Chet’la Sebree revisits the legacy of Sally Hemings

Chet’la Sebree invited FSU students and staff into the mind of Sally Hemings through poetry in the Heineman Ecumenical Center, Nov. 21.

The author shared poems from her book, “Mistress,” in which she embodies the voice of Sally Hemings, a woman enslaved by Thomas Jefferson who bore at least five children by him, only four of whom survived.

Sebree is an assistant professor and director of the Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Arts at Bucknell University.

She began her talk with some background information about Sally Hemings. She explained the only written records from anyone who was close to Hemings and Jefferson about their relationship is from their son, Madison Hemings. Sebree said these accounts were initially discredited because people did not want to taint the image of Thomas Jefferson.

Hemings was born in 1773 to Elizabeth Betty Hemings and John Wayles. Elizabeth was an enslaved woman of mixed race, and Wayles was also the father of Martha Jefferson. Sebree explained that Sally Hemings and Martha Jefferson were half-sisters.

Following Martha Jefferson’s death, Hemings became the ladies’ maid to Jefferson’s daughters. She also spent time serving the Jefferson family in France, where her relations with Thomas Jefferson started.

Sebree said Madison Hemings’ memoirs explained how Sally wanted to stay in France to petition for her freedom when Jefferson was preparing to return to America.

To entice Hemings to return to the U.S., Jefferson offered her special privileges and promised all her children would be freed at the age of 21.

“When I took to this project, I knew little about Hemings and knew there was little that I could learn because there are no records of her in history from her voice,” Sebree said.

She added the sources that did mention Hemings were most often written by men. In addition to Hemings and Jefferson’s relationship, Sebree drew inspiration from Thomas Jefferson’s negative opinion of enslaved people and the sexualizing of women’s bodies, specifically those of Black women. All of the poems have a date attached to them, and a timeline is included at the back of “Mistress.”

The first poem Sebree read from “Mistress” was “Ab Ovo,” – which translates from Latin to “in the beginning.” Sebree uses Eve as the focus, taking a Biblical perspective on women’s bodies and sexualities.

“Eve, bite taken, travels her center line. Rosalinda, flowering her power. She is not ashamed of her nakedness. This, she will not pass on. … We know nothing of her daughter, except her name means ‘beautiful blue,’ that she knew two brothers before the flood.”

“Paper Epithets” is a poem that uses phrases from news articles that described Hemings, Sebree said.

“Copper-colored Sally, I’m an industrious and orderly creature, house keeper, somewhere between mahogany and greasy yellow, I am not the sage of Monticello,” Sebree read.

“His soot-foot bride-to-never-be Mrs. Sarah Jefferson, only black wench, negro wench, wench Sally, never the woman that I am.”

Sebree introduced her next poems by explaining to the audience,  “I always think about that first baby that Sally Hemings had that would have been born presumably in early 1790 after she returned to the United States. In Madison Hemings’ memoir, he says, ‘She gave birth to a child. It lived but a short time.’”

This quote from Madison Hemings is the epigraph of Sebree’s poem, “Boy of my Body.”

“Hand of my mother to hold while I thunder, whiskey wet breath to dull me from breaking after water escapes. My body a hinge unhinging, a glass spider-webbing, until boy of my body calls for me, hungering, twine to tie off, scissors to sever.”

Sebree told the audience she thought a good deal about Hemings’ first child whom she lost, and what she gave up for her children to be granted freedom with no prospect of her own. The loss of Hemings’ first child was the subject of Sebree’s next poem, “Sunrise at Monticello.”

“The cold keeps the smell away, your cold ashen body, ten fingers and toes in their right place, stuff shrivel and harden. Your little lips, purple pursed, eyelids the soft velvet of curtains, the lack of wilt in your chest betrays the look of rest. I would give away linen and pearl, scented solve and all the things of this world for your coo cries to startle me awake tonight. … At dawn you’ll become all I’ve ever wanted, a baby born to leave this little mountain.”

Sebree explained Monticello is Italian for “little mountain.”

The author went on to discuss the internal conflict she had while deciding to write from Hemings’ perspective.

“I think it is violent to inhabit the voice of someone in history who has been robbed of one,” Sebree said. “I still grapple with it now, but my hope is that I’m doing more good than harm.”

Sebree said she ultimately had to accept Hemings’ story is complicated. When Hemings left Monticello, she took an inkwell, a shoe buckle, and a pair of Thomas Jefferson’s glasses, which were passed down in the Hemings family for generations, Sebree said.

“This complicates the narrative for me [of people] who believe that a man who owns a woman and has sex with her is inherently a rapist. He owned her body to which she did not have rights, so she could not give consent,” Sebree explained.

“What does that mean for generations to pass down these items? What does it mean for some of Hemings’ descendants to propagate a story filled with some kind of love or affection? It meant that I needed to let the story be complicated in these poems as well.”

Sebree spent time at Monticello on a fellowship, which helped her envision the conditions Hemings lived in.

“I needed to know how she spent her days. I needed to know the stillness of the space. I needed to know the horror,” Sebree said.

In her poem, “Paris, A Retrospective,” Sebree writes of Hemings’ and Jefferson’s first sexual encounter, and toys with the questions of desire and consent.

“Was it me or Isabelle you saw spread on the bed? … I’m embarrassed by my opening, bare, blush, a blossom. … Or maybe I didn’t open, but burst, a fracture that still aches in cold,” Sebree read.

Sebree discussed how she did not want to overstep in writing from Hemings’ perspective since she does not know her actual thoughts and emotions.

“I imagine that Hemings, like many women, look[ed] back at her sexual experience at times with confusion, hurt, and frustration. I wanted to allow her to occupy space that far too many women still occupy. And it was in some of this work I realized that I, too, was part of the collection insomuch as I, too, was a Black woman in my own history, trying to figure out what it meant to be a Black woman occupying the world that in so many ways is violent toward me,” she said.

During her fellowship at Monticello, Sebree was asked the question, “Why Sally?”

She said, “I didn’t really realize this until I was working at Monticello. … I said something to the effect of, ‘I’m trying to save her – I’m trying to save me.’”

Sebree said she researched and wrote about Sally Hemings for five years before she felt ready to write in her voice.

Toward the end of “Mistress,” Sebree said she felt she needed to show Hemings’ identity as a person and her perspective of herself – not just a woman enslaved by Jefferson.

Sebree’s poem, “Dusky Sally,” explores how Hemings may have seen herself.

“In star-latticed sky, I hear my niece’s cries, feel my mother’s hand on my fire-warm face, smell the lavender she used in her vase. … On nights like this, I miss spring’s morning kiss and dew droplets, the laughter of my sons as they play fiddle in the pavilion,” she continued, “pain is a slow blossom – a heat that eats from within.”

Sebree said her favorite aspect of poetry is that it helps her process.

“I feel like I don’t fully understand the world until I’ve started writing. … I write poetry because I feel like in so many ways, I can get down to the root of language and articulate something I couldn’t do in prose,” she said.

The final poem Sebree read was “Contemplating ‘Mistress,’ Sally in 2017.”

“Others took the liberty – made me Dusky Sally of drawings and songs. None of them to ever know me: girl, child, woman, mother; confused, scared, alone bone to bone with the only man I’d ever known. … I would become reconstructed versions of someone I don’t know. … Because a sliver of pigment kindled his ardent, because I let a child make a decision for this extraordinary privilege.”

Sebree said Sally Hemings died in 1835 in Charlottesville, Virginia, but the location of her grave is unknown.

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