By Deardra Shuler
There are different points of view as to whether Thomas Jefferson actually had a love affair with his slave Sally Hemmings. Many books have been written on the subject debating the pros and cons of the matter. Descendants of Hemmings have claimed that two of Sally Hemming’s children, Eston and Madison, orally stated that Thomas Jefferson was their father and thus their paternity by Thomas Jefferson has been widely supported and believed by Hemmings side of the family. DNA testing via the male-line, indicates a genetic link between the Jefferson line and Hemming genetic line, indicating that an individual with the Jefferson Y chromosome fathered Eston Hemmings. Although there were 25 adult male Jeffersons who carried the chromosome at the time, it’s assumed the most logic conclusion is that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemming for sure and therefore it’s supposed he fathered his other children by Sally Hemmings.
As part of Black History month, the Castillo Theatre, located at 543 West 42nd Street in Manhattan, has brought to the stage their musical portrayal of “Sally and Tom: The American Way” via Fred Newman’s book version and lyrics. Presented in a rather unique theatrical setting the production is kept moving literally. Starring Ava Jenkins as Sally Hemming; Adam Kemmerer as Thomas Jefferson, Sean Patrick Gibbons as antagonist James T, Callender, Brian D. Hicks as Madison Hemmings. Both David Nackman and Miss Jacqueline Salit portray James Madison. The production runs until March 25th.
While the play portrays Jefferson as a rather complicated man, it covers his hypocritical and rather cowardly side. Reported as being opposed to slavery and even having stated he found the institution of slavery an abominable crime, Jefferson himself held slaves on his Monticello plantation in Virginia. Although it was not uncommon for the rich aristocracy to rape and force female slaves into sexual relationships as Jefferson did to Sally in Paris when she was 17 years old, it was one of those well kept private secrets never mentioned publicly. In fact, it was considered bad form to talk about what even the slave master’s white wives, who while averting their eyes to the truth, could evidence given the numerous slave children who resembled their husbands. That is why when Jefferson’s political opponent and journalist James T. Callender wrote an article claiming Sally was Jefferson’s concubine during Jefferson’s first term as President, Jefferson gave no response, despite widely spread publicity on the affair.
While Jefferson never freed Sally, (his daughter did) Sally repeatedly begged him to free his children. He finally freed Madison on his 21st birthday and its rumored he eventually freed all his children. It’s reported that Jefferson drafted the Virginia law of 1778 prohibiting the importation of enslaved Africans and proposed an ordinance that would ban slavery in the Northwest territories, with the hopes of eventual emancipation. Yet, after having proposed these ordinances, Jefferson primarily remained silent; neither making further anti-slavery statements nor taking any significant public action to change the course of slavery. Jefferson’s contradictory nature remains a puzzle to historians.
Initially I found the first half of the production slow moving, however it picked up considerably during the course of the show, directly challenging the hypocrisy of America itself in terms of its pretense of “equal justice and liberty for all,” when it clearly practices inequity. Songs in the musical such as “Enslaved by the Color of Our Skin,” “Rich and Poor Hypocrisy,” “The Coward’s Song,” and “The American Way,” highlight America’s hypocrisy and penchant for unequal treatment of its non-white citizens. The song “The Beginning of America’s Night,” focuses on White America’s fear of those of darker hue. Their revulsion of black people and other people of color is demonstrated by their deeds, declarations and an institutionalized hatred that continues to exist to this day, despite denial to the contrary. Given Jefferson’s anti-slavery position he would be delighted to see a black man as President and perhaps disappointed to see although President Obama expressed “change,” little has changed, given the unbridled hatred, disrespect, hostility, and disgusting behavior demonstrated by many members of Jefferson’s own race toward the presidency of Barack Obama. Jefferson would be horrified by the condition of America; its joblessness, fear mongering, wars, dismantling of citizen rights, the economic condition brought about by the loss of manufacturing, greed and corruption and an educational system that ranks lower than some third world countries. He would be shocked by the complacency of the American people whose complete ambivalence and lack of self-governance has turned America into an oligarchy instead of a democracy. Jefferson would find it unimaginable that greedy corporations have become multi-nationalist betraying America and nationalism for the sake of profit.
“Sally and Tom: The American Way,” displays the inequity of early America, while reminding us that inequity still prevails. Although a hidden love affair between two people, Sally and Tom demonstrates that nothing hidden remains so forever. Yet, it reminds us it’s not too late for America to learn the lessons of its past. Go see “Sally and Tom” and let’s begin the collective work that brings true equity and a better America in future.