I: Individual Collectivities
Karla Kelsey: By creating a cross-generational conversation with Sally Hemings you open up the portal of time, allowing readers to experience a space where past and present converge. In taking on the persona poem you also open yourself to convergence, which allows us not only to see the psychic and physical landscape inhabited by Hemings, but in many ways to taste, touch, and feel this space as it acts on the individual body. For example, “Extraordinary Privilege, August 1792” begins: “I smashed his favorite pale blue pinwheel pearlware—/ a gift—a soup tureen for whomever I am serving/ a pound of meat, peck of cornmeal.” This language absorbs me in the material world of object and action as well as the complexity of Hemings and Jefferson’s relationship: the agency of giving and smashing. The complication of a gift that can only be use in the act of service.
As I was thinking about your use of the persona poem I was also thinking about something Poupeh Missaghi has written about the process of writing about Tehran, the city of her birth and a place she knows well but in which she no longer lives. Poupeh writes: “I think the process of writing the book, engaging with the city on so many different levels—intellectual and emotional, conscious and unconscious, on an axis of past-present-future—as well as contemplating the after-writing impacts of it, has resulted in the city being ingrained in me in ways I never expected.”
In the course of writing Mistress you spent six years researching the life of Sally Hemings. Has this experience mapped Hemings into your life in ways you didn’t expect, and do you have advice for writers who find themselves embarking on creative archival research?
Chet’la Sebree: When I first started writing about Sally Hemings, I was twenty-two. I started writing about her as a response to a prompt in a creative writing workshop on formal poetry. I was instructed to write a sonnet from the perspective of a historical figure. I combed my memory for what might interest me and Hemings came to mind. I’d read Ann Rinaldi’s Wolf by the Ears in fourth grade—a historical fiction about Sally Hemings’s daughter Harriet. The gleeful, research nerd in me immediately went in search of more information—realizing I knew no more than whatever sanitized version of history a novel assigned for a ten year old would present—only to realize what should have already been apparent. There were no records by Hemings—a woman enslaved in the late eighteen and early nineteenth centuries. Something about this gap, this secret, this silence (or silencing) drew me in. I was and always have been interested in investigating silence and secrecy as a writer—invested in being present in the gaps.
After graduate school and before it was clear that I was embarking on a project about Hemings, I wrote proposals for a poetry project in which I gave “voice to voicelessness and voiceless experiences”—a direct quote. I wanted to write about love and loss and women’s bodies, but I couldn’t shake Hemings. From 2011 to 2014, my fascination with her only grew as I better understood the complexities to her story: that she and Jefferson’s wife were half-sisters; that she accompanied Jefferson’s daughter Maria to Paris—where Hemings became Jefferson’s “concubine,” according to her son Madison Hemings—at the behest of Maria’s aunt, as the enslaved woman Jefferson selected to make the journey couldn’t because she was pregnant; that she struck a deal with Jefferson to return to the United States on the condition that he would free her children. The more I learned the more I felt she’d been robbed by history, that history had rendered her solely voiceless victim. Within the confines of slavery, she managed this sliver of agency that would impact her family for generations. And the more I learned, the more I tried, largely unsuccessfully, to write about her.
The reality of the project, however, came into fully view when I received a fellowship from the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. In one of the first creative projects funded by ICJS, I was invited to conduct research for a month at Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation and home to his presidential library. Even though I’d written a proposal that said I would work with Getting Word—an oral history archive started by Lucia Stanton and Dianne Swann-Wright to record the histories of descendants of families enslaved at Monticello—I still didn’t know what I was writing about Hemings or why. I’d been writing about Hemings for five years at that point and none of the poems were working. They all felt forced or as though, through them, I was merely trying to offer a history lesson.
I arrived at Monticello in August 2016 with few successful poems in hand and then was faced with the weight of research and writing about her on Thomas Jefferson’s land. It was more emotional than I could have imagined. It felt like a haunting—walking the grounds where she walked, being paid to live on land on which so many with similar ancestry to me had been enslaved. Amid the haunting, I felt the gravity of what I was proposing—to render this realm a little more real for my contemporaries.
So, I read books on Paris and papers from Jefferson’s retirement series. I took tours of the house at different times of day to catch the differences of light refracting. I asked for selections from special collections and artifacts from archeology. I tried on a replica of an eighteenth century corset in the University of Virginia’s Department of Drama costume shop and felt the tight press of boning against my ribcage. I wrote in Jefferson’s bedroom in the morning before tour days, listening to the clock’s methodical ticking. And the poems still weren’t coming. My journal was littered with fragments—descriptions of stoneware, the feel of the pressure shifts on the mountain, the scratch of raw fabric. It wasn’t amounting to anything, or at least not anything I could see clearly.
About halfway through the fellowship, I was asked to have a recorded conversation about the project for ICJS. In preparation for the conversation, the ICJS community engagement officer—a descendant of those enslaved at Monticello—asked what everyone kept asking: why Sally? It was a fair question. It was one I had been asked over those first five years of the project. I yammered on about my investment in voicelessness. A trained journalist, though, she kept asking.
When I taught first-year composition, I encouraged my students to see research as an act of discovery, to go into a project with questions as opposed to expectations. It gave me great anxiety to have spent five years researching and writing without a clue of what I was doing. But in that conversation, I found my answer. After her prodding, I eventually blurted something to the effect of “maybe if I can save her, I can save me,” and my voice cracked. The emotions I’d been trying to stuff down those first few weeks swelled to the surface. There it was. I saw something of myself in Hemings. Separated by time and the unparalleled inhumanity of slavery, our existences as young women were suddenly linked—the way our worlds talked about us and our bodies, the way the world never wanted us to succeed. Even more frightening, in her I saw one version of a future.
Hemings made a difficult decision to return to the United States, to remain enslaved to ensure the freedom of her children. What complicated decisions would I have to make? How would the color of my skin be a factor in them? In this way, Hemings was more than mapped on me, she brought into focus the realities of what I was grappling with in my twenties. How would I, one day, be forced to protect my future children? What would I be forced to give up to do it? What decisions would I make about my body in the face of uncertainty, in the face of violence? Most of the persona poems in Sally Hemings’s voice that made it into the collection were written after that conversation, which led to a pivotal poem in the collection where Hemings speaks directly to the contemporary speaker who bares my name: “Chet’la, I cannot save you. You must.” A simple lesson. Perhaps an obvious one, but one that feels rooted in me now.
It is important to go into the archive as an act of discovery, to see how the research presents itself. Trust that there will be something if you keep an open mind, even if it’s not what you’re expecting. But I also encourage a good self-care practice. Usually, whatever with which we find ourselves obsessed, whatever leads us to the archives in the first place, is something already gnawing at us, something already mapped on our existence although we may not understand how or why. For me, it was exhausting to explore this history, to be on this “axis of past-present-future” as Poupeh Missaghi put it, to allow this archive to occupy my mind and spirit. I think part of what took me six years to research this book and really eight years in total from initial poem to publication, was finding the time and space to wrestle with the gravity of it all, to understand what I was seeking from the archive, to accept what I was seeking it could not give and to make my peace with that. As you enter the archive, for so many reasons, tread lightly.
II: Collective Entries
Extended versions of these original questions can be found here.
The Call of the Object: Have you experienced a “call” from an archival object or text that led you down the path of response?
Chet’la Sebree: Holding artifacts in the Archeology Department at Monticello was a transformative experience. I mean what a researcher’s delight—orderly tan boxes and drawers with items meticulously labeled and stored. I’ll never forget the way that ungloved palms presented these objects excavated from walls and pits from all over the 5,000-acre property.
I was particularly fascinated by the “social stratification,” if we can call it that, of objects that were excavated from enslaved quarters. The difference in access to resources was demonstrated through the simple stoneware found at farther-flung parts of the plantation and the “fashionable ceramics” found on Mulberry Row—where enslaved people, including some of the Hemingses, lived closer to the house. The concretization of the stratification added texture to this foreign, historical landscape, and I was drawn to a lot of the objects on Mulberry Row.
Object ID: 629
Location: Enslaved Quarters, Building s
Description: Tobacco pipe carved with buck and engraved with the letters WM.
Object ID: 626
Project: Building s
Description: Unid. bone object with one threading one end and on the other a carved edge
There was a single purple bead (Object ID: 565); a cast lead horse figurine (Object ID: 44AB0465); a broken skeleton key (Object ID: 2201E); a bovine clavicle used for buttons (Object ID: 5). I imagined a whole life around these items. Who would have worn the bead and when and why? Who played with the tiny horse figurine? To whom was the skeleton key entrusted? The tactility rendered the landscape of Sally Hemings’s Monticello more real than walking within the walls of Jefferson’s house. Of all things, a toothbrush is what most struck me perhaps because it was the thing that wasn’t immediate identifiable. Although the poem featuring said toothbrush—made of long-gone boar bristle and bone—never made it into the collection, it drew attention to my need to further complicate my portrayal of the lives of those enslaved at Monticello.
The public consciousness of slavery is usually fairly narrow—one that, rightly, underscores the horrors of the inhumane system. The people, though, get lost in this compression. The individuals, for whom slavery was the only life they knew, and how they built their lives within the system, with purple beads to toothbrushes, gets lost.
Hemings’s narrative was largely flat in my early poems. The toothbrush inspired me to include more details. I began to think about about how Hemings’s children played music; how her mother, Elizabeth, lived into her seventies; how her brother was trained in the art of French cuisine and then freed. I brought these details into the poems through her mother’s hands, the strings of instruments, and the powder of oeufs a la niege. And when I made her family life more dynamic in the project, I began to further evaluation the nature of her relationship with Jefferson, which remains a difficult conversation.
As an enslaved woman thirty years Jefferson’s junior, Hemings had no rights to her body and could not consent to any sexual relationship with him. I am firm about that. But I also know the age of consent in Virginia was 10 in the 1780s, when Jefferson impregnated her. I also know that the archives explain to me that she took a pair of his glasses, an inkwell, and one of his shoe buckles when she left Monticello after his death in 1826, when Jefferson’s daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, informally freed her. I know these items were passed down for several generations. I know, through the Getting Word project, the great-great granddaughters of Madison Hemings explained that when they were children “it was always presented ... that she [Sally] must have really been a special person and that he [Jefferson] must have loved her a lot ... it has been ... [a] family’s truth.” And I know that none of us were in those rooms with her in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I know how fiction can be created to mask horror and injustice. I believe—as complicated as it is for us in the twenty-first century to understand what happened—it was complicated for Hemings as well.
The toothbrush was not just a gateway to a rich set of imagery but to narrative complexity, which brought me back to this idea of stratification. Ultimately, we often only seem Hemings—again, necessarily—as a victim; however, we often don’t consider that, for better or worse, she had some sort of social capital, as a young black woman more well-traveled than most of her white contemporaries, that she could have either potentially enjoyed this or it could have left her feeling isolated. What did the people with simple stoneware think of her holding porcelain? How did they feel when she delighted in speaking in the French she’d learned in Paris? Did I have a responsibility of those individuals to show her in what perhaps could have been an unflattering light?
It also made me consider the complexity of her sexual identity. If she was trapped in a physical relationship with Jefferson, what did that mean for engagement with other men at the plantation? What did it mean for her to be a woman with desire? This all felt precarious—to be asking these questions of a woman robbed over her own voice in history, to be having conversations about these things. But the toothbrush and all of the artifacts made it feel I like I couldn’t tell the story without some of these more convoluted details.
I hope that all of this comes across in the text—not as a way to undermine or lessen the sheer magnitude of the practice of slavery or her sufferings, but to problematize our narrow view of these stories, to see their complexities, their nuances, and the dangers of monolithic representations of experiences.
The Ethics and Aesthetics of Archival Work: What is one of the most powerful experiences that you have had as you’ve engaged an overlooked or silenced element of the archive?
Chet’la Sebree: For many years, Madison Hemings’s account of his mother’s life was overlooked. In Annette Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, she writes “Although his statement is the only known recitation of the details of this controversial story by any of the parties involved, it has been either ignored by historians or dismissed out of hand with no attempt to address what Hemings actually said.” I balk at the dismissiveness of white historians for decades, especially as the account now serves as the foundation for Monticello’s permanent exhibition: The Life of Sally Hemings. The account is what brought me into this realm in graduate school. Language from Madison Hemings dots the collection—“it lived by a short time,” “extraordinary privileges.” Some of the descendants who are recorded as part of the Getting Word project are from his lineage. There is something invigorating about this long overlooked document now being seen as the pillar for truth in this narrative.
Even as that is true, I recognized that in relying on his narrative I was further perpetuating her silence in a way. As I worked to construct Hemings from a historically overlooked but now celebrated document, I was seeking out some semblance of her through a man. And this would continue to happen as I looked into narratives from others enslaved at the plantation, overseers, and James Callender, who wrote about her only as a way to malign Jefferson. Even my desire to give her voice through persona poems was enacting its own violence. I was occupying the voice of someone who, throughout history, never had the opportunity to speak for herself. For me, this called into question the legitimacy of what I was doing. I asked myself whether or not Hemings was just fodder for my creative pursuits. It forced me to approach the project with active consideration for whether I was doing more good than harm.
When my students engage with research, with archives, with myth, religion, and public records, I ask them to consider their positionality. I ask them to consider their relationship to the records with which they’re working. I point to other people working with histories and archives: M. NourbeSe Philip, Layli Long Soldier, Evie Shockley, Tyehimba Jess, Adreian Matejka, Shara McCallum, Diana Khoi Nguyen. I ask them to evaluation the relationship these writers might have with the records with which they’re engaging. I had to do this with my project as well.
If something makes you anxious, question your motives, your privileges, your positionality. Determine why you are embarking on this project and what responsibilities you have to your subjects—particularly those who are underrepresented, ignored, or silenced. What have they already endured? How will your project do more good than harm? I’d also suggest considering writing those anxieties into the project. Alerting the reader to your reservations will build rapport; it’ll tell them you’ve considered the implications. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t mean you won’t err. The reality is that I probably have; the reality is that I probably will with future projects. And I own that. I also own the decisions I made in my particular presentation of this incomplete archive of Hemings’s life. You have to be purposeful and careful in this space, take calculated risks, and be willing to admit missteps.
Preservation and Access: If you could create any kind of archive you wanted, anywhere in the world, to house any kind of materials, what would you create?
Chet’la Sebree: I found this question the most difficult to answer, so I fear what I’m about to say might seem like a bit of a hop out, but here it goes.
There is so much we don’t preserve; there is so much we take for granted in our digital world. In a landscape where letter writing and snail mail are coveted by so few of us, there is so much language lost to text messages deleted after a year and emails trashed to avoid paying for cloud storage. Personally, I wish we could find a space between Marie Kondo and hoarding in which we preserved a little more of our individual stories.
I have a brother that’s eight years older. I could tell you tangentially how he impacted me the years before he went to college—how he would make afternoon snacks for us to eat while we watched Animaniacs or how he took the fall for me when I cartwheeled into the stereo system. But few stories capture his impact the way that the artifacts do. I’m not sure if they are still there but for most of my adult life there have been two empty water bottles in the closet of my childhood bedroom: one from which my brother drank on the day graduated high school and the other from when he graduated college. I would have been ten and fourteen at his graduations—a young, budding archivist. To me, this articulates not just how much my brother meant to me but how I saw these milestones of the first born son to a young mom.
But it’s not just the celebratory I wish to preserve. As a child, I had benign Rolandic epilepsy—a seizure disorder children outgrow. During the three year period of my seizures, my mother kept a meticulous journal for my neurologists. She’d track the date, time, and duration of each seizure as well as the extent of the postictal paralysis—where I wasn’t able to speak, move certain extremities.
I had my last seizure on a morning in November 1997. I know this because for years I would revisit my mother’s neat penmanship to browse the pages of a story that no longer felt like it belonged to me.
When my aunt had terminal brain cancer nearly twenty years later, she had seizures as the tentacles of the glioblastoma reached deeper into her. It was my first time on the other side of the convulsions, witnessing the uncontrollable movements of a loved one.
About a year after she’d passed, I wanted to return to the journal, to my mother’s detailed record-keeping only to discover she’d thrown it away. After watching her sister die, my mother couldn’t bear the pages in which she didn’t know what would become of her daughter. But I wanted to map my experiences onto my mother’s; I wanted this moment of communion.
We don’t value our own stories; we shy away from what’s difficult to preserve pristine legacies. We cannot keep everything; this I understand, but I wish we were encouraged to keep a little more that represented the breadth of our stories so we could begin to see the tessellations of our shared experiences. Without these records my children and my children’s children maybe will never know I had childhood epilepsy like I didn’t know until later in life my grandfather suffered from similar episodes.
I consider this type of archive to be a feminist practice in a Carol Hanisch “the personal is political” sense. There is power in preservation, in deciding a story is worthy of remembrance, in what those stories say about our particular moment. For my future children, perhaps a college degree will be as expected as water from a tap. As a woman of color, I am so infrequently encouraged to celebrate myself, to see myself fully. In a capitalist, instant gratification, single-use culture, there is power in creating something with longevity, in establishing an small archive that says “I was here.”
III: Exchange Question
Amy E. Elkins: In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed describes how books become “spaces of encounter; how we are touched by things; how we touch things. I think of feminism as a fragile archive, a body assembled from shattering, from splattering, an archive whose fragility gives us a responsibility: to take care” (17). She proposes a survival kit—“To live a feminist life is to live in very good company...I encourage you as a feminist reader to assemble your own kit. What would you include?” (17). What are the texts—broadly defined—in your feminist survival kit? What do you include in the archive of inspiration, strength, care, etc. on which you draw?
My feminist survival kit would include:
- Alison Saar’s Coup (2006)
- “There Is No Hierarchy of Oppression” by Audre Lorde
- “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
- Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
- “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker
- My great-grandmother’s gold locket
- A photo of my niece and nephew
I first encountered Alison Saar’s work in July 2016 when she gave an artist talk at Vermont Studio Center—an artist residency. Coup (2006) isn’t the work that necessarily caught my attention most then, but it is one that stays with me. In the sculpture, a seated woman is tethered to more than a dozen suitcases by a long braid. In her hands, she holds a pair of scissors. There is power in her, a will to change. For me, it is an acknowledgement both of the struggles of black women as well as our power and agency. I mourn for the “baggage bound to us by our braids,” while also feeling empowered by her scissor-wielding hands—poised to sever from this burden.
I feel a similar mix of emotions when I turn to the work of Audre Lorde. She starts her “There Is No Hierarchy of Oppression” essay “I was born black, and a woman.” I read the essay for the first time in college, a decade before I ever saw Coup. In it, Lorde asserts “I simply do not believe that one aspect of myself can possibly profit from the oppression of any other part of my identity” and “I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only.” At eighteen, it was the first time I read something that really acknowledged in plain language the complexities of black womanhood. Lorde’s her work would begin a larger journey for me, which would eventually lead me to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality. Honestly, almost anything Lorde-related would go into my survival kit: “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” “Uses of the Erotic,” “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” I draw from her work both inspiration and care; her words balm wounds I knew were there but to which I hadn’t attended—a deep cut where you can see the spliced skin before blood and pain present themselves.
In the way I feel seen by Lorde, I keep Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” close by to pass like a pamphlet in spaces where white people have not acknowledged their white privilege in any genuine way. McIntosh writes that she “was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” Often, the people with whom I engage who need to read it are people who consider themselves progressive and open-minded, but have never considered that the “flesh” color of Band-Aids are a manifestation of said systemic racism and white privilege—that we live in a society that normalizes whiteness and others my blackness. Having this in my kit is both a way of taking care of myself, like protective equipment, and a way of educating, which has always been important to me.
As a child, one of my favorite make-believe scenarios was the classroom. I was the teacher and my stuffed animals were the students, so naturally my survival kit includes the convocation speech Adrienne Rich delivered in 1977 at Douglass College: “Claiming an Education.” The essay taught me not to be a passive recipient of information but to be active in my own critical consciousness, to “demand to be taken seriously,” to seek criticism, and to do the “hard work.” As an avid reader and intellectual, I still follow the guidance. For instance, I thought critically about whether or not to include Carol Hanisch’s “The Personal Is Political” in my kit. I couldn’t get past the politics of whose stories were allowed to be politicized—Rosa Parks over Claudette Colvin—but that’s a conversation worthy of its own essay. Rich’s speech, however, not only implores me as a seeker of knowledge but as an educator; it requires of me “a pledge of mutual seriousness about women, about language, ideas, methods, and values.”
The other books and stories in my survival kit are less manifestos by which I try to live and more narratives that spoke to me. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye presents the complexities of black girlhood and the challenges of coming up in a world that didn’t, and at times refused, to see me. I’d include Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea for the bold way it pushes against the established and celebrated narrative of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Victorian conceptions of the “madwoman”; from Rhys I’ve learned to retell narratives as an act of resistance, to remember that there are so many versions of one story. Perhaps she, in part, led me to Hemings. “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker also falls into this category. I read the short story with my mother when I was a teenager. Every time I think of it, I am reminded that my mom encouraged me to be a voracious reader. The story also brings me to the penultimate item in my survival kit, which is an heirloom from my great-grandmother: a gold, four-picture locket.
I feel very lucky to have known three-great grandmothers and one great-grandfather during my lifetime. My great-grandmother Ruth (my mother’s mother’s mother) died when I was fourteen. When I was in my twenties, my grandmother gave me Ruth’s gold locket. Apparently, my great-grandmother left it to me when she passed away, but I was an irresponsible teenager, as many of us were, so my grandmother waited to give it to me until after I graduated from college. In this way, in my survival kit, I bring with me my ancestors. My great-grandmother was a governess for a white family in the 60s. Grandmom Ruth, as I called her, cooked the white family’s meals, managed the children’s nannies, and maintained the house. A couple of generations later, I am a college professor. I am who I am in the world so that I can honor the matrilineal sacrifices that these women—my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother—made so I could be where I am. I carry my Grandmom Ruth with me to conferences, to readings, to my classrooms. I wear her around my neck in this locket. I, like Mama in “Everyday Use,” see the value of carrying my ancestors along with me, in my heritage being transparent in my journey. They give me strength.
And just as they give me strength, my niece (4) and nephew (9) give me purpose, which is why I would include a photo of them. They remind me, when I’m exhausted, devastated, seemingly defeated, that my intersectional feminist practice is for them, so that they can hopefully live one day in a whole where my niece will survive a routine traffic stop and my nephew can go for a run.
Chet’la Sebree is the Director of the Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Arts and an Assistant Professor of English at Bucknell University. She is the author of the poetry collection Mistress and the forthcoming hybrid project Field Study.