The story of Sally Hemings is an American classic. The suspected love affair between Thomas Jefferson and his slave is no secret, nor has it really ever been. The narrative has existed in whispered conversations, writings and films throughout history.
Truthfully, Sally’s story isn’t at all unique; a slave owner who has a black slave as a mistress and fathers children with her. However, Sally Hemings, by Barbara Chase-Riboud tackles this American scandal with a sense of humanity. Riboud tells the story of a woman committed to the master she is bound to, despite ample opportunity to a life of freedom.
While plenty of scholars and historians have speculated and offered theories on the relationship between the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, Riboud’s storytelling adds elements of love, desire, and audacity to an otherwise common occurrence in the 1700 and 1800s. The complexities of status, historical context and the political correctness of such an open relationship draws the reader in.
Riboud delves into the minds of both Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. At times it’s hard not to empathize with Sally for seemingly not knowing that she deserved better but then you’d have to remind yourself; she was a slave. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, confounds the reader by his elusiveness. His stance on slavery contradicts his possession of slaves, particularly Sally Hemings. Riboud is able to tell their story with a delicacy that denotes the love Thomas Jefferson had for his slave and she for him. Yet, she does not shy away from the harsh reality of slavery for those outside of Monticello.
Riboud’s Sally Hemings is a must read. There is plenty of historical context to engage the history buffs, while not overwhelmingly so that the storyline is lost. While the story of Sally Hemings has never really been a secret, it remains a great American scandal.
Review by Trinika A.