Operation Caffeination

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Remember who you are

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As I understand it, there was a black woman who lived a very long time ago. Her name was Susannah, and she was in a relationship of some sort (I’d like to think it was consensual and oddly romantic, but the odds are good that it was actually rapey and horrific) with a slave ship captain named John Hemings.

Susannah had a little daughter by Hemings, who she called Elizabeth. Hemings attempted to buy Elizabeth from Susannah’s master, John Wales.

I wish I knew why; I have so many questions about this story. Was Hemings a decent guy who would have settled down with Susannah given the opportunity? Was he abusive? Did he intend to harm Elizabeth? Was John Wales the abuser in the situation?

I don’t have the answers to those questions. What I do know is that John Wales refused to part with Elizabeth. He sold her and her mother to his future father-in-law, Francis Eppes, and then later inherited them back into his estate as part of his wife’s dowry. Francis somehow created a legal stipulation that required Susannah and Betty (as Elizabeth was called) to remain with his daughter and her heirs forever.

Again, I wish I could know so much more. Was it because Betty was part white that she was granted preferential treatment above the other slaves in Martha Eppes’s estate? Was there something else that was unique about her than made people uncomfortable with seeing her live out her life as a slave?

Whatever the reason behind it all, Betty and her children stayed with John Wales. She had four children by a fellow slave, and then John Wales took her as his concubines. Betty gave birth to six children by this man who had owned her as property from birth.

John Wales had children from previous relationships as well; one of them was a girl named Martha Eppes. She inherited Betty and her children, six of whom were actually her half-siblings, when she married Thomas Jefferson in 1772.

Martha Eppes was intelligent, a good writer and seamstress and well-read. People liked her. By all accounts she was interesting, pretty and bright, and had a good sense of humor (sadly and predictably, there appear to be no surviving descriptions of Betty).

Martha and Thomas had six children together. Martha is believed to have suffered from gestational diabetes in each of her pregnancies that wrecked havoc on her body and ultimately killed her. The first Jefferson child, Martha (called Patsy), was the only one who lived a full lifespan; she died at 64 years of age. Her younger sister, Jane, died when she was one; Martha endured a still birth a few years later before giving birth to a fourth child, Mary, who died at 24. After Marry, Martha and Thomas had another daughter, who they named Lucy Elizabeth. She died as an infant. Martha conceived one more time. I find it telling to note that she gave this last baby a recycled name, also calling her Lucy Elizabeth. I have spent so much of my life dreaming about my future children and carefully crafting their names. I can only imagine the kind of jaded depression that would lead a person to just stick a decent name on a kid without thought or apparent tenderness.

Martha Jefferson died a few months after the second Lucy Elizabeth was born. She was only 33 years old at the time. Thomas Jefferson suffered a nervous breakdown following her loss, and the little Lucy Elizabeth soon followed her mother to the grave. Thomas Jefferson never recovered from the loss of his wife. He moved to France a few years after her death, leaving his surviving children behind in the care of their aunts and uncles who were still serving the Jefferson family as slaves.

Two years into his stay in France, Jefferson decided to summon his younger daughter, Mary to join him. Mary was only nine years old at the time, so she was accompanied by the youngest of her slave aunts, Sally, who was fourteen (note that this whole time that Martha was birthing little daughters only to rapidly find herself attending their funerals, Betty and Martha’s father were successfully birthing babies left and right and then setting them up to live out their lives as slaves).

Historians argue about this next chapter of history quite a bit, but I do not personally find it difficult to believe, particularly when taken in context with the rest of this family’s sad story.

Thomas Jefferson and Sally (his dead wife’s half-sister) apparently began an affair while in Paris. It grew into a relationship that lasted for forty years. They conceived a child while in Paris, and Sally and her baby returned to the States with Jefferson’s promise of freedom.

The young baby died soon after their return to the free world, and Sally went on, living as Jefferson’s concubine and slave for many years. She had six children in all with Thomas Jefferson, with four of them surviving to adulthood.

Meanwhile, little Mary, who was attending a convent school in Paris while this relationship ignited, returned home and married her cousin. She gave birth three times in four years and then died of health complications caused by pregnancy and worsened by depression. Only one of her children, a little boy, survived.

Jefferson granted each of his mixed-race children their freedom when they came of age, but curiously, he never freed Sally. His surviving daughter, Martha, eventually set Sally free after Thomas Jefferson’s death in 1826 (he was 83 when he died). Sally went to live with her adult sons, who were living free, dignified lives in Charlottesville. She remained with them for nearly a decade, living independently in their own home, and she got to see one of her grandchildren born and take part in that child’s life before she passed away in her early 60’s.

This story applies to our lived today on so many different levels. I am so sick with anger and stress right now that I can’t stand to delve into all of it.

Read this and ask yourself, do you really think that race doesn’t matter, that life is what you make of it? What happened to the black babies born on the Jefferson’s property whose mothers were not raped by white men, who were clearly black? Those people and their families undoubtedly remained in slavery, and then in segregation, and then lived through Jim Crowe and the violence that marked the Civil Rights movement and descendants of those slaves are almost certainly following the news right now, hearing people attempt to excuse George Zimmerman of Trayvon Martin’s murder because of whatever problems Trayvon may or may not have had at school and if I were the one holding my babies tight in fear as I watched that story unfold, knowing what this society owes me and seeing how this society continues to treat me and mine like shit…well. I’m not living with that fear, I am not carrying that load. But speaking as myself, within the context of my own life, I have no excuse, I can think of no defense. I feel sick, weighted down, broken. This is ugly. This is as ugly as it gets.

Moving from racism to sexism…do you really think that Jefferson would have taken issue with women having free access to birth control? He lost his own cherished wife due to complications in pregnancy, and their entire eleven years of marriage were dominated by death as they lost child after child. If ever there was a man who understood contraception as the foundation of women’s healthcare, surely it was Jefferson, whose life of suffering and loss would have been entirely prevented had he and his wife had access to any of the fantastic birth control methods we have available to us now.

To the conservatives and religious folks that think they have the right to judge other people’s major life decisions…go back and read it again. Put yourself in Susannah’s shoes, Martha’s, Betty’s, Mary’s, Sally’s. Can you honestly find fault with these women? As I see it, the only person who acted wrongly in this story was the slave ship captain who fathered Betty, and even with him we do not have enough information to be able to guess whether he might have been violently, criminally evil or merely a product and victim of his times like all the rest. For the women, and particularly the women of color in these stories, life was a terrifying drudgery,something to be escaped. How long can you go on trying to survive in a world that does not value you as a human being, that doesn’t care about your life or your fate?

In 1839, 13 years after Jefferson died, a man named Charles Goodyear invented the first rubber condoms and IUD’s (I’ve read that people were attempting to use sheepskin condoms and diaphragms made of halves of lemons before this point, with very little success). Congress banned the propagation of information regarding these life saving devices thirty years later, arguing that the information was obscene, and went on to make the U.S. the only Western country to criminalize contraception (at the time, or across the board? I’m not sure, need to read more on this point).

I wonder as I type those words, if Congress bothered to get Martha Jefferson’s take on contraception before making that decision, or if they took Susannah or Betty’s stories into consideration.

Women need contraception. We need to be able to have abortions if our life circumstances make them necessary, and we need to be recognized as the only appropriate persons to decide what constitutes necessity. We need strong laws protecting us from rapists and abusers. We need these things because our lives aren’t livable without them. We are vulnerable, not because of our femininity but because nature doesn’t really care if we live or die beyond childbirth. Left unchecked, our reproductive systems will work us to death. We have the technology, we have the resources; to force us to return to the kinds of lives Sally and Mary endured would be heartless and brainless, and tragically it would not be long before that kind of pigheadedness could be construed as murderous as well. Women die due to the simple inability to access contraception all the time around the world.

All I can say is, my daughter and I will not be those women. We will not be sent back to live such heartbreaking, empty, tragic and fleeting lives.

We will remember where we’ve come from, and we will not be forced back.


Written by GRSeim

April 1, 2012 at 11:31 pm

One Response

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  1. Possibly you were the person who recommended I read this in the first place, and if so, my sincere apologies – but this piece of yours instantly made me think of ILU-486 and I thought I should share it. It’s chilling, because – no. We can’t go back. There is no going back, no matter what the law makes of things.


    April 2, 2012 at 6:25 am

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