Sally Hemings was an enslaved woman believed to have been Thomas Jefferson’s mistress and the mother of five children by him. It was a great scandal when Jefferson was President. For centuries, historians denied it, but rumors persisted. I heard recent DNA tests actually proved it. Historical observations of Sally Hemings suggest that she would have appealed to Jefferson for reasons beyond the physical. And there was much about Jefferson that would tempt a woman to see beyond the obvious injustice of his lifestyle. Two films bring their personalities to light and focus on their relationship. Both run on plot lines and dialogue that are mostly conjecture, as no documentation, such as personal letters, exist to prove the depth of their attachment. I’ll give mini-reviews of each, briefly review two books, and then tell you the main reason why I’m on this kick.
Sally Hemings: an American Scandal shows how the relationship between Jefferson (Sam Neill) and Sally (Carmen Ejogo) developed and how it matured over decades. It’s even romantic at times. The film focused a lot on Sally, her extended family, and fellow slaves and the cruelty they faced from racists and legal racism. I like that this film portrays Sally as spunky and outspoken, yet also a tactical thinker. The screenplay made her a total person with difficult decisions to live with.
By contrast, Jefferson in Paris showed Sally Hemings as a cross between Prissy from Gone with the Wind and …oh, I don’t know … Lolita, maybe. Nick Nolte plays Jefferson; Thandie Newton plays Sally. It’s kind of creepy, actually. Watch it yourself and tell me what you think. It’s a typical Merchant Ivory film — a visual feast of period costumes, sets, and scenes that brought joy to my eyes. The film ends with the biggest decision of Sally Hemings’ life.
That decision is the main reason I find Sally Hemings one of history’s most poignant and compelling women. In her teens she literally held freedom in her hands and made the conscious decision to relinquish it. The Hemingses of Monticello: an American Family examines her decision, as well as the lives of her extraordinary family. This nonfiction account by Annette Gordon-Reed is a thorough and compassionate book.
The Slave Master’s Son by Tiana Laveen is an interracial romance set against the backdrop of the Civil War. In my opinion, it needed an editor. I applaud the writer for taking on such a tricky topic, though. And the cover’s dead sexy. The Slave Master’s Son has many favorable reviews on Amazon, so don’t let mine be the last word. Download the free sample and tell me what you think.
Which leads me to why I’m on this kick as I ready my novel for publication later this year. The Bad Death is an antebellum vampire-slayer novel. Its heroine, Anika, is a slave on a South Carolina rice plantation in the late 1700s. Her love interests are Marcus, the enigmatic slave driver (who is himself, a slave) and Julian, Anika’s master. How not to fall flat on my face with an interracial, slave-era love triangle? It’s important to get this right. I know I can’t please everyone, but I want to know my subject and live inside my characters in order to tell their story in a way that does them justice and is respectful of the history underlying the fiction and fantasy.