“Till I Had Mastered Every Part”
Valets, Vulnerability, and Same-Gender Relations under Slavery
After I been at the place ’bout a year, de massa come to me and say, “You gwine live with Rufus in dat cabin over yonder.”
White men’s sexual manipulation and coercion of enslaved men often occurred in indirect ways as a secondary sexual assault, as when Rose’s enslaver instructed her to live with Rufus. As we have seen in previous chapters, white men, especially masters and overseers, could and did assert sexualized control over enslaved men’s bodies. As we have seen, enslaved men like Rufus were sexually violated by the directions and actions of white men through forced coupling and reproduction. This chapter argues that some white men also sexually violated some enslaved men through fetishized objectification and direct sexual contact. Such violations were conducive to maintaining the degradation of enslavement. Same-gender sexual violations stand in contrast to other relationships that were also nurtured within the conditions of bondage: the positive and affirming same-gender love that was forged between enslaved men in the crucible of enslavement.
This chapter uses an array of sources to understand the range of ways that male enslavers sexually violated enslaved men. It analyzes accounts from formerly enslaved men and women and visual culture, including Western art, as evidence of communal knowledge of the types of exploitative and violent sexual assaults that were inherent in slavery across and within a wide range of contexts. It begins by examining the broader context of same-gender tenderness shared between some enslaved men. It then raises the issue of same-gender abuses between enslaved men before focusing on the various ways that enslavers sexually violated enslaved men, paying special attention to the unique and vulnerable position of enslaved valets or manservants.
Same-sex sexuality is a topic seldom covered in histories of slavery. To date, none of the major studies of slave life take up the topic of same-sex sexuality in any depth, and slavery has been only marginally present in the major scholarship on same-sex sexuality in early America.1 The double standard that pervades academic history, whereby historical subjects are presumed heterosexual until overwhelming documentary evidence proves otherwise, holds sway in the literature on slavery. Following tradition, the issue need not even be raised in studies of slave life and culture, and it continues to be acceptable for same-gender intimacy to go entirely unremarked upon.
Enslaved people would be surprised to learn that today we do not know about same-gender abuses. They were spoken of in the nineteenth century in appropriate terms so that audiences understood what was being said without being offended by overly explicit language and imagery.2 Enslaved people would also be surprised to know that love between enslaved men had become a taboo subject. The pathologizing of same-sex sexuality that took root at the turn of the twentieth century forced the abandonment of that knowledge, leaving it aside, uninterpreted for the next generation. The discreet ways in which it was spoken of languished in the archive, and the meaning was largely lost to historians. In a 2002 interview historian Winthrop Jordan told literary scholars Richard Goddard and Noel Polk that although he believed such interactions occurred, he knew of none that had been documented.3
While academic histories of slavery have been slow to include same-sex romantic and sexual experiences, stories of white men sexually abusing enslaved men have percolated through modern culture, through oral tradition, and through artistic forms such as novels and film, representing a disjuncture between popular and academic histories. Modern fictional literature has imagined the same-sex sexual violence that occurred during slavery. A 1968 novel by William Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner, used the specter of same-sex sexual abuse to underscore the particular depravity of slavery in America. In Styron’s fictional account, Nat Turner is asked by his enslaver, as he grabs Nat’s “upper thigh,” “‘I hear tell a nigger boy’s got an unusual big pecker on him. That right, boy?’” Turner also shares that his enslaver tried to “ravish” him.4 Scholars have also noted Toni Morrison’s inclusion of sexual abuses of enslaved men by white men.5 More recently, the film Django Unchained (2012) depicted a scene of sexually charged whipping and torture of the title character by his master. Django, in the striking scene, vulnerably nude and hanging from his wrists, is leered at by his tormentor.
Do such examples use modern concerns and biases projected onto the past—homophobic metaphors for slavery’s other unmentionable horrors—or are they something else—vestiges of communal knowledge about actual practices passed down from those once enslaved? The evidence discussed in this chapter would suggest that it is almost certainly a little of both. The fictionalized depictions in modern sources undoubtedly resonate with current homophobia, but they also stem from long histories of oral tradition that originate in actual practices and experiences under slavery. The underlying discomfort with same-gender sexual intimacy in such accounts is evident in the way that only abuses, and not loving bonds between enslaved men, appear in modern fictional accounts.
Enslavement in America spanned centuries and encompassed millions of men of African descent. During the period of American slavery, the dominant culture did not have a concept of modern sexual orientations, neither heterosexual nor homosexual. Those concepts would develop in medical discourses only in the late nineteenth century, after slavery had ended. It is true that many early Americans believed that some individuals were erotically inclined to others of the same sex, but many also believed that same-sex sexual contact did not indicate a permanent or broader sexual orientation or identity. The absence of medical and psychological models of homosexuality that initially conceived of romantic and sexual attraction to the same gender as unhealthy and disordered allowed for a greater freedom in expressions of same-sex intimacy, and such tenderness was idealized for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And because affection between two men would not be of concern, it also provided opportunity for those few individuals who indeed sought romantic and sexual love from members of the same sex. One caveat: those experiences undoubtedly had the potential to inform the participants’ sexual and relational lives and even their identities, but it would be anachronistic to use modern sexual orientations in assumptions about the sexual identities of any of the men in this chapter—in either close relationships or abusive sexual contact.
AFFECTIONATE TIES BETWEEN ENSLAVED MEN
It is important to understand that white men’s intimate violations of enslaved men took place in a context in which enslaved men valued bonds of love and affection among men.6 Some of these relationships could have been sexually intimate. All took place before our world of modern sexual orientations and identities during a time that allowed for more fluidity in experiences unrelated to identities. In the late 1990s Robert Richmond Ellis concluded that the poetry of Cuban slave Juan Francisco Manzano “expresses what might be called a homoracial bond” and speculated that same-gender love and intimacy developed among enslaved friends and between family members.7 But since then no scholars have further explored this important aspect of slavery. This section briefly sketches examples of bonds among enslaved men and argues that approaching those relationships with an openness about romantic and sexual intimacy allows us to more fully understand the range of interpersonal experiences for enslaved men and to situate the abusive corruption of same-gender bonds that slavery enabled. This chapter takes seriously the logical supposition that among the millions of enslaved men, loving queer bonds of intimacy were established and that traces of those most private inner feelings can still be found in records, if one listens and hears.
Same-gender intimacy among whites was a facet of mainstream life in the era of slavery and was widely embraced in the culture.8 Black women also found bonds of love with each other. Karen V. Hansen’s examination of correspondence between Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus illustrated that the “fluidity of boundaries in nineteenth-century sexuality” extended beyond the circles of middle-class and elite white women and men in the Northeast. Brown and Primus’s “erotic” relationship was partly recorded in letters written while they were separated and Rebecca helped establish and taught at a school for ex-slaves in Maryland.9 This chapter finds ample evidence that similar bonds of intimacy also existed between enslaved men.
Although the conditions of slavery played a key role in forging connections between enslaved men, bonds and intimacies occurred broadly in Africa before and during the era of slavery. Scholars have argued that a nascent concept of “homosexuality in precolonial Africa” existed. Indeed, it has been argued that “through the institutions of boy-wives, spirit mediumship, and male initiation rituals, homosexuality was indeed a regular part of the sexual patterns of many African ethnic groups.”10 Scholarship on African traditions and practices of same-gender intimacy does not focus on West Africa, from which slaves were generally taken, but the broader literature on Africa generally can provide some clue about practices that appear to be widely held and that would have also circulated in West Africa. Vincent Woodard points out that the account of a Cuban slave, Esteban Montejo, contains numerous examples of “cultural practices” and “plantation values” that underscore the “continuities between Central and West African cultures.”11 The homoerotic bond of African men was illustrated in Auguste-Xavier Leprince’s 1826 painting, Lion Hunt, for example, which features three nude or seminude men having just conquered a lion, their gaze directed at one another’s eyes.12 This bond was similarly captured in Léon Bonnat’s 1876 Orientalist painting Le Barbier nègre à Suez, in which a standing, nearly nude barber with a straight-edge razor tenderly holds the head of the man seated beneath him. The seated man’s head rests against the barber’s crotch. The length of the razor is placed just under his mouth, which is depicted in sensual detail.13
While all-male contexts may have been particularly conducive to developing bonds among enslaved men, we also see shards of evidence in other areas that suggest that the broad African traditions were continued and developed under the conditions of slavery. And indeed, as some scholars have argued, the conditions of the Middle Passage itself may have fostered “queer relationships” among men and among women “in the holds of slave ships.”14
In the context of slavery in the Americas, we do see same-gender bonds among men figuring in important ways in both labor and leisure. Works by Sergio Lus-sana and David Doddington have helped us to better appreciate the predominantly male worlds that nurtured bonds of cohesion and competition among men. Lussana has focused on the sex-segregated spaces within which so many enslaved men found themselves confined, including mines, forests, factories, and mills and during the building of canals and railroads. Lussana argues that same-gender friendships served to support and bond together communities of enslaved men.15 Leisure time in these environments and on large plantations also included homosocial spaces and activities, including physical contacts of fighting and wrestling. As Lussana argues, such conditions nurtured a climate of fraternal support.
It would seem that there was enough concern about the radical potential of black male-male intimacy and the disruptive bonds that it could engender for Pennsylvania to outlaw it specifically and to apply harsher penalties than for same-gender intimacy among whites. Quaker laws in Pennsylvania made a distinction between black and white sodomy offenses. In 1700 and 1706 statutes established that blacks convicted of “buggery” would be sentenced to death, although the laws made sodomy for whites a crime that would result in life imprisonment instead of execution.16
Cultural awareness of the bonds among enslaved men may have been some cause for concern. For example, intense bonds among men are at the heart of a story reprinted in The Spectator in 1711 in which two enslaved men, in love with the same woman, engage in a “long Struggle between Love and Friendship.” They were deeply in love with the woman but “at the same time were so true to one another, that neither of them would think of gaining her without his friend’s consent.” After stabbing the woman in the heart, the men were discovered having taken their own lives, lying on each side of her on the ground kissing her.17
Formerly enslaved men reflected on meaningful relationships formed with other men. Some of these included young white men as well as other enslaved men. Olaudah Equiano, for example, wrote of a white man, Richard Baker, whom Equiano met while on board a ship for England soon after being brought to Virginia and sold. Equiano describes Baker as “a young lad” several years older than himself: “He showed me a great deal of partiality and attention, and in return I grew extremely fond of him. We at length became inseparable; and, for the space of two years, he was of very great use to me, and was my constant companion and instructor.” The relationship was marked not just by tutelage but also by mutual support, because the two young men had “gone through many sufferings together on shipboard.” It was also punctuated by physical intimacy and tenderness: “We many nights lain in each other’s bosoms when we were in great distress.” Reflecting on Baker’s death, Equiano wrote that he “never ceased to regret it” and described him as a “kind interpreter, an agreeable companion, and a faithful friend.”18 In another example, Frederick Douglass described the importance of his relationship with one “Little Tommy,” whom he “professed much love for” until he was around fifteen years old and the boys assumed their social hierarchical roles of master and slave.19 We also see hints of this type of bond in Solomon Northrop’s relationships with his rescuer, Bass, described as an “old bachelor,” and also with Uncle Abram, whom he described as having a “contempt of matrimony.” Northrop describes the sixty-year-old Abram as a man who is no longer interested in sexual intimacy with women, including his wife.20 Uncle Abram was a “kind-hearted” man and a “patriarch” to those around him, including Northrop.
Formerly enslaved men link these relationships to having endured moments of great difficulty, underscoring the importance of the connection, and some highlighted the intensity of trust between the men, particularly when the relationship occurred in the context of running away. One Isaac Mason, for example, wrote of being “very intimate” with one young man named Joshua with whom he shared his plan to run away. Joshua ended up joining Isaac: “Mr. Mansfield had secured from his father’s estate a young fellow by the name of Joshua. He had been with him about two years this Christmas. We were very intimate and I had placed the utmost confidence in him. Feeling he would not betray my secret, I ventured to inform him where I had been and what I had done. He felt much elated over the project and said he would go with me.”21 Similarly, William Parker wrote of one Alexander, to whom he became “greatly attached” after his “comrade” of many years, Levi, was sold. Parker described the pain of separation from slave sales and the effect it had on separating families and husbands and wives, and he used the example of Levi to illustrate his own loss as an adolescent boy.22 In another example, Louis Hughes described talking about running away and freedom with “fast friends”: “Thomas, the coachman, and I were fast friends. We used to get together every time we had a chance and talk about freedom.”23 Such discussions were dangerous and could only occur within bonds of trust. The secret shared could then strengthen that bond. The bonds shared could be revolutionary in this context of running away, but even for those who did not take that step, bonds of mutual respect and love were a form of resisting enslavement, as the work of Stephanie Camp has argued. And as Lussana has argued, “Few men could have survived the brutality of slavery, without the support of friends, without male company.”24
Two examples from Cuba provide erotically charged descriptions of intimacy among enslaved men. In his depiction of enslaved life in Cuba, Esteban Montejo described his experiences and having witnessed erotic relationships between men.25 Woodard and others have noted his observations that some men “had sex with each other and didn’t want to have anything to do with women.” “Sodomy,” he recalled boldly, “was their life.” The sexual interactions were not isolated or hidden, according to Montejo, and were sometimes part of long-term relationships. Men used the term “husband” to refer to a male partner, and Montejo noted that cooking, economic support, and washing clothes were all part of this type of marriage between enslaved men.26 A poem by Juan Francisco Manzano includes passages addressed to his brother that Ellis reads as queer, given the physical and emotional affection expressed. The poem includes lines that emphasize intimacy poignantly: “He embraces me, I kiss him / And oh Lord! In his arms / I felt my affection grow… . lovingly I clasp him in my arms.”27
While Manzano’s lines contain the most erotically charged of the examples presented here, we must consider the broader context and conditions of slavery when examining the bonds that developed among enslaved men. Scholars such as Lussana have chosen the term “friendship” to capture the depth of emotional connections among enslaved men and the radical potential that it held for survival and resistance while remaining true to what the evidence can support. At the same time, such a characterization runs the risk of closing down queer possibilities. Social acceptance of close relationships among men provided opportunities for physical intimacy to go unrecorded. The sentiments expressed by enslaved men are significant because they are what same-gender love looks like. An expansive rather than narrow understanding of love among enslaved men must allow for erotic, romantic, and physical love. Maintaining an openness to same-gender intimacy within slavery must be part of our histories and future approaches, or we risk destroying the richness and diversity of thoughts, feelings, and experiences that make up our past.
SAME-GENDER ABUSES BETWEEN ENSLAVED MEN
The same-gender sexual violations that enslaved men endured thus stood in contrast to the practices and traditions involving same-gender intimacy. Although slavery forged ties among men, it also nurtured hierarchies and abuses between them. That same-gender abuse occurred between enslaved men should not surprise us. We know that same-sex sexual abuses occurred in other captivity contexts in North America. Some of these abuses were ritualized, and some were violent.28 One traveler noted that Native American warriors, for example, sodomized “the dead bodies of their enemies, thereby (as they say) degrading them into women.”29 Ramón Gutiérrez has argued that the berdaches were frequently prisoners of war who were sexually exploited and degraded by their captors.30
Studies of slavery have tended to emphasize community among enslaved people, but a relatively small body of work also examines various types of conflict. Stephanie Camp and others remind us that enslaved women were at times abused by both enslaved men and white men.31 Eugene Genovese argued that “some drivers forced the slave women in much the same way as did some masters and overseers” and that it was an “open question which of these powerful white and black males forced the female slaves more often.”32 We know that fights occurred among slaves—sometimes resulting from jealousy, but other times stemming from conflicts and power struggles.33
Slavery in Brazil, some have argued, nurtured a “sadistic” relationship in the shape of bonds of intimacy, with some of these acts taking place among enslaved men in addition to masters. One classic study by Gilberto Freyre claimed, “Through the submission of the black boy in the games that they played together, and especially the one known as leva-pancadas (‘taking a drubbing’), the white lad was often initiated into the mysteries of physical love.” It continued: “As for the lad who took the drubbing, it may be said of him that, among the great slave-holding families of Brazil, he fulfilled the same passive functions toward his young master as did the adolescent slave under the Roman Empire who had been chosen to be the companion of a youthful aristocrat: he was a species of victim, as well as comrade in those games in which the ‘premiers élans genesiques’ [first reproductive impulses] of the son of the family found outlet.”34 This same author argued that Europeans and Italians in particular had brought the practice of sodomy to Brazil in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Among the Portuguese and Spaniards who colonized Brazil, he argued, “this form of lust was intensely practiced.” Additionally, the Portuguese men of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, “possibly by reason of their long maritime crossings and their contact with the voluptuous life of Oriental countries,” spread these cultural same-sex sexual practices.35
The disproportionately male environments of the sugar plantations in Brazil and Cuba nurtured ripe conditions for sexual assault among slaves, as well as between male owners and overseers and enslaved men. Genovese noted that scholars of slavery in Latin America argue that slave owners’ sons who did not abuse enslaved women might be suspected of sexual interest in men. “Perhaps,” he speculated the logic would go, “his earlier indulgence in leva-pancadas with the slave boys, instead of whetting his appetite for richer treasures, had caught his fancy as a way of life. Had he become a ‘sissy’?”36
A seventeenth-century case from New York suggests that an African tradition of intimacy between an older man and a younger boy may have been practiced in the colonial Americas. In 1646 Jan Creoly, a “Negro slave,” tried for a “second offense” of “sodomy,” was sentenced to be “strangled” to death and then “his body burned to ashes.” Creoly confessed that he had “also committed the said heinous and abominable crime on the island of Curaçao.” A ten-year-old black boy, Manuel Congo, was identified as a victim and was spared the death penalty because the courts believed the act was committed “by force and violence.” (He was, however, sentenced to be taken to the place of Creoly’s execution, tied to a post, with “wood piled around him, and be made to view the execution and be beaten with rods.”) The age difference suggests that it followed the African custom of older men and younger boys. However, the court record indicates that the original accusations were brought by black community members, suggesting that the violence of the attack may have violated any existing social norms. Thus, what is most striking is that the language suggests that there may well have existed a scenario that allowed for a certain degree of same-gender intimacy—bonds that did not include assault and that would therefore not have triggered a response from the community.37
The all-male environment on ships also presented men with conditions that were conducive to same-gender sexual violations. At the turn of the nineteenth century, American media had sensationalized the specter of sodomy and captivity in coverage of the Barbary pirates. Newspapers and books described North African men as morally corrupt in their sexualized captivity of American and European men. As Jason R. Zeldon argues, such coverage “forced readers to confront the uncomfortable notion that the American hostages were getting raped.”38
Although we have no documentation for sexual assault during the Middle Passage, the conditions were certainly there. Ships were both sexually charged and physically abusive spaces. Sailors were abused by superiors and degraded those beneath them. We also know of rapes and sexual exploitation of enslaved women.39 And we know from scholarship on same-sex sexual behavior in this time and place and under seafaring conditions that such abuse would not have been unknown.40 It is likely that abusive sexual relationships could have also occurred within that context.
Consider also the American and British familiarity with same-sex sex at sea.41 After leaving the United States Navy in 1842, Jacob A. Hazen reflected on his experiences onboard:
I have already hinted that the Columbus was a school-ship. That is, if a den where some two hundred boys are collected together, exposed to every kind of sinful vice—where swearing, gambling, cheating, lying, and stealing, are the continual order of the day; where drunkenness, obscenity, and self-pollution, stalk unrestrained; and where crimes abound of even so deep and black a dye that it fires the cheek with shame to name them, and which yet escape the just punishment their heinousness deserves; if, I say, such a place constitutes a school-ship then was the Columbus, like the North Carolina, emphatically a school-ship.42
His description echoes the scholarly literature on life onboard navy ships and at sea for merchant ships in general. Mutual masturbation was not uncommon and could most easily go undetected, but even sodomy occurred and would generally go unpunished unless disruptive. The offenses in 1848–49 included multiple types of infractions that would have covered same-sex sexual conduct, including “scandalous conduct,” “filthiness,” and “taking indecent liberties with boy in hammock.”43
Marcel Antoine Verdier’s 1849 painting of a naked enslaved man tied to four stakes in the ground captures the sexualized vulnerability of enslaved men to the abuses of other enslaved men (fig. 6). The image draws the eye to the body of the man on his stomach, his legs forced apart by the way he is staked. In the center of the image, witness to the violence, is an enslaved man who is stripped to his waist. He stands with his hands tied behind his back and does not look at the man on the ground; instead, his gaze is cast squarely at the enslaved man who holds the whip over his head. That man looks downward at the fully exposed buttocks and genitals, which are hidden from the viewer.
WHITE MEN AND VIOLATIONS OF ENSLAVED MEN
Sexualized violations of enslaved men also occurred at the hands of white men. As we have seen in chapter 1, fetishized objectification of black men’s bodies resulted from a culture of racism and white supremacy. The example of the portrait of Belley dramatically illustrates the social and cultural messages present at the time, some of which appear to be competing—on the one hand, lauding the black male body for its power and potency, while on the other hand, holding up black manhood as inherently uncivilized and animalistic (fig. 3). Some scholars have even speculated that the artist of the portrait must have been personally captivated by Belley, experiencing a sexual attraction to the subject while still embedding the image with visual clues that contrast Belley with classical references. “Undoubtedly, Belley was an object of Girodet’s desire and fantasy,” concludes Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby. “The thirty-year-old artist standing before the fifty-year-old black deputy and military officer was fascinated by Belley’s hidden virility, his sexual power, his potential erotic domination.”44
White men’s erotic objectification of black men was illustrated in an 1807 satirical watercolor of a nearly nude muscular African man modeling in a way that exposes his buttocks (fig. 7). The subject stands alone in a studio with six white men, all of whom are in various poses of aroused gaze. Two of the men are staring squarely at the man’s genital region. A third has the round end of a vertical cane suggestively in his own mouth. Three of the men are holding their hats, symbolically creating open orifices at or near their posteriors. As the model strikes a classical pose (Apollo), the image, like the portrait of Belley, manages to present the body in celebratory ways while still drawing a contrast to civility that ultimately undercuts the subject’s manhood.
The English caricature of an African American man as the intense focus of male artists bears a striking similarity to the real-life experiences of a man from Boston named Wilson. Wilson found himself the subject of a great deal of scrutiny and attention in London as an artist’s model, with numerous artists professing adoration for his physique.45 One man, Benjamin Robert Haydon, made drawings and studied Wilson’s “exquisite form” for a full month, writing in his diary that he was the “perfect model of beauty and activity” (figs. 8 and 9). What Wilson endured as Haydon’s model is not fully clear, but Haydon noted that Wilson was a “beauty in any position.” That his artist’s eye was viewing his subject in a racialized way comes through in Haydon’s reference to Wilson, a man for whom Haydon professed great physical admiration and with whom he spent significant time, as only “the black,” instead of by his name.46
Haydon’s fascination with Wilson’s body neatly illustrates the broader culture’s objectification of black men, including its concomitant disregard for their well-being. As was popular at the time, Haydon also attempted to make a plaster cast of his subject, in this case, indicating Haydon’s wish to possess Wilson entirely, of his full body. The casting was unsuccessful, nearly compressing Wilson to death as the plaster set. “The moment it set,” wrote Haydon, “it pressed so equally upon him that his ribs had no room to expand for his lungs to play.” Wilson, evidently in desperation, “gasped out, ‘I—I—I die.’” After breaking him out of the form, Haydon was pleased that he had succeeded in molding Wilson’s “hinder part” and the front of his body, presumably including his genitals. Haydon recalled that when the mold of Wilson’s posterior “was joined to the three front pieces there appeared the most beautiful cast ever taken from nature.” It was, he gushed, “the most beautiful sight on earth.” In his autobiography, Haydon boasted that he had been “pushed to enthusiasm by the beauty of this man’s form.” In striking parallels to the ways that objectification of black bodies served the institution of slavery so well, he melded his calling as an artist with his total control of Wilson’s body, writing, “I cast him, drew him and painted him till I had mastered every part.” Haydon’s fascination with Wilson’s physique was part of his larger view of white supremacy. He noted elsewhere in his diary that his study of “physical construction” led him to conclude that the “Negro was the link between animal and man.”47
Wilson was a free man, but free men were still subjected to the cultural evaluation of black men’s bodies that enslavement produced. We can see similar objectification and scrutiny at work—more explicitly and obviously serving a racialized hierarchy—in an example from ethnographic research. In 1850 Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz commissioned photographs of five enslaved men, Alfred, Fassena, Jack, Jem, and Renty, and two women, Delia and Drana, from South Carolina plantations, in the belief that the photos would assist in his argument for the biological inferiority of Africans (figs. 10 and 11). Some of them, including the women, were photographed without shirts on. Two of the men were photographed completely naked, their buttocks and genitals part of the scientific gaze, their exposure and exploitation preserved by the camera.48
Formerly enslaved men described the kind of everyday physical violations and humiliations that they endured. In Solomon Northrop’s account of his experiences enslaved in Mississippi, he wrote about two men scrutinizing his body. When Epps and Bass discuss Platt (Northrop), Epps brags that he was offered $1,700 for Platt but refused it. Explaining that Platt is strong and smart, Epps encourages Bass to feel Platt’s body. “‘Why, just feel of him, no,’ Epps rejoined. ‘You don’t see a boy very often put together any closer than he is. He’s a thin-skin’d cuss, and won’t bear as much whipping as some; but he’s got the muscle in him, and no mistake.’ Bass felt of me, turned me round, and made a thorough examination, Epps all the while dwelling on my good points.”49
As Vincent Woodard has argued, Frederick Douglass viewed himself as metaphorically raped by the slave system and was likely also literally the victim of sexual assault. He “described himself as playing the role of the male concubine and male daughter to the plantation system and to certain white male authority figures.” As Woodard argues in his analysis of the public letter that Douglass wrote to his former master, he “speaks vicariously through the voice and body of a young white daughter” and “alludes to a relationship—a very intimate, erotic relationship—between himself and his former master in this female voice.” Woodard argues that the letter and positionality make sense when one views this as Douglass writing about “his own rape,” his own “ravishing at the hands of white men.”50 Woodard reads this as a silence that suggests perhaps sexual abuses. From Douglass:
THE foregoing chapter, with all its horrid incidents and shocking features, may be taken as a fair representation of the first six months of my life at Covey’s. The reader has but to repeat, in his own mind, once a week, the scene in the woods, where Covey subjected me to his merciless lash, to have a true idea of my bitter experience there, during the first period of the breaking process through which Mr. Covey carried me. I have no heart to repeat each separate transaction, in which I was a victim of his violence and brutality. Such a narration would fill a volume much larger than the present one. I aim only to give the reader a truthful impression of my slave life, without unnecessarily affecting him with harrowing details.51
Douglass’s reluctance to detail his abuses stands in contrast to explanations and depictions that he has used effectively in his account to convey the abuses he witnessed and endured. Here, his silence on his own abuse at the hands of a sadistic man who sought total control over his body is suspect.
Similarly, the narrative of William Grimes, published decades before Douglass’s, contains an extraordinary passage about an interaction with a new master, “Mr. A——, (for that was my new masters name, who was a Jew).” Early on, Grimes ran into problems with him: “I then started with my new master for Savannah, with a carriage and four horses: we travelled about twelve miles the first day. I was dissatisfied with him before I had got two miles.” Grimes explained that the problems were serious enough for him to try to get out of the situation: “We travelled the next day twenty five miles, as far as Petersburgh. I was so much dissatisfied with him, that I offered a black man at that place, two silver dollars to take an axe and break my leg, in order that I could not go on to Savannah; but he refused.” The man instead suggested to Grimes that he run away, but Grimes was unwilling to take that risk.52 Nonetheless, his desire to end this association was severe enough that the following day he wrote:
I then attempted to break my leg myself. Accordingly I took up an axe, and laying my leg on a log, I struck at it several times with an axe endeavouring to break it, at the same time I put up my fervent prayers to God to be my guide, saying, “if it be thy will that I break my leg in order that I may not go on to Georgia, grant that my blows may take effect; but thy will not mine be done.” Finding I could not hit my leg after a number of fruitless attempts, I was convinced by my feelings then, that God had not left me in my sixth trouble, and would be with me in the seventh. Accordingly I tried no more to destroy myself. I then prayed to God, that if it was his will that I should go, that I might willingly.53
Grimes explains that his previous master had instilled in him a dislike for Georgia, yet that reasoning does not explain how he came to dislike his master after only two miles. Indeed, the reader is left to wonder what could possibly have been bad enough for him to take such extreme measures, yet not bad enough that he would risk running away. Given that Grimes does not refrain from descriptions of other abuses throughout the rest of his account, one can rule out nearly all possible explanations, and the odd silence becomes one that suggests unspoken queerness, like what Woodard finds for Douglass.
Physical punishments such as flogging and whipping were enhanced by being conducted in ways that heightened the degradation of enslaved men by incorporating sexualized elements. Masters and overseers would often strip men nude, contributing to the sexually abusive and invasive nature of the punishment. Whipping for Anglo- Americans had long been associated with eroticism and sexualized violence. As Colette Colligan explains, this was a function of the “combined stimulation to the genital area and public exposure of genitals and buttocks.”54
Abolitionist literature contained commentary on the same-gender abuses of whipping enslaved men. Scholars have analyzed how the imagery within the literature functioned to engender a sense of sympathy and outrage for the abuses enslaved men endured.55 We must also approach this literature not only as using same-gender abuses as a metaphor for the horrors of slavery but also as representing and capturing what was communal knowledge about the sexualized nature of these abuses. Recall Verdier’s 1849 painting of a nude enslaved man staked to the ground, which illustrates the sexualized vulnerability of slavery’s victims to black and white men (fig. 6). The image draws the eye to the exposed body of the vulnerable man. His exposed genitals, in the sight line of an enslaved couple in the background, are not gazed upon by them. The woman looks down, and the bound man looks at the man with the whip. A white man on the left side of the image, however, stands casually viewing the abuse, his gaze squarely on the nude man as he stands behind the man on the ground, who has his legs spread and his buttocks raised in the air. The white man’s look fixes on the enslaved man’s exposed buttocks and genitals, which are hidden from the viewer.
In another remarkable example, in English artist Charles Landseer’s 1825 Black Punishment at Rio Janeiro, an enslaved man is tied against a pole with his buttocks exposed. Nearby on a hillside a well-muscled, shirtless laborer gazes at his body and the abuses with his head casually resting on his hand. A soldier on the right side of the image stands with his bayonet fully vertical in a phallic allusion. These two men smile along with the man getting ready to strike the enslaved man. A fourth man in the image, another enslaved man, also smiles as he holds the ends of the rope that holds the victim’s ankles to the pole.56
Reducing enslaved men to their bodies served a critical calculus that supported slavery by emphasizing labor output potential, including (as we have seen in chapter 3) the power to reproduce. The objectification was deepened by sexualized violations that reinforced hierarchies of freedom and enslavement. Early abolitionist literature provides examples of masters who were said to be sexually abusing their slaves.57 In one such widely translated and reprinted account, authored by Joseph LaVallée, a slave named Itanoko was subjected to rape by a white slaver named Urban. Urban was described as a “ravisher” who, Itanoko explained, was “struck by my comeliness,” and he did “violate, what is most sacred among men.” As John Saillant explains, although Itanoko was rescued, he found himself on a plantation in Saint-Domingue, where he met Theodore, “whose ‘criminal complaisance with the overseer’ allows him to give ‘free scope to his irregular passions.’” Saillant continues: “The ‘irregular passions’ apparently include sexual activity with black men, which LaVallee calls ‘crime,’ ‘vice,’ and ‘rapine,’ all ‘enormities’ resulting from ‘unbridled disorders’ and ‘passion.’”58
FAVORITES, VALETS, AND VULNERABILITY
In 1758 and 1764 Jamaican planter Thomas Thistlewood tersely noted in his diary two sexual assaults committed against enslaved men. In one entry he recorded: “Report of Mr. Watt Committing Sodomy with his Negroe waiting Boy.” In the other, he wrote: “Strange reports about the parson and John his man.”59 That the acts occurred between a male slave owner and a close personal servant, “waiting Boy” and “his man,” rather than with a field hand suggests that the abuse of enslaved men follows the broader pattern uncovered by the scholarship on the sexual violations of enslaved women: the closer the proximity to whites, the more likely it was that sexual violations would occur. This final section focuses on the sexual vulnerability of enslaved valets, an area of historical inquiry most recently advanced by literary scholar Woodard’s Delectable Negro. In his introduction he asserted: “A master would often choose ‘a favorite’ male slave as the object of his cultivated delight. Black men in such contexts had to negotiate feelings of affection, hatred, shame, sexual degradation, and arousal toward white men.”60
White planter-class men lived in a culture that was conducive to sexual exploitation and abuse of enslaved men. As scholars have well established, such men saw sexual access to enslaved women as their prerogative. Masters, slave drivers, and slave overseers similarly viewed enslaved men in the extreme hierarchy of enslavement, which allowed for a range of abuses and violations. At the same time, white planter-class men in the eighteenth century and antebellum period also embraced and celebrated a model of same- gender intimacy that included platonic loving bonds of friendship as well as same-gender physical sexual contact.61 It is within these contexts that we can begin to view the interactions of masters and enslaved valets or body servants. Previous scholars have been reluctant to determine “whether participants in these sexual acts were willing or unwilling,” and historically, the relationships have been romanticized by whites, but if we listen closely to the voices of enslaved people, we can begin to move beyond the claims of masters and view the same-gender intimacy experienced by valets through the lens of sexual exploitation and abuse that was inherent in the slave system.
Body servants or valets were enslaved men assigned to closely attend to their masters. Elite planters directed valets and body servants to serve them with intimate tasks such as dressing and bathing. Valets also labored closely with elite men during intensely emotional moments such as in warfare and attending to them when they were ill.62 Whites characterized the relationships as tender and the orientation of masters toward body servants as paternal, thus hoping to soften criticism of the institution of slavery by positioning enslavers as beneficent and humane rather than sadistic and immoral.
Artists captured the intensity of the romanticized bond imagined existing between enslavers and the enslaved in this context. A large scene painting by John Trumbull, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill (1786), for example, included in one corner American lieutenant Thomas Grosvenor, sword drawn as he watches British soldiers killing his general. Closely behind Grosvenor is a black body servant, peering over his soldier, musket drawn. The wartime bond between the men, symbolically highlighted by their physical proximity in the painting, was compelling enough for it to be reproduced eleven years later in Trumbull’s Lieutenant Thomas Grosvenor (1744–1825) and His Negro Servant (1797) (fig. 12). In this version, the entire battlefield has been removed, and only the two men have been focused on and enlarged. In both paintings the two men are physically inseparable.63
This kind of tenderness was represented in other more popularly available art forms, such as figurines and public statuary. John Rogers’s commercially successful figurine The Wounded Scout (1864), for example, depicts an escaped slave helping a wounded soldier back to his hiding place in a swamp (fig. 13). The soldier rests his entire body against the slave, the soldier’s head on the man’s chest, and the slave stands resolute and strong, holding the soldier’s wrist for added support. Reproductions were sold in England and France, and in the United States the statuette was available for decades. Similar depictions of tenderness between white men and emancipated men appear in two other examples of statuary. The memorial for English abolitionist and member of Parliament Charles James Fox includes a muscular nearly nude African man kneeling mournfully, representing Africa. A similarly kneeling and barely clothed African man is positioned at the feet of a towering and fully clothed Abraham Lincoln in the 1876 statue that became a memorial in Washington, D.C. In one final example, a nearly naked young African man holds both hands over his heart as French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher embraces him with one arm, tenderly touching his shoulder. The two men gaze into each other’s eyes. In these examples, the docile and appreciative African man bears a resemblance to the idealized figure of the loyal and, for our purposes, vulnerable valet. The homoerotic bond between the men is also consistent.64 Such bonds took place in a cultural context that objectified, eroticized, and dehumanized the bodies of enslaved men, whose bodies and genitals were long a site of exploitation and fixation by European American cultures. In all four statues, the men have idealized muscular bodies, with little clothing on.
Enslavers and their families recollected body servants and valets with great fondness and frequently characterized the bond between them as one of tenderness. Such sentiments were a common trope expressed in the antebellum period in artwork and in personal recollections of enslavers and their families. The daughter of Commodore of the Navy John Rodgers remembered her father’s body servant, Butler, as a “devoted friend and servant of that loved master to the day of his death, and my father breathed his last in Butler’s arms.”65 Similarly, Robert Phillip Howell, reflecting on a domestic servant who ran away, noted that it was particularly painful for him because “he was about my age and I always treated him more as a companion than a slave.”66
Emancipation records similarly include mention of masters who freed their body servants, often late in life, with justifications to the state government that spoke of tender feelings and of being indebted to them for close personal attention. Some mentioned being nursed by their enslaved men after life-threatening illnesses. George Washington freed only one slave in his lifetime, his valet William Lee. Their relationship also lends itself to romanticization given his emancipation and his presence in important portraits of the president and his family, but we also know that, like all enslaved people, Billy Lee found his intimate relations with women the subject of Washington’s scrutiny and control. In a letter to one Clement Biddle, Washington wrote:
The mulatto fellow William, who has been with me all the War is attached (married he says) to one of his own colour a free woman, who, during the War was also of my family… . I had conceived that the connection between them had ceased, but I am mistaken; they are both applying to me to get her here, and tho’ I never wished to see her more yet I cannot refuse his request (if it can be complied with on reasonable terms) as he has lived with me so long and followed my fortunes through the War with fidelity.67
Here Washington recognizes the relationship at the same time as he denigrates it—“(married he says)”—and demonstrates his desire to honor the bond he shares with Billy Lee. In a letter to Washington during the war, Lund Washington, a distant cousin and the steward of Mount Vernon, included news from Mount Vernon for Billy Lee: “If it will give Will any pleasure, he may be told that his wife and child are both very well.”68
Many masters expressed deep sentiments of attachment for the enslaved men who served them closely, but often the reality of the relationship was far more complex. Cultural items such as fiction, paintings, and statuary produced for and by whites emphasized a romanticized bond between enslaved men and the enslavers they served, but sources produced by enslaved men and women contradict this picture and point to the exploitation and abuses inherent in those relationships. Consider the example of John Randolph and his enslaved valet John. Randolph once wrote of John, “I know not at this time a better man… . I have not a truer friend.” Such a declaration drew upon the cultural celebration of same-gender love that held sway in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It crossed racial lines and by doing so further underscored the remarkableness of the feelings themselves. Such a statement could reinforce for a master his perception of himself as benevolent and humane.69 Randolph also declared: “His attention and attachment to me resemble more those of a mother to a child, or rather a lover to his mistress, than a servant’s to a master.” That he would ultimately describe the relationship as “a lover to his mistress” placed Randolph in a feminine position—and as a mistress. This was not uncharacteristic for Randolph, who was known as effeminate in appearance and eccentric in mannerisms. In letters to intimate male friends, he wrote about “pure affection between man and man.” In writing about his unhappiness, he referred to “the incubus that weighs me down,” a reference to a male spirit who rapes sleeping women. In a political letter to Andrew Jackson, he wrote of Jackson as Alexander the Great and himself as Hephaestion, his male lover.70 As Alan Taylor concludes, “Whether they had sex is unknowable and beside the point; emotionally John fulfilled the subordinate but nurturing role of a wife to Randolph.”71
These sentiments tell us how Randolph felt, but we would be remiss to read into them too far to understand John’s experience. For that we could consider that Randolph’s biographers describe him as a “stern but not a cruel master” who was known for “occasional periods of derangement, when he could be brutal to all his intimates, white and black.”72 John’s behaviors tell us something: he often drank to excess. John also ran away. Once John was caught, Randolph treated him cruelly, leaving him in prison for three months and then forcing him to work as a field hand for three years before allowing him to return to labor as a valet in the plantation house.
Such bonds, therefore, were often emotionally complicated and could be treacherous for enslaved men. James Madison’s valet Paul Jennings, to take another example, described Madison in positive terms as “one of the best men that ever lived” and noted that he was not violent: “I never saw him in a passion, and never knew him to strike a slave, although he had over one hundred; neither would he allow an overseer to do it.”73 Jennings attended very closely to Madison, as did other enslaved valets. “I was always with Mr. Madison till he died, and shaved him every other day for sixteen years,” he reflected. “For six months before his death, he was unable to walk, and spent most of his time reclined on a couch,” wrote Jennings.74 Jennings’s care would have included toileting, bathing, and dressing Madison.
We should note that by praising Madison for not whipping enslaved people, Jennings was able to insert statements that served to indict enslavement in general. Although Jennings would appear to have had a privileged position, attending Madison in the White House, he was separated from his family and taken to Washington, a city he described as “a dreary place.” Jennings also took pains to highlight the strength and capability of enslaved men while noting that Madison did not share this assessment. During the War of 1812, one commander’s troops were described by Jennings as “tall, strapping negroes, mixed with white sailors and marines.” And he noted Madison’s failure to appreciate their strength and bravery: “Mr. Madison reviewed them just before the fight, and asked Com. Barney if his ‘negroes would not run on the approach of the British?’ ‘No sir,’ said Barney, ‘they don’t know how to run; they will die by their guns first.’” Jennings added: “They fought till a large part of them were killed or wounded.” He also noted that the credit given to Dolly Madison for saving the Washington portrait actually partially belonged to an enslaved man: “It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington (now in one of the parlors there), and carried it off. This is totally false… . John Susé (a Frenchman, then door-keeper, and still living) and Magraw, the President’s gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon.”75
In the hands of those who opposed slavery, the emasculation of men who served too closely to white masters stood as a symbol of their violations. Their unique enslavement allegedly stripped them of their manhood and included same-sex sexuality as an example of the types of abuses that occurred as well as serving metaphorically for the horrors of enslavement. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first published in 1852, vividly captured the peculiarity of the relationships that existed between enslaved valets and owners by depicting an effeminate slave owner and his slave in scenes that implied degeneracy and implicit sexual deviance. Stowe defended her work against proslavery critiques who decried it as wholly fictional. She argued that it was rooted in realities and that it captured the kinds of abuses that were known at the time, representing cultural knowledge of the potential for sexual abuse within the bonds shared between enslaved men and masters.76
Stowe’s creation of a dandified enslaved valet named Adolph illustrated the corrupting influences of enslavement on masters and slaves. We are first introduced to Adolph with the following description: “Foremost among them was a highly-dressed young mulatto man, evidently a very distinguished personage, attired in the ultra extreme of the mode, and gracefully waving a scented cambric handkerchief in his hand.” He is depicted as having an unhealthy devotion to his own appearance as well as to the welfare of his master—at the expense of his bond with the enslaved community: “‘Back! All of you. I am ashamed of you,’ he said, in a tone of authority” as he confronted domestic slaves who were anticipating greeting their master. The passage continued: “All looked abashed at this elegant speech, delivered with quite an air.” He is described as fastidious and vain, “conspicuous in satin vest, gold guard-chain, and white pants, and bowing with inexpressible grace and suavity.”77
The tenderness between master and slave, in conjunction with these aspects of the slave’s character and appearance, draw a sharp line around their unwholesome bond: “‘Ah, Adolph, is it you?’ said his master, offering his hand to him; ‘how are you, boy?’ while Adolph poured forth, with great fluency, an extemporary speech, which he had been preparing, with great care, for a fortnight before.”78 In another scene, he scrutinizes another male slave, Tom, “through an opera-glass, with an air that would have done credit to any dandy living.” His indulgent master is marked by a similar softness that immediately calls into question the nature of their bond. “‘Puh! you puppy,’ said his master, striking down the opera glass” and then “laying his finger on the elegant figured satin vest that Adolph was sporting,” a stained garment that the master used to wear. In response, “Adolph tossed his head, and passed his fingers through his scented hair, with a grace.”79
In very striking ways, Adolph’s queerness also stood in contrast to traditions of homosocial bonding and same-gender intimacy and served to create tension rather than facilitate the type of same-gender bond that was an important part of survival for enslaved men and women. Adolph’s effeminacy and closeness to his master cost him his manhood and instead made him vulnerable to conflicts with other enslaved men. Consider the following exchange, which occurs as he and other slaves are being sold away, one of the most traumatic experiences for enslaved communities. In the description of this scene, Sambo carelessly dismisses their sadness, “laying his hand freely on Adolph’s shoulder.” Adolph responds in a manner that speaks to his discomfort with homosocial bonding: “‘Please to let me alone,’ said Adolph, fiercely, straightening himself up with extreme disgust.” In response he is mocked as “‘white … kind o’ cream color, ye know, scented!’” “‘I say, keep off, can’t you?’ said Adolph, enraged.” His feminized response results in more mocking: “‘Lor, now, how touchy we is—we white niggers! Look at us, now!’ and Sambo gave a ludicrous imitation of Adolph’s manner; ‘here’s de airs and graces. We’s been in a good family, I specs.’” “‘I belonged to the St. Clare family,’ said Adolph, proudly.”80 Stowe’s depiction of this fictional slave and his master was used to highlight the immorality of enslavement and its corrupting influence on masters and slaves alike. For our purposes, we might also read Stowe as a particular kind of evidence—of communal knowledge and of oral culture. Such characterizations and exploitative relations reflect the experiences of some enslaved men, albeit in varying degrees.
Black women also wrote about the particularly vulnerable position of enslaved valets. In her 1859 published account of travels through New Orleans, Eliza Potter, a free black woman, explained: “Almost all gentlemen in Louisiana and Mississippi have favorite body servants, and they are always very kind to them, more particularly so than to any other servant.”81 In the early part of a chapter entitled “Natchez New Orleans,” Potter wrote about one particularly disturbing relationship, between “Mr. H.,” a Natchez resident, and the man he enslaved, whom she described as “a companion” and the pair as “inseparable.” Potter described a bond that results in violence and destruction for the white owner as his enslaved and abused valet resisted forcefully:
It happened that, from some cause unknown, Mr. H. fell out with his body servant and chained him to a log of wood, and whipped him severely. He went out the next day to repeat the dose, when the despised slave, enraged at the treatment, broke loose from the log, seized it, and dashed Mr. H.’s brains out before the eyes of his family. It appears that, although a slave, he was descended from one of the highest southern families, and inherited all the proud feeling and independent spirit the Southerners generally pride themselves on.82
The experiences of the enslaved man underscore the especially volatile and emotionally complicated positions that valets and masters found themselves in.
As a published account, Potter’s work also carried cultural resonance that symbolized the terror of slavery in addition to voicing the particular position of valets. Literary scholar Lisa Ze Winters argues: “The intimacy of the relationship, the suddenness of its dissolution, and the violence of its conclusion mark it as a sentimental romance.” Winters argues that the scene is further sexualized by phallic symbolism in the account, as the “‘log of wood’ is literally attached to the enslaved man’s body.” She argues: “It is the site of Mr. H’s assault on the captive slave and becomes, in the hands of the self-freed slave, an extension of his body… . [T]he log of wood is transformed into an exaggerated and deadly black phallus.” As Winters reminds us, “It is precisely the body servant’s enslavement that places him in an intimate bond with Mr. H.”83
The abuse of enslaved valets was also vividly represented by Harriet Jacobs in her 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs’s autobiographical account graphically describes an incident between a slave named Luke and his young owner, a man who “became a prey to the vices growing out of the ‘patriarchal institution’” and who had been “deprived of the use of his limbs, by excessive dissipation.” Like many valets who attended ill owners, Luke was forced to “wait upon his bed- ridden master” and in a state of near undress: “Some days he was not allowed to wear anything but his shirt, in order to be in readiness to be flogged.”84 Jacobs continued:
The fact that he was entirely dependent on Luke’s care, and was obliged to be tended like an infant, instead of inspiring any gratitude or compassion towards his poor slave, seemed only to increase his irritability and cruelty. As he lay there on his bed, a mere wreck of manhood, he took into his head the strangest freaks of despotism; and if Luke hesitated to submit to his orders, the constable was immediately sent for. Some of these freaks were of a nature too filthy to be repeated. When I fled the house of bondage, I left poor Luke still chained to the bed of this cruel and disgusting wretch.85
Luke is depicted as especially vulnerable and regularly victimized, and his nakedness except for a long shirt underscored his sexual availability to his master. As Vincent Woodard argues, Luke’s “rear parts serve as erotic spectacle.” Woodard contends that although black women could appear in stories of rape and sexual assault as “honorable,” for Luke, no such option existed, resulting instead in his total “emasculation.”86 The description of his master as a man who was a “wreck of manhood,” one who had been disabled by his “excessive dissipation,” signaled to readers that he was sexually depraved. The term “dissipation” carried specific sexual connotations at the time. Scholars have analyzed the passage about Luke as an example of same-gender sexual assault and have commented, as Woodard has, on the gendered rendering. As the evidence in this section makes clear, a key element to understanding the reference to Luke is his status as one who closely attends to his master’s body, the particular sexual vulnerability of enslaved valets. Indeed, he was literally chained to his master’s side.
For enslaved male valets or body servants, closeness to masters could present them with relatively better conditions and chances for labor of a different sort from exhausting agricultural labor, but it could also be emotionally suffocating and psychologically difficult, and it made them especially vulnerable to sexual violations. Although proslavery sources generally depict enslaved valets as tenderly and honorably serving their masters, other sources, especially those left to us by men and women who experienced enslavement, underscore the sexually vulnerable position of enslaved valets. By examining the ways in which literature, art, and firsthand accounts captured the representations and reports of intimate physical and psychological violence against enslaved body servants, this chapter suggests that future research in this area would likely prove to be fruitful. The violations and vulnerabilities of valets analyzed here were conducive to, not antithetical to, the growth and maintenance of hierarchies necessary to enslavement.
The system of slavery in America nurtured and developed same-gender loving bonds that sustained enslaved men and provided community and humanity. The confines and perversity of enslavement also gave rise to horrific abuses and intimate compromises, to tortures and physical assaults. For those men and their communities, their wives, sisters, mothers, fathers, brothers, friends, and enemies, same-gender intimacy was life-sustaining, and it was also one of many degradations that some endured.
What does all of this mean for Rufus? We do not know what interactions Rufus had with other men. We do know that Rose described him as a “bully.” Perhaps he violated other men. Did he also develop intimate friendships? Was he leered at by white men when stripped naked or at other times? While we do not have answers to these questions, this chapter provides a general context within which Rufus was enslaved. Rufus, like all enslaved men, lived in a world that objectified his body and left him vulnerable to assaults that could be sexually degrading. The pressures and structures of enslavement fueled conflict among men but also intensified those bonds among enslaved men that nurtured and sustained some of them. Even positions that carried measures of relief from hard labor carried emotional, psychological, and physical risks, with increased vulnerability being a part of working closely with white men (and women).
When Rufus’s master ordered him to establish a sexual relationship with Rose he was indirectly sexually violating Rufus, a kind of secondary sexual assault, even as we also acknowledge that Rufus may in turn have violated Rose. To recognize the interaction between Rufus and his master is to see one of the many ways that men were sexually assaulted by other men under slavery. This subordinate position may have drawn Rufus closer to Rose as he sought emotional support, but it may also have made him resent her and the situation. Thus, the psychic toll here may have also played itself out in Rufus’s family and community and not simply within his own body, heart, and mind.