Why You Can’t Ever Call an Enslaved Woman a “Mistress”

In the black community, many different opinions abound regarding the usefulness of Black History Month. For some, it is viewed as a necessary and critical tool for cultural celebration and propagating the importance of our collective historical achievements, which otherwise would go unnoticed. For others, it feels like a reductive display offorced lip service conducted during the shortest and coldest month of the year, in lieu of providing us with a more sustained and inclusive role in the everyday curriculum. But what we all can agree on is that presenting our history in a wholly accurate and factual manner delivered with the correct context is of the utmost importance, which is why we react so strongly to inaccurate and/or misrepresentative claims.

That irritation was inflamed this past weekend when The Washington Postpublished an article about a restoration that would be occurring at Monticello, the plantation of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, which is operated as a museum. The restoration to be completed will involve unmasking a bathroom installed in 1941 just steps from Jefferson’s bedroom to reveal what the room really was: Sally Hemings’s bedroom.

In the black community, many different opinions abound regarding the usefulness of Black History Month. For some, it is viewed as a necessary and critical tool for cultural celebration and propagating the importance of our collective historical achievements, which otherwise would go unnoticed. For others, it feels like a reductive display offorced lip service conducted during the shortest and coldest month of the year, in lieu of providing us with a more sustained and inclusive role in the everyday curriculum. But what we all can agree on is that presenting our history in a wholly accurate and factual manner delivered with the correct context is of the utmost importance, which is why we react so strongly to inaccurate and/or misrepresentative claims.

That irritation was inflamed this past weekend when The Washington Postpublished an article about a restoration that would be occurring at Monticello, the plantation of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, which is operated as a museum. The restoration to be completed will involve unmasking a bathroom installed in 1941 just steps from Jefferson’s bedroom to reveal what the room really was: Sally Hemings’s bedroom.

Jefferson owned many slaves at Monticello, but Hemings has received the most attention because she is believed to have mothered at least six of his children. This fact led The Washington Post to use the word “mistress” in the title of its article (which has now been changed) and its tweet regarding the article.


This enraged many people because it’s insulting to identify the relationship between a slave and a slave-owner using the term “mistress” when that term denotes a relationship predicated on mutual choice, autonomy, and affirmative consent — things slaves do not have. As a slave, Hemings was not afforded the privilege of self-determination, meaning she didn’t do what she wanted; she did what she was told. The word to describe that type of interaction is not ‘affair’; it’s rape.

This is so problematic, not just because it erases the abuse that Hemings endured along with generations of other male and female slaves, but also because it romanticizes Jefferson as a man vitalized by romance, reframing his predatory behavior under the guise of mutual enchantment, as Mikki Kendall artfully establishes in her informative Twitter thread.

But this is not an isolated incident, nor is it a brand-new error. The misnomer of “mistress” has been applied to enslaved women by different publications at different times recently and throughout history. In 2015, The New York Times posted a lengthy and in-depthobituary on the life of civil rights icon, Julian Bond, which featured the line, “Julian Bond’s great-grandmother Jane Bond was the slave mistress of a Kentucky farmer.” The Timespublic editor ultimately issued an apology for the mistake after swift backlash erupted online.

And just to reinforce how insidious this misused term has become, it should also be noted that Bond, a black man with a deep mind on issues of race, even reportedly used the word “mistress” himself to describe his great-grandmother, according to The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. That’s why it so important to be vigilant about contextualizing our history, and any history, in an absolutely correct manner.

A slave cannot be a mistress. This is not an “alternative fact” but rather the objective reality of being dominated, dehumanized, and disenfranchised against your will. As we collectively aim to have black history given the weight and appreciation it’s due, let us resolve to ensure that this historical discrepancies are straightened out, corrected, and handed down to future generations with a proper frame of reference. Let’s do better.

Source: Why You Can’t Ever Call an Enslaved Woman a “Mistress” 

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3 thoughts on “Why You Can’t Ever Call an Enslaved Woman a “Mistress”

  1. The article’s font appears light grey on a black background on a pc. In the comment section, the font is perfect, but the article’s font is light grey.

    Like

  2. I liked your article, and yes there is no way a slave can be called a mistress. It was never consensual, and the woman was always a victim, and a raped one at that. The only other thing I would like to add, could you please make the characters of your text in white, or some color that is easy to read on a black background? that was my only problem with the article, it was hard to read!

    Liked by 1 person

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