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Not other human emotion excites such passionate interest and longing or gives rise to such high expectations at all levels of society.Songs tell us that “love” is “the answer” to almost everything that ails us: war, famine, disease, and racial prejudice. Indeed, I suspect that love’s supposed capacity to heal lies at the heart of people’s interest in Hemings and Jefferson. My impression from talking with people and reading the letters they writing to me, not to mention the many operas, plays, screenplays, and proposals for novels they send, is that Jefferson’s love for Hemings could somehow redeem and heal him. As much as we admire the author of the Declaration of Independence and the two-term U. president, a man who doubled the size of the nation, sent Lewis and Clark west, founded the University of Virginia, championed religious freedom, and acted as an all-around renaissance man, Jefferson the slaveholder poses a great challenge.
Rape and the threat of it blighted the lives of countless enslaved women.
At the same time, some black women and white men did form bonds quite different in character than from those resulting from sexual coercion.
At any time, Jefferson had the right to sell her and their children if he wanted to.
White males, not just slave owners—exercised inordinate power over black women during slavery.
The question about Hemings and Jefferson, of course, does not arise from a vacuum.
We modern people have a history, so to speak, with love, especially of the romantic kind.
Under French law, Hemings would have had a clear route to freedom had she chosen it.
Instead, she agreed to return to America with him, placing herself entirely under his power.
Apologists for the peculiar institution claimed that a genuine “love” existed between the races during slavery, putting the lie to northern abolitionists’ claim that the institution was evil and exploitative.
Southern slaveholders often pointed to their affection for their individual “mammies” and the supposedly deep ties they formed with their enslaved playmates (of the same sex, of course) on the plantation.