"Young Elizabeth Hemings's World"

In this excerpt of "The Hemingses of Monticello," author Annette Gordon-Reed examines the life of Hemings matriarch Elizabeth (mother of Sally), born in 1735. Here is a rare glimpse at the life of woman born to an Englishman and an African-born enslaved woman, whose offspring would go on to live relatively privileged lives entwined with the fate of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson.

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The Africans and the English

By the 1730s, the decade in which Elizabeth Hemings was born to an African mother and an English father, the institution that would define her life and those of her descendants for years to come was firmly in place. Virginia was a full-fledged slave society 116 years after a small number of Africans ("negars") arrived at Jamestown, the English colony on the James River. It was during those years that white Virginians transformed their laws, culture, and economy to make slavery based upon race the very foundation of their way of life.

The transformation was hardly instantaneous. It took time—spanning the last seven decades of the 1600s—for the English colonists, or the leading lights of the colony, to define the terms of engagement between Africans and the English in that corner of the New World. What they settled upon foretold a life of pain and struggle for the Africans and their progeny over many generations, and prosperity (or at least the hope of it) for the English and their descendants.

Negative views about the color black existed within English culture long before Englishmen actually encountered people with "black" skin. Black was evil. Black was dirty. Although other evidence suggests that people of African origin were not universally reviled in England, the tendency to see black negatively was definitely a part of English culture. Naturally, its view of whiteness carried all the opposite meanings. Color, then, became an expression of a person's essence.

This was a two-way street, with the Africans thinking along the same lines about their white counterparts, but in the process reversing the conclusions. They saw themselves as different from whites and often imbued whiteness with negative characteristics. Whites were physically ugly—one "African ruler thought 'all Europeans looked like ugly sea monsters'"—cannibalistic, and disfavored by God. A seventeenth-century European traveler reported that some "local blacks" he had met said that "'while God created Blacks as well as White Men,' the Lord preferred the blacks." Others referred to a Danish man as being "'as white as the devil.'" Once blacks and whites were together in the new world of Virginia, where Anglo-American colonists controlled society, only the whites' perception of the meaning of differences between the races counted. They could, and did, codify their understanding of what it meant to be black and what it meant to be white, with devastating consequences for people of African origin.

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