Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Families and Slavery

I would first like to draw attention to a statement made by Roger Wilkins on page 11 of Jefferson’s Pillow. “…Two branches of my family began with enslaved Virginians… Another branch began with members of the Cherokee Nation. We know from family lore and from the appearance of a number of my ancestors that white eighteenth-century slave owners… had injected themselves into the blood streams of the Virginia people I identify as my great grandparents…” What interests me about this statement is the rhetoric in which he describes his relationship to Africans and Native Americans and then that which he uses to describe his relationship to the Englishman. Why did he choose “branches of my family” for the first two and then “injected themselves” for the latter? As if his white ancestors were some type of contagious disease that his family’s bloodline was unfortunate enough to have acquired. I understand the circumstances by which the blood of the Englishman most likely became intertwined with the African people he considers his family; however, do these circumstances make the Englishman any less his ancestor? Isn’t the mix of bloodlines over generations what has made him truly the definition of an African-American? Most likely, it is not the biological relationship to such men that he is denying, but instead the idea of a familial relationship. The women who gave birth to the light skinned great grandparents Wilkins speaks of probably had no say in their impregnations.  It is just as probable that the white men who fathered his ancestors would deny such accusations, taking absolutely no claim to their illegitimate children (other than that claim a master would make over his slaves), allowing Wilkins to deem them illegitimate ancestors. This however brings us to another important focus. The lengthy existence of such a cruel act as American Slavery is attributed greatly to the idea that slave owners were able to convince themselves that Negros were not human beings.  It seems impossible that the men who fathered these partially black children would be able to then convince themselves that their sons and daughters were not human. The simple argument that it was the widespread belief and lifestyle of the time period seems extremely insufficient. Such an idea suggests that the men of the time must have understood their immorality and should in fact be held accountable for their actions. In fact even they must have felt guilt for their actions themselves… Didn’t Thomas Jefferson (and countless other slave owners- turned fathers) free his sons with Sally Hemings following his death? Why would such freedom be granted to a non-human?


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  2. You addressed awesome points. I didn’t initially interpret Jefferson’s rhetoric as attempting to bash his white ancestors or downplay their relationship to him. Instead, I read the passage and found the word “injected” to be merely indicative of expressive imagery and clever diction. After reading the passage for a second time, however, I realized the poignancy of “white eighteenth-century slave owners” and its contrast to “my ancestors”, more importantly what this difference in wording represents. I feel that this is the same as your distinction of “branches of family” and “injected themselves”. Jefferson may have used the emotive term “injected themselves” to subliminally express his discontent or incomplete approval of sexual intercourse with slaves or slavery as a whole. You bring to light a compelling argument to suggest that Jefferson possibly thinks of his white ancestors as less his ancestry, more so in regard to the loving familial aspect of the relationship. Support of this is shown in his choosing the rhetoric “white eighteenth-century slave owners” as opposed to referring to them as “my other ancestors”, “other family members”, or descriptions along these lines. Though he does not literally believe his white ancestors to be infected with disease, he could be referring to the disease of the mind one must possess in order to rape/force one’s self upon someone (though he was, of course, guilty of the action himself).

    To address your second point, freedom was granted to these “non-humans” because slave owners knew that they had fathered these children and likewise knew that denying their freedom was wrong. In a sense, even if only a little, it can be reasonably assumed that slave owners felt that their children were (somewhat) human. They simply did not want other whites/officials to know that they were responsible for producing such incompetent, filthy, evil, (and other words synonymous with “black”) beings who were anemic of imagination and reason. Slave owners most likely had their own personal issues with the fact that their children were half black. This situation is an attestation of Jefferson's ongoing internal struggle/contradictions.

  3. Piper, you definitely addressed a great point in this post. I too find the author's choice of words curious, but I think his choosing of those words are get provoke the reader to think about the question you have raised here. There is no doubt that a person can never truly deny parts of their ancestry. It is part of them and it always will be. However, in the same way that slave owners who had children with their slaves denied their relationship, I think Wilkins is simply drawing our attention to the fact that those particular ancestors to him mean something different. They are not just his great great grandparents. This also partly addresses the second point about the unsatisfactory nature of the "thinking of the time argument." Yes some slave owner fathers freed their children after their death, but they were still felt too uncomfortable or whatever to do it while they were alive. So again, I think while that child cannot deny Jefferson as his father, he also cannot love him and have the same relationship that he would have had with his father not as a slave.