Beyond Sally Hemings: Sex, Race, and Memory in Nineteenth-Century America

AHA Session 21
Thursday, January 3, 2013: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Rhythms Ballroom 1 (Sheraton New Orleans)
Annette Gordon-Reed, Harvard University
Rhetoric versus Reality: Analyzing Interracial Sex in Antebellum America
Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, Indiana University Bloomington
Progressive Fictions and the Sexing of Jim Crow
Diana I. Williams, University of Southern California
Tera W. Hunter, Princeton University

Session Abstract

2013 marks the fifteenth anniversary of DNA tests confirming Annette Gordon-Reed’s work on the disputed sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings.  This panel brings together nineteenth century historians of race, sex, and gender who are engaged with broadening our understanding of relationships between black women and white men.  The first two papers involve close case studies of two of the better-known antebellum relationships; the third analyzes late nineteenth century representations of such relationships.  

Amrita Chakrabarti Myers explores the marriage-like relationship between Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson and his slave Julia Chinn, which lasted for twenty years until her 1833 death.  Nikki Taylor analyzes the case of fugitive slave Margaret Garner, infamous for killing her toddler in 1856 to prevent her re-enslavement, and reputed to have borne at least one child conceived via rape by her white master.  Diana Williams considers late 19th century legal and literary narratives by a generation of Southern white women unwilling to feign ignorance or maintain silence about sexual indiscretions between white men and the women of color who lived with and/or worked for them.  Attributing Southern decline to such transgressions, they called for more rigorous policing through novels whose plots concerned the ways “miscegenation” exposed white women to the perils of racial identity theft. In doing so, they carved out a discursive space between a white male master narrative and a black female culture of dissemblance.  

All three panelists struggle with the seemingly unbridgeable gap between rhetoric, distortion, symbolism, and reality in attempting to write about this aspect of African American women’s history.  We seek to move beyond the question of what actually happened and to address what historians and historical figures do with information that is always fragmented, and in the case of sexuality, not easily accessed through conventional archival methods.  Significantly, like Sally Hemings, both Chinn and Garner attained notoriety through their representation in antebellum print culture--including political cartoons, poetry, paintings, and novels.  If not for their portrayal in fictional narratives (including late twentieth century works by Toni Morrison and Barbara Chase-Riboud), the stories of their lives, like that of Sally Hemings, might have remained lost to history.  

As historians, therefore, we consider the political and cultural work composing, sharing, and historicizing these narratives does, and how it has allowed historical subjects to speak--even obliquely--about lives experiences, desires, and anxieties that otherwise might have remained obscured.  We try to make sense of these stories--and their reception--as part of the incomplete historical record, and in light of the pressures on people in those times and ours.

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