Olivia Pope Is Not Sally Hemings.

During last week’s ‘Scandal’ recap, I expressed annoyance with Olivia’s likening her relationship to Fitz to that of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings — and the adamant Twitter cosigning of that janky-ass analogy. But if you want to understand how vastly different these two situations are, try thinking up a label for the relationship between Fitz and Liv that also works for Jefferson and Hemings. Were Jefferson and Hemings having “an affair”? Were they a “couple”? Was she his “mistress”? No. Hemings was Jefferson’s property. So was much of her family.  Jefferson lived in a world in which there was effectively no legal constraint on what he could do with or to her.

Here’s the Trudz, making this point and adding to it:

This is important. Their relationship CAN be dysfunctional WITHOUT it resorting to the idea that today, any Black woman with a White man is a sexual slave and property. Their relationship stinks because they are so in love yet are not available for each other. Their careers cause a problem. He is a married man. She is not getting a full relationship that they desire and she deserves. But sexual property? False. …

When ”Olivia” said “It’s a new world,” while they were viewing The Constitution, it made me think about her and “Fitz” specifically. When that document was written, the likelihood of their love being a love by choice would have been non-existent, despite the LIES people try to imply about White men and Black women’s relationships during slavery. Yet, there they stood at the time (in the episode, as it was a flashback) choosing to love each other, as problematic as it is, though it is not necessarily problematic because of their racial identities alone. That makes it a new world. Indeed.

And here’s T.F. Charlton mulling over what it all means:

Any­way, I’m not sure who we’re sup­posed to side with in Fitz and Liv’s exchange. Hav­ing the hero­ine of the show raise the issue invites view­ers to iden­ti­fy with her to some degree, but I think we’re also meant to see Fitz’s side of things as well — that he’s in this unten­able posi­tion of hav­ing found the love of his life, but being unable to act on it in any hon­or­able way, and appar­ent­ly also unable to not act on it.

And I think The Trudz makes a real­ly good point that it’s very hard to pin­point exact­ly how race and his­to­ry mat­ter in their rela­tion­ship, both for view­ers and for them. But it’s clear that it has does — it has to — mat­ter in some way. Their dynam­ic can’t be eas­i­ly cap­tured by a sin­gle his­tor­i­cal episode, cer­tain­ly not by a sim­plis­tic anal­o­gy of Olivia as a slave; it’s all just sort of swirling around them.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • crunktastic

    No one actually believes she’s Sally Hemmings. The Black feminist women I know who have made this comparison are talking about the ways that historical relationships about gender, sex, race, and power come to be represented in popular media. No one thinks Olivia Pope is a slave or that she is his Fitz’s property. But the fact that she is his mistress, the fact that he said to her “I belong to you,” is a white male slave fantasy if there ever were one. This notion that he is under her spell, that he has no power, that she wields all the power, even to the point of forcing him into the position of being a lesser man than he would otherwise be (his words: “don’t you think I wish I were a better man?”) are all hella reminiscent of this idea that Black women are the sexual temptresses who ruined the nation during slavery by using their hot sexual wiles to tempt white men to be unfaithful to their wives and families. That these Black women lived on the property of their male owners and often in the intimacy of their private homes is certainly reminiscent of the level of social intimacy implied in the fact Liv is in the in-crowd with both the President and his wife (until she finds out.) So the underlying narrative that folks are invoking when bringing up Hemmings-Jefferson is about illegitimacy, not about slavery. Let us not forget that Pope is the 1st Black female lead in primetime in nearly 40 years. So the fact that she is presented to us as the concubine of a the white president, that in 2 seasons we haven’t met even one Black or Brown homegirl of hers, that she has no personal context, even though she is the lead character, other than in relationship to the President is all reminiscent of the kind of utter functionality of Black women under regimes of slavery. Their families, their desires don’t matter. They are always circumscribed by the demands of the man with power. So if you’re gonna critique the argument, attend to its premises please. And be clear that this isn’t a referendum on interracial relationships per se. Moreover, to the extent that interracial relationships are called into question, I always find it interesting that men (and to a large extent Black men) feel the privilege to think of their interracial relationships as being apolitical. What the Black women who are making this Hemmings_Jefferson critique know is that love relationships are never apolitical particularly for Black folks and Black women. And when a Black woman chooses to love a white man, she does so in a richly layered historical context, and in this case, the unfortunate thing is that Olivia attempted to own that context and to try to work through it with the man she loves. And in classic white man fashion, he played his own white-boy race card while accusing her of doing it, dismissed her critique and acted as though their “love” is immune to the histories which absolutely inform it. And it’s a shame, too, cuz it could have been a moment to help us to see an interracial couple (as problematic as their couple hood is) work through the racial iteration of their relationship on honest rather than on fantastical terms.

  • But i think the fact the Fitz addressed that label Olivia sicced on their relationship almost immediately (well a couple of scenes later), a scene that rivals “i can’t quit you,” from brokeback mountain, but i digress. Anyway, Fitz addresses that horrible characterization maybe not as profoundly as The Trudz, but enough to stop it in its tracks. If Shonda Rimes had left that out there unaddressed, i think it would have been irresponsible.