Arts & Culture / Convergence / Politics / Vol. 1 No. 3-4

Remembering Sally Hemmings. November 5, 2008.

Charles Ferderick looking back

Image Credit: Charles Ferderick, looking back, 2018

Remembering Sally Hemings*
On November 5, 2008

Whose silken fetters all the senses bind
And soft captivity involves the mind.
Imagination! Who can sing thy force?
(Phillis Wheatley. On Imagination.)

Sally Hemings
Albemarle County, Virginia

Dear Miss Phillis Wheatley,

Or would you prefer Mrs. Phillis Peters? A name contains so much.
Journey. Myth. The stuff we humans are made of. Including deception. Sally
my own name appears slight. A girl’s attribute. But I am long a grown woman
whose family name carries the weight of history and condition made complex
by lovers’ promises, the first to my Grandmother. She bore the name of an African.

Kidnaped and brought across an ocean into this bay’s mouth, onto land wrested
from Powhatan’s stewardship, sold in bondage to a highlander native of yet
another place, come to earn his fortune in this place claimed Williamsburg, Virginia
in honor of monarch lines and land grabbing Queens. My Grandmother conceived my mother
who she called Elizabeth, with an English seaman named Hemings. He sought their
liberation. The slave owner refused and held Elizabeth Hemings to sell her to another white man
who had six children with my mother before he passed us all on in estate. Through a daughter
by his wedded wife. To his son in law. A man who would soon craft a declaration
of national independence.

And I? Raised between mountains and the sea’s endless meetings and partings
where virgin conifer forest fell to men’s axes, woodpecker and nuthatch blacken the sky
in promiscuous migration, epidemic and war birthed pirated settlements and the first
women colonists arrived in tandem with the first slave ship. Corn. Squash. Bean. Blood
watered. Washed in brine. Beside okra, sheep and Nicotiana. Slave on my father’s farm.
Seamstress. Chambermaid. Wench. Mother. Mistress. To the father of my children.
Yarn spinner. Pilgrim. Tale teller. River drinker. Dreamer.

I came of age in the president’s house and found your poems among his library’s volumes.
When we returned from France. Before he assumed the highest office. The deaths
of my first born. Scandals. Fruit of seasons. I was young and, they say, pretty.
He was among the world’s most powerful men. Writing history as he saw fit
dismissing you in his public writings but keeping your verse and obituary on his desk
leaving a trail I have followed like a darning stitch ever since. Let them speculate
until we have all turned to dust, the voices of our offspring, on both sides of the color line,
drowned in national fictions.

I was sixteen and pregnant. Returned to slavery from a peacock’s freedom. Pray
pardon me. I have barely had a word to myself. The first name of a child.
A surname that binds me like rope to a whaling ship and women born
concubines. Loved? Like man loves beast.

She hands me needle and thread and bid me keep my head up above the chamber pots
in this mansion’s many rooms. Patch an old coat. Wick cast aways into ticking. Knit stockings.
He had all the words. I passed mine on in stories for bedtime. Though I had dreams.
Wayward mountains behind and the ocean before. Belle of the ball whirling like the dervish in
the quarters upturn night with pacts. I did not want to come back but took promised freedom
in return for long silence.

Some say “let them do the talking. Since there be selling demand the highest price.”
My voice. My children. Those in heaven and those among all men. At twenty one he helped
them become fugitives and make what they could a patrimony. One daughter.

She thought it in her interest that, on leaving Virginia,
to assume the role of a white woman.

My sons.
Leaving me a mender rent and sewing time.

Little Sally Ann
Sitting in the sand
crying and weeping for her precious little man
Rise Sally rise
Wipe your dirty eyes
Turn to the east
Turn to the west
Turn to the one that you love best…

Turn. Turn. Turn. Dear Miss Phillis, can’t you remember your mother tongue?
If not the words then the meter. The shade and tone. My own Grandmother sang a little song
I hum to keep from feeling alone. Did you die feeling alone? You appear in my looking glass
a mirror image, our songs and silences noisy, restless, elusive and present as ghosts
or the birth canal of the bay that deliver us from the belly of the ocean into this
body Iroquois say is actually a Great Turtle with the Sky on its back.
And the sky, they say, is a woman who leapt from the first world
to create this one where the mockingbird sings
as men paint their faces and fork their tongues.

Most Truly Yours,
Sally Hemings
(1773-1835)

*This poem first appeared in African American Review, Volume 44, Number 3, Fall 2011: pp. 498-499.

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