Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Elizabeth's Mother, part 2: Why the Big House?

The last post focused on the function that Africa served in Madison Hemings's account of his great-grandmother. This is, of course, all in addition to the data that he intends to convey. As mentioned in an earlier post, family stories both offer information as it is remembered, but also remember certain parts in certain ways in order to convey what the tellers have thought important. There is a good book on the subject called Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins that has helped me a lot in the past not only in understanding family stories of my subjects but my own family stories, as well. (After all, in the end, aren't they all of the same big piece of human behavior -- but that's another story for another time and another blog.)

Africa was actually a part of the function that Elizabeth's mother served in the overall story of the Hemings family, given that so little information about her as a person survived since the events Madison described. She connected the family to the continent and to a racial mixing central to American history (also a subject to return to later).  Another function that she serves in Madison's telling explains Elizabeth Hemings's placement in the plantation house rather than in the fields, and by extension the place of her children and grandchildren in the more privileged positions in the plantation hierarchy.

Why would being in the Big House matter? In the Hemings's case, being part of the plantation household rather than in the fields put Elizabeth in the way of John Wayles, her daughter Sally in the way of Thomas Jefferson, their children in skilled positions, and Sally's children on the path to freedom, a good living, and with the option of passing. The shift was no small matter, especially in retrospect.

Still, why would this be a question? After all, some people worked in the house and some in the fields, and women would more likely end up in a kitchen or cleaning to free up the O!-so-delicate white mistress from the kind of labor that field work then housework required. Make no mistake, pre-industrial housework was labor. (Spend a summer doing kitchen demonstrations as a museum interpreter and you will find out soon enough that women who did the cooking and cleaning in the days of cast iron and scrub brushes probably had muscular arms.) This wouldn't be such an oddity of a story by 1873 that it would bear mentioning, would it?

Except perhaps that wasn't the question Madison was asked. Although he seems to start as if he were asked about the Hemings name, he continues as if in a set narrative as "it comes down to me." The parts dealing with Elizabeth and her mother moving into the planation household could be an answer to a question asked much much earlier, maybe posed by a Hemings child, "mama, why are we up here and those people down there?" Or a white one that went something like, "why do you have such a dark face working in your house, Mrs. Eppes?" Or, "Why do you have one of them in you home, Mrs. Eppes? Aren't you afraid? They are practically savage!" Something obnoxious like that. Something that would explain the reasons a woman relatively fresh from the Middle Passage would be working in the plantation household when, although fewer in number, a creole woman might be preferred for her lighter skin, her command of English, her cultural familiarity, and a whole host of other prejudices.

The face of the answer would explain the situation for white people. "Oh, you had to protect your investment from unscrupulous quarters," they might nod. "We understand." For the Hemingses, the explanation told of freedom thwarted. Wayles in Madison's account, but most likely Eppes in fact, moved Elizabeth and her mother into the plantation house because Captain Hemings intended to steal Elizabeth out of slavery.

What a sea captain might have to do with a mixed race child, even his own, is a whole other question. Who was going to take care of her on the voyage over? Who was going to take care of her in England, or wherever it was that he planned to take her? If there was a wife who would be mother, how was she going to feel about an illegitimate brown child of her husband? Or was he going to make up another story? Did he care nothing for Elizabeth's mother's feelings in this? Or did she support the idea of her baby getting out of slavery? Did he promise that the baby would live a better life? In other words, what the hell was he thinking or doing? There's a lot that will never be answered even if his name surfaces in some ship log or bill of lading buried somewhere in Kew.

But I digress....

For the Hemingses, in this story they have a white forefather who not only acknowledged his paternity of a brown daughter, but recognized her humanity enough to want her to be free. The man who claimed her as property, a thing, wanted to keep her as a science experiment. What -- not who -- would she become? His best expectations about her father or his worst expectations about her mother? He brought them both closer, into his residence for surveillance, really. First to keep the captain from spiriting at least one of them to freedom. Then, after the disappearance of the captain, to observe the development of Elizabeth.  Later, he took her as his "concubine."

Here, also, we encounter two ambivalences about white fathers from Madison. Captain Hemings with his disappearance or abandonment; and Wayles, who became Madison's grandfather, but one for whom he expresses little admiration or connection. Wayles would not allow the baby to become free, raised her, then fathered her children whom he held as slaves. Although Wayles, in fact, did not come into possession of Elizabeth until she was eleven, and he did not take her as his concubine until she was in her late twenties, our twenty-first century sensibilities squirm at this early intimacy and sense of grooming. I can almost hear at least one reader thinking "what a freak!" and certainly such a thing would not be outside the perversities of slavery. Madison most likely thought of it all as part of the grand exploitation of his family.

What of Elizabeth in this story? She would have been the one who told her daughter Sally who told her son Madison who told the reporter who published this genealogy for us. Did she grow up learning that she could have been free? What did she think of that? Did she contemplate a different life that could have been? Did she think such wishes or daydreams foolish? Did she decide to put another scheme in place, teaching her children something about race and freedom? Did she play a long game of getting out? Or did she decide to make what she had work the best it could?  We will return to her.

Once again a wish for Hilary Mantel's gifts.

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