Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Black Rapture: Sally Hemings, Chica Da Silva, and the Slave Body of Sexual Supremacy

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Black Rapture: Sally Hemings, Chica Da Silva, and the Slave Body of Sexual Supremacy

Article excerpt

whose little girl am I?

anyone who has money to buy.

-Nina Simone

God declares no independence,

here come the sons

from this black sally

branded with Jefferson hair

-Lucille Clifton


Four decades and two disparate locations within the Americas do nothing to detach Sally Hemings and Chica da Silva from a conjoined legacy of sexual perception that renders both women as enslaved embodiments of lascivious design.1 Each woman was the mother of both slavery and freedom-bearing offspring for free, powerful, wealthy, and influential white men. Hemings and Suva bear the mark of slavery's contradictions on their bodies; the ineffable impression of forced volition. To invest the slave body with a sexual supremacy and affluence, to gift it with uncomplicated agency, is to work in opposition to the aggressive nature of corporeal imperialism. As Saidiya Hartman reminds us, "The discourse of seduction obfuscates the primacy and extremity of violence in masterslave relations and in the construction of the slave as both property and person ... as the enslaved is legally unable to give consent or offer resistance, she is presumed to be always willing" (Hartman 1997, 81). Willing or not, aggressive or submissive, the slave body is the sexual body, imprinted with the fixations of hegemonic desire and branded with the signification of all-encompassing acquiescence. For Silva and Hemings, four slave masters and twenty-one progeny between them, it is the memory of their mastery of carnal pleasure that has a lingering quality in the transnational imaginary.

In this essay I will consider the convergence of absence and omnipresence on the bodies of two women associated with slavery and freedom, sexuality and sin. The desire to situate these women as visual figures absented of the physical effects of slavery also works to make barren the literal body colonies that necessarily produced themselves innumerable times over. After all, what is a slave history without its production, counterproduction, and reproduction? I am interested in the cultural insistence of overt sexuality, and the way this insistence works toward an understanding of the slave woman's body as necessarily distinct from her maternal body, imagined with the power to destroy powerful men using the weapons of her body. The concept of the slave-maternal is indicative of patterns of white male access and ownership, patterns that compel the slave woman's body to work toward its own ideological hyperfreedom even as it is physically reversed upon itself. The static cohesion of symbol and rhetoric formulate a revolving circle of negation bound through the chromosomal legacies of masters and slaves. This is the contradictory point at which we find ourselves face to face with the slave woman's particular conundrum and Hemings's and Suva's relationship to corporeal memory, to historical endeavor. What will occur here is an investigation into the fixations of omission and an examination of the dangerous ground cultures tread upon in using the bodies of others.2


Sally Hemings's final resting place, according to a recent news report, is "likely under a new Hampton Inn and its parking lot" in Charlottesville, Virginia, four miles from Monticello (Cauchon 1999). The sudden and furious interest in her corporeal whereabouts (post-DNA findings) has all the markings of the former hypervisible/invisible treatment Hemings encountered while she lived as one of Thomas Jefferson's two hundred slaves on the grounds of Monticello. We know her only through rumor, deduction, and the cataloging of Jefferson's notes, methodically marking each of her births. In the present moment, nearly two hundred years after her death, she is a veritable industry of memory. In Virginia, a proposal is under way to name a street "in her honor" (Clines 2000); a Lexington, Kentucky, racehorse owner is suing to retain the name Sally Hemings for his thoroughbred ("Horse owner sues," 2005); and a 1970 radical newsletter emerging from the University of Virginia named itself, in an ironic play on the use of voice, the Sally Hemings (Sally Hemings, 2005). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.