Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Not So Peculiar Relationships

I have always been intrigued by the relations between American slaves and their owners. It has always seemed to me that this relationship must be more complex than what is typically reached in high school level understanding I usually see portrayed.

NPR this morning (for Black History Month, I suppose) ran an episode of their Hidden Kitchens series on African American Chefs at the White House. They profiled Lyndon Johnson's cook along with the slave-chefs of Washington and Jefferson.

These last two intrigued me. I thought, "Now here are two black men who were considered so indispensable to their masters that they were granted positions of great responsibility. Surely their relationship with these Founding Fathers were more than just employer-employee/master-slave." I may be right but the real lesson was far simpler than I longed for.

It seems that Hercules, George Washingtons chef, dressed in a velvet doublet and carried a gold-tipped cane when he ventured into the Philadelphia open air markets. Here was a man of great prestige and pride having achieved a lofty position based on his own ability and hard work. Well, when the time came for President Washington to retire once again to Mount Vernon, Hercules would not be returning with him: he escaped never to be found by his former master.

Similarly Thomas Jeffersons took his slave, James Hemings (brother of the famed Sally Hemings), to Paris to study cooking. Finding himself inhabiting a society where slavery no longer existed, James did not press his advantage and seek his freedom. However, upon their return to the United States, James did petition to be freed. Jefferson agreed only on the condition that he train a replacement, which James provided in the form of his brother.

Now, the idea that Thomas Jefferson would agree to free one brother but retain another as a property points up the "peculiarity" of American slavery as effectively as the simultaneous elevation and servitude of these two men. However, when asked about her father, Hercules daughter said that she missed him but at least he was free. It is quite simple. The yearning for freedom could not be denied and, I suppose, there is nothing peculiar about that.

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