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(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
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-
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
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.