Writing to John Wayles Eppes in 1820, Thomas Jefferson spoke about about the exploitation of those he enslaved, especially in relation to the profits that he acquired off of the backs of their labor. He told Eppes, “I know no error more consuming to an estate that that of stocking farms with men almost exclusively. I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm. What she produces in an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption.” Since upon birth the state of the child would follow that of the mother, Jefferson saw enslaved women birthing children every two years as profitable because he could increase his wealth through either their labor or through selling them, thus separating the families. While not explicitly quoting Jefferson from above, Rodney Barnes and Jason Shawn Alexander in Killadelphia address this inhumane, greedy system through the histories of two of individuals Jefferson enslaved: Jupiter Evans and Sally Hemings. Both Jupiter and Sally experience their families being torn apart, and Sally directly confronts the sexual violence underpinning Jefferson’s statement to Eppes and the system of chattel slavery.
Jupiter relates, as I have written about previously, how Jefferson sold his parents away and still thought that he and Jupiter could remain “friends.” Later, Jupiter marries an enslaved woman named Suck. We see them smiling as they jump the broom, and Jupiter relates that their relationship served as “a sliver of joy in a darkened corner of hell.” They have a baby, and Alexander depicts Suck cradling a crying a baby to her chest as Jupiter narrates, “For the first time in my life I was happy.” We don’t see much of Jupiter’s happiness. In fact, we really only see one panel depicting him smiling with joy in this moment, and we only see about four panels with Suck. Jupiter knows that his happiness is fleeting and, as he puts it, “a dangerous thing.”
When Jupiter allows himself to be happy, the pain, hurt, and trauma of enslavement, particularly when Jefferson sells his wife and child away, impact him even more. The justified anger he felt when his parents were sold away expands, and his happiness turns to justified rage at the indignities and dehumanization enacted upon himself and those he loves. Two horizontal panels depict Jupiter’s wife and child being sold away. in the first we see two white min, in silhouette, standing in front of enslaved individuals. Jupiter’s wife holds their child tightly as Jupiter comments that “the only constant in life is change.” In the next panel, we see one of the men’s fingers pointing towards Suck and her child. Suck screams, pulling her child closer to her. This image, in many ways, reminds me of La Belle Sauvage in Frank Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow, who, after giving birth to Inch, jumps into the Mississippi River, killing herself instead of living to see her son’s enslavement. She tries to kill Inch as well, but her husband, Achille, saves the boy.
As Suck screams at the enslaver, Jupiter narrates, “I pleaded with Thomas to reconsider. Reminding him of my service while he was in college at William and Mary. Purchasing his books, his clothes. I’d hope for mercy due to a lifetime of service.” Jupiter’s service, though, only means money, and Suck and the child only equal money to Jefferson. “The capital” produced by Suck’s childbearing trumps any sentimentality of fidelity that Jefferson may feel for Jupiter. Jupiter hopes that the “sentiment would touch his heart” as he kneels and cries before Jefferson, but his “hopes were the stuff of fools.” Jefferson goes on to become president of the United States, Jupiter remains enslaved, and we don’t see, at this point in the series, what happens to Suck and the child.
Jupiter juxtaposes his and his family’s story with Jefferson’s sexual assault of Sally Hemmings. Immediately before discussing his marriage to Suck, we see Jefferson marrying Martha Wayles and her death during childbirth. The final two panels show Jefferson eyeing Sally in the field as she works and him coming into her room as she sits naked, facing him. In this panel, we see him in silhouette, a recurring technique used throughout Jupiter’s story, and in this case, and in the enslavers buying Suck and the child, a depiction of the vileness of enslavement and what it does to individual’s psyches, causing them to lose any semblance of morality or feeling for their fellow human beings.
Jupiter knows what Jefferson does, and he knows that Jefferson’s gaze treads a path into the quarters, to take a phrase from Lillian Smith. In the panel where he eyes Sally in the field, Jupiter narrates, “After a brief period of mourning, Thomas’ focus shifted to the darker side of his possessions.” We see Jefferson in the foreground on the left of the panel, looking to the right. He gazes intently at Sally as she looks back at him. We do not see the expression on Sally’s face, but Jefferson’s appears to be emotionless. Jupiter continues his narration into the next panel, stating, “I wouldn’t call what Thomas and Sally Hemings had love. Rather an indulgence on one end and an act of survival on the other.” With this, Jupiter sums up what occurs. Jefferson views Sally as an “indulgence” and as a profit making venture, and Sally views it as survival, in many ways like Pauline in Ernest Gaines’ Of Love and Dust when Bonbon initially rapes her but she uses his lust to survive and to make a better life for herself.
All of this occurs over the course of two pages. We see the sexual exploitation, both for profit and for indulgence, and we see the ways that enslavement ripped families apart for monetary gain. We see, as well, how the actuality of the system differs from the ways that Jefferson’s views it. When speaking with Abigail about Jupiter, he merely tells her, as he places a finger on his chin and looks inquisitive, that Jupiter “[h]asn’t been the same since his family was sold off. He’ll come around though.” Here, we don’t know if Jefferson refers to Jupiter’s parents or Suck and his child. It doesn’t really matter though because both affected hi, traumatically.
In the next post, I’ll look at Sally Hemings’ story, as told from Abigail Adams’ perspective. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.