Chapter 1: Young Elizabeth's World
Elizabeth Hemings began life when America was still a colonial possession.
She lived through the Revolution in the home of one of the men who helped make
it and died during the formative years of the American Republic, an unknown
person in the midst of pivotal events in national and world history. Hemings
lived at a time when chattel slavery existed in every American colony, but was
dramatically expanding and thriving in the Virginia that was her home. She was,
by law, an item of propertya nonwhite, female slave, whose life was bounded by
eighteenth-century attitudes about how such persons fit into society. Those
attitudes, years in the making by the time Hemings was born, fascinate because
they are at once utterly familiar and totally alien.
Most Americans today admit the existence of racism and sexism, even as we often disagree about examples of them. When we encounter these practices while studying the eighteenth century, we react knowingly. "These are the things," at least some of us say, "that we're still working to overcome." We also know that hierarchies, based on any number of factors, exist in every society, enriching the lives of some and blighting the lives of others.
Yet, slavery is a different matter altogether. There are workers all over the world who live desperate lives with little hope of advancement for themselves or their children. There are women who are held in bondage and forced to work as prostitutes or to clean others' homes and care for others' families while their own families go unattended. None of these conditions approach the systematic degradation and violence of American slavery sanctioned by state and church. People were bought and sold against their will. They were defined in statutes as chattel or real estate. With the law's protection they could be beaten to death as part of legitimate "correction." They were denied legal marriage. Slave women were unprotected against rape. Forcing a slave woman to have sex against her will was considered a trespass against her owner. If her owner raped her, it was no crime at all. What the violation meant to the woman was irrelevant. The law prevented slaves from giving testimony in courts against white people. It was a world where one could pick up the daily newspaper and see advertisements touting "Negroes for sale" and descriptions of "runaway slaves" complete with stock caricatures that made them instantly recognizable to all readers. These and all the other depredations of the slave system present a world that seems far removed from daily life in the United States in the twenty-first century. Though we hear echoes of that world and understand that its effects are still present, much about this time feels otherworldly.
Understanding the path of Elizabeth Hemings's life requires some consideration of the contours of the community into which she was born, an elastic place with boundaries that expanded, contracted, shifted, and evolved over time. At the broadest level, Hemings was part of a large Atlantic world, comprising Europeans and Africans on both sides of that ocean whose lives were shaped by the demands of slavery. While the characteristics of that world must inform our view, a thorough investigation of all parts of it is beyond the scope of this book. Instead, we will draw the circle around Hemings more closely to look at the world she would have known most intimatelythe world of an enslaved woman in eighteenth-century Virginia.
To say to an American that Elizabeth Hemings was "born a slave" is to call forth a particular image of who she was, how she lived her life, and even how she spoke and carried herself. That is because slavery lives in the minds of most Americans as a series of iconic images: a slave ship packed tight with human cargo, a whip, the auction block, slaves speaking one universal and timeless dialect, black figures toiling in cotton fields. That last imagethe cotton fieldhas most strongly influenced our view, freezing the institution in its antebellum period when cotton was "king" and when slavery had, in the view of one influential historian, been thoroughly domesticated. By the time "King Cotton" arrived in the nineteenth century, enslaved Virginians of African origin, and those of English extraction whose ancestors introduced slavery into the Old Dominion, had long since become Americans, and the institution that defined their existence together had adapted itself, it seemed, for the long haul.
Excerpted from The Hemingses of Monticello © Copyright 2008 by Annette Gordon-Reed. Reprinted with permission by W. W. Norton. All rights reserved.
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