Interview: Edward Ball on Slaves in the Family
Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff
"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?
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.