Tag Archives: Hemings

The Image of Absence: Klein

I’m 3/4 of the way through this reading and as much as Hemings’s ghost is palpable, the historian in me is quite concerned with WHY Jefferson “for reasons unknown, failed to comply with [Hemings’s] request” for the terms of his employment and shrewdly specifying that it be in Jefferson’s own hand. I’d really like to explore the absent reasons to illuminate them. What could have prevented him, Jefferson, from providing this, or, is there some archival evidence that perhaps Jefferson didn’t want to provide Hemings with this. I find myself angered at Jefferson, given his prolific letter writing, letter-copying and letter filing/archiving, that he didn’t provide this to Hemings. Or perhaps he did but did so via ephemera?

My outrage softened, however, near the end of the reading as I read about the materiality Jefferson undertook in preparing Hemings’s “emancipation agreement” which he “penned in his special ink, encased in his imported paper, copied in his copying press, and then placed in his personal archive to preserve” (682) as Jefferson routinely did with his “significant” correspondence.

Via subjective analysis, then, I echo the call that Klein takes up from Alan Liu “to reinscribe cultural criticism at the center of digital humanities work” (665) and thereby offer the following:

WHAT IF, in preparing Hemings’s “emancipation agreement” — A HORRIFYING, OXYMORON CONTRADICTION-IN-TERMS PHRASE that MUST BE re-thought AND re-named BY ALL scholars ASAP (I mean “agreement” really?!) — Jefferson was actually elevating Hemings to the status of his most respected correspondents? Through his careful and mindful materiality toward this document, and his “awareness of his own historical legacy” (662) perhaps Jefferson is leaving a trail of crumbs for posterity of his regard of Hemings as a person and a chef, and not as a slave who lived and toiled invisibly, reduced to a mere “line of data” and “object of “empirical knowledge” in his farm book.

I do not put it past Jefferson to have scoffed at Hemings’s request for the terms of his employment as the likely reason for potentially not providing it. But I also do not put it past Jefferson to have left a watermark, albeit in quite “invisible ink”, of his friendship and perhaps even very deep personal regard for Hemings, for those of us looking to illuminate it.