The Rape of Rufus?
Sexual Violence against Enslaved Men
Rufus landed hard on the dirt floor. Rose’s kick had caught him off guard when she fought him. He had wanted to lie down. He was exhausted. The Texas sun had drained his energies. He now knew that Rose and he wouldn’t sleep together that night, but he knew they would eventually have to. It was how things worked under slavery. Some called him a bully, but he knew who held the real power. Days before, his master, Hall Hawkins, told him that it was time for him to make babies. Hawkins told him to pair up with Rose. He didn’t know her well but had seen her around, working. Not who he would have picked. He liked another young woman, but in this life you did as you were told or you paid the consequences. Rufus was no stranger to being told what to do with his body. Lift this. Carry that. Sleep here. Move now. Sleep with her and make babies. He hated Hawkins for telling him whom to have sex with, but he knew he had no choice. He’d been poked, prodded, stripped, whipped, leered at, and now mated. At times he wondered if they even knew he was a man. Life with Rose would work out. It was better than getting lashed for resisting, and he had wanted to have children someday and head a household. But for now, he found himself on a dirt floor, tasting blood and faced with a woman wielding a fireplace poker. Tonight, he would sleep outside.
Rufus was enslaved in Texas in the nineteenth century, but we know few other biographical details about him. We do not know his last name or where he lived after slavery ended. What we know about Rufus’s own experiences during slavery comes to us from an interview with Rose Williams that took place in the early twentieth century with a representative of the federal Works Progress Administration. She characterized Rufus as a “bully” and described resisting him as he attempted to crawl into her bed. Rose’s interview has been often reprinted and is well known as a vivid account of the sexual coercion of enslaved women. By imagining their clash from Rufus’s perspective, we can begin to see that our current understanding of sexual violence under slavery is limited. A generation ago, Wilma King noted that discussion of Rose’s experiences took place “without raising questions about its impact on her spouse.”1 This is the first study to respond to that observation with a focus on Rufus and enslaved men.
Rethinking Rufus examines the sexual conditions that slavery produced and that enslaved men lived within, responded to, and shaped. To tell the story of men such as Rufus, this book queries the range of experiences for enslaved men. Although focused on the United States, it employs a broad chronological and geographic scope. It uses a wide range of sources on slavery—early American newspapers, court records, slave owners’ journals, abolitionist literature, the testimony of former slaves collected in autobiographies and in interviews, and Western art—to argue that enslaved black men were sexually violated by both white men and white women. Rethinking Rufus is a history of how the conditions of slavery gave rise to a variety of forms of sexual assault and exploitation that touched the lives of many men, their families, and their communities.
The topic of sexual violations of enslaved men has long been in cultural circulation and is not unfamiliar. As the evidence examined here shows, in a variety of ways, enslaved people referenced sexual abuse of enslaved men in their accounts of slavery produced before and after emancipation. Through the twentieth century and right up to the present day, fictionalized accounts of slavery have contained references to men sexually accosted by enslavers, men and women, and forced to reproduce.
But the academy has been slow to produce studies that verify oral traditions that include sexual violence against enslaved men. Through their painstaking research in slave records, scholars have shown that the sexual abuse of enslaved women was ubiquitous.2 Establishing this now widely accepted conclusion was itself a challenge, for historians had to argue against deep-rooted racist depictions of enslaved women as hypersexual. This book does not equate the sexual assault of women with that of men.3 Turning to the sexual abuse and exploitation of enslaved men builds on the perspective of this recent literature to more fully understand how sexual violence affected all members of the community.
In their scholarship on the sexual violations of enslaved girls and women, a few scholars have noted that enslaved men were almost certainly also victimized.4 King noted that a broader scholarship on sexual exploitation was needed, especially on “illicit activities between white women and enslaved men.”5 Martha Hodes’s examination of relations between white women and black men in the nineteenth century included several examples of enslaved men as victims of assertive white women.6 More recently, Daina Ramey Berry has postulated regarding the coerced coupling of enslaved people: “Because it is not clear whether bondmen consented to these recurring acts of intercourse, one could argue that bondmen who were forced to participate in sexual relationships with women who did not give their consent were by definition victims of rape.”7 No studies have a sustained focus on the sexual violations of enslaved men.
Some scholars raise the issue of sexual violations of enslaved men but diminish it or complicate it without further examination. Presumably drawing the conclusion from the absence of scholarship on the topic, bell hooks asserted that the “sexism of colonial white patriarchs spared black male slaves the humiliation of homosexual rape and other forms of sexual assault.” Hooks did not consider the position of men in her examination of “breeding.”8 In her groundbreaking book, Saidiya Hartman argued that castration should be examined as “sexual violation because enslaved men were no less vulnerable to the wanton abuses of their owners.” Still, her analysis stopped short with the concession that “the extent of their sexual exploitation will probably never be known.”9 More recently, Sasha Turner has acknowledged that “forced unions victimized both enslaved men and women,” but she frames the gendered imbalance of power in a way that leads her to emphasize the role of men in these unions in the subordination of women: “To what extent were enslaved men collaborators in the subordination and the sexual abuse of enslaved women?” Turner rightly notes that enslaved men “exerted physical and sexual power over black women through rape and domestic violence.”10
The study of enslaved men has not covered sexual assault not only because of the legacy of slavery, which characterized black men as hypersexual (and therefore always willing sexual participants) but also because of the historical and enduring understandings of sexual assault.11 For centuries, our culture has tended to view rape in archetypal ways as the violent sexual assault of a white woman by a stranger, most often a man of color and/or lower status. The early American legal system established sexual assault as a gendered crime, one that by definition covered only free women. In application of the law, its coverage was even narrower, with biases, especially along lines of race and status, influencing outcomes. As Sharon Block has shown, early American print depictions of rape most often highlighted the male guardian as the victim of the male perpetrator.12 In her study of changing conceptions of rape, historian Estelle Freedman has shown how the “meaning of rape is … fluid, rather than transhistorical or static,” how “its definition is continually reshaped,” and how its history is largely about changing understandings of “which women may charge which men” with the crime.13 In the era of slavery, Anglo-American culture already embraced a message about black men as particularly sexual, prone to sensual indulgence, and desiring white women. In the late nineteenth century, activists argued for a broadened understanding of rape, one that included sexual assault of African American women but still did not consider the inclusion of men as potential victims.
By the time of the mid-twentieth-century women’s movement, feminist theory had shifted the cultural understanding of rape from a crime of passion, usually committed against women who bore responsibility for their victimization, to an expression of violent power, specifically as a tool of the patriarchal oppression of women. This conceptualization has successfully allowed us to better understand sexual assault and rape as a display of power rather than of sexual desire. It does not, however, help us fully understand sexual assault. Even a cursory consideration of sexual assault today can readily point to examples of abuse of power that do not include the shoring up of patriarchy. Sexual assault also happens to boys and men: dependent elderly men who are assaulted by caregivers; incarcerated men by inmates and male and female guards; boys and men in war; prisoners of war or “enemy combatants”; boys and underage youth by male and female teachers, ministers, babysitters, coaches, senior teammates, senior fraternity members—the list is long.
Using the term “rape” to describe sexual violations of men only in the title to this introduction, and even there only hesitatingly posed in question form, signals that the work does not radically revisit or reclaim the word. It may well be too entrenched in historical roots to recover and be useful today for both men and women. But Rethinking Rufus does argue that the peculiarities of slavery meant that enslaved men were victimized and sexually assaulted in complex ways and in a manner that may only best be thought of and called rape, even if our available vocabulary remains insufficient for such a study.
This book is indebted to feminist theory of sexual assault as an expression of power and employs the conceptual framework applied to the study of sexual violence in early America. Sharon Block’s work is especially useful for scholars of slavery because it “analyzes the gap between the personal coercion of sex and the public classification of rape.”14 Block also builds on feminist conceptualizations of sexual violence as existing along a range of actions and experiences. Examining sexual coercion of enslaved men on a continuum allows recognition of the power at work in a wide range of interactions beyond the narrowly defined legal framework of rape. It is also a useful way to think of the range of sexually abusive situations that enslaved people navigated and the chaotic and unstable nature of interpersonal interactions with enslavers. The continuum, however, must not be seen as a hierarchy of abuses or traumas. Daily objectification, for example, might be as influential as a single physical penetrative assault. As Hartman has shown, “terror of the mundane and quotidian” must also be understood and grappled with to fully see what was slavery.15
Rethinking Rufus takes as a starting point the basic recognition that enslaved men could not consent to sexual intimacy with enslavers because of their legal status as property and because of their vulnerability as enslaved people within the hierarchical ordering of society. As Hartman reminds us, the “crime of rape relies upon the capacity to give consent or exercise will.”16 Early Americans centered consent in their understanding of rape. The law assumed that marriage, for example, signaled consent, and so the law could not conceive of the idea of rape within marriage. The legal system acknowledged that children could not consent; therefore, the law presumed that sexual contact under the age of ten qualified as assault. Although early Americans excluded enslaved people from those who could not consent, we would be remiss to repeat their conceptualizations. This book, therefore, follows Block’s approach to examining “early American systems of power without replicating the perspective of those systems.”17
As a study of enslaved men, this book has important implications for our understandings of how sexual vulnerability figured in developing concepts of masculinity for enslaved people. The scholarship on gender and enslaved people has recently started to explore masculinity in more complex ways than the abolitionists’ original emphasis on enslaved men as frustrated patriarchs, a concern illustrated, for example, in Richard Ansdell’s painting The Hunted Slaves (fig. 1). As bell hooks has argued, “To suggest that black men were dehumanized solely as a result of not being able to be patriarchs implies that the subjugation of black women was essential to the black male’s development of a positive self-concept, an ideal that only served to support a sexist social order.”18 Rebecca Fraser and others have noted that the nineteenth-century models of manhood emphasized independence, genteel patriarchy, and the ability to provide for and protect dependents and loved ones. These white middle-class ideals, the hegemonic models for gender, transitioned in this period from emphasizing independence and self-reliance to the model of the self-made man with market successes and individual achievements.
For enslaved men, other models of masculinity were also in play, including admiration for successes and achievements in areas in which enslaved men were allowed to participate: hunting, fishing, work, courtship, physical competitions among men. Masculinity also figured in some areas in which enslaved men were not allowed and that countered slavery, including literacy, protection of loved ones, defiance of masters, and other manners of “expressions of masculinity” that forged a “group solidarity” among enslaved men.19 David Doddington has argued that enslaved men competed with one another in ways that informed their identities as men: “Although enslaved men supported one another against the oppression of slavery, they also viewed, judged, and ranked one another in order to validate their gendered sense of self.” Competitiveness took place in sports and games, as well as economically and in terms of productivity.20 Sergio Lussana’s work has explored the subculture of enslaved men and contexts in which male bonding and homosocial and homoerotic spaces and activities could forge ties among men in the community, as well as reinforce their identities as men.21
Sarah N. Roth has argued that silences in the abolitionist literature reveal that depictions of black masculinity changed dramatically over time. By the 1840s the abolitionist literature had placed a comfortable (and comforting) distance between black men and violence or revenge against whites. As she notes, it was necessary to portray slaves in a manner that did not threaten sympathetic white audiences, and so black authors intentionally sought to instill in white readers a sense of pity by highlighting appropriate sufferings.22 Running away could be an acceptable response to slavery, but violent resistance would alienate readers. Roth concludes that this approach succeeded in attracting a larger white audience to abolitionist literature than the more radical themes addressed in the 1830s and 1850s, when violent resistance was more frequently highlighted.
Roth’s point that abolitionist literature was crafted in a way to elicit sympathy has deep implications for the extent to which it could address the sexual assault of enslaved men and helps us understand why many accounts do not contain explicit descriptions of this type of abuse. Graphic stories of abuse would elicit revulsion, not sympathy. In some cases, these stories could also raise the specter of culpability, given prevailing norms of the day that assumed black men were hypersexual and white women were passive. In the case of same-sex sexual assault, such literature would have immediately conjured up guilt by association.
In many ways, we have maintained the gendered division of abuses most often circulated by nineteenth-century abolitionists. The early nineteenth-century painting Virginian Luxuries, for example, carefully depicts gendered differences by portraying the intimate violation of an enslaved woman and the whipping of an enslaved man (fig. 2). This painting echoes the nineteenth-century discussions of gendered abuses within slavery as those of “violence against black men” and “sexual exploitation of enslaved women,” still most commonly considered.23 Re-thinking Rufus contends that we view such images with fresh eyes as illustrations of specific examples, but examples that should not be understood to represent the full range of abusive experiences of enslaved men and women.
In five chapters this book attempts to understand the possibilities of Rufus’s experience by examining and listening to the experiences and tellings of a wide range of enslaved people. Chapter 1 focuses on the bodies of enslaved men. Although men’s bodies figure throughout the book, this chapter pays particular attention to the ways that dominant American culture denigrated, celebrated, and damaged the bodies of enslaved men. But whites’ sexual attraction to black men did not lead to their sexual assault. Black men were sexually violated and exploited because those actions served the racial hierarchy and subordination of black men under slavery.24 Chapter 1 also posits that enslaved men used their bodies for pleasure and resistance, and they shared publicly their resentment at the abuses they endured.
Chapter 2 historicizes relational standards of masculinity that were culturally present during the height of slavery. Men like Rufus valued autonomy in intimate aspects of life. The ability to choose and then protect one’s loved ones was paramount. Chapter 2 examines these ideas and the ways that enslaved men found themselves frustrated and violated in various parts of their lives. Although this book has wide-ranging implications for our understanding of the history of sexuality in America, it does not purport to be a history of sexuality for enslaved men. Rather, it is a history of the particular topic of sexual violence against enslaved men. Study of this topic necessitates some broader examination and contextualization that touch on understandings of enslaved male sexuality, but it is not to be taken as a complete history in that area. As Treva B. Lindsey and Jessica Marie Johnson remind us, we must continue to complicate our understandings of sexuality for enslaved people: “To have erotic sensations was to steal bodies back from masters… . [T]o search for [erotic sensations] in chattel slavery … allow[s] for the interior lives and erotic subjectivities of enslaved blacks to matter.”25 Abuse and violation here are not meant to define enslaved men’s sexuality, although for some they may well have done so.
Chapter 3 looks at the widespread practice of forced reproduction and coerced coupling. Rufus enters Rose Williams’s narrative because the two were told to set up a household and produce children for their master’s financial gain. A wide range of sources document that reproduction was expected and that coupling was often guided and directed. While chapter 2 shows how men complained that such interference stymied their masculine independence, chapter 3 examines more deeply the broader implications for this interaction between master and enslaved men and how it affected understandings of manliness and positions within families and in the community.
Chapter 4 takes up the issue of white women’s relationships with enslaved men and the various other ways that white women violated and exploited enslaved men. It posits that the well-documented incidents of relations between enslaved men and white women suggest that more was at work than simply attraction that boldly flew in the face of prohibitions. Indeed, viewed within the context of power and abuses of enslaved men, the number of such connections suggests that accessibility and exploitation would also be at work in such cases.
Chapter 5 focuses on the experiences of enslaved men as they encountered sexual exploitation directly at the hands of white men. This included but was not limited to same-sex sexual behavior. It also included the complex ways that white men violated and exploited enslaved men in their intimate lives. The chapter focuses on the particularly vulnerable position of enslaved valets. It also underscores the bonds of intimacy that were forged between enslaved men in the context of enslavement.
The book ends, as it began, with Rufus. The conclusion includes the full interview with Rose Williams because the sexual abuse and exploitation of enslaved men affected not only individual men but also their spouses, families, and communities.
Not all enslaved men would have experienced their identities in relation to the experience of sexual assault or even the perceived threat of it. Some men would have had little exposure or given much thought to it. Some might have even considered access to white women as a marker of their prowess.26 Others might have experienced sexual pleasure, better lives, or even emotional connections from sexually exploitative situations with those who held power over their well-being, their lives. But many experienced direct assault, and most, if not all, experienced the type of sexual violations that devalued and objectified the men, underscoring their status as enslaved men. The point of this book is not to heal the traumas of the past; indeed, for some, telling these stories may inflict more violence. Toni Morrison, bell hooks, and others have grappled with the harming and healing powers that sharing such stories hold.27 The literature on trauma that limits itself to historical and collective memory, specifically, historical atrocities, has also probed these questions extensively.28 This book is not the story of how all enslaved men were subjected to violent and traumatic sexual assault, but it is a history of the peculiar conditions that enslavement established, nurtured, and expanded—conditions that enabled those in power to dominate many enslaved men in part through sexual violence.