Racism in Publishing: Stephanie Dray’s 50 Shades of Jefferson/Sally Hemings

March 8, 2015 Opinion 35

Trigger Warnings: Mentions of rape, slavery, and racism.

On the morning of March 4th, I noticed several black women in my Twitter timeline talking about a Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings BDSM erotica. At first it seemed it was just a rumor. There were no links or images of the book, just some vague speculation and questions about who might have written it.

Screen Shot of a tweet by Alyssa Cole. It reads: So who is the person writing the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemmings BDSM romance novel I'm hearing about? Because we need to have words.

Author Alyssa Cole is among those who initially tweeted about it. Cole had seen a Facebook post alluding to the possible existence of such a book, but that failed to mention the author, and took to twitter in the hopes it was a vile rumor.

The situation got confusing for a time when an actual book on Amazon that matched the description was shared. It’s pulp paranormal fetish porn that I will not link to here. For a short time many of us assumed that this book was the source of the rumor, including author/blogger Jenny Trout, who posted about it. Not long after Jenny’s post went up the real source was revealed. The truth was far more horrifying than some cheap fetish porn.

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Click for transcript: View Spoiler »

In a post on her Facebook author account, author of historical fiction and fantasy, Stephanie Dray, claimed her “spirits are boosted by two things,” one of which was a “50 Shades of Grey/Jefferson Mashup we’ve got in mind.” The other part of that “we” is implied to be fellow author Laura Kaye, who is currently co-writing a book with Dray, about Jefferson’s daughter. Dray goes on to say “Oh, yes, we told our editor about it. Which means it’s happening, people.” This gives the distinct impression that she was serious about publishing the book. If this wasn’t bad enough, Dray went on to respond to comments on the post, exclaiming the idea of Thomas Jefferson “showing Sally Hemings some shackles” was hilarious.

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Click for transcript: View Spoiler »

Now, for those of you who don’t know, an insidious lie has been posited in American historical culture that Jefferson and Hemings had a consensual love affair. This is not true. First, there can be no consent when someone is OWNED by another person. Second, Hemings was 14 years old—a child. Third, Jefferson did not free Hemings and the children they had, his own children, from slavery until after he died. Now explain why imagining Jefferson holding a shackle out to Sally, or whipping her as is common practice in BDSM fiction, is something people should find funny?

Jenny Trout wrote another post, this time about Dray’s Facebook post. Then she tweeted at both Dray and Kaye. She also tweeted publisher Harper Collins demanding to know if they planned to publish the book. Harper Collins has yet to respond. Stephanie Dray and Laura Kaye have responded. Initially via Twitter with confusion and defensiveness. Kaye even tweeting that “it was a joke.” The tweet was later deleted. As more people joined the conversation, they both began to see the impact of the “joke.”
Screen Shot of a twitter conversation between @laurakayeauthor and @jenny_trout. Laura Kaye tweets 'it was a joke' to Jenny Trout. Trout tweets back 'no'

Eventually, they each posted apologies. (Trigger Warning: For mentions of rape, that are not actually called rape, and shameless self promotion.) Dray’s can be found hereTo summarize its content, she crassly opens her apology by talking about the book she co-wrote with Kaye. She goes on to describe the rape of 14 year old Sally Hemings as “Thomas Jefferson initiated sex with his slave.” Then she claims it was her ambition “to shed light on the devastation of slavery” by writing a book about the white daughter of a slave owner and rapist. She then uses the word “apparently” to cast doubt on the accusations of her racist behavior, even as she admits to it. And claims she thought the joke (which was mocking Sally Hemings’ rape and enslavement) was “mocking our culture’s casual acceptance of women’s lack of consent in sexual circumstances.” She ends the apology by focusing on how she disappointed herself by hurting others in this way. Kaye’s apology (found here) in which she adds a few short lines onto a copy of Dray’s apology, and plugs their book again, replicates the same shallow insincerity.

It is clear from these apologies that neither author is aware of what they actually did wrong. They downplay the severity of their actions, continually valuing their intentions over the impact of their actions on black women. In fact, they make no direct mention of black women, aside from Sally Hemings, at all in either apology. While many authors, white and people of color alike, have accepted the apologies, to others it seems Dray and Kaye only care about getting back in other white women’s good graces, and selling their book.

No surprise as Dray’s belief that writing a book about a white woman would somehow shed light on slavery only reinforces that her perspective is centered on white women. It’s no wonder she didn’t understand the impact of her joke until a white woman told her. One wonders if white women hadn’t been upset by her actions, would Dray have ever known they were wrong?

Dray’s reasoning behind the joke only further demonstrates her white privilege. She compared white women’s sexual fantasy scenarios to a real life situation where a white man raped and enslaved a black girl. Framing Sally’s abuse as a mark against Thomas Jefferson is a form of dehumanizing objectification. She is not a person, she is a bad thing Jefferson did. Reducing her to a cautionary tale used to mock and shame him, and other men like him.

Using Sally’s experience in this way, to mock and shame other white people for their complicity in a completely different kind of rape and violation of consent, continues her dehumanization and victimization. Not to mention how callus and cruel it is to recount the very real circumstances of her abuse “Jefferson’s showing her shackles” and calling it “hilarious.”

Imagine how black women who are friends and/or fans of Dray and Kaye felt reading that Facebook post. To see someone you admired, who you may have laughed and share drinks with mock the rape and abuse of a woman like you. To see them make fun of a devastating part of your personal history in public, as casually as someone would comment on the weather.

Compound this with the fact that Dray carried out this thoughtless act in a public post on social media, and was quickly joined by others in her “joking,” and praised for it. This kind of behavior actively contribute to an environment where humiliating, hurting, and dehumanizing black women is seen as acceptable, and even entertaining. That directly contributes to the mistreatment, discrimination, and marginalization that black women face every day in the very industry in which Dray works.

Many black romance authors and people of color romances authors related all of this to Dray and Kaye on Twitter. They did a far better job of explaining it than I could, and most of them were ignored. A stark contrast to how both authors quickly and emphatically responded to the tweets of notable white women, like Jenny Trout and Mary Robinette. This is to say nothing of the many supporters who tweeted to defend Dray and Kaye and excused their actions.

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This behavior is not new. When the news of this broke I kept seeing the same question asked again and again:
“How could anyone ever think this is okay?”

The answer is simple: because we forgave and forgot the last time someone did it.

Remember when Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler made racist jokes at the expense of black woman author Jacqueline Woodson as she was accepting a National book award

Many came out in support and defense of Handler. He still has a career, and is a peer of the very women he humiliated in front of the entire publishing industry.

People like a comeback story. The oldest, most beloved one is a white person being forgiven for hurting other people. Hollywood makes millions off it. The desire to make that narrative real, and many white people’s general discomfort with matters of race, fuel the fever to forgive and move on from the failures of notable white people. Not to mention seductive idea that if they can be forgiven for their sins, so can any white person who makes a similar “mistake.”

Handler’s and Dray’s racist jokes, and the industry’s instinctive reaction to defend and forgive their harmful behavior, are part of the very real systemic racism faced by black women in publishing. Where someone can not only harm and humiliate black women with impunity, but those who do so have direct power and influence on the success and survival of black women in the industry.

This is undeniable proof that black women are not safe in the publishing industry.

They are at risk every minute of every day, whether they are best-selling, award-winning, traditionally-published authors or self publishing their first book. They will be faced with racism from industry powerhouses like Handler, or peers like Dray and Kaye. On social media, at industry parties, or on stage at national award ceremonies black women are forced to deal with racism in order to work in this industry. That is what systemic racism looks like, that’s the very real harm created by Dray’s racist joke, and those who so easily forgive and forget her mistake.

Black women don’t get to forget. They have to go to conventions with Dray and Kaye. They will be forced to sit on panels beside them, and wonder what jokes will be made at their expense once they’re out of ear shot. Worse yet, Black women will have to smile, shake hands, and network with them. Or just as worse, they’ll be forced to deal with people who defended them.

That’s the hazardous and harmful work environment we create for black women when we allow this kind of behavior to continue unchecked. Even as I write this post I know there are those who have already moved on. Dray and Kaye certainly have. But before you do, I want you to think about every black woman you know.

Can you say that it is acceptable for them to have to work in these conditions? Are you willing to tell them that their humanity and dignity is the price of doing business in this industry? If not, don’t forget or forgive. Don’t move on, until we’ve made this industry a safer place for black women.

The only positive thing to come from this event was how women united in support and the black women authors. The day after the news about Dray’s racist joke broke, the #BlackWomenAuthors tag on twitter exploded with support. Authors, bloggers, and readers alike tweeted book and author recommendations. These tweets crossed genre, as well as race and gender lines. All kinds of people tweeted and retweeted in support of black women authors. It is still going today, go check out the tag and join in the fun.

The #BlackWomenAuthors tag is great start at changing the industry for the better. I hope we continue to celebrate black women, and prioritize their safety above all else. They deserve nothing less.

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A geek, author, and stay-at-home mom, who loves to talk about geek culture. She will reads books from just about every genre of romance, and especially enjoys well written erotica. Jeanne is a plus size, bisexual, woman of color who prefers to read love stories featuring diverse characters.

35 Responses to “Racism in Publishing: Stephanie Dray’s 50 Shades of Jefferson/Sally Hemings”

  1. Obsidian Blue (@obsidian_blue)

    Great article. I stopped myself from saying anything because it had a lot of F bombs in it. This all gets so tiresome as well as the walk back apologies which are not great apologies when you actually read them. This one had a whole tone of sorry if you were offended and hey here’s my book plug.

  2. Danielle

    Thank you for writing this. The scope of the ignorance and the exhibition of systemic racism in this debacle have left me stupid with inarticulateness, and posts like this help me change that so that I can try not to contribute to the horror with silence. Thank you also for the BlackWomenAuthors hashtag. I don’t use Twitter and was unaware of it. Going to mine the thread now.

    Has anyone here read Barbara Chase-Riboud’s novel “Sally Hemings”? Any thoughts on it?

  3. Ridley

    One of the things that’s bothered me in the wake of Dray’s comments is the rush by white women to comfort Dray and try to cheer her up. Beverly Kendall, a historical romance author, commented on Dray’s apology with “this too will pass.” Numerous white women “applauded” her apology. One white woman spent an hour in Jeanne’s mentions arguing that accepting her apology is the “mature” thing to do.

    It’s as if these people are more comfortable with seeing a white woman’s racism hurt POC than they are with seeing a white woman face any consequences for her racism.

    This is just not acceptable to me. White people are not the victims of our racism. Facing consequences is an essential element of accountability, for one, and victims are who should be centered in the discussion. Their safety needs to take precedence over the perpetrator’s comfort or character growth.

    Do better, white people. I know we can.

  4. Autumn Markus

    It was the ‘hilarious’ that got me. How can any apology be taken seriously when given by a person who could find such a horrifically atrocious idea at all humorous? And what was worse, not a single person involved in the multi-post FB conversation spoke up in defense of what was right. They agreed with her. That, in itself, is unforgivable.

  5. Las

    I’m still struck by how Dray, her coauthor, and her friends and fans just kept making it worse. The initial joke was horrific, and then she kept joking about it in the comments. When called out on twitter, she made the “biting social commentary” claim, as if we’re supposed to believe that she gave any amount of thought required for real satire as opposed to just letting people in on the crass, inappropriate joke that popped in her head (and many of uf have the occasional crass thought, though hopefully not about that topic). When it was pointed out to her that she replied, by name, to a commenter making an even worse joke, she claimed she had no idea who he was. Her coauthor insisted on playing dumb by saying that their book is not a mashup and wouldn’t address Dray’s claim about them talking to an editor. Her friends and fangirls, as well as the “I’m outraged at your outrage” brigade, had to step in and admonish people for their anger, as if the offence occurred 10 years ago with nothing but model behavior ever since (and people would still be entitled to their anger anyway) instead of it happening a few hours before. And don’t even get me started on that apology/book plug.

    This is why I have no patience for people insisting that we should ignore the words people actually say in favor of what “we know” about them. I can’t think of I single Romanceland “kerfuffle” that was just about one remark in an otherwise spotless record–there’s always a history and/or follow up showing us exactly what a person thinks, but we’re supposed to treat every incident as an isolated event and not look at the past or at how deep they dug that hole before they decided an “apology” would be in their best interest.

  6. Courtney Milan

    @Ridley: I agree with your comment as it applies to white women, but just want to note that Bev Kendall is black.

    Just as I don’t think it’s my place as a non-black author to tell black authors to accept an apology, I also think it’s not my place to tell a black author how to engage and process this.

    I don’t think Bev’s avatar makes her race clear, so thought I should clarify.

  7. P. J. DEAN

    The correct response to Dray’s brand of ish was to shut it the f**k down. Which it was. So proud of the women who did it. It’s the only way to deal with the supposedly clueless. “Oh, you, didn’t know, dear heart? BAM! *the sound of a”hilarious” project exploding in one’s lap* My bad. Well, you do now.”

  8. Ridley

    @Courtney Milan: Oh, I thought she was white. Now that I go through her site, I notice there are no pictures of her at all, so I must’ve assumed based on her books. My mistake.

    I’ll cross it out. Thanks.

  9. Roslyn Holcomb

    And to give some promotion to an actually awesome book about Ms. Hemings and her family, be sure to check out The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed. I can’t recommend it highly enough and perhaps reading it will help eradicate the racist stench that Romancelandia can’t seem to help rolling in from time to time.

  10. Meoskop

    I feel we all know the next chapter, which is why it’s important that we move on to a new book instead of a new page. I’m glad Jeanne wrote this and I’m glad she felt comfortable adding her name. I know many AOC, especially black authors of color, have to consider career in a way we bloggers don’t. I saw a number of generalized but non searchable comments made because of that. I’m sorry this happened (again)

  11. lawless

    This travesty. Thank you for the writeup, Jeanne.

    As best I can tell, the proposal never existed and was never accepted by an editor. It was entirely a prank. That makes it unclear what Kaye’s involvement was here, but Dray completely stepped into it and kept getting more muck on herself by the minute.

    Perhaps this is commercially unrealistic, but I’d love to see authors of color and their allies refuse to appear on a panel with Dray (or Dray or Kaye, if so inclined) and for attendees to boycott any such panels. That would send a message that the people hurt by this are not going to take it anymore. But don’t just say no; propose alternative panels.

  12. Minx Malone

    Thank you for your write up on this. I had to unfriend more than a few people on social media that day. I saw it all unfold and just could not EVEN deal.

  13. Meoskop

    @lawless: Speaking only to Kaye – she was the first to introduce the entire concept being a joke. Later she deleted that tweet and said she hadn’t looked at the post before responding to Trout. (Which begged the question of how did she know what she was discussing, but hey). Then she clearly stated this was not a book she was associated with.

    Timeline insertions aside – if it was a joke in fact seems somewhat worse to me than if Dray truly thought she could make a book out of it. While both concepts are irredeemable one would be born out of a truly misguided idea of one’s power to rise above the material and the other is just punching people in the face for fun. “It was just a joke” was a really weird defense.

  14. lawless

    @meoskop – I don’t disagree with your assessment that it’s worse if Dray was pulling a prank. That puts the onus squarely on her and reveals she’s not afraid to lie for effect in addition to showing she has the world’s worst concept of what’s funny. That’s taking her assertion at face value; it seems entirely possible to me that this sprang from racist attitudes she’s not consciously aware of or is unwilling to acknowledge.

    But it does muddy the water when it comes to Kaye’s involvement. It’s not inconceivable that she defended Dray out of loyalty and protection of their joint commercial endeavor, not knowledge.

  15. Beks

    I think a very important point to note here is the issue of professional safety. There are authors that I ABSOLUTELY do not feel safe around do to the things they have said on social media AND the things that have written in their books. Also what am I to do as an author wo is often called upon to cross-promote, IR and lesbian romance in particular, when authors like this make racist comments? Am I really supposed to plug your recent IR title? Am I supposed to smile at you at conference? There’s polite, and turning the other cheek, and then there’s asking me to literally accept your racism and in some cases, reward you for it. Nah.

  16. Evangeline Holland

    This “joke” made me angry and sick (and this post brought it all back) precisely because of the peer/industry issue. I have a deep toe in hisfic circles and both the silence and support made me want to throw in the towel. The topic of diversity isn’t perfect in romance, but it’s loads better than what does (not) happen in HF. And it pisses me off that very people who will contribute to 100+ comment thread about nitpicky historical inaccuracies choose the superficial view of history that will foster this kind of “joke.”

  17. c d penn

    This was a disheartening article to read!! If this was Stephanie Dray and Laura Kaye idea of a joke it was done in bad taste. As a woman or a woman of color this is going to be offensive to a lot of readers. It makes me think twice about spending my money on their books.

  18. Anna Richland

    This makes me, once again, VERY glad I have kind of limited social media presence. I suspect that not tweeting and not being aggressive on other social media platforms limits some of my visibility as an author, but I KNOW that twitter would just piss me off and make me feel crappy about s&*T like this, so I’m better off as a person not inserting myself into all the stuff that happens like this. Reading the whole thing here is enough for me.

    I just don’t get why anyone with two firing brain cells would joke about Sally Hemings and BDSM with her owner. That’s the part that blows me away. It’s so freaking obviously not acceptable. I’m a white lady author – and let me say, there are big “warning! life experience you do not know personally ahead!” signs that pop up in my imagination all the time. When that happens, I slow down. I think. I try to come at something from a different angle – I use my imagination. (I sure as h#ll don’t hit post). (Sometimes I actually think “What would Love in the Margins bloggers say???”)

    It’s called self-editing, and it’s what authors do all the time, so I cannot believe when it gets missed. Or maybe I guess I can believe, because in real life people shoot themselves while cleaning weapons they thought were empty – people are stupid – but it is still confounding to be proved correct over and over again.

    I know the answer to “how could anyone think this was a joke, and then how could they double down on it?” is “subconscious racism/white privilege/cluelessness/failure to mix with people who have different backgrounds” — but in 2015 this issue, Sally Hemings and nonconsent, the nonconsent of slaves, is settled and obvious for 99.9% of people, isn’t it?

    I’m beginning to suspect that it isn’t, and that’s really depressing (and another reason to stay off social media).

    May I say on a hopefully positive note that after reading Chains and Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson, my child’s 5th grade class is reading an amazing book with primary source journal accounts of Colonial slavery interwoven with fictional telling of slaves’ lives in the Colonies. I’m so amazed at the knowledge and understanding they’re building – things that were never taught to me. Sorry I can’t remember the title (but the book went to school today and it’s old, so I’m failing to find it when I look it up).

  19. Sharon Cullars

    Believe me some of this racism isn’t accidental. Unfortunately, some mainstream authors and readers aren’t strangers to racist views and I know of one author (from brava) who was outright open with her birther views regarding the president. She’s still a bestseller.

  20. Anna Richland

    I double checked (and just spent thirty minutes reading sections) – the book my fifth grader is reading is To Be a Slave by Julius Lester. Newbery Honor book in 1968.

    I was mistaken in my description above – the whole book is nonfiction – but wow, is it compelling. Lester went through zillions of hours of Federal Writers’ Project interviews of freed slaves (taken down in the 1930s) and abolitionist interviews with slaves from the era before the Civil War, and compiled it into a book that is readable, emotional, weaves a story of a whole people through history. My kid has been really engaged with this book, and I can see why.

    Recommend. Highly. For advanced kid readers to adults. I am so happy with the teacher for choosing this (it’s not part of the curriculum – because of course there’s no big textbook company making money off a box of 1968 paperbacks).

  21. Danielle

    @Anna Richland: “I know the answer to “how could anyone think this was a joke, and then how could they double down on it?” is “subconscious racism/white privilege/cluelessness/failure to mix with people who have different backgrounds” — but in 2015 this issue, Sally Hemings and nonconsent, the nonconsent of slaves, is settled and obvious for 99.9% of people, isn’t it?”

    That’s what I assumed before moving to the U.S. (I’m from a non-anglophone country, and I’m white). Since then I’ve come to the (personal) conclusion that it’s really only white Americans who think the black civil rights battle was fought and won in the sixties. Among blacks, the civil rights struggle began long before that and it’s never ended. Whites pat themselves on the back for being egalitarian while still basing that certainty on work done by others decades ago, but a majority of whites have been rolling their thumbs since in contented ignorance about present-day realities for blacks. I live in a very white area of the northern U.S., and the below-surface comments I hear about race and civil rights on a regular basis in no way matches a society that has embraced and absorbed egalitarian thinking.

  22. Anna Richland

    @Danielle: Your Comment Here…

    Danielle – I’m not under any impression that the civil rights era has completed its course and we can pat ourselves on the back. I know that undoubtedly from both my life experiences and my general obliviousness, I probably miss a lot of things in the media and everyday life that hurt people, but given how much bias, assumptions, cluelessness and discrimination even I notice, I’m like … ??? How can people be so clueless?

    But I guess my first post was depressed that even that very, very narrow slice of issue – nonconsent of slaves to sex – wasn’t obvious to the person making the joke.

    I shouldn’t be surprised, I guess, given the whole issue of ‘forcible rape’ that some people might assume someone as revered as Jefferson – and I do admire him in many ways – wasn’t raping a slave b/c he presumably wasn’t “forcibly raping”, beating, whatever.

    But it’s still nonconsent, and therefore rape, because … slavery, original big nonconsent issue there.

    I guess I thought that particular threshold question was settled, which just shows … I don’t know what, but it makes me really sad that even that can still be a subject in 2015, when society should be working on more subtle and systemic issues, but ends up spending time and energy arguing stuff like “slavery = nonconsent”, which ought to be done.

  23. Deborah A. Bailey

    @Danielle I read Barbara Chase-Riboud’s “Sally Hemings” way back in the day (still have the paperback) It’s written from Sally Hemings’ POV and goes into great detail about her life and the treatment of slaves on Jefferson’s plantation. Haven’t read it in years, but I may pick it up again to see if I have the same feeling about it. I think it’s worth a read.

    Also, Jefferson in Paris is a Merchant-Ivory film that shows what happens when Jefferson takes Sally Hemings and her brother to Paris. It also features James Earl Jones as one of Hemings’ children telling the story (told in flashback).

    Great article. Anyone who thinks this was a joke is too clueless for me to deal with.

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