“Remarkably Muscular and Well Made” or “Covered with Ulcers”
Enslaved Black Men’s Bodies
I puts de feet ’gainst him and give him a shove and out he go on de floor ’fore he know what I’s doin’. Dat nigger jump up and he mad. He look like de wild boar. He starts for de bunk and I jumps quick for de poker. It am ’bout three foot long and when he comes at me I lets him have it over de head… . Dat night when him come in de cabin, I grabs de poker and sits on de bench and says, “Git ’way from me, nigger, ’fore I busts yous brains out and stomp on dem.” He say nothin’ and git out.
When Rufus attempted to lie down in his and Rose’s bunk for the first time his body paid a price. Rose used physical violence to discourage Rufus from crawling into bed with her, giving him a shove with her feet and hitting him in the head with a metal rod. The account as told by Rose rightly positions her as a victim, but we should not overlook that Rufus was also placed in a position that made him vulnerable to his enslaver. He had been kicked, hit over the head, sent out of his cabin, and violently threatened. All this occurred because the people who held legal rights to his body determined that he should reproduce by setting up a household with Rose. In the eyes of the society, his body was theirs to control. They commanded both his labor and his intimate life, as countless masters and mistresses had done to enslaved men for generations.
His enslaver’s decision to place Rufus in this situation held important meaning for Rufus as an enslaved man. Scholars have shown that the bodies and the physical capabilities of many enslaved men held important meaning for norms of masculinity. The body was central for understandings of masculinity. Kathleen Brown argues that because they were denied other means of propertied manliness, “the bodies of enslaved men—or, more precisely, the social persons rooted in those bodies—were more crucial to the meanings and experience of their manhood than was the case for other men.”1 Other scholars have similarly found specific areas in which enslaved manliness was expressed through physicality. The bodies of enslaved men were controlled by enslavement, but they also held keys to manliness. This chapter argues that enslaved men’s bodies were symbols of enslaved manhood and sites of violation. Enslaved men were poked and prodded on the auction block; objectified in various cultural forms, including abolitionist literature; and scrutinized, vilified, and tortured by masters and mistresses.
The 1797 portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley, a formerly enslaved captain in the Haitian Revolution and member of the National Council in France, captures Western cultural adoration of black masculinity (fig. 3). Painted by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, Belley stands in full formal uniform as a representative of Saint-Domingue to the French Convention. A landscape, presumably Haiti, is visible in the distant background. He leans against a marble pedestal, on top of which is a bust of philosopher and abolitionist Guillaume-Thomas Raynal. The painting, done in the style that was popular for prominent politicians and military leaders at the time, illustrates the power of presence associated with men of African descent. Scholars have noted that the image is remarkable for its presentation of a new French subject—a black man—painted as refined and in honorable dress and a classical pose.
The portrait also captured the culture’s positive assessment of black male sexuality as potent and desirable. Some art historians have even speculated that the artist must have been attracted to Belley, or at least admired him, as his genital outline is so undeniably present and further highlighted by the positioning of his hand and the sumptuously painted fabric of his pants.2 It is not possible to know if the artist enhanced what he saw to underscore his depiction of Belley’s virility. Belley may well have played upon the culture’s fascination with black men and their sexuality by wearing his pants in a manner that was more revealing than concealing, refusing to be ashamed of his manhood and employing the provocative power that it carried.
Belley’s portrait was unusual for the period. Few black men were the subject of such paintings, but it was typical of cultural representations of enslaved men, who were at times described in terms that emphasized idealized male power. John Saillant’s work on the eroticization of the black male body in early U.S. abolitionist literature shows that whites found sexual appeal in black male bodies. He notes that this literature idealized black male bodies in a manner that included an unusual focus on height, musculature, and skin color. Accounts in late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century American publications like the American Universal Magazine and the Philadelphia Minerva described black male characters as “the blackest, the best made, the most amiable,” “beautiful in shape as the Apollo of Belvedere,” and “tall and shapely.”3 Numerous abolitionist images fixated on the black male body as perfection, highlighting muscular bodies and, in almost pornographic detail, exposed buttocks enduring unjust abuse and degradation. Black abolitionist publications also described men’s bodies in prose that evoked sympathy. The Colored American, for example, included this description of an enslaved man: “Jack knelt down—not a muscle of his countenance quivered—he was entirely naked, and was a remarkably muscular and well made man. He looked like a fine bronze statue.”4 Another account, this one included in Frederick Douglass’s North Star, described one man by his “strength of limb, the roundness of muscle, mind, tender affection, sympathy” in efforts to combat slavery; such details served to underscore the moral injustice of enslaving these men.5 In another example, one man was described as “well proportioned” and “muscular” to distinguish him from others.6
Strength and power figured as measures of manliness also within slave communities, especially among enslaved men. Competitive fighting and wrestling among men served to highlight physical power as a marker of dominant manliness.7 Formerly enslaved men commented on power, strength, height, and musculature, often noting exceptional height in their recollections: “There was on one plantation, a slave about thirty years of age and six feet high, named Adam.”8 Frederick Douglass’s 1852 novel, The Heroic Slave, included an arresting description of the hero, Madison. “Madison was of manly form,” wrote Douglass, “tall, symmetrical, round, and strong.” He continued: “In his movements he seemed to combine, with the strength of the lion, a lion’s elasticity. His torn sleeves disclosed arms like polished iron.”9 Josiah Henson, for example, was proud of his ability to run, wrestle, and jump better than his peers and viewed his own body with admiration, calling himself a “robust and vigorous lad.” Others spoke about the impressive bodies of fathers and kin. William Smith, for example, boasted that his father was “very strong” and that he was “all muscle.” Lussana analyzes these bodies as “‘reclaimed’” and argues that they bonded men within the community and reinforced their sense of masculinity.10
Muscular physiques were prized for labor. They were also seen as an indicator that a man could ably fulfill the masculine ideals of competitiveness and serve as the protector of his loved ones. Some enslaved men protected their own honor as they bested other men who pursued their loved ones. One formerly enslaved man recalled how his father was able to successfully beat another who he believed had been too friendly with his wife. The son’s own masculine pride was evident as he described his father as a “big and strong” man and the man he attacked as “small.”11 Recall that The Hunted Slaves (1861), by Richard Ansdell, illustrates how a man’s physical build could symbolize not only his abilities but also his masculine commitment to protect and defend his loved ones (see fig. 1). The painting depicts a muscular man stripped to his waist, defending his wife from dogs set upon them by enslavers as they flee through a field.12 Half of the painting is taken up by the bodies of the three large dogs as they snarl at the couple. The man shields the woman with his body. Broken manacles indicate his strength and physical resistance to slavery. His bright red sash stands out among tones of brown in the painting. Encircling his waist and dangling between his legs, it highlights his masculinized and sexualized strength and power. His feet are planted firmly in a wide stance, and his gaze is directed fearlessly at the open mouth of one of the mastiffs. He wields an ax above his head. One of the dogs lies in the foreground on his back, apparently incapacitated by the man.
As the culture saw erotic possibilities and beauty in black bodies, skin tone was also noted in addition to musculature. The presence of antebellum “fetish” markets of light-skinned enslaved women, in particular, has been documented by scholars. Edward Baptist, for example, argues that the antebellum domestic slave trade might be reconsidered as a “complex of inseparable fetishisms,” given the slave traders’ “frequent discussions of the rape of light-skinned enslaved women, or ‘fancy maids,’” and “their own relentlessly sexualized vision of the trade.”13
Although we have little evidence for a formalized sexual fetish market in black male flesh, historical scholarship shows us that light-skinned black men were eroticized and appear with regularity in documented examples of intimacy with white women. Baptist’s conclusion that “light-skinned and mulatto women symbolized for traders and planters the claimed right to coerce all women of African descent” can be applied in some measure to light-skinned enslaved men.14 The evidence leads us to speculate that an unusual interest in light- skinned men may have paralleled the more formalized and documented “fetish” market in “fancy maids.” In the antebellum divorce case of one white Virginia couple, Dorothea and Lewis Bourne, Dorothea’s chosen lover, an enslaved man named Edmond, is described in the records by more than one neighbor as “so bright in his colour, a stranger would take him for a white man.”15 Similarly, Eliza Potter’s description of life in New Orleans included a “series of anecdotes that include descriptions of consensual relationships between white women and mixed-race men across state lines.”16 Similar descriptions can also be found in testimony presented to the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission (AFIC), which was established by the secretary of war in 1863 to document the conditions of those freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. White abolitionist Richard J. Hinton, for example, testified that “I have never yet found a bright looking colored man … who has not told me of instances where he has been compelled, either by his mistress, or by white women of the same class, to have connection with them.”17 In another case, a man testified that a man who had been “brought up in the family” was coerced into sex by his mistress, his family connection suggesting that he also was light-skinned.18
We have some evidence of more explicit discourse that points to special sexualization of light-skinned black men. One testimony to the AFIC included a reference to light-skinned men as “fine looking.”19 One man told the AFIC: “It was an extremely common thing among all the handsome mulattoes at the South to have connection with the white women.”20 The association of being light-skinned with being attractive, “fine,” “bright,” and “handsome” suggests a unique assessment for these men. And while light skin may have been viewed as more attractive than dark skin on men, it could not protect them from sexual violations; indeed, it may have only added another dimension to their exploitation. In patriarchal society, the sexual abuse of “nearly white” men could enable white women to enact radical fantasies of domination over a man with the knowledge that their victim’s body was legally black and enslaved, subject to the women’s control.
The disjunction between the images of sexualized vigor that circulated especially among abolitionists and the realities of enslaved men’s physical health underscores how enslaved men’s bodies served important cultural as well as social aims. Because we are still living with a legacy of slavery that established black men’s bodies as uniquely powerful and sexually potent, it is important not to overlay twenty-first-century images of muscular athleticism on enslaved men. First, we should keep in mind that standards change over time. The idealized body of today is not the ideal of previous generations (including recent ones), even for athletic bodies. Second, the diet of enslaved men was such that many men’s musculature would have been retarded or disproportionate from repetitive work. Bones would have been weakened from calcium deficiencies. One man who had been enslaved in South Carolina explained how little they received to eat: “The time of killing hogs is the negroes’ feast, as it is the only time that the negroes can get meat, for they are then allowed the chitterlings and feet; then they do not see any more till next hog-killing time. Their food is a dry peck of corn that they have to grind at the hand-mill after a hard day’s work, and a pint of salt, which they receive every week. They are only allowed to eat twice a-day.”21 Similarly, another man discussed his experiences in Georgia and how much work was required on very little food: “[The owner] would make his slaves work on one meal a day, until quite night, and after supper, set them to burn brush or to spin cotton.” He continued: “Our allowance of food was one peck of corn a week to each full-grown slave. We never had meat of any kind, and our usual drink was water.”22 The classically developed muscular bodies depicted in many abolitionist accounts would not have been possible on many an enslaved man’s diet and workload.
In addition to being malnourished, many enslaved men were also vulnerable to disease. As Larry E. Hudson notes, some enslaved people would have been “frequent visitors to the sick house and generally unable to function at best.”23 One man, for example, a field hand named Frederick, was “covered with ulcers” and “rotten.” He died before he was fifty.24 Runaway notices include descriptors such as “bowlegged” and “bandy-legged,” a condition that was probably caused by poor diet.25 Those enslaved by James Henry Hammond were “extraordinarily unhealthy” because of the diet and treatment that were part of life on his plantation.26 Masters, Faust explains, provided only what was “minimally necessary for [slaves’] maintenance as effective laborers.” The standard diet supplied “inadequate amounts of calcium, magnesium, protein, iron, and vitamins.” Venereal disease was not uncommon. In addition to disease, men’s bodies were more often subjected to debilitating injuries. Three times as many men as women also suffered from fatal accidents.27
While the objectification of enslaved men’s bodies could appear to some as a harmless appreciation for the beauty of some enslaved men, overall the same impulses that gave rise to eroticizing enslaved men’s bodies fueled the forces of enslavement that were held in place by physical abuses and exploitations. Returning to Belley’s portrait (fig. 3), we can also see an interpretation that drew upon and reinforced the culture’s lurking negative associations between black manhood, hypersexuality, and hypermasculinity. Belley’s portrait was initially displayed under a different title, one that carried a more general connotation, as it stereotyped black manhood. When the painting was first exhibited in 1797 the title did not include his name; instead, the painting was titled Portrait de Nègre. The title was no doubt designed to capture the novelty of the subject and catch the attention of those perusing the exhibit catalog. Previously, the Paris salon culture had exhibited only one portrait of a black man. Belley’s status was also slightly lessened by his sharing his portrait with the figure of a lauded white abolitionist, who garnered authority by being represented as a marble bust. Perhaps the artist chose to do this strategically to remind his audience of white French abolition, as it figured in making Belley’s status as a statesman possible. Together, the naming and the sharing of the portrait had the effect of negating Belley’s individuality, an irony of significant measure, given his extraordinary accomplishments.28
Perhaps the most striking feature of the image is the way that it undercuts Belley’s stature because of the way the artist sexualizes him. The pronounced genital outline is unavoidably centered in the image. The protrusion is also further highlighted by the position of his hand and fingers. For many, the effect would have been to contrast the image of the uncivilized body with his refined and honorable dress and classical pose, ultimately drawing a conclusion about the inherent nature of black men. Belley apparently did not commission the portrait, and we have no record of his response to it. Girodet is known for eroticized and sexualized subjects in some of his works. Other portraits by Girodet follow the form of portraits of masculine leaders, such as Washington and Napoleon, and do not highlight pronounced genital outlines, as this was a mark of incivility.29
Undercutting the honor of a man as distinguished as Belley by sexualizing his image was possible because it fed off a long history of sexualized bodies under slavery. Sexualized denigration of enslaved boys and men rested foundationally on the regular exposure of their bodies. As Philip Morgan reminds us, “Daily encounters had a sexual dimension” in part because slaves “wore little or no clothing.”30 Exposure of enslaved men’s bodies was one way that the institution of slavery relied upon and reinforced a system of subjugation. Enslaved men and boys were allowed little to no privacy, and their bodies were frequently exposed to masters, mistresses, and others on the plantation. William Seals Brown told an interviewer from Southern University that at the age of sixteen he was still only given a long shirt and no underwear.31 Clothing was meager. As one formerly enslaved man, John Brown, explained, “The children of both sexes usually run about quite naked, until they are from ten to twelve years of age. I have seen them as old as twelve, going about in this state, or with only an old shirt, which they would put on when they had to go anywhere very particular for their mistress, or up to the great house.” Clothing, Brown added, offered little privacy to grown men and women.32 Historian Stephanie Camp argues that “planters imprinted slave status on black bodies by vesting bondpeople in clothing of the poorest quality, made of fabric reserved for those of their station.”33 One traveler in eighteenth-century Virginia recorded seeing “young negroes from sixteen to twenty years old, with not an article of clothing, but a loose shirt, descending half way down their thighs, waiting at table.”34
As Brown noted, the clothing enslaved people were given to wear meant that men’s and women’s genitals were often barely covered. Anglo-American culture projected both desire and jealousy upon an objectified and disembodied black phallus.35 Colonial accounts contain instances of masters and others commenting on enslaved men’s bodies in a sexualized manner. In 1681 in Virginia, for example, several men testified to witnessing one Katherine Watkins’s interactions with enslaved men. The comments come to us in depositions taken as part of a rape case that she brought against one of the men and detailed her activities one evening drinking with servants and enslaved men. In one man’s recollections, she raised the shirttails of one man and remarked to him that he had “a good long thing” and a “good pricke.” Another stated that she approached another enslaved man and “putt her hand into his Codpiece.”36 Watkins’s actions and comments focused on anatomy, not personality or overall appearance. One hundred years later, we can see the culture still placing special emphasis on black men’s genitals. William Feltman, an officer in the First Pennsylvania Regiment, traveling in Virginia in 1781, noted in his military journal that “young boys of about Fourteen and Fifteen years Old” waited tables with their “whole nakedness Expos’d.” Felt-man quipped: “I can Assure you It would Surprize a person to see these d——d [damned] black boys how well they are hung.”37 At the end of the eighteenth century, Charles White, an English physician, was among those who argued that black men had larger genitalia than Europeans. “I have examined several living negroes, and found it invariably to be the case,” he unabashedly stated.38 As Amber Jamilla Musser reminds us, “The myth of the large black penis only serves to emasculate the black man,” as it dehumanizes him and fuels the “fear and desire” of “Negrophobia.”39
The nakedness of and interest in sexualized men’s bodies could be a source of humiliation for enslaved men. Some enslaved men expressed resentment at this lack of respect for their dignity. Brown complained in his account that the clothing allowed was “not enough.” “They are made of the lowest quality of material,” he stated, “and get torn in the bush, so that the garments soon become useless, even for purposes of the barest decency.” His emphasis on “decency” was underscored as he continued more emphatically: “We slaves feel that this is not right, and we grow up with very little sense of shame; but immorality amongst ourselves is not common, for all that.”40 Here Brown highlighted that despite the conditions of exposure, enslaved people maintained a personal dignity and pride and, in remarks that spoke to abolitionist values, maintained morality. He mobilized these arguments to underscore the violation of enforced exposure.
Although daily interactions resulted in general exposure for black men and boys, particular moments, such as sales and auctions, could bring extreme forms of degradation. Western artists circulated images that captured the invasive physical inspections of enslaved men by prospective buyers. An eighteenth-century French engraving depicts an English man “licking a Negro’s chin to ascertain his age, & to determine from the taste of his sweat if he is sick” (fig. 4). An 1854 engraving, Inspection and Sale of a Negro, shows a white man scrutinizing an enslaved man’s body.41 Similarly, English artist G. H. Andrews portrayed male slaves being examined nearly naked.42 Dealers Inspecting a Negro at a Slave Auction in Virginia captures the physical touching and examining that occurred at auction houses.43
Reports from a wide range of locales include reference to the invasive scrutiny of men’s bodies when on the auction block or being considered for purchase. Abolitionist newspapers, such as the National Era, detailed the ways that buyers would poke and prod: “The negroes were examined with as little consideration as if they had been brutes indeed; the buyers pulling their mouths open to see their teeth, pinching their limbs to see how muscular they were, walking them up and down to detect any signs of lameness, making them stoop and bend in different ways that they might be certain there was no concealed rupture or wound.”44 Images circulated by abolitionists did not regularly explicitly depict the sexual violation of men (and only occasionally suggested it for women), but it was known that men in the slave trade were scrutinized and physically groped and prodded—violated as part of the assessment of their commercial value as workers and, for some, of their reproductive capabilities. Thus, even images that did not include graphic depictions carried a resonance, and an ever-present understanding, that bodies being sold were being violated not only in their absence of freedom or in their forced labors but also sexually. Similarly, one Brazilian slaveholder, “in his advice to the purchase of slaves, makes a point of this: the necessity of paying attention to the Negro’s sexual organ in order to avoid acquiring individuals in whom it was undeveloped or ill-shaped; for it was feared that they would prove bad procreators.”45 In his study of the antebellum slave market, Walter Johnson writes, “Buyers inspected their naked bodies minutely.” Slaveholders quoted by Johnson described their own actions: “Examined the boy very particularly … stripped the boy and examined him … stripped all the boys … and this boy appeared to be the finest of the lot.” Such buyers were looking for signs of illness but also rebelliousness, which was believed to be revealed by deep scars from being whipped and punished.46 In Barbados white women could be seen “dispassionately fondling the genitalia of semi-naked black male slaves in order to assess their health and future breeding potential.”47 Thus, although visitors may have been surprised to see this spectacle of white women fondling black men, the slave culture of the locality allowed for it, as it served economic interests.
Enslaved men wrote about the dehumanization of being stripped and scrutinized as part of sales. Thomas Johns, enslaved in Alabama in 1847, recalled: “When a man went to buy a slave he would make him strip naked and look him over for whip marks and other blemish, jus’ like dey would a horse. But even if it done damage to de sale to whip him, dey done it, ’cause dey figgered, kill a nigger, breed another—kill a mule, buy another.”48 Isaac Williams similarly recalled: “About breakfast time, Dr. ——came and stripped us stark naked to examine us. They frequently do, whether buying women or men.”49 Williams also commented on being stripped naked when his master decided to sell him and described it as part of a potentially sexually violative experience. “He took me to his bedroom, and chained me by one leg to his bedpost, and kept me there, handcuffs on, all night. He slept in the bed. Next morning, he took me in a wagon and carried me to Fredericksburg, and sold me into a slave-pen to George Ayler, for ten hundred and fifty dollars.” Williams’s description of being chained to his master’s bedpost bears a striking similarity to the depiction of Luke in Harriet Jacobs’s account, published just four years before Williams’s. Luke was also chained to his master’s bed, and Jacobs intimated that he was sexually violated. The presence of the master’s bed adds a layer of intimacy to this account that raises the specter of sexualized violence, especially in light of the popularity of Jacobs’s account, which would have already cemented in many readers’ minds the particular sexualized abuses being referenced with this imagery. In one final example, one Pennsylvanian recorded what he witnessed in Richmond in 1861. His words were reprinted in abolitionist accounts in London and in the United States, accompanied by images. The account described men being taken to separate rooms or behind screens, where they were physically examined, including examining their genitals. He described one such scene where an enslaved man was forced to drop his trousers to his ankles and raise his shirt. Andrews remarked that they clearly valued the “private parts,” “behind & spine,” and “thighs and legs.”50 The men around him laughed at his degraded status.
Humiliation from being exposed during sales was more regularly experienced during punishments, especially whippings. Whipping was a common component of life for some enslaved people, but we have not generally viewed it as a kind of sexualized torture. The image of whipping exposed male flesh could carry an erotic charge, one that mirrored the nearly obscene fixation on whipping nude enslaved women.51 In published accounts, the “treatment of scenarios of suffering, if not narrowly pornographic in nature, assumed that the spectacle of pain was a source of illicit excitement, prurience, and obscenity—the power to evoke revulsion and disgust.”52 Beyond the sadism of victimizers, other aspects make whipping especially sexually charged, including exposure, bodily positioning, and torture of genitals and genital areas.
Although images of the barely clothed enslaved man and the stripped enslaved man being beaten are familiar to many today, those images are understood to reflect the humiliating conditions of enslavement but do not necessarily carry the same resonance that various states of undress carried for many African American men by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Consider, however, the powerful symbolism of the enslaved man, barely clothed and in chains, used by early abolitionists. Contrast this image with the portraits of successful, formerly enslaved men that emphasize, as did the portraits of elite whites, the importance of clothing to underscore status.53 We may have come to accept that removal of clothing was a common element of whipping, with our attention focused most closely on the severity of being whipped. But enslaved men routinely commented not only on being whipped but on the fact that they were whipped without clothing on, underscoring that it deeply troubled their sense of masculine dignity.
Formerly enslaved men shared stories about their experiences being whipped nude. Any removal of clothing served as a marker of humiliation and punishment: “I was stripped of my shirt, and the waistband of my trousers was drawn closely round me, below my hips, so as to expose the whole of my back, in its entire length,” Charles Ball recounted.54 Henry Banks explained how he ran away from his master after being beaten by an overseer: “They took me to the barn, stripped me stark naked, and then he tied my hands together and my feet together, and swung me up so I could move neither way.”55 Solomon Northrop, in his account Twelve Years a Slave, mentions being whipped nude shortly after his kidnapping: “I was seized by both of them, and roughly divested of my clothing. My feet, as has been stated, were fastened to the floor. Drawing me over the bench, face downwards, Radburn placed his heavy foot upon the fetters, between my wrists, holding them painfully to the floor. With the paddle, Burch commenced beating me. Blow after blow was inflicted upon my naked body.”56 Henry Bibb’s narrative also noted the physical exposure as a component of the degradation of whipping: “I have been dragged down to the lowest depths of human degradation and wretchedness, by Slaveholders… . I was a wretched slave, compelled to work under the lash without wages and often, without clothes enough to hide my nakedness.”57 Another man shared: “After dinner he took me to a log- house, stripped me quite naked, fastened a rail up very high, tied my hands to the rail, fastened my feet together, put a rail between my feet, and stood on one end of it to hold it down; the two sons then gave me fifty lashes each, the eldest another fifty, and Mr. Gooch himself fifty more.”58 Other men similarly recalled being “stripped naked, tied up by both hands, and unmercifully flogged.”59 One man described that after being stripped naked he was “compelled to lie down on the ground with my face to the earth. Four stakes were driven in the ground, to which my hands and feet were tied.”60 Abolitionist newspapers carried accounts regarding the nudity of whipping. The lack of clothing added to the inhumanity of the scenes of torture.
The low status and humiliation of being whipped nude were heightened when the punishment was public. After securing their freedom, formerly enslaved men commented on these aspects when they recollected their experiences. One man who had been enslaved in Georgia shared the story of a man being beaten nude in front of others: “Next day he got all the people together, and had Jack stripped and tied up to a rough red oak tree, his hands being made fast round the tree, so that he embraced it.”61 Another man described his punishment: “At the sound of the overseer’s horn, all the slaves came forward and witnessed my punishment. My clothing was stripped off and I was compelled to lie down on the ground with my face to the earth.”62 Similarly, an account by Aaron explained: “A bricklayer, a neighbor of ours, owned a very smart young negro man, who ran away, but was caught. When his master got him home, he stripped him naked, tied him up by his hands, in plain sight and hearing of the academy and the public green.”63 In his 1862 account of life as a slave in South Carolina, John Andrew Jackson explained: “On one occasion I saw my brother Ephraim tied up and blindfolded with his own shirt, and beaten with fifty lashes before his own wife and children, by a wretch named Sam Cooper, because he was falsely accused of having stolen a yard of bagging.” That his brother was unjustly punished in front of “his own” dependents underscored his emasculation. Jackson continued this passage by emphasizing this point dramatically: “Fathers! think of being tied up and stripped before your wife and children, and beaten severely for nothing at all; and then think that it is a daily, nay, hourly, occurrence in the Slave States of America, and you will begin to have some idea of what American slavery is.”64 For Jackson and others, the exposure of their bodies was one component of the degradation of punishment. But this humiliation was compounded when their nakedness was displayed often in front of loved ones, the enslaved community, and masters and overseers.
Enslavers also forced enslaved men and women into especially vulnerable positions for whipping, often using various apparatuses to secure their bodies. In 1815 one North Carolina paper detailed the punishment of an enslaved man as he was “hung up to the horse-rack, and whipped.” As part of his punishment he was taken to a “rack,” where they “pulled down his breeches and rolled up his shirt” before continuing to beat him.65 Jamaican planter Thomas Thistlewood used bilboes on both men and women. With their legs shackled to an iron bar, their bodies would be hoisted up for punishment and for flogging in that position. Nude, their genitals would have been especially exposed.66 Henry Bibb explained: “The persons who are thus flogged, are always stripped naked, and their hands tied together. They are then bent over double, their knees are forced between their elbows, and a stick is put through between the elbows and the bend of the legs in order to hold the victim in that position, while the paddle is applied to those parts of the body which would not be so likely to be seen by those who wanted to buy slaves.”67
The brutality of whipping and flogging would almost certainly have meant injury and damage, sometimes permanent, to some enslaved men’s genitals. One account detailed the physical wounds a man suffered after being tied naked to a tree and then running around the tree because of the pain of being repeatedly branded on his buttocks: “The poor fellow screamed awfully, and … tore round the rough tree, the smoke from his burning flesh rising high and white above the top; he all the time screaming, and master swearing. At last the branding was done, and Jack was loosed, when we saw that in going round the tree, he had torn all the flesh from his chest, which was bleeding dreadfully.”68 Although the account only detailed flesh being torn from his chest, it is difficult to imagine that he did not also suffer cuts on other parts of his body that were exposed to the tree, including his genitals. In Easton, Maryland, in 1862 one African American apprentice sued his master due to cruel treatment that included severe beating with a hickory paddle. He complained to the court that after he had been whipped on his bare backside he fainted. When he regained consciousness he discovered that his “privates were very much injured and swollen very large.”69
The degrading moments of being whipped while naked did not end once the punishment was over. Sometimes men were left unclothed to suffer further after the whipping. As one man explained, “This was in the evening, and though it was late in the fall, and cold, frosty, icy weather, my master left me thus naked, and tied up, till the morning.”70 After punishments, other men often could not put their clothing back on because of the wounds. One account published in a South Carolina newspaper in 1812 explained: “Whipping has been so severely inflicted, that for days the slave could not wear his clothes.”71 Henry Banks explained that after he was beaten he was so badly injured that he was “unable to do any work.” He continued: “I could not even stand,” so the overseer “then had me carried by the hands into the shade of a tree, where I laid just as I could,—I could not lie any way long.”72
In light of this analysis, we should consider reevaluating the well-known image of one man’s deep scars on his back from whipping.73 The photos of Gordon were published in 1863 in Harper’s Weekly and famously depict the heavy scarring on his back from years of brutal whipping. For many viewers familiar with whipping practices, the photo that showed his scars would have conjured up not only his physical pain but also the sexualized abuses, the degradation of being stripped (often publicly), the particular positioning of the body for abuses, the direct assaults on personal areas of the body, and the continued humiliation of exposure after whipping. Today the photo largely conjures up for viewers the horrific pain of punishment under slavery; the additional layers of sexualized assault have largely been forgotten.
Enslaved men’s bodies were also marked in other ways as part of punishment. Some masters used brands to inflict pain and to signal the punishment in an enduring manner. One newspaper account reported that after one man was beaten “a heated brand was applied to various parts of his lacerated body with more than savage cruelty!”74 Sometimes branding could be in personal areas of the body. Sharon Block writes about one man enslaved in North Carolina named Ned who had his chest and both inner thighs branded with IL and B, respectively, perhaps to signify his owners’ names.75 An account from Georgia recorded that after tying a slave nude to a tree the overseer “then took a branding-iron, marked T.S., which he heated red hot at the kitchen fire, and applied to the fleshy part of Jack’s loins.”76
At its most extreme, violence against personal areas of enslaved men’s bodies took the form of mutilations and castration. The Boston News- Letter reported in 1718 the assault of a white woman, but with a focus on black male genitalia that warned off “all Negroes meddling with any White Woman”: “A Negro Man met abroad an English woman, which he accosted to lye with, stooping down, fearing none behind him, a Man observing his Design, took out his Knife, before the Negro was aware, cut off all his unruly parts Smack and Smooth, the Negro Jumpt up roaring and run for his Life, the Black is now an Eunuch and like to recover of his wounds & doubtless cured from any more such Wicked Attempts.”77 In 1743 a North Carolina enslaved black man convicted of raping a white woman had his “private parts cut off and thrown in his face” after execution by hanging.78 Similarly, one account from Brazil argued that enslaved men who had sexual relations with white women “who yielded themselves” would suffer great punishments: they were castrated with a “dull knife” and then suffered the horrors of having the “wound sprinkled with salt” before being “buried alive” and executed.79 While these articles recall the depiction of black men as agents of sexual assault, still then a notion in formation but one that would long remain in the American tradition, they also underscore how punishments for perceived or actual sexual infractions in the hands of whites focused on black male bodies and in particular on maiming the genitalia of enslaved men. Marisa Fuentes quotes a Doctor Jackson, who lived in Jamaica during the late eighteenth century, as reporting that he was aware of “Negroes having been castrated for trespass on the Black Mistress of the overseer.”80
A runaway ad placed in a Boston newspaper in 1744 illustrates the total exposure of enslaved men’s bodies. Cuff, who had been enslaved in Newport, had escaped. Included in the details designed to secure his identification was that he had “but one Testicle.” Cuff had previously been embroiled in accusations of sexual assault against a white woman, charges that he survived. Elaine Forman Crane speculates that Cuff could have been the victim of vigilantes, who partially castrated him because of the accusation. Although Crane also suggested that he was born with an undescended testicle, we might consider that he may have suffered an injury either at the hands of an enslaver or while working. The enslavers’ knowledge of his single testicle underscores his enslaved status. In print the advertisement also served to reinforce the association of intimate violations with enslaved men’s bodies, a collective voyeuristic violation of Cuff’s manhood at precisely the moment that he sought to assert his independence by stealing his body from his enslaver. He took this action on the heels of a public accusation, his sale, and his subsequent demotion from ferry operator to ordinary laborer.81
Castration and other genital mutilations served as punishment in the hands of overseers and owners continuing into the nineteenth century. In 1853 one Louisiana overseer nailed an enslaved man’s penis to a bedpost as part of his punishment. The enslaved man, Ginger Pop, had his privates nailed to the bed and was whipped until he “pulled loose.” He later died from his wounds. As Judith Schafer notes, the Supreme Court of Louisiana “had an unspoken policy of under reporting or omitting entirely from its reports cases involving cruelty of a sexual nature to slaves.”82 The establishment of castration during the era of slavery led to its continued use as a weapon of sexualized terror even after emancipation. Archie Vaughn, enslaved in Tennessee, testified about his experience being caught by local men who castrated him and cut off his ear after forcing him to care for their horses. As he described, the men “tied my hands” and put a rope around his neck.83
Some masters violated bodies in particularly vile ways that involved intimate bodily functions. Eighteenth-century Virginian William Byrd occasionally used common medical treatments that were known to be uncomfortable as punishment. He wrote in his diary that he “gave” three enslaved men “a vomit” because they went off the plantation for the night. Indicating that he probably returned to this punishment more than once and that it was traumatic, he recorded that it “did more good than whipping.” He also forced one enslaved boy to “drink a pint of piss” as punishment for bed-wetting.84
As the comments of men who experienced enslavement testify, mental anguish, humiliation, and emotional suffering rivaled the physical pain inflicted on their bodies, and in no other way would this have been more acutely true than when enslaved men’s bodies were used to inflict harm on others. Thistlewood boasted in his diary of using what he called “Derby’s dose,” which involved forcing one enslaved man to defecate in another’s mouth. In at least one instance, a man had his mouth shut for hours, unable to remove the excrement. In such instances, both individuals were violated. Thistlewood noted in his diary several different times that he used this punishment: “Had Derby well whipped, and made Egypt shit in his mouth.” Derby “catched by Port Royal eating canes. Had him well flogged and pickled, then made Hector shit in his mouth.” Two months later, Port Royal ran away and after being caught was punished in this manner. “Gave him a moderate whipping, pickled him well, made Hector shit in his mouth, immediately put in a gag whilst his mouth was full & made him wear it 4 or 5 hours.” In another entry from the same time period, Thistlewood describes the punishment of two men who were caught after running away: “Punch catched at Salt River and brought home. Flogged him and Quacoo well, and then washed and rubbed in salt pickle, lime juice & bird pepper; also whipped Hector for losing his hoe, made New Negro Joe piss in his eyes & mouth &c.”85
Thistlewood’s accounts of torture of enslaved people raise yet another way that men’s bodies were violated in intimate ways under slavery: enslaved men were at times psychologically tortured by being forced to assist in sexualized punishments. Attackers understood the anguish this would cause and the divisiveness it could engender within a victim’s community. Recall Archie Vaughn, the Tennessee freedman who was castrated by a group of men. Those men had forced a “field hand” to hold him as they tied him up and assaulted him. The use of enslaved men to participate in these acts of sexualized torture further violated those men who had no power to resist and who viewed firsthand the punishment that awaited them if they took action.86
Enslaved men were sometimes dangerously caught up in intimate conflicts between masters and mistresses. In her divorce case, North Carolinian Mary Jane Stewart testified that her husband had violently sexually assaulted her and noted that he “ordered” her “to go and lie with negro men.”87 There is nothing else in the record to shed light on this comment. The abuses that enslaved men were coerced to participate in were part of the multilayered abuses and violence of the slave household. Such assaults dehumanized the enslaved man, who became a tool for someone else’s abuse. Testimony from an Alabama divorce case in 1839 included a wife’s complaint that her husband beat her and also “directed the negroes to whip her” and “told one to get into her lap and kiss her.”88
In some cases, enslaved men were forced to sexually violate others. Sharon Block first wrote about one eighteenth-century Maryland case in which an enslaved man was forced at gunpoint by two white men to rape a free black woman. One of the white perpetrators of the assault, William Holland, was convicted of assault and battery on the free black woman, Elizabeth Amwood. Holland petitioned the governor of Maryland for a pardon. Included in the pardon file was a memorandum from Amwood detailing the assault.89 Both the enslaved man and the free black woman were victimized. As the men forced the enslaved man upon Amwood, they taunted them both, mocking them. One later referred to them as horses that he had been breeding. As Block argues, the case illustrates the vulnerability of free black women in this time and place. We can also imagine the psychological toll that such an event would have taken on the enslaved man, who was unnamed. Were they friendly in the neighborhood? Forced to rape Amwood at the point of a gun, he might have also had to deal with any consequences of assaulting a free black woman. Was there retribution from her family or the community?
Other accounts of forced sex reveal that enslaved men could suffer punishment for a forced attack, despite apparently being ordered to do it. An abolitionist newspaper, the National Era, reported in 1853 on the case of another unnamed man, described only as a “negro man, belonging to H. France.” The man had been “burned at the stake” for having “attempted to commit rape” and for murder. What makes this case unusual, however, is that after the execution the “citizens of Pettis county” requested that the France family leave the community, “having some suspicion that the negro was instigated to the perpetration of the deed by his master.” In addition to “aiding and abetting” the murder, the master was criticized for his “bad examples set before slaves, by conversing with them in relation to the virtue and chastity of white women, and in defamation of their character; thereby influencing them to commit deeds of crime and rapine.”90 We must consider that France may well have forced his slaves to assault white women, since to take the story at face value is to accept the rhetoric of an ignorant, animalistic, and docile slave who, excited by France, was set loose upon women.
At a minimum, these examples raise questions about how often enslavers used enslaved men to inflict sexual punishments on others, whether free black, enslaved, or white, and about the toll that these forced rapes would have taken on those men, who could rarely resist the will of their masters and assailants. For the man enslaved by H. France, the incident resulted in him being burned alive. It is important to note again that the man was unnamed. His designation as only a “negro” man dehumanizes him, rendering him in his assault on the woman a symbol perhaps of all black men, another type of victim in a multilayered sexual assault perpetrated by white men on both black men and white and black women.
The above examples can help us as we try to imagine the situation of Rufus and Rose. In her interview, Rose described Rufus as a “bully.” Might he have been selected because they both had reputations as strong-willed fighters? Might pairing them up be about more than just reproducing strong children but also about managing and controlling Rose with an enslaved man who could do so? Although the intent was not to punish Rose, forcing Rufus upon her had a similar effect of subjugation, one that she resented deeply and that surely must have played itself out in their interpersonal dynamic. We can piece together some telling clues that indicate that their relationship was probably one of long-term resentment and pain. Rose apparently gave birth to only two children during their relationship, raising questions about their intimacy. This is further supported by the fact that they did not stay together after being freed and by Rose’s declaration that she never again had relations with men after emancipation.
Rufus lived in a social and cultural context that fixated on black male bodies with both desire and horror. Sexual assault took a wide variety of forms, but the common factor in all was the legal ownership that enabled control of the enslaved body. Winthrop Jordan notes the conflicting messages embraced by Anglo-American culture as it sought to control and circumscribe the bodies of enslaved men and women, on the one hand, voicing repulsion for Africans, framing them as beastly, ugly, and unappealing, while on the other hand, viewing them as hypersexual. Anglo-American culture had a long-standing view of black men as “particularly virile, promiscuous, and lusty.”91
Objectification of black men affected bodies and minds. Depictions of sexual prowess and the nascent myth of the black rapist constituted one form of sexual abuse. This general depiction of enslaved men contributed to the legal and political disenfranchisement of black men from the earliest days of the nation.92 Yet the psychic toll was also high. Being told that one is hypersexual and uncontrollable could have inflicted great emotional pain, informed identities, shaped interpersonal and intimate interactions.
The bodies of enslaved men were sites of contestation over the definition of black manhood recognized by white men and women, as well as by enslaved people. Masters and overseers punished those bodies in sexualized ways, violating private dignity and emasculating men through public exposure. Physical tortures also damaged men’s bodies and rendered them less physically able to enact manly norms of capability. But bodies also enabled enslaved men to celebrate physical power, prowess, and endurance. Enslaved men’s bodies were sexually violated, exploited, and abused, but that would only deepen the physical ways in which manhood could be enacted. Bodies were sources of intimate pain, but, as we will see in the next chapter, they could also continue to be associated with pleasure and power.