The Road Not Taken: The Decision of Sally Hemings
This is the story of Thomas Jefferson’s intimate relationship with his black slave Sally Hemings that resulted in his fathering seven children with her and requiring that he overcome both his rabid fear of physical contact with black skin and his strong conviction that mating of white with black people was unacceptable because it diluted superior white qualities. More
“The Road Not Taken: The Decision of Sally Hemings” by William Robinson is an historical novel that describes important chance events that bring young black slave Sally Hemings to Paris to live in the house of her owner, Thomas Jefferson, when he is U.S. Minister to France. Jefferson comes to greatly admire her intelligence and stunning beauty, and after Sally at age 16 initiates an intimate encounter with him, he is desperate for her to return to Virginia as his concubine, although French law makes Sally a free person in France. She finally agrees to return with him after extracting important concessions from him for a better life for her and her family in Virginia.
Living as Jefferson’s concubine at Monticello, over many years they carry on a sometimes heated debate about his acceptance of slavery and his racial prejudice, a debate conditioned by the blatant hypocrisy of Jefferson repeatedly stating that whites and blacks should never mate because that would “dilute superior white qualities” while, at the same time, fathering seven children with Sally.
Living with Jefferson at Monticello, Sally experiences several life-changing events including being given the mark of a slave that would remain her whole life with the painful branding of a large cross on her chest with a red hot iron like livestock are branded; the kidnapping of her first baby that she never sees again; being seduced and then educated by the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Frances Wright when she visited Monticello; unexpectedly discovering that Jefferson had a black ancestor and using that information to coerce him into freeing slaves of her Hemings family; and wrestling with Jefferson’s serious medical problems and nursing him through his agonizing death.
After Jefferson’s death, Sally becomes the property of Jefferson’s daughter Patsy who refuses to give Sally the freedom promised her by Jefferson before his death. In the end, using all her ingenuity Sally gains her freedom in a dramatic, anger-filled, gun-wielding confrontation with Patsy, forcing Patsy to grant her freedom. Sally then leaves Monticello, a free woman, to live in Charlottesville with her (and Jefferson’s) sons Madison and Eston Hemings.
The story is told by Sally Hemings as a memoir of her life with Thomas Jefferson. Explicit, sometimes wise, sometimes humorous and sometimes naïve descriptions of intimate behavior, efforts to manage medical problems and discussions of slavery, racism and sexism are recounted in the voice of the slave girl who lived it all.
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