Stillhouse Press ($17)
by Sean Pears
At one point in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856)—a brilliant and underappreciated slave insurrection narrative—the eponymous character tells his friend to read to their fellow fugitive slaves one of America’s founding documents. “‘Harry,’ said Dred, ‘when they come, tonight, read them the Declaration of Independence of these United States, and then let each one judge of our afflictions, and the afflictions of their fathers, and the Lord shall be judge between us.” Dred’s point is that the grievances of the founding fathers—unfair and arbitrary taxation, the quartering of soldiers—do not come close to those of enslaved Africans. Slavery was the contradiction at the heart of the founding principles of America. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration and himself a slave-owner, knew this, but lacked the conviction, or the will, to address it head-on.
In the antebellum period, pointing out this contradiction (and Jefferson’s confused and confusing attitudes toward race and slavery) was generally confined to fringe, radical abolitionists like Stowe. Today, more than 150 years after emancipation, talking about this contradiction has become part of the cultural hegemony. In the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture (across the street from the Washington Monument), a statue of Jefferson stands in front of blocks engraved with the names of the slaves he owned, above a placard that reads “The Paradox of Liberty.”
A key figure in the excavation of this paradox is Sally Hemings. She was owned by Jefferson. She was also the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles. After Martha died, Jefferson ‘took up’ with Hemings, and the precise boundaries and nature of their relationship is a continued debate among historians. As writers and historians try to represent the life of Sally Hemings, the challenge they face is similar to that faced by Stowe in her portrayal of black revolutionaries in the 1850s: how do you balance a desire to portray the intelligence, agency, will, and talent of slaves in antebellum America, while acknowledging that their enslaved status denied and suppressed those very qualities? Historian Annette Gordon-Reed puts it succinctly: “Hemings was, by law, Jefferson’s property. But she was also a human being.”
Carmen Gillespie’s new book, The Ghosts of Monticello: A Recitatif, is an uneven but fascinating attempt to bring this past into the present. The book began as a libretto for an opera performed at Bucknell University in 2015, and is largely structured as a series of dialogues and dramatic monologues. The central dramatic tension is the relationship between Martha and Sally. On her deathbed, Martha made Thomas vow to not remarry. Gillespie portrays Martha’s lament from beyond the grave over her husband’s infidelity, though she also laments her half-sister’s mistreatment under the system of slavery. Her mourning is often conveyed in abstract terms: “In my heart, there will / always be a space for each lost / face, to fill what was / with what never can be,” she says in “Sistersong III”. Sally’s laments, by contrast, tend to be fiercer, and more precisely rendered. “You, gone at thirty-three,” she replies to her half-sister in the same poem, “but not Christ, dear Missy, // white dead widow wife.”
While the tension between the half-sisters is portrayed as a blend of regret, betrayal, anger, and mourning, more surprising are moments in the book when their voices blend, united by their dispossession at the hand of Jefferson. In “Martha and Sally Chant,” their voices are undifferentiated, both addressing Thomas Jefferson: “this nation’s acquisition, his release / become increase: her children // his slaves, / his caprice, / his possession // the U – S / and us.” Married women and black slaves shared aspects of legal dispossession under antebellum American law, including the denial of voting rights and the inability to own property. Nonetheless, collaboration between abolitionists and the women’s suffrage movement was often fraught. Stowe may be one interesting counter-example. The Ghosts of Monticello, too, gestures toward a utopic space in which Martha Wayles and Sally Hemings find terms for political solidarity, if only in death, “Our truths / unhitched from the wagon // of time.”
Sally Hemings’s biography is remarkable. In her adolescence, she lived with Jefferson in a mixed-race neighborhood in Paris, where she taught herself French. When she was sixteen, she refused to return to the United States, and only acquiesced once Jefferson promised to free her children. After Jefferson’s death, she lived as a free woman with her children and grandchildren in a house they owned in Charlottesville. Gillespie’s book offers an opportunity to consider and celebrate that life. But at certain moments, formal abstraction obscures the significance of this history, rather than revealing it. The book has a tendency to indulge easy rhyme and repetition. In “Sally Speaks from the Entrance Hall,” Gillespie writes, “all will fall, / these walls call // all walls fall. / all walls will fall.” In “Martha, We Know this Walking,” she writes, “Who is this woman walking? walking? walking? / We know this woman’s walking. We know this woman’s walking. / This woman walking, walking, walking. We know this woman walking.” In the context of a performance, one can imagine this simplistic repetition serving as a kind of backdrop for creative expression; it is hard to know what to do with it on the page.
The most lucid moments in the book come when it is driven primarily by image and narrative. “Betty Remembering John Wayles: Full Virginia Power” is a spare but rich portrait of the life of Sally Hemings’s parents from the perspective of her mother, Betty. Her morning routine is infused with a complex erotic energy:
When the skillet was hot,
I would empty the lot
into black iron.
The smell aroused him.
Eggs recall the hard
shell of his unvarying
I broke the yolks
and started the grits,
He would go upstairs while
I stirred in honey and pears.
The punctuation is confusing, and the line breaks somewhat arbitrary, but the blend of affection and predation in the language of this simple scene is gripping. As Sally was by Jefferson, Betty was owned by John Wayles. His arousal, then, cannot but contain a sinister element. But there seems to also be care and intimacy in the preparation of this breakfast. Such a textured and ambivalent scene does not come easily, especially when dealing with historical figures with so much freight. But such moments breathe life into our understanding of Thomas Jefferson as a complex and contradictory figure, and of Sally Hemings as a slave who managed to break the yoke.