chapter  3
17 Pages

Bloodlines and Blurred Lines

Contested Memories and Freedom in Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Sally Hemings
WithPortia Owusu

The chapter begins with a discussion of group identity as formed in relation to the past. I assert that (White) American identity is often constructed in the light of the work, ideals and lives of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson as a prime example. However, Chase-Riboud’s radical reading of the relationship between historical Jefferson and his African-American slave, Sally Hemings, is an example of how African-Americans conceive and perceive American History differently to reassert their citizenship as well as inclusion in narratives about America and her beginnings. Therefore, I read Chase-Riboud’s representation of Hemings as the African-American Founding Mother, her life and legacy the “alternative” history that African-Americans use to shape their identity as American citizens.

The chapter also reads Chase-Riboud’s depiction of the historical Sally Hemings as a window into understanding nineteenth-century Black womanhood under the conditions of slavery. Principally, the first section of this chapter looks at the characterisation of Hemings as resisting simple and dialectical definitions of enslaved women as either Jezebels (attractive, oversexualised and a threat to the White family) or Mammies (sexless and unattractive but faithful servants of the white family). The discussion draws attention to her intersectionality based on race, socio-economics and political and social powers. The discussion ends with a critical discourse on freedom as interpreted and practiced differently by the enslaved men and women.