New Play about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson Perpetuates Rape Culture
Sally Hemings deserves so much more than to be inextricably linked to her abuser. She deserves more than ‘Thomas and Sally.’
Apparently 2017 is the year of reimaging and sanitizing slavery. First, HBO announced Confederate, a show from the creators of Game of Thrones that will explore a fictionalized timeline where the South seceded from the Union and where slavery has continued into the modern era. More recently, a playwright in the Bay Area announced Thomas and Sally, a play about Thomas Jefferson, a slave owning President of the United States, and Sarah ‘Sally’ Hemings, the enslaved half sister of Jefferson’s wife and mother to six of Jefferson’s children.
Thomas Bradshaw, the creator of ‘Thomas and Sally, stands firmly behind his work and believes his play is a “radical exploration of a little-known chapter of American history.” Sally’s story does deserve to be told, but this story is not Bradshaw’s to champion. In an interview, Bradshaw makes it clear that he doesn’t understand consent, a basic concept that a 37-year-old man should understand.
“There’s this question of whether a slave can ever consent to any sexual relationship,” he says. “For one camp, it’s just like, rape, it doesn’t matter, nothing else matters.” By contrast, some of Hemings’ descendants and some historians describe it as “a relationship between man and wife.” Bradshaw says the play airs both points of view, but it “doesn’t seek to answer this question.”
To be explicitly clear, an enslaved person cannot consent to sex with the person enslaving them. It is estimated that Jefferson began having sex with Hemings when she was only 14 years-old, 30 years his junior. The fact that Bradshaw insists on giving equal weight to “both sides” is telling. It’s clear that Bradshaw doesn’t recognize Hemings’ humanity. When asked why he was interested in her story, he noted that he became fascinated with Hemings after learning she “was only a quarter African-American, because her mother and grandmother were also impregnated by white men.” In other words, Bradshaw’s fetishization of Hemings and her foremothers (who were also raped by slaveowners) led him to create an ahistorical play.
Bradshaw’s play is a prime example of how Black patriarchy is violent and fails Black women. By sanitizing Hemings’ experience at the hands of a vehement racist rapist, Thomas and Sally normalizes rape culture. Black women and femmes are the ones who are more likely to inhabit experiences similar to Hemings. We don’t need Bradshaw, or any other cisgender man, to attempt to write about our experiences. They will always fail. They will always disappoint. They will allow the perspective of our oppressors to outweigh our own.
Sally Hemings’ story deserves to be told. She wasn’t just Jefferson’s property. She was a person with dreams and aspirations for her own life. She had likes and dislikes. She had favorite memories and thoughts that kept her up at night. Hemings’ life and legacy deserves so much more than to be inextricably linked to her abuser. She deserves more than Thomas and Sally.
Featured image: Thomas Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips) and Sally Hemings (Tara Pacheco) in Marin Theatre Company’s “Thomas and Sally.”