Text originally written and published in 2017.
Copyright ©AnaLuciaAraujo. May not be reprinted without permission.
The issue regarding the status of enslaved women as “mistresses” is generating discussion on social media, this time because of a tweet by a Washington Post journalist Krissah Thompson in her article highlighting the new findings on Sally Hemings at Monticello. In that tweet, Thompson referred to Hemings as the “mistress” of Thomas Jefferson, and the discussion resulted in a recent Teen Vogue article explaining why enslaved women should never be called mistresses.
First of all, the term mistress (maîtresse in French, amante, concubina in Portuguese) usually refers to a woman who has a relationship with a man who is married, and as a result, has a lower status than his other official spouses.
In the case of Thomas Jefferson the use of the term to refer to his slave Sally Hemings is problematic because Jefferson was not married when he developed the relationship with the young enslaved woman.
Along with my research, my views regarding the issue of sexual relations between white masters and black women is under transformation.
In Brazilian historiography, still very poor regarding enslaved women, there are many examples of, and even a certain preference for, studies that refer to enslaved women’s ability to get favors from their masters, by having sexual relations with them. The most well-known example here is Chica da Silva, who has been the theme of academic works, novels, telenovelas, samba school parades during Carnaval, etc. But still, Chica and Sally are different because when Chica became the “mistress” of her owner, after purchasing her, he immediately freed her.
I disagree with using the word mistress to describe enslaved black women who were owned by white men. However, other historians such as Martha S. Jones state that “recognizing enslaved women’s humanity might demand allowing for a range of experience on a spectrum of sexuality and violence,” an idea she developed in this article published online two years ago. On Facebook, other friends are making a similar statement, but contending that Hemings was raped.
I agree that Thompson’s tweet only reproduced words used by historians who studied Hemings, namely Anette Gordon-Reed in her award-winning book The Hemingses of Monticello and this is why that when I shared the Washington Post’s article on Twitter I didn’t enter the debate.
I checked Gordon-Reed’s book and she effectively uses the term “mistress” 37 times when referring to Sally. Also, Sally was referred to by Jefferson’s contemporaries as a “mistress”. Gordon-Reed then widely used this term, perhaps because this was the term used at that time. Yet, almost a decade after the publication of her book it is pertinent to question the use of the word “mistress” in the context of slavery. Gordon-Reed is the one who has brought Sally’s story to light and is certainly the greatest authority on the study of slavery in Monticello. But there are always new findings emerging, and a growing scholarship on enslaved black women has questioned the use of certain terms, and even how historians have been using the archives where the presence of enslaved women is usually marked by silences.
I saw other cases in other contexts where enslaved women occupied the same position as Sally. Usually, they provided sexual services to their masters. In one of these cases that resulted in a published article, an enslaved woman named Monica, born in Brazil, was abused and beaten by her owner, who was a poor man in the south of Brazil. One day, she decided to kill him. Enslaved women like Celia, did the same here in the United States.
Thus, I ask myself if Sally is referred to as a “mistress” mainly because her master was a rich man. But if her owner was an unknown poor individual like the master killed by Maria in Brazil, would historians still call her a mistress? Also, in light of the new scholarship on enslaved women emerging here in the United States (see the recent books by Marsa Fuentes, Nikki Taylor, and Erica Dunbar among others) if Gordon-Reed published that book today, would she still use the term “mistress”? If she had brought to light Sally’s story by using the term “rape” would it be possible to win a Pulitzer Prize? These are questions I ask myself as a historian. And here, of course, all the credit must be given to historians studying enslaved women.