Black History Month

"It Cuts Both Ways"
I'm sure that you've heard about the proof that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by his slave, Sally Hemings... Bebe Moore Campbell, the novelist, said in a commentary on NPR that because of the dynamics of master-slave relationships, there could never be anything such as sexual consent between a master and a slave — that basically, Thomas Jefferson was a rapist. He raped Sally Hemings, because there could have been no consent. What do you make of this claim?

 "There was for a long time what used to be called, euphemistically, the 'colored elite'... light skinned black folks who descended from masters and slaves and who got educated and got into the middle class before other black folks. Among that group of people there is a certain amount of pride in the white ancestors and the connection to white people... There are also descendants of black and white unions who are full of resentment towards their white relatives."
I think that slavery was not one thing, and the sexual relationships between the white men and black women were not one thing as opposed to another. They were a great variety of things. There were some members of the Ball family, typically teenagers who wanted their first sexual experience, who sexually exploited black women who had no means to resist them. And there were men, unmarried and married men, who did the same, and there were a great number of instances of rape of that kind. On the other hand, there were men in the family who had long-term relationships with black women that produced several children. And I think it would be disrespectful to the women involved for us to say, today, in hindsight, that they were rape victims. Because if there were long relationships between white men and black women, what were they? Stable relationships of some kind of mutual, I don't know, mutual advantage or mutual gratification or mutual consent?

So there were whole lots of things going on, and I don't think we can generalize. I think the overwhelming majority of cases were rape, however. I don't want you to misthink me on this. I think that we have to also point out the exceptions.

That brings me to another question. My impression was that many of the black families that you interviewed that were descended from, or who had white ancestors, took a certain moral satisfaction when that patrimony was recognized. Sally Hemings's descendants seemed almost triumphant about that. Is this your impression?

In some cases, yes. There was for a long time what used to be called, euphemistically, the "colored elite"... a social class of people, light skinned black folks who descended from masters and slaves and who got educated and got into the middle class before other black folks. And among that group of people, then, there is a certain amount of pride in the white ancestors and the connection to white people.

However, there are the descendants of some of these black and white unions who are full of resentment towards their white relatives, people who did not take any advantage from —or were not permitted any advantage from— their blood connection to the white folks. They can tell you who their white kin are, but they don't have any particular pride in that. In fact, they have a kind of seething resentment about it. It cuts both ways.

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A Mixed Bag