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For Sally Hemmings and All of Hagar’s Daughters

(Note: Womanists Theologians like Renita Weems have used a similar premise to connect the experiences of enslaved Black Women Ancestors to the Biblical narrative. The actual name "Hagar's Daughters" is the main title of a book/extended essay by Dr. Diana L. Hayes. The full title is "Hagar's Daughters: Womanist Ways of Being in the World.")

In one of the most egregious “foul ups” that a person or entity can commit, several news outlets recently presented stories about the findings of archaeologists’ excavation of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation using a seemingly harmless word. Through their excavation, the archaeologists discovered what they believe to be the room that Sally Hemmings, who was enslaved by the third President of the United States, lived in. The awful word, which may again be seemingly harmful to some, was – “mistress.” These news outlets such as Inquisitr, the Daily Mail, AOL, Cox Media Group (although they retracted the word) and NBC, in a tweet, described her as Jefferson’s “mistress,” per Britni Danielle writing for the Washington Post. It has, since I remember, been reported that she bore six children by Jefferson. Nevertheless, there is one gigantic problem that exists when using this term, and that is the role of choice. Sally Hemmings was Jefferson’s slave. She was chattel. She was his property. This reality took away her notion of freedom and choice. She was raped and abused by the nation’s third President, not a willful participant in an extramarital affair! And there was absolutely nothing she could do about it.

The description of her as “mistress” highlights the United States’ inability to speak truthfully about its past, which makes any type of reconciliation possible. I remember as a child hearing her described in very much the same way, or whoever I was hearing this from was incapable of telling the truth about her and countless other African American women’s continual rape and mistreatment at the hands of their white male slave owners, overseers, and their sons.

I had long since understood the dichotomy of Ancestor Sallie Hemmings and Jefferson. However, in late 2015 or early 2016, I had a conversation that turned into an argument, with my significant other at the time. Long story short, she attempted to explain to me how she believed that during slavery we don’t know if there could have been love between white male slave owners and enslaved Black women. I flatly rejected this notion and found it insulting and altogether deeply disheartening that this beautiful intelligent Black woman could think this way! I had to realize that this was simply a product of the way the United States glosses over its history and often sanitizes it. It also brought me back to an ancient period of time and the book that is essential to my spiritual growth and development – the Bible.

In the book of Genesis chapter 16, we read about the story of Hagar. I call it the story of Hagar because even though the chapter itself is highlighting the importance of Abraham (still Abram), Sarah (still Sarai), and the birth of Ishmael (Hagar and Abraham’s child), this is “Herstory” along with Genesis 21:8-21.

"so she said to Abram, “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me.” “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her." Genesis 16:2-6 (NIV)

Hagar had her ability to choose taken away from her! And to take it a step further, Hagar was then mistreated by Sarai and ran away. Abraham and Sarah were complicit in the violation of this woman because they were too impatient to wait on the child that The Lord had promised them. This violation and then continued mistreatment draws parallels to the African American Women, our enslaved ancestors, who were violated by the white male owner and then is mistreated by the white female owner when it becomes known that she is with child (by her husband).

This story, in the very same way as Sally Hemmings’ story, has been sanitized and completely restructured to paint the images of Thomas Jefferson and the United States, and Abraham and Sarah, in a much better light than anyone would if they were living today. This is historical erasure of Sally Hemmings and Hagar! We ignore these women and their stories, why? It is not the narrative that is easy or comfortable for people to engage with, so they have to create an alternative (facts?).

I’m saying that enough is enough for this historical erasure and re-imagining. It has implications for today in how we view our present moment as it relates to race, power dynamics, choice, and human rights. Not speaking and teaching truthfully of Ancestor Hemmings story and the past that her story represents disallows any real healing from taking place. The same can be said of Hagar’s story and the historical context of the book of the Bible that we discover her story in. Preaching and spiritual/theological insights can be so much more impactful if the her truth is widely studied and understood in this sacred text.

Lastly, Hagar received a promise from God that did not necessarily do much for her, but would place her descendants in a far greater position.

"The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him,

“Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob. God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt." Genesis 21:8-21 (NIV)

This is akin to our enslaved female ancestors, who endured abuse, but survived in order to protect, lay the foundation for, and to place hope in the idea that their children would see better days.

We thank and love these women because without them, we would not be here. We would not be living their dreams now! And we must not allow their stories to be re-imagined and glossed over!

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