Taking the Wolf by the Ears: Ann Rinaldi and the Cultural Work of Sally Hemings

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  • Taking the Wolf by the Ears:Ann Rinaldi and the Cultural Work ofSally Hemings

    E M I LY H O N E Y

    WHEN DNA EVIDENCE WAS RELEASED IN 1998 THAT EFFECTIVELYproved the last of Sally Hemings children, EstonHemings, was fathered by Thomas Jefferson (Murray

    et al. and Travis), there was a flood of publicity concerning the impactof the evidence on the historical image of the third president, thedescendants of Eston Hemings, the resulting changes at Monticello,and myriad other variables. The centuries-old rumor of a Jeffersonliaison with Dusky Sally had finally been confirmed. Yet where isSally Hemings in all of this? Most of the commentary has centered onJefferson and the Hemings children, not Sally herself. Part of this canbe attributed to a lack of historical information. We have minimalaccounts of Sally, and nothing from her in her own words. Is thisenough to explain why most of the furor, both scholarly and not, hasbeen around the president and his potential children, and not thewoman who mothered them?

    Seven years before the release of the DNA results, in 1991, writerAnn Rinaldi released a historical novel for young adults entitled Wolfby the Ears. Unlike Barbara Chase-Ribouds popular novel SallyHemings, Rinaldi tells her story from the perspective of Harriet, Sallyseldest daughter, and centers on the girls struggle to leave Monticello,her questions about her parentage, and the problems and choicesrelated to being born of a white father and a black mother. However,I think that this book also says a great deal about the role that Sallyis made to play in contemporary culture, and the multiple roles she is

    The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 41, No. 1, 2008r 2008, Copyright the AuthorsJournal compilation r 2008, Blackwell Publishing, Inc.


  • kept from playing. Using Rinaldis book as a framework, I will attemptto explore the cultural work performed by Sally, both as a person and asymbol, and the messages that are being transmitted through thiswork. I will attempt to clarify why it is that the figure of Sally hasremained so obscure despite all of the press about her and Jefferson,why it is that she remains dusky both culturally and historically, andwhat purpose this might serve. What does it mean that the main plotof this young adult novel still centers on Thomas Jefferson and HarrietHemings, his potential daughter, rather than on Sally?

    In her compelling argument about the ways that Sojourner Truthemployed print and photography to fashion her own image in history,Nell Painter says: . . . American history is full of symbols that do theirwork without a basis in life. . . . Like other invented greats, Truth isconsumed as a signifier and beloved for what we need her to have said.. . . Americans consume Sojourner Truth as the embodiment of ameaning necessary for their own cultural formations (480 81). SallyHemings is another one of these American symbols, a creation of aculture that needs her to perform specific functions. I suggest thatHemings is being used to propagate the idea that America has finallygotten over its fear of miscegenation in breaking the silence aboutThomas Jefferson. At the same time, she is being relegated to thebackground in favor of Jefferson. Her story is being silenced even as itis coming to light, and that silence helps reinforce racial lines.

    There is a passage in Rinaldis book that seems to me particularlysuggestive as a place to begin unraveling the question of Sallys sig-nificance in American history and culture. Harriet has gone throughJeffersons chambers in order to see her mothers sewing room. Jeffersonfinds her there. While they are talking, Harriet begins to see themotives behind his words:

    [. . .] He was asking me not to leave. He was asking me to forget thatmy mama was sewing a wardrobe for my departure. He was askingme to ignore all the evidence. And he was asking me to bide by hisrule, which dismissed, by silence, anything unpleasant in the house-hold. He wanted me to pretend my mothers efforts never took place.The way he responded over the years, with silence and pretense, to thesavage rumors in the press about himself and Sally Hemings. (68)

    While we have reached a point, thanks to technology and science,where the evidence can no longer be ignored, I would suggest that in a

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  • cultural sense we are still abiding by Thomas Jeffersons rule. We areforgetting Sally Hemings life, her efforts to free her children, anddismissing with silence the woman behind the president. She has beenreduced to a slave woman who was in love with her master, a masterwho happened to be the third president of the United States. Despitethe fact that even the assumption of love between a master and a slavewoman has profoundly disturbing implications about the institution ofslavery, the nature of the categories involved, and the power dynamicswe have tried to assign to it, the public focus has mostly been given tothe white male figure in the scenario.

    Granted, it is only natural that a man so revered as ThomasJefferson, a Founding Father, the writer of the Declaration of Inde-pendence, an American icon extraordinaire, would be the object ofconsiderable attention when it was confirmed that he had fatheredchildren on both sides of the color line. There were many historianswho had spent a lot of time studying all the evidence, and had come upwith quite convincing reasons why it was impossible for Jefferson tohave carried on an affair with Sally Hemings. Historian Joseph Ellispublished a biography of Thomas Jefferson in 1997, the year beforethe DNA evidence was unearthed. In his appendix on Jefferson andHemings, he laid out quite clearly why such a liaison was viewed asimpossible. It was not because such pairings were uncommon onplantations; they were common to the point of being unquestioned.It was Jeffersons personality and psychological defenses that seemedincompatible with having a relationship with a slave:

    . . . He obviously knew about the ongoing miscegenation at Mon-ticello, but his powers of self-deception and denial protected himfrom facing these facts, and his urge to remain oblivious was con-siderably stronger than his sexual drive.He was, to be sure, quite capable of living with massive contradic-tions, but his psychological dexterity depended on the manipulationof interior images and personae; he was not that adroit at the kind ofovert deviousness required to sustain an alleged thirty-eight-yearaffair in the very center of his domestic haven. . . . In sum, thealleged relationship with Sally Hemings, if it did exist, defied thedominant patterns of his personality.

    (Ellis, American Sphinx 306)

    Ellis was one of a number of historians who felt that Jeffersons men-tality simply did not allow for sexual relationships with slave women.

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  • Others felt that it defiled an American hero to suggest that he wouldcommit such an openly racist act. Some, perhaps, felt he would havebeen exonerated from the start, because racism was so completely in-grained into American culture during Jeffersons lifetime. Whateverthe reason, Jefferson was not seen by historians as a man capable ofmiscegenation.

    Focusing on Jefferson, however, seems to be the easy way out. Evenwith the DNA evidence that proves he had some sort of sexual re-lationship with Sally, Jefferson can still be culturally classified as anacceptable American man. Male sexual behavior has generally been amarker for prowess in American culture, used to confirm manliness andvirility, and excused as sowing wild oats. Jeffersons involvementwith Sally, in fact, can almost serve to make him more accessible andunderstandable to the American public. He made a terribly racistmistake and had a complicated relationship with a slave, somethingthat violated his own ideas of right and wrong. This was the skeletonthat the idealist of freedom carried in his closet. Once the myth aboutJefferson and Hemings was confirmed, it lent credence to the oralhistory of the Hemings family and, conceivably, allowed the Americanpublic to identify even more with one of its heroes. Ellis, forced toreassess his former conclusions about Jefferson, wrote an article for U.S.News and World Report taking stock of the DNA evidences culturalimpact:

    Indeed, Jeffersons legacy might appear more lustrous than ever be-fore. For he is now thoroughly human, the American demigod madeflesh who dwelt among us, the saint who sinned, the great man withordinary weaknesses. As we approach the end of the AmericanCentury, he has metamorphosed into the new role model for ourpostmodern temperament, if you will, a 90s kind of guy.

    It is of course true that the new evidence about Jefferson and Hemingsdid not transform everyones opinion of the third president. One needonly do an Internet search to realize that the argument over this liaisonwill probably never endmy own search for Thomas Jefferson andSally Hemings turned up 22,300 web pages. Many people will stillvehemently deny that a sexual relationship between Jefferson and oneof his slaves was possible. However, for the purposes of this article I amaccepting that the DNA evidence is true, and that he did in fact fatherat least one of Sally Hemings children. I am also arguing that the

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  • renewed discussion of Jeffersons character is obscuring some largercultural problems, many of which are represented by the figure of Sally.Transforming Jefferson into a modern figure, a great man with ac-ceptable weaknesses, is still overlooking the greater issues behind hisaffair with Sally Hemings, along with Sally herself. Where are thediscussions of slavery in light of this new revelation? Where are thediscussions about the impact of miscegenation, both then and now?Where are the calls for a realization that whites and African Americansare much more closely related than has ever been acknowledged, andthe discussion of potential changes in race relations? There are booksnow about the Hemings children, but what about the thousands ofother slave children who had a white father or mother? In the effort tokeep our cultural delusions intact, we have made Jefferson into a hu-man hero, and displaced all of the difficulties with his conduct ontohis mistress. We have left Sally in the background along with theproblems that she poses. As Annette Gordon-Reed wrote: Historians[. . .] had no interest in attempting to discover who this woman was,because writing about her would draw more attention to the under-lying allegation. The project of defeating the notion of a relationshipbetween Jefferson and Hemings demanded that Hemings herself bekept invisible (Gordon-Reed 159).

    Rinaldi, I think, unwittingly plays into this invisibility with herbook. While she was bringing to light for young readers a very con-troversial historical topic, she was constrained by several factors.One, she was writing before the DNA tests, and had no way of makinga definite statement about Jefferson and Hemings. To have done sowould have thrown her credibility and research into question. Two,because she was writing for a younger audience, she could not be nearlyas explicit about sexual matters, or about the power dynamic thatwould have been involved in any relationship they might have had,topics that might have been too weighty for adolescent readers. Itmight have seemed better to create a narrative from Harriets per-spective, one that would still deal with the conflicts of her race, par-entage, and position as a slave, but would be removed enough fromSally and Jefferson to avoid confronting the issues head on. Therefore,Harriet becomes the narrator and the focus, and her relationshipwith Jefferson of primary importanceonce again leaving Sally ratherin the background, overshadowed by the white man who controlledher world.

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  • The Sally that Rinaldi portrays, however, although she does notappear as much as might be expected, is very aware of the paradoxes inher life and the problems that they pose, both for herself and for herchildren. She becomes something of an oracle, a wise womanmuchlike in our current history books, a symbol for the problems andtragedy of slavery and racism, but also a symbol for a more intricate,complex, and closely connected world, a world that is relegated to theshadows. It is Sally, in Rinaldis story line, who convinces Harriet notonly to take her freedom, but also to pass as white. Passing was adangerous method of gaining freedom; if one was light enough to beseen as a white person, it was possible to pass and gain all theprivileges of white citizenship. The dark side, however, was riskingones life for that freedom. If a slave were found to be passing as a whiteperson, they would most likely be executed. In addition, the slavewould have to give up all connection to his/her family and friends, whowould be left behind on the plantation. Harriet is well aware of therisks and sacrifices involved in passing, and is surprised when hermother encourages her to do so:

    [. . .] oh, my child. My Harriet. If you never listen to me aboutanother thing, listen to me about this passing. I was right abouttaking your freedom, wasnt I? Im right about this too, child, Iswear it.

    Oh, Mama! I wailed.Oh, Harriet, this freedom is worth everything. There is no sac-

    rifice too great. Knowing that Tom is free and out there and makingit is the only thing that helps me bear the sorrow of hearing fromhim just once in all these years. And if you could pass and have a lifeof your own, never worrying about having your free papers on you orlistening for someone to make you account for what you are about!Just like all those white folk in Thomas Jeffersons America! Oh,Harriet!

    (Rinaldi 115)

    Sally is clearly aware, in this plea, that Thomas Jeffersons Americais not her America, that it is a world she will never be a part of. Herchance for freedom was not in America, but in France, back during heryoung adulthood. Yet she knows that her children can be a part ofAmerica, be part of the freedom that Jefferson helped to create, as longas she can convince them to take it. She knows that they cannot havethat freedom unless they become white in the eyes of the world, no

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  • matter how wrong it is that a country professing freedom for all deniesit to those who have a different skin color.

    Harriet, for her part, is torn between her love for Monticello and theman she has looked to as a father, and the knowledge of what mayhappen to her if she stays. Gradually she realizes that she would beforced to marry another slave and stay within the slave system, that shewould be treated considerably worse after Jeffersons death, potentiallylosing the privileged place she has held in his household, that shewould be an object for white men to prey upon, and, worst of all, thatshe could be sold when Jefferson dies. Once again, it is her mother whobrings this problem into full relief for her:

    [. . .] Havent I been talking and talking, until my mouth cant sayanymore words, a...


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