Confederate, Sally Hemings and the Erasure of Slavery’s Brutality

“I propose that we view the whole of American life as a drama acted out upon the body of a Negro giant, who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and the scene upon which and within which the action unfolds”

–Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act

“When I discover who I am I’ll be free.”–Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

In the beginning, there were two.
A set of horrid twins.
Giants who stood subject, midwife and witness to the strange birth.
Strange in that the deepest, most terrible pains, the brunt of generations, were born by them.
What they delivered fed on their substance.
Grown enormous, as all who feed on giants do, it stood on its feet, shook them off and strode away—
still dragging its umbilicus—
all the while pretending it never knew its mothers’ names
–P.K. Wil

Charles Ball was born a slave in 18th century Maryland. An intelligent, capable family man, he worked hard to provide what he could for them. He also harbored a secret, sweet, perhaps predictable dream: freedom. He didn’t know a storm was coming. In the maelstrom that followed, he and close to one million more African Americans would be swept up and deposited in the newly acquired territories of the south, forcefully severed from all they loved. This new middle passage would break souls and families and set the stage for something unprecedented.  It would be many years before Ball would tell the story of his life. Many more still before his captivity and that of millions of others would be centered in what appeared to be an “academic“ argument. An argument over the very nature and quality of that captivity, all fueled by the publication of a book.3

He was known to be an excellent chef. His food was “much loved in the Washington household.” Married to a slave of Martha Washington’s, he was the father of three.  Besides his culinary prowess, very little is known about Hercules. A portrait purported to be his still hangs at Mount Vernon. The only other thing we know about the man is that he fled, leaving all those he loved behind. One of the few slaves to escape Mount Vernon during George Washington’s lifetime. According to the Mount Vernon website, the President was said to be especially upset at the loss of his human property because Hercules had lived a “privileged…life.” 4,5

We don’t even know what she looked like. We’re told she was “handsome” with long dark hair. Beyond that, who and what Sally Hemings really was has been lost to time and the arbitrary nature of her social position.  Property has no voice, no right to define itself. Therefore, we will never know what she really thought. Not so for the man who fathered her six children and would go on to be hailed as one of the founders of the most powerful nation in the world: Thomas Jefferson.

Beyond their captivity, what all three of these human beings have in common, as far as we know, is that their histories have become a battlefield upon which the past became entangled and imprinted on the present. The continuing failure of this nation to grapple with the unfinished business of confronting the legacy of one its founding sins has us pinned to the past while making little progress.

In December 2014, the Economist ran an anonymous review of Edward Baptist’s highly acclaimed book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and The Making of American Capitalism. In it, Baptist used Charles Ball’s story and those of other captives to allow the people who lived slavery—not just those who lived with it–tell the story.

Using slave narratives as well as other sources, Baptist argued that if cotton was the fuel of the Industrial Revolution, then slave labor, the blood, sweat, tears, and bones of African Americans, was the lubricant. Baptist finds slaves were commodified in ways which heralded the modern economy. Their value greater than any other “property,” including all the banks and railroads, everything, perhaps, but “the land itself.”  In the Economist’s review, withdrawn after a storm of criticism, Baptist was gored in large part because he takes the lived memory of “a few slaves” into account:

Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the Blacks in his book are victims, almost all the Whites villains.6

That slavery is suffering should surprise no sentient being, What kicked up dust here was what that suffering has meant to the development, wealth, and position of the richest nation on this troubled earth.  What claws at the psyche is the deep contrast between that wealth against the disenfranchisement and dim prospects of people who are greatly responsible for its genesis.

In October 2015, Mcgraw Hill Publications pledged to rewrite a passage in a geography textbook entitled Patterns Of Immigration after a student found a description of slavery where the authors describe slaves as “workers.” Slaves, included in a book about immigration—so many purposely blurred lines. The statement in the book read:

The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.7

In January 2016, Scholastic published A Birthday Cake For George Washington, a children’s book by Ramin Ganeshram and Vanessa Brantley. It tells the story of Hercules and his daughter Delia happily making a birthday cake for Washington’s birthday. Amid its glossy pages are the reassuring faces of smiling, happy slaves. After a huge backlash, Scholastic pulled the book. As of this writing, it can be found on Amazon for $175.00, now a collector’s item. During the controversy, National Public Radio (NPR) noted that, unlike a similarly offensive book about slaves, A Fine Dessert, Birthday Cake was written and edited “by a diverse group of people of color.” In response to the furor, editor and winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, Andrea Davis Pinkney stated:

Hercules was well known throughout Philadelphia. He was a highly regarded chef and a dapper dresser who insisted on perfection in his kitchen. George Washington depended on Hercules to make him the perfect birthday cake. Hercules is often thought of by culinary historians as the first celebrity chef in America. On each day of the year ― and especially on the president’s birthday—Hercules ruled the kitchen. He was quite proud of his status in the Washington home, and he lived a life of near-freedom. But as the founding fathers knew (and as the author notes) being ‘almost-free’ is not the same as being free. Hercules dreamed of his own liberty.8,9

Except for the bits about culinary historians, conflating slavery and celebrity and what Hercules and Washington thought and felt, all the information in this statement can be found on the Mount Vernon website.  For obvious reasons, the real Hercules left no written record of his thoughts and feelings. His daughter, the smiling Delia in the story, was left behind in bondage when Hercules fled. At President Washington’s death, he arranged for the “eventual emancipation of his slaves” upon the death of his wife Martha. Her slaves however, were hers to dispose of as she chose. Unfortunately for poor smiling Delia and her family, they would never be free.10

In July of this year, before the holiday, NBC ran a story about the excavation and discovery of Sally Hemings’ bedroom at Monticello. Several websites picked it up and elevated Sally Hemings to the status of Jefferson’s mistress. The pushback was fierce, the articles have been reworded.  It is commonly understood that a slave and a mistress are two very different things.11

Into these murky and treacherous waters, the creators of Game of Thrones and HBO announced their next project, entitled Confederate. It takes place in an “alternate reality” in which the South has seceded from the union after a second civil war. Black people are still enslaved in the South.

Complaints began immediately after the program was announced. In interviews, the show’s Executive Producers, Benioff and Weiss—both White males—emphasized their confidence in handling the subject matter and went on to demonstrate it by announcing their co-writers/executive producers were African-American married couple Nichelle Tramble Spellman (The Good Wife) and Michael Spellman (Empire).

Several articles about the controversy emphasized the centrality of the Spellmans to the project and the fact that Benioff and Weiss were being deferent to them. In an effort to reassure, Michael Spellman said something on Twitter that indicated the opposite: the show isn’t going to be about “whips and plantations.”  In an article in Vulture, he stated:

This is not a world in which the entire country is enslaved. Slavery is in one half of the country. And the North is the North. As Nichelle was saying, the imagery should be no whips and no plantations.12

No whips, perhaps guns then? There are those who, even now, insist that slavery was in some way a mutually beneficial arrangement. The idea of the happy slave is a fulcrum in the lost cause mythology.  Slavery in America is, was, and ever shall be created and enforced by violence of all kinds—beatings, rapes and vicious torture devices, ragged under-nourished children in garments so tattered they were virtually naked, infant mortality rates for children under a year at 50 percent, the carnage largely due to poor nutrition and overwork.

The average life expectancy for slaves was just 21.4 years, not to mention the breeding farms. In 1807, there were one million slaves in the United States, by 1860, there were four million.

As for the “North“ being the “North,” slavery existed in the North, South, East and West of America, including California. As part of the dark compromise between free and slave states, owners travelled to free states with their “chattel,” although some had laws which would manumit slaves after extended stays. Not only was the North not free of slaves, a large part of the commerce of this nation was intertwined with slavery. From banking, insurance, and textile industries to shipping and agricultural goods.  13,14,15

In an article for Monkey see, Nichelle restated their roles as executive producers and seemed to reduce the furor in an attempt to someway belittle them. She stated:

If you render us a footnote, the assumption is that we’re just a prop or a shield…Our own people marginalized us like that. 16

This is not about the Spellmans, nor their less than yeoman command of the basic facts of real slavery. Casting themselves as victims does not gain sympathy or inspire confidence. Slavery is not a prestige project. We are in deep water here, and cannot see what is lurking at the bottom.  What we know is that there are forces who continue to try to nullify the viciousness and value of slavery—that is what the academic and cultural debate is about.

There’s now a hashtag seeking to end Confederate—#No to Confederate. HBO continues to stand behind the series. They should consult with historians, although they are sure to find a battle of dueling narratives. Attempts should be made to talk to people who listened to and spoke to slaves—they exist—or, listen to the slave narratives. America is not in need of another slavery mythology, it is in need of the truth.

The viciousness of slavery is a story that America still does not want to acknowledge. Violence was not a sideshow—it  was the main event. If you turn away from that, you are helping to perpetuate a process of erasure and nullification that began long ago. There is nothing more degrading for all parties than that.

A special thank you to P.K. Wil for her contributions to this story.

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