Over the past few posts, I’ve examined Jupiter’s backstory in Rodney Barnes and Jason Shaw Alexander’s Killadelphia, specifically looking at the ways that Jupiter’s story illuminates the violence, trauma, and dehumanization of chattel slavery in the United States. Jupiter introduces us, as well, to Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman that Thomas Jefferson raped and sexually assaulted, notably after the death of his wife Martha Wayles. John Wayles, Martha’s father, may have been, according to Madison Hemings, Sally and some of her siblings’ father, thus making Sally Martha’s half-sister. This fact could partly explain, alongside the economic exploitation, Jefferson targeting Sally for his sexual indulgences because she may have looked, in some ways, like Martha. Today, I want to look at Sally in Killadelphia, specifically at Abigail Adams’ relationship with Sally and Abigail’s perspective of their relationship.
When Abigail spurs Jupiter on to murder Jefferson, she walks around the grounds of Monticello and encounters Sally taking a nighttime stroll. When Abigail introduces us to Sally, we see Sally standing on the grounds, looking up at the sky. Abigail, at a distance behind Sally, haunts the panel. We see her in silhouette, her eyes the only part of face we see at that distance. Abigail describes seeing Sally as “a gift from the universe.” Abigail’s initial reference to Sally as “a gift” mirrors, in ways, Jefferson’s view of Sally as being an indulgence for his pleasure. Abigail begins by presenting Sally as someone who can benefit her and her feelings, thus centering herself and her whiteness in the process.
This line continues when Abigail starts conversing with Sally too. She walks up to Sally, telling her “Good evening,” and Sally greets Abigail before commenting on the beauty of the moon. Sally looks at the sky as Abigail, again in the background, stares at Sally. Sally asks Abigail, “Isn’t it beautiful?” The next panel only shows Abigail’s face as she responds, “Yes it is. May I ask your name?” Off panel, Sally apologizes and tells Abigail her name. What makes this panel important, in relation to Abigail’s narration on first seeing Sally, is that we do not know, based on where Abigail looks, who or what “it” refers to. Since Abigail does not look at the sky, but looks horizontally, presumably towards Sally, we can assume that when Abigail says “Yes, it is,” the “it” refers not to the moon but to Sally herself. If this is the case, Abigail, like Jefferson, dehumanizes Sally, presenting her as nothing more than an object, a gift for her to enjoy.
As Sally and Abigail stroll Monticello’s grounds, Jupiter works to enact his revenge on Jefferson. Jupiter relates this part of the story, talking about Abigail persuaded him to go and pay his “last respects” to Jefferson in order “to inflict the deepest state of agony” that Jupiter could imagine upon his former enslaver. However, once he arrived at Monticello, Jupiter discovered that others had similar plans. Upon opening the door to Jefferson’s bedroom, Jupiter sees four Black, naked, female vampires hovering over a naked Jefferson who lies spread eagle on the bed. Jupiter narrates, “It appears I wasn’t the only one wanting to say fare-thee-well to President Thomas Jefferson.”
At this moment, Jupiter’s feelings clash. He feels sympathy for his former enslaver, and as he stands, eyes wide, in the doorway, he thinks that the part of him “that was the dutiful servant wanted to come to his aid.” Butting up against this feeling was a feeling that “reveled in his suffering.” The women leave, as Jupiter looks at them, and then he turns his attention to Jefferson, bloody on the bed as he begins to turn into a vampire. Jefferson pleads with Jupiter to help him, but Jupiter turns around, walks out of the room, and closes the door. Sally is not among the women turning Jefferson, she walks Monticello’s grounds, looking at the moon and talking with Abigail. However, the fact that the women turn Jefferson, in the manner that they do, reverses the predatory nature of Jefferson, enslavers, and white men who sexually assaulted and abused Black women for their mere indulgences and pleasure. While Jupiter, at this points, does not get his revenge on Jefferson, the women do.
The sequence concludes with two panels showing Jefferson’s transformation after Jupiter leaves. We see a close up on Jefferson’s face in each panel, fangs appearing in his mouth, as Jupiter narrates, “History will say that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on July 4, 1826. History, in its infinite wisdom, lied.” The truth, in the realm of Killadelphia, is that Jefferson and Adams never died. They became immortal. Within historical discussions in our society, Jefferson could do no wrong and the truth about his sexual abuse of Sally and others remained underneath the surface, only espoused and illuminated by some. Jupiter’s comment here gets to the ways that we talk about history, the stories we tell. Multiple people knew and wrote about Jefferson’s abuse of Sally, and it was a well-know fact that circulated following his death. William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or the President’s Daughter deals with it. However, the reification of Jefferson and the other founders trumped that narrative truth; thus, causing history to lie.
Even though Abigail does not rape Sally, she treats Sally in a very similar way that Jefferson treats her. She says that her and Sally fall in love, and the visual images suggest that a mutual love existed between the two. We see them intimately sitting together on a porch and kissing one another. Abigail talks about breaking Sally’s life of servitude by turning her into a vampire and in order to do that, Sally must “trust one whose complexion only brought suffering.” For Abigail, this fact would not hinder her “love” for Sally because, as she says, “Fortunately, we had all the time in the world.” Even with that time, though, Abigail treats Sally as a mere object for her satisfaction. She doesn’t work Sally like an enslaved woman in the fields or a domestic in the house, but she treats her as inferior, dropping her at the possibility of regaining power with John.
I’ll pick up here in the next post, finishing my look at Sally and Abigail’s relationship. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.