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Earl S. Braggs: Such is the Love Story of Sally

(Sarah Hemings, 1773-1835)

They called her yellow children the yellow children

of Monticello. The shadowed yellow sound of lying

noise, yet quiet synonyms reveal such is the story of

Sally Hemings. Even now,

not all, but many, still, can’t believe the sleeve of

Thomas Jefferson’s pearl button war silk jacket she

sewed in reverence as the never-

intended-to-be-announced Duchess of Monticello.

It was not the first time that Thomas Jefferson asked

her to dance. But first recorded, first in Paris. “May I

have this dance, Sally?”                     A quiet question

that was not a question reflected

somewhat clear, somewhat obscure, the ancient symbolic

history of figs ripe in the hazel eyes of a slave girl called

Sally. Sally, his dear dead wife Martha’s half-sister.

Sally, his oldest daughter Martha’s aunt. Sally, his dear

dead wife’s late father’s concubine’s daughter. Sally,

the child of her sweet song singing mother, Helen.

Sally, the daughter of Virginia dirt and dust and lust.

Proper handles, proper size,

the shape of a plow, in his Garden Book, Jefferson

sketched, yet drew not upon the candor of

previous pages buried                   book-shelfed-deep

in the dark, fertile dirt fields of Monticello. Dashing

Miss Sally and their father,

Martha and Polly, the younger daughter, loved

beyond fault, whereas, inasmuch as they could not.

A dangerous decision of the heart, 1789. “May I…?”

Thomas Jefferson’s silence                   seemed total.

He wrote careful letters to friends and enemies, careful

not to reveal his art of taste

for Sally’s dark softness on moon-less Monticello nights.

The politics of a question mark marked in advance,

Thomas Jefferson’s life. Drama upon the dramatics of

leaving footprints

without tracks, leaving shoe tracks without the impressions

of having visited Sally’s small room at all.

Closed curtain life left wide open. Words of severity,

compulsively controlled. Dream-sung days. Slave-made

shutters of Monticello, propped open on purpose.

John Adams, the second President, tells the story of

Sally’s beauty having seen her walking in London city

rain, soaked in Virginia royalty. Sally Hemings, street-

stylish, Parisian clothes, strolling

beneath a pastel pink parasol, listening

to the promenading language of

rain-beaten poetry, listening at a time in American history

that disallowed her black beauty to be beautiful. Still she

was more beautiful than any flower planted at Monticello.

Sally born a slave named Sarah Hemings, 1773,

Charles City County, Virginia Colony. Sally’s beauty,

that of a fruit tree. Sally, the shape of         pear-sliced-

beauty sliced

between naked dark honesty and tragedy. Owl eyes

un-flinching, Virginia gentry looked down upon that which

was above their envying whispers,                 lamplight love,

the beautiful burning smell of.

Many of them heard, but could not hear Thomas’ dear

dead Martha’s harpsichord

reshaping the language of red roses and soft blowing breezes.

Between every season there is another name. Pointed words

bruise deep, but love knows not of defeat.                  Days of

village voice gentry came to call         upon Sally as a scandal.

To be seen, no elaborate dance of denial graceful enough

to deny the classic story-book beauty of Sally. Jefferson

never discussed that which he did discuss.

Monticello fireplace mantel              silent

as the burning smell of burning wood,

warming the voice of winter weather. Yet

Jefferson never wore a coat warm enough to reveal

the complete dance steps of why Sally’s wardrobe

was packed for Paris.                     A dusty Virginia

day, 1787. Sally was 14. After 26 months, a French tutor,

Sally returned speaking enough French to unfreeze

the frozen Seine some freezing Paris winter nights. 

Big with child, greeted graciously by the dark side of

a slave-shaped crescent moon.           Two days before

Christmas Eve, 1789, the Virginia sun forgot to forget,

forgot to forgive whispering voices of Virginia gentry.

Thunder married the maelstroms of politics, echoing

seamlessly, endlessly across unplowed fields of aristocratic

white folk weeds asking,

“Why have you not married a worthy woman

of your own complexion?” Sally, big with child. They all

knew, but none dare imagine                  the resemblance,

striking.                  Tom, a baby boy, Sally’s first of six

yellow children, white enough to pass for white. So they

blended out into the music of far-reaching towns,

taking full unnoticed-public notice of          passing

glances and circumstances of. Therefore, thereafter,

they lived a white life

and died as the President’s yellow children.

No one knows why as did the breeze not carve

into barks of Monticello trees “Tom Loves Sally.” But

whispering winds                 singing pine-straw songs

knew the soft steps of        secrets were not secret at all.

They knew, yes, yet none dare say, none dare see

the common consequences of a love story, center stage,

the Camelot of Monticello. A Shakespeare tragedy,

jealousy in the hills of           Virginia gentry. They

called Sally “concubine.”

Too beautiful to be or not to be, the tragedy of Sally.

Between every season…. Nothing good comes out of

nothing good. Every direction plotted to dismantle

that which could not be dismantled, Jefferson’s love

of listening to lyrics

of reticent rain beat upon the roof over Sally’s head.

Chained to the never square corners of circumstance,

Jefferson’s silence seemed total, a surveyor’s intent.

Time tells, only, the story of a two-term President. Time

tells, only, the story of Meriwether Lewis and Clark

looking for the Pacific side of the State of Louisiana. Yet

time, I guess,

forgot, only, the story of Sally, the 1st Lady of Monticello. 

So now with the ease of looking at a beautiful view, look

now, please,

into the eyes of Thomas Jefferson, a Memorial situated

on the Tidal Basin among

flowering Japanese cherry trees still blowing breezes

of slave-made days.                 Many dare see the bronze

sculptured, naked nature of forgetting to remember Sally,

sculpted upon marble,

monumental blue. Sally,

sculpted in years of dried red rose petals dried between

the pages of Jefferson’s Garden Book. Look,

no, don’t look now,

wait, now look.

Focus, no need.

Camera lens of honesty focuses automatically. Any frame


composes beautiful the composition of Sally’s song. Snap

a shot, take a picture.

Close shutter speed quick as the speed of no sound at all.

From Obama’s Children by Earl S. Braggs (Madville, 2021). Copyright 2021 Earl S. Braggs

A country boy from Wilmington N.C., Earl S. Braggs is a UC and Battle Professor of English at the U of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His awards include the International Jack Kerouac Literary Prize and the Anhinga Poetry Prize. Braggs is the author of fourteen poetry collections, including Negro Side of the Moon and Ugly Love.

Sally Hemings (source: Hamiltonwiki)

4 comments on “Earl S. Braggs: Such is the Love Story of Sally

  1. Lisa Zimmerman
    October 20, 2021

    Oh, what a poem! “Camera lens of honesty focuses automatically.”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. kim4true
    October 19, 2021

    Thank you, Vox Populi, for sharing this. Earl has important things to teach us all.

    Liked by 3 people

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