Hortense Spillers capped off her visit to Waterloo with a talk entitled “Women and the Republics: Intimate Life and Revolution During the 18th Century.” Spillers discussed the example of Sally Hemmings (1773-1835), Thomas Jefferson’s slave and the mother, it is believed, of several of his children. Spillers was concerned that the “archive threatened to overcome the real Sally Hemmings.” In part, this claim was meant to indicate that the fixation on Hemmings’ unique place in the great man’s life–and consequently in the history of the Federalist era–tends to create historical amnesia about her absolute status as human property. Fiction and film, which have helped secure Hemmings’ place in the popular imagination, ironically serve mostly to obscure her true subjugation.
Spillers wished to recover for her audience a sense of the unbearable subject position occupied by all black women in the slaveholding period in America. Female slaves had no private space at all; they were susceptible to even more horrors than the male slave. Their entire lives were lived as “public” subjects: routinely subjected to sexual depredations, they enjoyed no intimacy, no “aloneness,” no love. While white women had the sentimental space of the home, male blacks the masculine roles derived from the power relations in white society, for the female black slave there was only a kind of identity limbo: there was no raw material, no “coding structure” available upon which to build a sense of private identity.
Spillers will deliver a fuller version of this talk later in the year at Harvard.