Why You Can’t Ever Call an Enslaved Woman a “Mistress”

In the black community, many different opinions abound regarding the usefulness of Black History Month. For some, it is viewed as a necessary and critical tool for cultural celebration and propagating the importance of our collective historical achievements, which otherwise would go unnoticed. For others, it feels like a reductive display of forced lip service conducted during the shortest and coldest month of the year, in lieu of providing us with a more sustained and inclusive role in the everyday curriculum. But what we all can agree on is that presenting our history in a wholly accurate and factual manner delivered with the correct context is of the utmost importance, which is why we react so strongly to inaccurate and/or misrepresentative claims.

That irritation was inflamed this past weekend when The Washington Post published an article about a restoration that would be occurring at Monticello, the plantation of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, which is operated as a museum. The restoration to be completed will involve unmasking a bathroom installed in 1941 just steps from Jefferson’s bedroom to reveal what the room really was: Sally Hemings’s bedroom.

Jefferson owned many slaves at Monticello, but Hemings has received the most attention because she is believed to have mothered at least six of his children. This fact led The Washington Post to use the word “mistress” in the title of its article (which has now been changed) and its tweet regarding the article.

For decades they hid Jefferson’s mistress. Now Monticello is making room for Sally Hemings. http://wapo.st/2lXz6fu 

— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) 4:39 PM – 19 Feb 2017

This enraged many people because it’s insulting to identify the relationship between a slave and a slave-owner using the term “mistress” when that term denotes a relationship predicated on mutual choice, autonomy, and affirmative consent — things slaves do not have. As a slave, Hemings was not afforded the privilege of self-determination, meaning she didn’t do what she wanted; she did what she was told. The word to describe that type of interaction is not ‘affair’; it’s rape.

I hit share on this without realizing word “mistress” was in the headline. Sally Hemings wasn’t a mistress, she was a sex trafficked slave https://twitter.com/wesleylowery/status/833375579919568898 …

— Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery) 6:12 PM – 19 Feb 2017

So when you read “slave mistress,” you should automatically replace the phrase with “rape victim” #heretohelp

— M.DivA (@sista_theology) 5:58 PM – 19 Aug 2015

“Mistress” is the wrong word for an enslaved woman who had no choice in the matter, @washingtonpost. https://twitter.com/washingtonpost/status/833355264745152512 

— Laura Seay (@texasinafrica) 5:02 PM – 19 Feb 2017

Newspapers calling Jefferson’s rape and concubinage of Sally Hemings, “a romance” is a national disgrace and erasure of her abuse

— M. Hyacinth Gaynair (@blkatlanticCDN) 4:33 AM – 21 Feb 2017

This is so problematic, not just because it erases the abuse that Hemings endured along with generations of other male and female slaves, but also because it romanticizes Jefferson as a man vitalized by romance, reframing his predatory behavior under the guise of mutual enchantment, as Mikki Kendall artfully establishes in her informative Twitter thread.

Some of y’all need to be dragged kicking & screaming through actual history & not these romanticized myths of Jefferson’s obsession.

— Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) 8:08 PM – 21 Feb 2017

But this is not an isolated incident, nor is it a brand-new error. The misnomer of “mistress” has been applied to enslaved women by different publications at different times recently and throughout history. In 2015, The New York Times posted a lengthy and in-depth obituary on the life of civil rights icon, Julian Bond, which featured the line, “Julian Bond’s great-grandmother Jane Bond was the slave mistress of a Kentucky farmer.” The Times public editor ultimately issued an apology for the mistake after swift backlash erupted online.

And just to reinforce how insidious this misused term has become, it should also be noted that Bond, a black man with a deep mind on issues of race, even reportedly used the word “mistress” himself to describe his great-grandmother, according to The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. That’s why it so important to be vigilant about contextualizing our history, and any history, in an absolutely correct manner.

That journalists still seem unable to come up withright way to refer to Sally Hemings is really baffling/revealing. She wasn’t his mistress.

— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) 2:27 PM – 21 Feb 2017

A slave cannot be a mistress. https://twitter.com/krissah30/status/833331229449715717 …

— jelani cobb (@jelani9) 4:25 PM – 19 Feb 2017

A slave cannot be a mistress. This is not an “alternative fact” but rather the objective reality of being dominated, dehumanized, and disenfranchised against your will. As we collectively aim to have black history given the weight and appreciation it’s due, let us resolve to ensure that this historical discrepancies are straightened out, corrected, and handed down to future generations with a proper frame of reference. Let’s do better.

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