The prayer Sally Hemings’s mother teaches about boys named Thomas
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"The prayer Sally Hemings’s mother teaches about boys named Thomas" originally appeared in Issue 20 of Tahoma Literary Review. A fierce warning of Thomas Jefferson's violation of Sally Hemings, mother to six of his children––a warning that still resonates and rattles, generations later.
Always walk two steps behind them. Especially when the roads are crowded with faces. Particularly when they are not. Even in Paris you are not their equal. You are still a slave girl. No place in the world exists where your body is free. As the morning sun rises on your way au marché, their hands may wrap twice around the calf of your leg. Cocks engorge while watching your hips pivot through the crowd. When you make your way to their manors at noonday avec les legumes et les fruits—the dip of your back will invite them to tuck their torsos into your spine. They will leech life from your shoulder blades, the way their forefathers taught them. La récolte will fall from you. Even so they will persist. Suckling like babes still attached to my tits draining the milk I saved for your siblings. If you try to stop the act to protect yourself stupid child do not turn back to look at them. Face ahead. Realize that even the nape of your neck and the baby hairs curled up at the base of your kitchen entice their lips closer. Forget the sickly-sweet promises and vile words whispered into your ears. Sever your mind from the rest of your body. Find a speck in the clouds to covet as these white men defile your flesh.
When it is finished, gather the soiled goods. Find your way home.
Even now, walk two steps behind them. We did not depart from our mothers, did not sacrifice our bodies for you to be made their slave again. Create room to escape. Their voices will call out to you. Ignore them. Wear headphones on your way from the car to the office. The bulky ones. The ones large enough to filter out all the ways that these Thomases disguise compliments to possess your body. Put on shades in the hallway. In December. On the way to your annual review. Do not let their hands touch yours for more than three seconds. The length of a boardroom handshake. But if you must, answer them with a clench that clots blood from their wrists. That instantly lets them know Sally Hemings no longer lives here. Her spirit was mutilated. Bones desecrated. Body laid barren then passed over. When your grip breaks from theirs these Thomases will know this self-evident truth too long circumvented: Our flesh this supple and supreme being cloaked in shades of midnight holds more power in a single follicle of kinky 4C hair than exists in their entire lineage. They will deny this. Still, we were never theirs to covet.
Bruise your knees at the altar in prayer that our declarations will one day suffice. Tuck into the inner cavities of your ears, where our voices clamor, the knowledge that this is a day you may never see.