There are times when black America’s feathers are ruffled, and our reaction does not come from anger or aggravation but from wonder. Even though many of our bruises have calloused over, every now and then someone will stick us in the exact right spot, and when we feel the pinprick, instead of getting mad, we are perplexed. We often ask ourselves, or shout it into the sky, “What the hell were these white people thinking?”
Take NBC, for instance (you know, the network Bill Cosby was going to buy before they sabotaged the deal by secretly convincing him to drug and rape women over a period of 40 years, which—according to internet conspiracists—is a lot easier than saying, “We’re not for sale”):
On Monday, archaeologists working at Monticello—the home of Thomas Jefferson—made a startling discovery when they excavated a room adjacent to Jefferson’s bedroom and discovered that it was the living quarters for Sally Hemings, the slave who historians say gave birth to six children from Jefferson.
NBC chose to report the historic discovery by tweeting this:
When black people—and many others—saw this, they had the same reaction they felt when they saw the Texas history textbook that referred to the people kidnapped and brought to America through the mid-Atlantic slave trade as “immigrants” and “workers”: What the hell were these white people thinking?
Here’s a clue, NBC: A slave cannot be a mistress. Thomas Jefferson owned Hemings. He raped her. Jefferson was not her lover; he was her master. She did not have the option of saying no. She was not a human to him; she was a thing. A percentage of his net worth; a piece of property on which he had to pay taxes at the end of the year.
I’m sure there are some who will argue that NBC’s Twitter account is probably run by some 23-year-old hipster in the public relations department who doesn’t know anything about history. I agree, which is the entire point of the feather ruffling:
Why doesn’t America know?
There isn’t a second of any day that Germany isn’t trying to make up for the genocide it committed during the Third Reich. It caters its laws to that goal. It teaches that history to every person who comes through its borders. In Germany, minimizing those atrocities is a crime.
Like Germany, America participated in a holocaust. Unlike Germany’s, it didn’t last for a few years, or even a decade—it lasted for generations. It is not just a chapter in this country’s past—it is America’s foundation. Let’s be clear: The only reason America is the richest, most dominant economic superpower on the planet is that it was jump-started with 200 years of free labor.
Whenever we speak of America, we should honor that. Our Founding Fathers were intellectual giants who created a democracy out of thin air, and it is still going strong today. They were revolutionary thinkers and the framers of almost every liberty we enjoy. I would not be able to write this article without them.
But they were rapists, too.
We cannot accept one without the other because America is both freedom giver and enslaver. It is beautiful and flawed. Jefferson was a genius. He handwrote the Declaration of Independence—what may be the second-most-important document in the history of America (of course, Biggie’s lyrics to “Juicy” are No. 1).
But if it is true that Sally Hemings bore his offspring, that means Thomas Jefferson also enslaved his own children.
To gloss over that, or not recognize it, does not simply dishonor the memory of Hemings. It is not simply an injustice to the millions of women and men who suffered through generations of systematic sexual assault and torture, having to raise the children of their rapists. It is not just a slight to the descendants of slaves. It is an insult to America itself.
Hemings was not a paramour; she was a hostage. She was a prisoner. She could not consent, because—to Jefferson—she was not human. When he went into the fields at Monticello, the oxen did not have an opportunity to tell him, “I don’t feel like pulling the plow today.” That’s because Jefferson didn’t consider his oxen pets. He owned and fed them for a specific purpose, and trained them to do what he wanted—the same as he did his slaves.
So no, NBC—Sally Hemings was not a “mistress.”