BOOK REVIEW: Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings a novel by Stephen O’Connor

Thomas Jefferson: Accused of betraying his race for falling in love with one of his slaves. In the same breath he was deemed a racist only entering into relations with the slave in order to obtain more slaves through her bearing his children. As one of the United States first presidents who not only help author the US Constitution but also saw his transition into Presidency as the first to not have done so due to war. He was an advocate for everybody’s freedom. This novel, “Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings” by Stephen O’Connor is highly recommended. It open my eyes to a time that not many understand. The simplicity in nature in which one lives was also one of the most complex era’s to have survived. Trying to colonize a nation that was also looking to gain it’s independence and identity meant for alot of sacrifices that we now take for granted.

The opening chapters talk about life in the 1700s and how it was growing up with an African descent. One is made to believe that Thomas’s father in law was in charge of lashing his slaves. It isn’t until later that we find out who is behind this savage treatment of our fellow humans. We have all seen movies and sitcoms that try to explain this relationship between master and his slaves. Reading the words of Jefferson, his daughters, Sally and the thoughts of those affected during this time hit closer to home. Something about the language and the way this book has been articulately put together transforms back to that time.

We learn about the values and matters that concerned him most and how he was perceived by the people he loved. I love being transported back to where their storey unfolds. To imagine a time when people travelled by carriage and they could only correspond by letter. To know that what is written in this book rings as close to true as one can hope.

It is not very often you get to witness the beginning of love that occurs between a sweet 16 year old and a powerful man such as Thomas Jefferson. When the affair finally comes to light it’s at the hand of his rival who does so to try to bring him to his knees. One can ridicule him for falling in love with one of his slaves but let’s look at the whole storey. When Martha took I’ll and lost her life at 36 it was at the request of Martha that Sally took care of her girls. You see Sally was Martha’s half sister. She was the result of an affair that her father had with Sally’s mother. Sally’s skin was pale and as Martha’s half sister they shared a resemblance. How can you fault a man for seeing the beauty in the sister of the woman he just lost. This fact peaks my interest and has me wanting to learn more about this period of time.

Most of the book is non fiction and it’s the authors belief of what has transpired between the two during their courtship. Of course the Vice President of the US knows the importance of keeping such a tryst secret. What I find intriguing is that when some assume that it was a relationship derived from a master/slave foundation. There are curious points of contention to suggest otherwise. Their relationship lasted 37 years (longer than the age of his first wife when she expired) and apon his death she collected only 3 items in which to remember him by. A shoe buckle, an inkwell and his glasses. The significance of taking his inkwell is transparent. For a man such as Thomas, Tom, My Tom; that Sally referred to him as, his most prized possession would of course be his inkwell.
“-The problem is, there’s no scary music in life. And we don’t actually live irony. The irony gets added later. And nobody out there is monolithic, all-evil-(or whatever)- all the time. And since every instant that comes along overwhelms us with is presentness and its complexity, and since who I am,” and since almost every one of those instants we live through being who we really are is an innocent intant, all of that added together makes it easy for us to lose track of the fact that we also live through no-so-innocent instants, when the me-I-really-am is a not-so-innocent me-through we almost always lie to ourselves about that fact. And so it is easy for us to pretend to ourselves about that fact. And so it is easy for us to pretend to ourselves that we are nothing like the evil guy in the movie. And we can allow those instants in which we are not-so-innocent to be overwhelmed by all the completely innocent ones, and they become insignificant. Or they almost don’t exist” (Pg 430).
What I love about this book, although fiction, is it’s ability to transport us through time and bring the characters to life. The very idea that somebody who made such changes throughout history is just like you and me forced to face the same struggles that each and every one of us does. His presidency cut short over love and the desire for revenge. How different the World has become now. Back then if you were a less than honourable citizen stones were thrown until all your power was taken away. Now in the sreamof media we constantly turn a blind eye in favour of the puppet who only operates with the intentions of only serving a minority. By minority I mean the reach and powerful. This novel explores slavery and the demand for equality but now 300 years later I see us still being bound by chains being led into an obscure way of thinking.
Imagine how different the World would have been if we started to embrace each other’s individuality instead of condemning someone because they don’t conform to our social norms.
How can you not admire Thomas Jefferson for the life he tried to live outside the public eye. How shameful it was that the people he served (specifically the Federalists) condemned his for seeing people as they truly were. Yes he did keep over 200 slaves at Monticello and Poplar Groves but he explains that if he were to grant them all freedom there life would be far worse off. This is depicted with the return of Sally’s brother after a short stint as being free. There really are no accounts as far as Sally’s lineage but Stephen does have a fine way of telling a tale to make one believe in fact. I think that given the times and the lack of written history the fact that he is able to spark the mind in this way is fabulous. In the South where having slaves determined your social status one understands this rational of thinking. Thomas was one to try and educate his slaves through reading and writing. He never disciplined them for this desire if they so chose. He ensured that the people he kept had an opportunity to learn a skill such as blacksmithing, cooking, gardening etc. The saddest chapters too read are towards the end when the realization of what happens to all the people he kept. To imagine people being bought at an auction to not only the highest bidder but also at times where the families were ripped apart is gut wrenching. Imagine watching your son or daughter being sold to an self entitled righteous white pig. It’s deplorable to think how some treated their fellow man. The idea of being shackled from the hands and feet with an even bigger shackle around the neck is deplorable. To have all your rights and freedoms taken away based on the color of your skin and your lineage. We are no better at this than today. We basically keep a whole mix of immigrants to do the work that white people deem themselves to good for. I am talking about minimum wage jobs. Minimum wage jobs are not sufficient enough to keep a roof over your head, the power on and your bellies fed. No wonder why we see families living with 10 to a house. When we take advantage of those who so desperately are trying to seek a better life we become no better than those ghosts from our past. We also have a leader in power that has no moral grounds to see that in essence we are all born the same way and entitled to liberty and freedom just as everybody else.
The thing I most admired about reading this novel is the idea that a white man even than could treat a woman of color with as much respect as his public would allow. We will never truly understand what happened between closed doors between the two. Nor could we ever comprehend the way that they loved and showed love in a time where it was forbidden. The love that they shared should be on record because throughout times of extreme hate and gossip they still found a way to be. True love conquers all right? Sally was present at his side when he took his last breath to much dismay of his daughter Martha. It was written in his last will and testament that his kin would be set free. In fact all of his offspring had it written that apon turning 21 they would be set free. The children between Thomas and Sally were able to move on from Monticello. Bearing almost no resemblance to their African roots they were able to blend in as white and get lost in a sea of obscurity.
To imagine a time where our fellow man is treated no more than a stock of cattle will bring you to your knees. The imagery that will awaken inside of you will take a look at today’s times where you can still see the resemblance that our leaders take while dealing with any other race that is not white. The sad reality is we still need to have a strong leader step forward and take accountablity of how history unfolded. We can not change the errors of our past but we can make changes to correct them in the future. To acknowledge that for some we gave them no roots in which to succeed in life. We ripped them from their families like they were nothing more than a calf. With no feelings, no regard how that could emotionally impact anybody. If you can take the time and try to help out the citizen in your community thrive than aren’t you still hammering the nail deeper into their coffin’s? We may never be able to take the pain away of these deplorable actions. Those were different times and for whatever reason that was the path that our forefathers took. To ignore this ignorant, barbaric treatment is a constant slap in the face. The people who lived through these times deserve our outmost respect and acknowledgement of their existence. Isn’t that in fact what we all want? To have our lives recognized as a life well lived. If you can’t document a life well lived then at least a record of their existence should exist. I think as a nation we owe it to the families we destroyed to try and give them as many answers as they so desire. The truth will always set one free and as humans we always want to know how it is we came to be. Being able to explore how the country came to be and how their inhabitants lived really opened my eyes. If nothing else this book has encourage me to try to live my life a little differntly. I already knew that we were all created equal and now I think it is time we try to find a way for us all to be treated equal. We owe it to ourselves to release the binds that hold us to archaic thinking and embrace what really makes us feel alive.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Om Prakash Khare says:



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