My heart yearned for my wife and children, from whom I had now been separated more than four years.
—CHARLES BALL, Slavery in the United States
No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men.
—HARRIET JACOBS, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
This volume adds to a growing literature that seeks to place sexuality at the center of slavery studies in the Americas. By sexuality, we mean the range of emotional and physical practices that have grown up around human reproduction and non-reproductive intimate expression, practices rooted in cultural beliefs and reflective and expressive of love but also of oppressive power. Until the second half of the twentieth century, few histories treated the history of sexuality seriously. In mainstream slavery studies, historians viewed sexual practices within slave communities with disdain or contempt; upheld stereotypes of black male rapists and lascivious enslaved women; and discounted formerly enslaved peoples’ accounts of—or ignored completely enslavers’ use of—sexual coercion as a tool of power over enslaved people.1 Only with the full recognition of African American history as a distinct field of study, and the rise of feminist histories that first critiqued sex as a tool of patriarchy and then fully explored the variety of sexualities, did the study of sexuality within slavery begin to gain legitimacy.2 Even then, the most fruitful studies of sexuality were cloaked within studies of slave families or, less often, focused on the sexual abuse of enslaved women by slave-owning men.3 In many mainstream histories of slavery, scholars have marginalized or simply overlooked the importance of sexual practices and emotional intimacy within slave communities and between enslaved people and enslavers. Until recently, scholars interested in the historiography of sexuality and slavery have had to look at two different bodies of literature. Early writers of women’s history addressed intimacy and abuse, focusing their efforts mainly on one racial or ethnic group of women or on a binary analysis of how black and white women interacted.4 Those who wrote about racial and ethnic history emphasized interracial violence and often overlooked the impact of intra-racial conflict.5 However, with the rise of women’s, race, and ethnic studies departments and campus units in the 1960s and 1970s came a body of work that focused on women’s and men’s gendered histories. The long-term impact is an explosion of works of gender history, with new and important studies being done on men and masculinity as well as on women and sexuality.6
Sexual intimacy comprised a core terrain of struggle between slaveholders and the enslaved. As Jennifer L. Morgan and many other scholars have demonstrated, sexual practices were linked throughout the Americas to the question of how enslaved populations might reproduce, literally, wealth for slaveholders and their descendants in the form of children.7 Sexuality was also linked to the imposition onto slave communities of enslavers’ cultural and religious beliefs about the proper role of sexuality. Conversely, many Europeans believed that people of African descent had no norms around sexual practice and thus were available for slave owners to enact their own emotional and sexual fantasies in relationships with enslaved people. In either case, members of the slaveholding class often deployed their power by intervening in the most intimate areas of slave life.8
But placing sexual intimacy at the center of slavery studies also reinforces the very human connections and relationships that were at the heart of slavery—the intimacy of day-to-day contact on slave ships, on plantations, and in urban areas, and how those contacts led to emotional relationships. Sexual intimacy was one part of a continuum of emotional intimacies that scholars and the general public have struggled to understand. What was possible in terms of emotional and sexual intimacy under slavery? How were enslaved people able to form families amid a system that limited autonomy so dramatically and violently? Could relationships between enslaved people and enslavers entail non-abusive emotional intimacy?
It is not surprising that we today seek to understand more deeply the context and meaning of sexuality practices historically. While the commercialization of sex in our culture has made knowledge of sex seemingly ubiquitous, the meaning of physical and emotional love and intimacy as well as the boundaries of abuse remain cloaked in a fog of confusion for many. Stories of sexual abuse enabled by extreme differentials of power—gendered, economic, social, and age—predominate in a culture starved for healthy expressions of sexual intimacy. Our time putting together this volume was bracketed in 2011 by the exposure of decades of child sexual abuse by Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, and in 2016 by the exposure of a recording of presidential candidate Donald Trump describing how he used his wealth and fame to force himself physically on women, including grabbing their vulvas. The broad public disdained both events as unacceptable, even as both instances were enabled by the colleagues of the men at the center of these scandals. As this book went to press, the exposure of numerous cases of sexual harassment and misconduct perpetrated by a range of powerful men emphasized the ways in which sexuality has continued to be a central dynamic in the maintenance of power in modern society. The hundreds of women and men who stepped forward against their predators had one thing in common: the power dynamic between them and their alleged assailants silenced them at the time of the initial act. Indeed, what is striking about most of these cases is that they reference actions that occurred as much as forty years ago, indicating the continuing difficulty of pursuing remedies for sexual harassment as it occurs.
While these stories remain in the headlines, human trafficking has also gained widespread attention in the past decade as a contemporary form of slavery. This modern human slave trade involves sex tourism, prostitution, pornography, forced marriage, sweatshop work, and migrant farming operations that exist all over the world. As a result, we continue to puzzle through what actions like these say about the health of our society as a whole.
This volume offers no easy solutions to our current conditions. But the complicated sexual map we live amid today does have roots in the past. Understanding the power dynamics of slavery and their impact on intimacy may give us some clarity with which to view our current condition. More telling is that even given the oppression of slavery, men and women still found their way, and sometimes struggled their way, to healthy expressions of loving partnerships of all kinds. If they were able to do so with so much stacked against them, we can learn from their examples and move toward a richer understanding of the complexities of human interaction.
Constructing a history of sexuality and slavery faces the same methodological and archival challenges as any history of intimacy, and indeed for any history. Political concerns have limited research into this particular history: racist interpretations and the widespread, historical stereotyping of black sexuality that dates back to initial contact between Europeans and Africans have long distorted this topic, while the fear of replicating such distortions has at times led to a profound silence. These essays demonstrate how scholars can successfully construct histories of enslaved people’s experiences and interpretations of sexuality. The contributors explore consensual sexual intimacy and expression within slave communities, as well as sexual relationships across lines of race, status, and power. The use of sexuality as a tool of control, exploitation, and repression, but also as an expression of autonomy, resistance, and defiance is addressed. The chapters of this book also discuss the politics of constructing such histories, the archival and methodological challenges to this research, and the regional differences and similarities across the Americas through historical, legal, and feminist frameworks. As we define sexuality broadly—inclusive of consensual intimacy, coercive exploitation, and the range of positions in between—we seek to complicate our understanding of the intimacy of power.
The balance between creating respectful portrayals without reinscribing exploitation represents one of the many challenges of this work. The archive represents another. Enslaved people left relatively few written records, but autobiographical and other forms of testimony—interviews, letters—from enslaved and free, white and black, also provide hints into the history of intimacy. These firsthand accounts reveal as much in their silences as they do in direct statements. We also know a lot about slavery from plantation records and legal and government documents. Writing the history of sexuality and slavery involves finding creative ways to work against archival gaps without propagating planter mentalities. Developing a counter-narrative is one essential goal for scholars who write in either of these fields.
In chapter 10, by Jim Downs, we learn that many of the writers who tackle this subject are novelists, poets, and artists, who are afforded more freedom to imagine than historians who must study extant documents to satisfy a profession wedded to a high level of empiricism. Downs’s essay is a call to welcome the interpretive possibilities that artists embrace, and yet our other essayists (and Downs himself) demonstrate via their research how much remains to be excavated from the archives, and how much can be said empirically. Each historian rebuilds the archives she or he visits by the very act of asking new questions of the documents therein. If we open ourselves up to how we as scholars produce and consume scholarship on sexuality and slavery, our emotions take us on an alternative journey through the historical record, one that can often lead to different interpretations and new analytical perspectives of legal proceedings according to Bianca Premo (chapter 4) and Maria Fuentes (chapter 3). Through these documents we witness people freeing and enslaving others, acknowledging and ignoring them, and we also see racialized and gendered black bodies.
Using a gendered lens, the chapters in this volume address women but also men and masculinity, the complexities of men’s choices, and men’s potential for abuse at the hands of others. From Thomas Foster (chapter 7) and David Doddington (chapter 8), we learn about husbands longing for intimacy with their wives and fathers seeking to parent within an institution that often prevented the full expression of both. More familiar stories of exploited enslaved women are cast in a different light by Stephanie Jones-Rogers (chapter 6), as she describes situations in which the abusers were white women. Her essay and some of the others offered here encourage us to pause and check our assumptions, reminding us to look in all directions for the sources of such abuse. Interference in the sexual lives of the enslaved could also be a tool of power unrelated to reproduction. Although Harriet Jacobs is our most eloquent witness to the ways in which white male power could find expression in the manipulation of enslaved people’s intimate lives, and the sexual abuse of enslaved women by white men, Jacobs’s narrative is only one account among many that detail the ways in which enslaved men and women were subject to the sexualization of power in slaveholding societies.
This history is not only about painful or destructive intimacy. It is also about pleasure and love. In the face of widespread control of their intimate lives, enslaved people—sometimes successfully—worked to obstruct such intrusions and regain control of their intimate lives according to Jessica Millward (chapter 5) and Brenda Stevenson (chapter 9). Some also used sexuality and reproduction as a weapon in the war to create autonomous lives. Such struggles were not always successful, and many came at great cost. Thus in the end, the super-structure of slavery reflected only one element of intimate relationships among enslaved men and women. As in any society, sexuality could also be a terrain of struggle within slave communities. Amid the confines of slavery, black men and women shaped their own experiences, meanings, and knowledge of love, sex, eroticism, intimacy, and power. They did not always agree on these meanings. Intimate conflicts within slave communities attest to their fundamental humanity.
This book will be in good company with other edited collections from international conferences and projects on the subject of slavery and sexuality broadly defined.9 Although the enslaved did not receive sufficient reverence for their bodies and experiences during their lives, we are invigorated by the current state of scholarship. We hope that the chapters in this book challenge your assumptions, engage your emotions, and encourage you to approach your work with respect and care.
1. The epigraphs are from Charles Ball, Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man (New York: John S. Taylor, 1837), 387 [electronic edition, Documenting the American South, http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/ballslavery/ball.html]); Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, edited by Lydia Maria Child (Boston: Published for the author, 1861), 45. Dismissive accounts include U. B. Phillips, American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime (New York: D. Appleton, 1918), 5–6, 254, 298–99, 360–62, 454–64; Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (New York: Knopf, 1956), 326–27, 340, 342–47. In general, these mainstream historians ignored the fugitive slave narratives, WPA narratives, and other sources in which formerly enslaved people and others detailed sexual abuse as well as emotional intimacy in slavery.
2. John Blassingame’s recuperative projects, which began in the 1960s, restored the place of enslaved people’s perspectives and are central to enabling histories of sexuality. See especially Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977).
3. Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 (New York: Pantheon, 1976) addressed issues of intimacy but within a project aimed at recovering heteronormative, male-dominated, marriage-based family structures. Through the end of the twentieth century, scholars worked to expand this limited view. See for example Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: Norton, 1985); Ann Patton Malone, Sweet Chariot: Slave Family and Household Structure in Nineteenth-Century Louisiana (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992); Brenda E. Stevenson, Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Frances Smith Foster, Love and Marriage in Early African America (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2007); and Tera Hunter, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2017). Works that named sexuality as their central theme (as opposed to women’s, family, or marriage history) were fewer and included Catherine Clinton and Michele Gillespie, eds., The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); and Thelma Jennings, “‘Us Colored Women Had to Go through a Plenty’: Sexual Exploitation of African-American Slave Women,” Journal of Women’s History 1, no. 3 (1990): 45–74.
4. See for example the work of historians Ann Firor Scott, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Catherine Clinton, Gerda Lerner, Marli F. Weiner, and Thavolia Glymph, who all write about women in plantation households. Thelma Jennings, Deborah Gray White, Darlene Clark Hine, and Wilma King published about various aspects of black women’s lives, enslaved and free.
5. Notable exceptions include Brenda E. Stevenson, “Distress and Discord in Virginia Slave Families, 1830–1860,” in In Joy and in Sorrow: Women, Family and Marriage in the Victorian South, ed. Carol Bleser (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 103–24; Christine Daniels and Michael V. Kennedy, eds., Over the Threshold: Intimate Violence in Early America (New York: Routledge, 1999); Adrienne D. Davis, “Slavery and the Roots of Sexual Harassment,” in Directions in Sexual Harassment Law, ed. Catherine MacKinnon and Reva B. Siegel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 457–79; and Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
6. On manhood, see essays in this volume by Thomas Foster and David Doddington. Hilary Beckles, “Black Masculinity in the Caribbean,” in Interrogating Caribbean Masculinities: Theoretical and Empirical Analyses, ed. Rhoda E. Reddock (Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies, 2004), 225–44; Darlene Clark Hine and Earnestine Jenkins, eds., A Question of Manhood: A Reader in U.S. Black Men’s History of Masculinity, vol. 1: “Manhood Rights”: The Construction of Black Male History and Manhood, 1750–1870 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999); Edward Baptist, “The Absent Subject: African American Masculinity and Forced Migration to the Antebellum Plantation Frontier,” in Southern Manhood: Perspectives on Masculinity in the Old South, ed. Craig Thompson Friend and Lorri Glover (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004), 136–73; Sara Roth, “‘How a Slave Was Made a Man’: Negotiating Black Violence and Masculinity in Antebellum Slave Narratives,” Slavery and Abolition 28, no. 2 (2007): 255–75; Lydia Plath and Sergio Lussana, eds., Black and White Masculinity in the American South, 1800–2000 (Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars, 2009); Sergio Lussana, “To See Who Was Best on the Plantation: Enslaved Fighting Contests and Masculinity in the Antebellum Plantation South,” Journal of Southern History 76, no. 4 (2010): 901–22; Kevin Dawson, “Enslaved Swimmers and Divers in the Atlantic World,” Journal of American History 92, no. 4 (2006): 1327–55; and Kenneth Marshall, Manhood Enslaved: Bondmen in Eighteenth-and Early Nineteenth-Century New Jersey (Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2011).
7. For studies that center reproduction, see Kathleen Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004); Edward Baptist, “‘Cuffy,’ ‘Fancy Maids,’ and ‘One-Eyed Men’: Rape, Commodification and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States,” American Historical Review 106, no. 5 (2001): 1619–50; Adrienne D. Davis, “‘Don’t Let Nobody Bother Yo’ Principle’: The Sexual Economy of American Slavery,” in Sister Circle: Black Women and Work, ed. Sharon Harley (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 103–27; Daina Ramey Berry, Swing the Sickle for the Harvest Is Ripe: Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007) and The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (Boston: Beacon, 2017); Marie Jenkins Schwartz, Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010); Edward Donoghue, Black Breeding Machines: The Breeding of Negro Slaves in the Diaspora (Bloomington, Ind.: AuthorHouse, 2008); Gregory Smithers, Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence and Memory in American History (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012); and Sasha Turner, Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).
8. For studies of rape, see Diane Miller Sommerville, Rape and Race in the Nineteenth-Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Sharon Block, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Wendy Warren, “The Cause of Her Grief: The Rape of a Slave in Early New England,” Journal of Women’s History 93, no. 4 (2007): 1031–49; and Estelle B. Freedman, Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013).
9. See, for example, Gwyn Campbell and Elizabeth Elbourne, eds., Sex, Power, and Slavery (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2015); Jennifer L. Morgan, Jennifer Brier, and Jim Downs, eds., Connexions: Histories of Race and Sex in North America (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2016); Bernadette Brooten, ed., Beyond Slavery: Overcoming Its Religious and Sexual Ideals (Boston: Palgrave, 2010). Queer theory and historiography are growing in the area of slavery studies through the Black Sexualities Project at Washington University in St. Louis and the Queering Slavery Working Group helmed by Jessica Marie Johnson and Vanessa Holden.