“Happy” Slaves, Presidential “Mistresses” & the Language of Race

There is no neighborhood in New York city named after a president’s mistress. But there could be. In a world where a major publisher would have to be pressured into taking a book that depicts happy slaves baking treats for their owner, (who happens to be George Washington), the naming of an estate after a woman who in the best light was a victim of human trafficking, is very possible.

It only took a quick google search to unravel the folk history of the Jumel neighborhood in Harlem. Eliza Jumel was not an enslaved black woman, though she was born to a prostitute in a brothel owned by a black madam. With her murky parentage, in the terms of the western canon, her origin story was ripe for her to be bitten by a radioactive spider, or at the very least have a solidly scary alter ego with an affinity for bats. No one knew who her father was, and apparently she had a super power. She could jump classes in a single bound. Or maybe a single marriage. Whatever the case, Eliza Jumel was a woman who appears to have been adept at using her sexual prowess and her intellect to create wealth and social mobility that her humble beginnings would not have normally allowed.

I don’t think it is just a fluke that my 78 year old father, and apparently, a nice skein of people in his generation believe “Jumel” was the first president’s “mistress.”

My father has said on more than one occasion “It [Jumel Terrace] is named after President George Washington’s black mistress.” The last time he said this, it was during a recent phone conversation, and I quickly answered that I took umbridge with the term “mistress,” because it implied consent. My dad responded that any other name would be demeaning to the black woman.

I wondered how this ancestor woman was bearing the demeaning shame of a crime of which she was the victim.

Our conversation quickly moved to other items, but after we hung up I was still grieved by this topic. So I called a writer friend of mine to bounce it off of her. I asked her, “What would be a better name than “mistress” for the black woman for whom Jumel Terrace is named? ”

“I don’t know, sex slave?” She went on. “Because that what she was. But I guess “mistress” means she was lucky enough to rise to the ranks of mistress.”

We both laughed because that’s all you can do sometimes.

And then I thought to query the googles. And then this text happened:

Even though what my father believed turned out not to be true, it still contained a bit of cultural truth that worried around in my spirit. My father’s naming — mistress — not only implied consent but also contained an undercurrent of pride. Somehow, if an enslaved black woman rose to the level of mistress. Beloved mistress. Beloved enough to have an estate named in her honor, she was proof that at least the bit between our legs was damn near as good as a white woman.

Then I did the thought experiment that black feminists do, where we try to overlay the same facts, but switch the genders.

Would men from my father’s generation have mentioned that Jumel Terrace was named after George Washington’s male lover? Would there have been that same sort of twisted pride? Or would the male sex slave have been seen as more proof of the perversity of enslavement? Would the systemized removal of the male Jumel’s choice, the trafficking of his body been called “favor” or “luck” or “love?”

I guess I’ll never know, because the silencing around same gender sexual violence during enslavement is damn near total.

What I do know, however, is a poor white woman who was born of a prostitute, and who was run out of France for talking shit to the king became the owner of a fantastic house, and accrued enough wealth to spend the years after her husband’s death in leisure and travel.

I could almost feel good for her. Almost. But somewhere in the background is the ghost of lucky black woman for whom consent was not an option, and who bears the shame for her victimizer, happily.

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Originally published at femininepronoun.wordpress.com on January 29, 2016.