Decolonizing the (In)Visibility of Sally Hemings’

Sarah Richter

Keywords: Strategies of decolonization; Counter Hegemonic Discourses; Archives

Participation: Presential

Audre Lorde’s speech and paper, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, was delivered at the New York University for the Humanities conference in 1984. Within this powerful three-page statement, Lorde reminds us poignantly in the title that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and also asks a question that resonates across the ivory towers of university systems: “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” Art history was developed as an elite field of study founded by wealthy and powerful white men. They developed the myth of the lone, white male artist as genius that has dominated and created the canon of Art History and its discourses. The discipline has recently begun a self-reflexive look at curriculum that would counter hegemonic discourses. In the last two years amidst COVID, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the attack on Critical Race Theory, my recent work in developing African American Art History courses has focused on privileging perspectives and artwork of Black Feminists Scholars, Artists, Activists, Musicians, etc. This paper will use the study of the dominant historical narratives of and contemporary challenges to the representations of Sally Hemings. Drawing on the current exhibition at Monticello about Sally Hemings, what strategies for decolonization are being employed? While Sally Hemming’s voice is absent, how can museums, educators, and visitors work together to decolonize the whitewashed narrative of art history as exemplified by this papers case study of Sally Hemings artistic representation.


Sarah Richter is a PhD Candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is currently finishing her dissertation which will also be my book project. Focused on work in dominant Southern landscapes, the current working title is Life in the Afterimage: Embodied Performance in the Work of Carrie Mae Weems, Delphine Fawundu, and Reneé Stout. This project takes three performance art pieces as case studies. I look at three performance pieces by black feminist artists and the photographic evidence that remains: Carrie Mae Weems’ The Louisiana Project (2004), Adama Delphine Fawundu’s A Mende Woman on Nat Turner’s Plantation (2014), and Renee Stout’s Tales of a Conjure Woman (2015). As they perform both in front of and behind the camera, they are and are not themselves embodying the past in their physically present bodies. Focusing on how Black women’s bodies are walking memoirs, creators, and keepers of history, of American culture, I argue that these women are using their bodies to create new forms of memoirs as seen and conducted through an emerging black gaze. As visual griots, the body of the artist moves through a variety of landscapes focusing on sight and site to rebuild an archive of black memory that is both celebratory and confrontational. Challenging the dominant white narratives, their work resurrects a collective history and memory that the transatlantic slave trade and its legacy sought to erase.