Presidents Day is usually celebrated with car and furniture sales. Before college, I fondly remember celebrating a much-needed week off from school in honor of our Founding Fathers. But this year, in the wake of the second national Women’s March and the recent resurgence of the 10-year-old #MeToo movement, there may be a different need for reflection.
The holiday, which is smack-dab in the middle of Black History Month, should serve as an important revision of U.S. history and cultural attitudes toward race and sex. This year marks the 20th anniversary of a DNA study proving the paternity of Thomas Jefferson in his slave Sally Hemings’ children and descendants. Yet when describing the nature of Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings, some indulge in offensive euphemisms that downplay the predatory nature of Jefferson’s actions.
There has been backlash in recent years over the manner in which public discourse treats the events that transpired between Jefferson and Hemings. Many have called for the reckoning of Hemings’ life as a series of consistent rapes and coercions. Some have called it a relationship and a variety of synonyms that imply consent, while others have been audacious enough to deem their interaction a romance, with the pair acting as forbidden lovers.
Yet consider the history. Hemings became pregnant with Jefferson’s first child in Paris when she was caring for the president’s young child, Polly. Just 16 years old at the time, she was forced to bear an additional three children with a man who was 30 years her senior. Now considered statutory rape, it’s difficult to explore the lives of both figures without examining the sense of fear, predation and hopelessness that the teenage Hemings must have felt at a man who could sell, beat or rape her again at his disposal.
There is another facet besides age that classifies what Jefferson did to Hemings as rape. According to the modern definition of consent, Hemings could not provide it, considering the potential repercussions of saying no. While Hemings was legally free in France, Jefferson coerced her into returning to her enslavement on his plantation in Monticello with the promise that he would free her unborn child.
Such a story is eerily reminiscent of recent outings of the sordid abuse of authority in conjunction with nonconsensual sexual encounters. Film producer Harvey Weinstein and former state chief justice Roy Moore fit the same profile as the third president of the United States: respected, influential and, most importantly, endowed with a superfluous degree of power over the lives of women. As women of all colors, backgrounds and occupations gain the courage to speak out against these acts, we must look into the past and demand justice for women whose situations prevented it.
It’s important that we do not erase Hemings’ life along with the lives of other women in bondage who suffered in the same way. We shouldn’t just learn about Jefferson’s crafting of the Declaration of Independence, the Louisiana Purchase and his introduction of macaroni and cheese to the United States from France. When examining his interest in agricultural science, chemistry and paleontology, we must also acknowledge his indulgence in racial pseudoscience and the perpetual rape of a woman who was his legal property. Hemings’ name should be freely associated with Jefferson’s.
The point is not to attack Jefferson posthumously, but rather to acknowledge the truth about the relationship between him and his victim. Americans can appreciate the impact Jefferson had on our fledgling nation while still lamenting the brutal reality Hemings experienced within the confines of an immoral institution. We can no longer soften Hemings’ status as human property and falsely endow her with agency over her situation.
Black history, specifically Hemings’ narrative, should be taught in conjunction with the history of the American Revolution and the Confederation Period. Slave narratives and the stories of free black men and women should be introduced into the canon that includes the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers to demonstrate the grave contradictions between the documents and their reality. Expanding our collective library will provide American history a richer complexity, as these voices will counteract our current understanding of the country’s foundation and its present.
Kristen DiPietra is a senior double-majoring in English and human development.