationship no matter what she wanted, though. And it’s impossible to know what Hemings thought of Jefferson. As with many enslaved people, her thoughts, feelings and emotions were not documented. According to Monticello.org, there are only four known descriptions of the woman who first came to Jefferson’s plantation as a baby on the hip of her mother, Elizabeth Hemings, whom Jefferson also owned.

Jefferson, an avid writer, never mentioned Hemings in his work. He did, however, grapple with issues of emancipation throughout his life. In his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson spent a substantial section attempting to answer the question, “Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence [sic] of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave?” Despite fathering Hemings’s children, Jefferson argued against race mixing because black people were “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”

Other slave-owning founders rose above the times to change their minds about the dreadful institution — including Ben Franklin, who became an outspoken abolitionist later in life, and George Washington, who freed his enslaved servants in his will. But Jefferson did no such thing. He owned 607 men, women and children at Monticello, and though some argue that he “loved” Hemings, he granted freedom to only two people while he was alive and five people in his will — and never to her.

One can still argue Thomas Jefferson was a critical individual in the development of the United States and even that he had great and noble ideas and still note that he had a sex slave and was a massive hypocrite, even for his time. I won’t accept an argument that Jefferson was a good president because he was not, but sure, go ahead and try to make the argument. But none of this is served well by covering up for Jefferson’s long-term rape of a slave. The forced sexual labor of African slaves is as central to American history as the Declaration of Independence or any other idea developed by the Founders. We simply cannot understand the United States, then and now, without placing sex slavery at the middle of the conversation. Yet for many white people, even acknowledging this is a step too far to take.

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