Sally Hemmings Jefferson
Once again, the 80-year-old was swaying around her musty room when I arrived. This time, however, the radio was tuned to some golden oldies station and the faint chords of a fifty-year-old Loggins and Messina song filled the tiled room with the voices of ghosts. This didn’t seem like her type of music, I would have expected to hear Stevie Wonder or Curtis Mayfield, but I realized how racist that assumption was. Perhaps the Loggins and Messina fan within her was a part of the boring white culture passed down to her from that rapist of a President. They were all rapists in some sense of the word, we just have genetic evidence that this one acted on his rapist predispositions.
I was nervous that I would be greeted with the same hostility that my first encounter sparked. I never know what to expect about the wits of my parent’s generation, seems like their parents went nuts sometime during the Reagan administration, losing their minds alongside their leader. She didn’t seem to hear me come in at first. She was busy wheeling herself around the old radio on the windowsill.
She whipped around with the speed of a gunslinger. I was almost worried for a second that she was about to rattle off a six shooter into my gut.
“I’m Pete Rose, remember?”
“Of course I remember you,” she said. “You were here two days ago. I gave you my son’s keys. Why wouldn’t I be able to remember the last person that visited me? It was just you and one of those blonde motherfuckers coming in here to change my underwear.” Her words were ferocious but I could tell she wasn’t directing this anger at me. She yelled at some larger structure, an invisible force, or maybe it was directed at Thomas Jefferson.
“I don’t know why you wouldn’t know me, some people tend to forget some people,” I said.
“I’ve never forgotten a person in my life,” she said. “I know the names of every son-of-a-bitch I ever met.”
Although I didn’t believe that, I wanted to; she could prove to be helpful in this case. I didn’t know how to bring up her son’s death, if I would even tell her at all. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing that would be my business. She might shut off at that point, it might scare her away. People sometimes deal with the news of death in extreme ways, the minute you hear it a piece of you dies as well. Every breath becomes a countdown to your last and when you walk by the casket wreathed in flowers filled with your dead loved one’s purposeless body, you see your own face grimacing back at you.
She went over to the radio and switched it off. Sally sat with a look of distrust, eyeing the room with a suspicion that seemed as if there was another presence in the vicinity. I wondered if she knew how heavily supervised she was, if she knew that her body was being reduced to a beeping dot on a computer screen somewhere; how much do they tell the residents about the surveillance? Her son’s journals reflected this paranoia about external knowledge and the way we keep track of the population; maybe it was hereditary.
“Has anyone ever contacted you about your relation to Sally Hemmings?” The best way to ask her about these things was to just come right out and say it.
“Once or twice,” she said. “People writing books about him, trying to find the bloodline. I never once gave them my blood though. I don’t want to have my DNA locked up in some laboratory – that’s how they get inside of you, once they know your make-up.”
“Did they ever try to hurt you or your son?” Her son’s journals made them seem like mobsters, with crowbars and pinstriped suits.
“Never. They were college types,” she said. “The worst type of white people: educated twats. They were all wearing sweaters in the middle of a warm spring, looked like a group of boobs. Stupid glasses, stupid messy hair; they couldn’t have hurt me if they tried. Ineffectual intellectuals.”
I became ashamed of my bachelor’s degree. I was one of those weak men she hated, I couldn’t let on that I was anything like them, or that I admired those men when I was a young student.
“What did you tell them?” I asked. I kept telling myself to keep asking her questions, to keep her talking.
“I told them the story my mother told me.”
“What was the story?”
Sally turned around and wheeled over to me. As if by force I fell backwards, without looking, into the armchair next to her dresser. I listened to Sally’s story and tried to imagine all of the time in between these lives and how meaningful they all might have been.
THE HISTORICAL ACCOUNT OF SALLY HEMMINGS JEFFERSON
My mother sat me down on her knee when I was a little girl, maybe about six years old. Some boy at my school pulled on my braids and told me that he thought nigger hair was disgusting. I asked her what that meant and she said to me:
A long time ago there was this big place where a bunch of brown and red people lived happily. They killed each other but there was something beautiful about it. Sure, it was brutal, lots of blood, cutting people’s skin off and things like that. It wasn’t institutionalized though. I asked my mother what institutionalized meant and she said, “That’s when white people kill people.”
So one day these brown people see these big wooden boats, the likes of which they’d never seen before, coming up against the shoreline. They had these big gold crosses on them and they’re all wearing silly robes and stupid hats and the brown people think they look ridiculous. There weren’t any women; it was all a bunch of men, so they covered up all of their body parts because they were ashamed of themselves and each other.
Once they got off the boat it all went to shit. They started talking about God and country and resources and the brown people hadn’t the slightest idea of what these things meant in conjunction with one another. Then the white people started to hop on their backs and have the brown ones carry them all over the land, just ‘cause they were lazy. What they didn’t take into account was the white sickness that they carried with them. See, she told me, white people carry natural sicknesses that make other colored people sick and die. When I was older and I saw my neighbors dropping dead because of AIDS I knew that my mother was correct.
A lot of the brown people died, but the white people were still lazy. They killed a bunch more of the brown people because they were so pissed that the other ones got sick and died. They had to find more people to give them piggy back rides, and then they remembered that there were black people back across the ocean. A bunch of them.
“Your mothers and fathers were there,” she said to me.
Around the same time, more white people were coming over, so they decided to get a bunch of these black people. At least one for every person, probably more. The white men (because the women didn’t really mean anything to them, still) started talking about freedom and how this land was a part of God’s plan. They were speaking nonsense to one another, because they all had lost their minds since they were having sex with their own sisters and cousins and having little retarded babies that grew up to be the Presidents.
“You know about the Presidents right?” She asked. I nodded, yes. “Their parents were all cousins and siblings which is why they were all so stupid.”
So they got all of these black people and started making them till the land, planting food, and then picking that food for the whites and the whites didn’t give any to the black people to eat. All of it went to the white people that took them from their home, from your home.
One man read books by a bunch of other awful white men from his old home that talked about the economy and the market and a bunch of meaningless bullshit that your mothers and fathers had never heard of because there was no need for it. That man’s name was Thomas Jefferson. He wrote a short piece of insincere gibberish about freedom and independence.
“Do you know those words?” I shook my head no. My mother said, “That’s because those things have never happened, they’re only ideas.”
But underdeveloped inbred white people like Thomas Jefferson thought that they were true. Meanwhile he’d go back to his wife and hit her in the face if she didn’t have any dinner for him. And he owned a whole mess of black people.
Thomas Jefferson got pretty famous among his rich friends. They dreamed up a way to turn these black people into money, in fact, they turned the whole land into money. They took all of the money they made and put it in their own pockets and that’s what it is to be a President: you have to have all the money and your parents must be related by blood.
One of the black people Thomas Jefferson owned was a beautiful, intelligent woman named Sally Hemmings.
“Just like you,” she said and touched the tip of her finger to my nose.
That name was given to her by the white people and she hated it at first, but now it’s a beautiful name because she was such a wonderful person. She worked inside a house for no money all day long. It was a big White House that gets passed between senseless white men. Thomas Jefferson’s wife died. Some say it was because she was sick, but I know it was because she was disgusted with her husband and never loved him and so she willed herself to death. You can do that, will yourself to death. Sally Hemmings thought about it but she never did because she knew that one day you’d be born and she wanted the world to see your round, beautiful eyes.
Thomas Jefferson would watch Sally Hemmings from behind all day. She would be churning butter or cleaning the floor, doing things that she was forced to do, but that wasn’t enough for Thomas Jefferson, he wanted more. And so he made her come into his room and take off her clothes. She had no concept of herself, had no ownership of her body like you and I do. So she had to take off her clothes. He did some bad, bad things to her. Those things can be beautiful, though, when they are done between happy people. But when President’s do it, it’s evil.
Then, because of what they did, a baby was made. That baby was considered black, not white, though it was really neither. It was just a baby like any baby you see on the street. Skin, hair, organs, like every baby ever. But this baby was going to grow up and work for her father. Her name was Harriet and she looked just like you. Then she had a child, and those children had children, and they had children, and then somewhere down the line was your grandmother and then me and then you.
In the middle of all of that they stopped using black people for free work but they started to exploit them in other ways.
“Do you know what it means to exploit someone?” She asked. I shook my head, no. “That’s what happens every time white people try to make money.”
They wouldn’t give the black people jobs, then they made up a thing called the police to kill the black people who tried to make money, and they invented this word “nigger” because all the white people were so dumb that they didn’t want to remember everyone’s individual name. That’s why that little boy said that to you: because he is a descendant of inbred villains who never had good enough mothers and fathers to teach them how to share.
“But you,” she said; “you’re special because you are from the lineage of one who broke the mold. You can be the President one day because you have the intelligent blood of Sally Hemmings and the Presidential blood that white people admire so much. You can trick them, because they’re stupid and you’re smart, and you can change history forever, just like your great-great-great-great grandmother did.”