The Normalization of Cruelty

On Father’s Day this year, I took my child to the exhibit “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: The Paradox of Liberty.” This traveling exhibition is part of The Jefferson Monticello’s evolving narrative about Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slaves, including Sally Hemings, with whom he had as many as seven children.

The first time I heard the name Sally Hemings, it was 1995. The movie “Jefferson in Paris” depicted the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings as consensual and loving; Thandie Newton, age 23, was cast as Hemings, age 15.

A decade ago, Annette Gordon-Reed explored whether Jefferson and Hemings could have been in love despite the obvious power disparity. The problem is: We know very little about Hemings herself. She was enslaved. Since Jefferson started the sexual relationship when they were in Paris, she could have declared her freedom and stayed there, but for specific reasons lost to history she and her brother agreed to return with him to the United States, and legal slavery. Four of her children with Jefferson survived to adulthood.

But we don’t even know what she looked like, for sure. Because her mother was raped by her owner and her grandmother was raped by a white ship’s captain, she was apparently light-skinned. The rest is largely conjectural.

So, as Gordon-Reed explores, we might be able to conclude that Jefferson felt he loved Hemings. Hemings’s feelings for Jefferson, though, are pure guesswork.

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I saw the exhibit during its final week at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, where it had been met with controversy as being too soft on Jefferson. Despite the critical nature of the exhibit, Jefferson himself is displayed in the center, on a pedestal.

Whether the exhibit is too soft or too hard on Jefferson is based on the viewer’s starting point. In the quarter century since “Jefferson in Paris,” White America has evolved from seeing a consensual relationship between a forty-something Jefferson (played by Nick Nolte) and a woman who is visually in her twenties. From that perspective, seeing Jefferson as a slave-raping ephebophile is major growth and change.

At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that, while the exhibit represents significant growth in honesty on the part of The Jefferson Monticello, which is the defender of Jefferson’s legacy, it still doesn’t go far enough. I’m familiar with much of the back story, and I found myself reading between the lines often. For someone less aware of the history, The Paradox of Liberty certainly softened its punches.

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I took my child because I wanted to make sure he has a clear understanding of our heritage, as white people with ancestors on the Mayflower. Acknowledgement and awareness of the sins of our forebears is crucial to our own growth.

During the visit, one display in particular began a discussion. It asked if you would try to run away if you were enslaved. He said yes. The display explained that he would be separated from his family for the rest of his life, and he said that was still worth it.

That was an example of the softball nature of the exhibit. It provided a lot of real information on the lives of the people on Jefferson’s plantation, but held back on much of the rawness.

I strove to fill in the blanks. I told him, first, that if he didn’t get away, if he was caught—which was likely—he would be whipped harshly. Probably in front of the rest of the slaves, to teach them all a lesson. He might have body parts amputated, such as his toes. If he tried running away multiple times, he would be lynched.

I told him, then, if he did manage to get away and wound up in a free United State, he’d have to spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. The Fugitive Slave Act meant that, at any time, anyone could turn him in and have him returned to his masters.

How would they know? he asked.

I then explained branding to him. He wondered if he could just run away before he was branded, and I told him that, no, people were usually branded as soon as they were purchased on the auction block.

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Then we read, together, Jefferson’s advertisement trying to get a runaway slave back: He’s short, portly, cusses freely, is prone to getting drunk, has shoe-making gear, was last seen on a white horse. I explained that it might happen that, if he made it to Canada (several weeks’ walk from Virginia), someone might just return some other short, portly black man to Jefferson.

Some masters might have the ethics to point out that it’s the wrong person, but I’m sure it happened that some didn’t, they’d just take the person and act like he was the right one.

As I explained that, the reality of that hit me like an ocean wave. I have no doubt that that happened. I thought about how police, now, routinely stop, arrest, assault, and even kill black men who vaguely match a description. Escaping might condemn someone else to taking your place, in the fields then, in the prisons now.

Now, as I reflect again, thinking about the allegations against Jeffrey Epstein, which include allegations against Donald J. Trump and so far unsubstantiated whispers against Bill Clinton, I’m thinking about two other things.

The first is that one of my most distressing realizations about Jefferson’s raping an enslaved girl is that it was not an anomaly. It was frowned upon enough that Jefferson did apparently try to hide it (including providing Hemings a windowless apartment next to his room at Monticello), but even that wasn’t unusual. There are numerous stories of masters having sex with their slaves discreetly while their wives fumed.

After all, Hemings’s children were third generation children of rape. Three of her four adult children, being seven-eighths white, passed for white. Hemings may well have seen what happened to her as a standard part of being enslaved.

The second is the connection between Trump’s alleged predilection for teenagers (accusations extend beyond the Epstein allegations) and Jefferson’s. Given the reach of Epstein’s circle of friends (including Clinton), this raises the specter of how common or normalized rich white men having sex with teenage girls truly is. Is Epstein an anomaly or, like Jefferson, is he just an example of how things work at that echelon?

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My child and I talked a lot that day about slavery, and about being honest about the horrors of history and erstwhile heroes.

While we were there, the child asked me if I was enjoying the exhibit. I said that “enjoying” was the wrong word.

He changed it to: Was I getting what I wanted out of it?

Yes, I think I did.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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