When the Present Is Past
One problem that flummoxes both historians of sexuality and of slavery is the paucity of sources. Scholars of sexuality struggle to find archival references that detail the sexual and romantic lives of people from the past, often working against political, religious, social, and economic forces that prevented details about sexuality from entering into the historical record in the first place. Scholars of slavery, despite the avalanche of books, articles, and dissertations that have been written in the last half century, struggle to excavate details about the history of enslavement, or at the very least, make sense of the surviving evidence.
Compounding matters, only within the last few decades have archivists and research librarians begun to create searchable subject headings that included slavery; sexuality remains virtually absent from these catalogs. Even with the advent of online databases and the creation of sophisticated word searches that enable scholars to skim through millions of records in a few nanoseconds, the search for primary-source material remains difficult for both groups of historians, particularly for scholars of sexuality, as the language that contemporary scholars employ to describe these conditions and experiences often does not have a clear and direct antecedent in the past.1 Even though both groups have devised theoretical and methodological ways to address the silences and to investigate with more sophistication the extant evidence, the lack of sources remains a challenge for historians of slavery as well as historians of sexuality.2 As historian Marisa Fuentes astutely notes in her work on slavery in the eighteenth-century Caribbean, “the very call ‘to find more sources’ about people who left few if any of their own reproduces the same erasures and silences they experienced.”3
For scholars—many whose work appears in this volume—whose work straddles both of these fields, the struggle to find a manuscript collection, a diary or journal, or an unabridged correspondence that chronicles an enslaved person’s romance, desires, or definition of their sexuality remains deeply challenging. The limitation of available records has led to fewer scholars pursuing these subjects, which has led to fewer books and articles published on sexuality and slavery. Since the majority of the surviving records on slavery detail labor conditions, the historiography has followed this lead and reproduced the major themes that mattered to slaveholders—the number of enslaved people employed on a particular plantation, the power dynamics that undergirded masters and enslaved people’s relationship, the economic value of the enslaved population, the status of the crops, and so on. In general, when many historians write on these topics, all of which are critically important to understanding the slaveocracy, these historians unwittingly propagate the planters’ logic. Historians of slavery and capitalism—which has emerged as a leading theme in the field of late—potentially risk reproducing the logic of slaveholders by emphasizing economics, even when their aim is to restore humanity to enslaved people and to demonstrate their contribution to the broader economy. More to the point, since slavery created a major business, it left behind a major archive of financial transactions, bank records, notes of sales, monetary ledgers, promissory notes, wills, and estate records, which facilitate the scholarship on slavery and capitalism in ways that many scholars have underappreciated. Doing this research, even if it is part of larger recuperative historiography, reanimates the South in the way that slaveholders created it, even if the historian’s motivation stems from a higher moral calling.4
Writing the history of sexuality inherently pushes against the archival grain and attempts to provide a counter-narrative, to expose a hidden history.5 Sexuality studies, encompassing a wide range of subjects from reproduction to physical and romantic intimacy, seeks to unearth details about people’s lives, refusing to see enslaved people as slaveholders did, as simply capital to be exploited for profit. It implicitly aims to redirect the gaze from the sites of economic production—the fields, the master’s home, the farms—to the interiority of enslaved people’s lives: their intimacies, desires, sexual and reproductive bodies, feelings, and loves. It seeks to observe their bodies moving in ways that pleased them and were not used directly or innately for profit.6
Writing a history of sexuality often invariably leads to new methods and broader definitions of evidence. When historians of capitalism research their topics, the archive is more complicit with their questions than it is for historians of sexuality. Rape, for example, was endemic during slavery but was often not articulated in the historical record. Due to the dearth of sources, the historiography on sexuality and slavery, in turn, continues to be marginalized within the larger historiography on slavery because it cannot marshal the same number of sources that economic, social, or even political historians can posit. As a result, the historiography on sexuality and slavery is less empirical, appears thinner, and, by many counts, less significant.
While these struggles continue to mount within the academy, making the history of sexuality during slavery difficult to chronicle, outside of the academy the subject of slavery and sexuality thrives. Novelists, poets, artists, and filmmakers have circumvented the problems of the archive and produced some of the most compelling, daring, and insightful work on the history of slavery and sexuality in the last few decades. Fiction writers and artists have centered sexuality in their depictions of slavery by bypassing the historical profession’s strict and often provincial notion of evidence. From Elizabeth Alexander’s ventriloquized narrative of Sarah Baartman, known as Saartjie, to the haunting images of rape and sexual abuse in Toni Morrison’s Beloved to Kara Walker’s highly sexualized rendering of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the banality of sex in Edward Jones’s The Known World, those in the arts cover a panoply of topics related to sexuality. Unlike historians who offer more strict interpretations of primary sources, these writers and artists also use primary sources but are less interested in quibbling over historiographical debates and more invested in using these rare documents as a springboard to launch into more creative explorations. The artists’ imaginations embroider the work, while the historical evidence forms its core, revealing how the past can be engaged through a combination of archival recovery and imaginative reconstruction.
Given that historians of sexuality do not have the archive of sources available to them that historians of capitalism and other subfields do, this chapter turns to the proliferation of depictions of slavery in the arts to offer new ways of reading existing sources. Certainly, those in the arts abide by a completely different system of writing and creation; their work, nonetheless, ought not to be dismissed purely based on disciplinary or professional differences. Artists’ works can be used by historians in order to think through quagmires that have otherwise halted the study of sexuality or even prevented it from advancing. Further, this important, often public work, which typically provides many students and fellow scholars with their first impression of slavery, will help historians bridge the gap between the mainstream public’s interpretation of the past and their own work. Even more importantly, the artists and writers I discuss here have all been influenced and informed by academic scholarly analyses as well as by archival material, making their work that much more relevant to historians.
Poet Elizabeth Alexander excavates the untold story of Sarah Baartman, the early nineteenth-century African woman who was placed on display in circuses throughout Europe based on imperialists’ fascination with her buttocks, in her poem “The Venus Hottentot.” Deemed as monstrous and subhuman, Baartman appears in both anthropological literature and the historiography on scientific racism, yet few empirical facts are known about her life; what has survived only reifies her alleged aberrance. No matter how diligently historians dig into the archives, there are limits to historical excavation. By drawing on what evidence does exist—namely details about the display and the notes from scientists who studied her while she was alive and then dissected her after her death—Alexander crafts a poem that imaginatively reconstructs Baartman’s experience. She ventriloquizes Baartman’s voice where the record remains silent. As Alexander once explained, “poetry can speak with a power and can color in the spaces that the archives cannot.”7 Alexander, in turn, refutes the passivity and unintelligence that many scientists and European audiences projected onto Baartman by claiming,
at my scent and does not think
I comprehend, but I speak
English. I speak Dutch. I speak
a little French as well, and
languages Monsieur Cuvier
will never know have names.
Alexander also more powerfully draws on black feminist theory in order to inform Baartman’s testimony.
Since my own genitals are public
I have made other parts private.
In my silence I possess
mouth, larynx, brain, in a single
The reference to being on public display but retaining the integrity of privacy evokes Darlene Clark Hine’s notion of dissemblance, “the appearance of openness and disclosure but actually shielding the truth of their inner lives and selves from their oppressors.”8 Further, Alexander’s comment about being silent evokes a common motif in the historiography on black women and slavery. As Farah J. Griffin perceptively argues, “silences, loopholes, interstices, allegory, dissemblance, politics of respectability—these are but a few of the terms that black women scholars use to help make sense of the silence that surrounds black women’s lives and experiences.”9 Incorporating silence into the poem, Alexander suggests that many black women’s voices might not be found in the archive. While historians have certainly recognized these and other forms of silence, they often assume that black women did not have the chance to have their voice recorded in the first place. Alexander, however, suggests the opposite: that Baartman avoided being documented.
The poem thus raises a critical issue for historians of sexuality and slavery to consider: when did enslaved women purposely avoid narrating an experience or conveying a feeling? While most historians certainly recognize that the openness and frankness with which we as scholars in the early twenty-first century discuss sexuality contradicts how enslaved people in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries articulated these desires and experiences, many scholars have been unwilling to recognize their silence as deliberate.10 Although Darlene Clark Hine’s brilliant theoretical formulation of dissemblance suggests that enslaved women deflected articulating their selfhood to those who oppressed them, scholars have not fully interrogated the reasons for the silences around enslaved women’s sexuality. How did religion and spirituality, for example, impel many enslaved women from voicing issues related to their sexuality? In other words, did their moral, religious, or even cultural views of their bodies suggest a silence? Further, would these women approve of the ways in which historians, all of whom possess well-meaning intentions, dig up details about their intimate lives? Are there ethical limits to the historical recovery of sexuality? The poem suggests the extent to which Baartman would not want to be known or recorded in terms of her sexuality; this might be partially why Alexander insists on her silence.
Taking a cue from this poem, historians of sexuality and slavery can better interrogate the silences within the archive, not simply as limitations of the record keepers, but rather as concerted efforts by enslaved women to not be documented.11 More to the point, while historians do not empower themselves with the literary license to ventriloquize historical actors in the way that Alexander as a poet can, the poem, nevertheless, can instruct historians on how to negotiate deep archival research with a skillful application of black feminist theory and an informed imagination to produce more detailed scholarship on enslavement. In this particular case, historians can do more to explain the silences within the record, to build on Darlene Clark Hine’s important theory of dissemblance to actually annotate the range of reasons why an enslaved woman, like Baartman, might not chose to speak. Alexander’s poem reveals the need for historians of sexuality to move beyond the tools employed by social, political, and economic historians to investigate the past and to consider more imaginative methods: to think about how the voice of the enslaved and of the historian can be in dialogue, and to make that part of the analysis.12
Similar to Alexander, Toni Morrison excavates a woman’s experience from the archive that had not been fully explored as the basis for her award-winning novel Beloved.13 Building on the actual story of Margaret Garner, the enslaved woman who murdered her child to avoid her from being enslaved, Beloved charts the story of a woman and her two daughters, one who returns as a ghost after her mother murders her. The novel includes many themes from the abuses enslaved people endured before the Civil War to the challenges of living in Ohio during a gloomy winter after the war. Throughout Beloved, Morrison includes a narrative of sexuality that includes romance, intimacy, failed marriages, sexual abuse, and reproduction. As Morrison explained about the writing of Beloved, “the absence of the interior life, the deliberate excising of it from the records that the slaves themselves told—is precisely the problem in the discourse that proceeded without us. How I gain access to that interior life is what drives me.”14
With few records available to narrate the history of the past, Morrison turned to fiction. “Only the act of the imagination can help me,” she writes, in the face of an archive that cannot. Her imagination enables her to think about sexual abuse not only as it terrorized enslaved women, but also how it affected enslaved men. Morrison, for example, creates a scene in a labor camp in which formerly enslaved men must perform oral sex on those who oppress them. She writes, “occasionally a kneeling man chose gunshot in his head as the price, maybe, of taking a bit of foreskin with him to Jesus.” Here, she establishes a probable situation in which black men may have been violently forced into performing oral sex. Within the archives on slavery—state repositories, historical societies, and libraries—there is little surviving evidence that details how sexual abuse affected enslaved men, but Morrison’s imagination provides a chance to broaden the definition of sexual abuse to include men during slavery.15
The novel contains other moments of abuse from the scene in which two young boys “took” the main character Sethe’s milk in an act of unfathomable violence. Again, Morrison presents a shocking case of abuse, which may lack archival support, but it nonetheless reveals the multiple ways in which enslaved people remained vulnerable to vicious attacks. Morrison’s novel urges historians to imagine the multiple and quite shocking ways in which abuse threatened the lives of the enslaved beyond the recorded cases of whippings, sexual abuse, and intimidation. Her novel also implicitly tests the boundaries of the archives by revealing moments too numerous, too macabre, and too ordinary to leave even an archival trace.16
Further, as a talented writer, Morrison creates complicated characters who simultaneously endure such abuse alongside love, intimacy, and motherhood. In theory, most historians recognize the many roles enslaved people experienced, but often the discovery of an enslaved person in the archive only details one fragmented aspect of their life. Historians then treat only that aspect, not taking into account the full biography of their subject. Certainly, limited records are the reason for not being able to probe their interior lives. But Morrison’s claim about the need for imagination to narrate enslaved people’s interior lives can inspire historians to use their imaginations when writing about people from the past. On the most basic level, Morrison’s novel can serve as a generative model to avoid casting historical actors in scholarship as one-dimensional characters based simply on the fragmented evidence. This does not mean that historians should invent their subjects’ biographies, but they should at least raise questions or attempt to explore the multitude of their experience, rather than simply propping them up to voice a particular historiographical argument. While historians of gender and sexuality often understand this point, economic and even social historians of slavery often overlook the intimate and sexual lives of bondspeople. Historian Daina Ramey Berry offers an important gendered intervention on the polemical intersection of slavery and capitalism by closely examining the thin surviving records. Throughout her book, Berry insists on referring to enslaved people by their names, which adds a human shape to historical actors who are often reduced to serving as statistics. Berry also uses their ages, which are often the only other marker left about their lives, to show how age influenced the economy.17
While historians consider these new methodologies or perpetrate older approaches, novelist Edward Jones and artist Kara Walker have used their genres to add depth and detail to the sexual lives of the enslaved. Their approaches could not be more different. In The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven, Walker creates silhouette images that depict Tom, the protagonist of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, giving birth to Eva, a child in the novel who symbolizes the Christian ambitions of the abolitionist movement. Other scenes depict violent acts of sodomy and women suckling on another’s breast, an allusion to Sethe’s milk being taken.
While Walker’s images depict fantastical images of sexuality on plantations, Jones reveals the banality of sex. In a novel that turns primarily on the unique concept of black people owning enslaved people of African descent, the story opens with a black overseer who masturbates as he sits under a tree. Like Morrison, Jones does not revel in this point but simply drops the sexual detail with the same narrative beat as describing the ordinariness of the landscape. Yet this simple description breathes new life into the vast historiography of slavery that depicts enslaved people working to the rhythms of the slaveholders’ economic interests. Jones’s brief episode of sexuality sidesteps both the logic and rhythm of plantation management, exposes the absences in the archive, and refutes the economic basis of slavery. Masturbating for self-pleasure, spewing semen that has no fecundity, touching his body in a way that has no economic value and instead produced uncommodified waste show how sexuality can retell the history of slavery from the vantage point of enslaved people’s desires. It disrupts the constant rehauling of historical actors to the fields and farms and puts their bodies back to work, if only on the pages of history books, and instead it shows how their bodies moved according to their own desires and pleasures. Walker also depicts sex in her art that has no reproductive value, which further challenges the representation of enslaved people as laborers and raises questions about their intimate lives.
Walker and Jones can do what historians can’t and that is to use their imaginations as the driving source of their narratives. Their work should not just be a supplementary study of slavery but rather a source to consider how sexuality unfolded on plantations. Both Walker and Jones see value in such depictions but the empirical archive will not yield evidence that substantiates these claims. So historians must work creatively to think about how various acts of sexuality cannot purposely be seen in the record, and remember that invisibility does not indicate absence. Both Walker and Jones have exquisitely imagined the historical conditions, settings, and scenes where that sexuality could have surfaced. Historians, in turn, can lean on their work to rethink how they describe the plantation South and the life within it.
Traditionally, historians considered it their responsibility to document the past, but Walker and Jones as well as Morrison and Alexander have done more than credentialed historians writing nonfiction to bring the history of slavery to the present. Their success can be traced, in part, to both the historical profession’s limited understandings of historical writing and its provincial notion of what constitutes evidence. The profession’s increasingly rigid definition of what constitutes history as a discipline and what counts as evidence has only made the work of academic historians that much more arcane and closed off to the public, inadvertently opening the space for novelists, poets, and artists to write the history of slavery and sexuality.
Yet, the historical profession’s inflexible definition is a relatively new invention and does not reflect the objectives of the founders of the American Historical Association. When history as a field became codified in 1884, a diverse group of “professors, teachers, specialists, and others interested in the advancement of history in this country” met in Saratoga, New York, to form the American Historical Association (AHA), which grew out of the American Social Science Association.18 At the time, history ranged from mere curiosity in the past to collecting various facts and objects to reading, writing, and teaching history. Within five years, the U.S. Congress recognized the importance of this dilettante enterprise and established a charter that incorporated the American Historical Association as a corporate body. At the time, the AHA consisted of six men who were charged with the duty to promote, collect, and preserve “the interest of American history, and of history in America.”19
Over the last century, due to the influence of German scholars who emphasized the importance of empirical thinking in the writing of history, the practice of history in the United States developed into more of a social science than a self-made enterprise of collecting and writing about the past.20 Historians, in turn, have become much more rigid and scientific in their assessment of the past. They must combine deep archival research with a systematic survey of the historiography in order to make the most minor points about love and physical intimacy. This methodology narrowed the practice of history to namely those who have earned doctorates (today, few with master’s degrees continue to write and publish in a way that was more common less than half a century ago).
Due to the increasing professionalization of the historian’s craft and the development of more inflexible methods in writing about the past, the recognition of novelists and artists as co-collaborators in the practice of history is unlikely. Yet, according to the founding mission of the AHA, there is no reason why artists and writers like Kara Walker, Edward Jones, Toni Morrison, and Elizabeth Alexander could not shape the historian’s craft. The founding mission of the AHA seems amenable to literary and visual artists’ commitment to the past.
When Congress sanctioned the founding of the aha, it likely did not anticipate that the historical profession would evolve to such a state that it would remain locked off from the public, producing work that only appeared in academic journals or in inaccessible scholarly monographs. It’s unlikely that Congress created a federal charter just for six dilettantes. Instead, it codified the AHA because it probably understood that the association would have a broader agenda that would engage a broader public. But historians have become too incestuously concerned only with what others who share their scholarly research interests think. As historians have been devoting all their talents and energies to fighting off other card-carrying members of the aha, writers and artists have taken over as narrators of the past.
Novelists, poets, and artists engage the past by telling stories. They do not get lost in the minutia or the historiographical quibble; instead, they remain committed to making history legible. Historian Jill Lepore incisively charts when historians stopped telling stories and started to producing more scientific studies of the past. “Beginning in the 1920s, and intensifying in the post-Sputnik era,” she writes, “a number of American and European professional historians began to insist they could and should investigate ‘structures,’ not events, by employing scientific methods.” Lepore further argues that, to scientize history, “they quantified it . . . they used calculators. They made graphs. Their journal articles read like lab reports.”21
The scientific turn engendered deep archival challenges for all historians, but particularly for scholars of sexuality and slavery due to the limitations of the archives and the paucity of sources. Historians of slavery and sexuality lack the raw data to track fecundity rates or to empirically analyze the raping of enslaved women across the antebellum South or to investigate intimacy and romance. When the historical profession made the scientific turn in the twentieth century, political and economic history dominated the historiography and the archive cohered with that historiographical vision. Political historians could count votes, measure voting districts, track an ideological movement from one region to the next, and obtain biographical information about leaders and membership, among other efforts to capture material. Similarly, the archive offered economic historians with financial sources from banks, plantation records, and notes from corporations that could be quantified, distilled, and inserted into scientific models of analysis.
As these changes were taking place in the 1960s, the historiography on slavery was rapidly growing, and the history of sexuality had just begun to emerge. Pioneering historians of slavery had to first counter the widespread racism that defined the traditional historiography on enslavement. They had to work against both the historical racism that characterized enslaved people in the sources as indolent and inferior and the contemporary racism that neglected enslaved people as historical actors.22 They then needed to work against the logic of the archives in order to even find details about slavery, and they finally had to convince the academy that the history of slavery demanded to be studied on its own terms, not simply as a footnote in histories of the South. Some scholars cast their alliance with the burgeoning rise of social historians, who wrote history from the “bottom up.” Similar to social historians’ commitment to documenting the experience of women, laborers, and other ethnic minorities, historians of slavery validated researching and writing about enslaved people. Concurrently, the influence of Marxist theories on scholarship throughout the academy led historians of slavery to move away from the narrative urge to tell stories about slavery and instead compelled them to analyze larger power structures that undergirded the institution of slavery.23
Among the many books published on slavery is Time on the Cross, Stanley L. Engerman and Robert William Fogel’s widely controversial study that drew on the scientific turn that had begun to dominate historical scholarship. The authors measured, quantified, and crunched enslaved people’s lives into a digestible table of numbers. By drawing on clinometric methods, they argued that enslaved people were more productive before the Civil War and possessed better medical care, living conditions, and food than after the war. While historians later discredited their findings by arguing that their calculations were incomplete and their evidence was not carefully analyzed, their approach to studying slavery along empirical and quantitative lines remains influential.
Despite this rebuttal, contemporary historians continue to value studies that provide statistical analyses over those that are more interpretative or even anecdotal; they continue to denigrate studies that do not offer a clear set of numbers—which can range from the number of enslaved people on a particular plantation to the number that ran away to the number that died of a specific illness. Most historians today do not feel comfortable with an assertion about slavery unless it can be supported with some type of empirical or statistical proof. Each time that historians call for more numbers, more data sets, and more quantification, they unwittingly reify Fogel and Engerman’s broader intentions and, in turn, move the field further away from telling history as a story.24
The problems with an empirical or scientific model in the study of slavery and sexuality are many. First, historians working in this field are often dealing with scraps of evidence. References to sexuality in the historical record often appear as clues, afterthoughts, and ellipses, which do not yield the kind of data that can be marshaled into a scientific model.
Second, when historians do—with herculean might—manage to unearth evidence of enslaved women discussing rape, intimacy, or motherhood, these cases accumulate only to what a skeptical critic would define as a rather small number. Finding a few cases of women, who for example ran away from slavery for love may only produce a relatively few number of cases.25 From the vantage point of scholars of sexuality, the existence of this evidence that centers intimacy as a cause for action matters, but to historians who often count laborers or voters, a few cases may appear inconsequential. Yet, as historian Jessica Millward poignantly explains, “any interpretation of slavery that omits love . . . may misrepresent the motivations of enslaved women who pursued freedom for themselves, for their kin, and ultimately for their descendents.”26
Third, historians of sexuality and slavery’s questions push against the archival grain; questions that historians of labor and even politics pose seem to be in a more fluent dialogue with the archive than those that historians of sexuality raise. In other words, planters cared about labor, and they wrote about it; they cared about the southern economy and wrote about that, too. Therefore, when contemporary historians conduct research on labor or the economy, the archive, for all intents and purposes, has been organized and set up to answer those questions. Archivists also valued preserving accounting books, ledgers, and other documents relating to the circulation of capital. Historians of sexuality work against the archival grain in this respect: planters did not value, let alone understand, sexuality in the same way that contemporary historians do. Historians of sexuality and slavery begin their research by working with a vocabulary that planters and record keepers did not follow.27 This is not to say that research in sexuality and slavery is impossible; it is simply to posit that the scientific model that most historians value as the litmus test to write history does not easily translate to the history of sexuality and slavery as it does for other subfields within the discipline.
Historians thus can learn more from the arts than the sciences. They could take more risks and develop better interpretations. The efforts to scientize history have discouraged interpretation and a healthy discourse of disagreement by deferring to empiricism. This does not mean that they should abandon the time-honored tradition of evidence, but they ought to rethink the use of evidence—not as a tool that could be counted and quantified and then added to a footnote but rather as an artifact that requires a closer inspection, a deeper meditation, with the hope that the document can generate more questions, introduce new perspectives, and open new paths of inquiry.28 While some historians indeed treat sources in this fashion, many historians have been trained to be more scientific than interpretive and to file sources into a footnote rather than to interpret them rigorously and imaginatively.
What if, instead, historians held the source in their hands not as a scientist but instead as an artist? Handling the source in this way does not mean one should not be analytical or critical, it simply means analyzing the document for all its potential interpretive value. Elizabeth Alexander and Toni Morrison, for example, built full narratives with only fragments of evidence. While certainly much of their work was fictionalized, the contours of it remained tethered to the periods in which they wrote, and they both interpreted the evidence in multiple ways that expanded the history of enslavement.29 Even for empirical sources, to understand these quantities or to visualize these amounts requires an imagination—the talents of storytellers, artists, and poets to provide the vocabulary to summon images that could connote and explain these numbers. Toni Morrison and Kara Walker likely do not count, measure, or quantify the facts of slavery in these works, but they produced a language that can illustrate these statistics, and make them known to audiences in a way that connects them more intimately to the meaning of enslavement.
In sum, writing the history of sexuality and slavery calls for an engagement with the archive and the current practice of historical scholarship. As it stands now, the study of sexuality and slavery will be continually marginalized if the dominant measures of historical scholarship remain in tact. Decades ago, racism, sexism, and other prejudices caused scholars to neglect exploring enslaved women’s sexuality. Today, those issues, while still endemic, are not the only cause for the disavowal of the history of sexuality and slavery from being told; it also results from larger, more entrenched problems regarding historical practice, the notion of evidence, and the continual support of scientific methods as the most valuable tools in the writing of history. Rethinking these practices will not only usher sexuality and slavery into the dominant discourse in the history of the Americas, but it will also engender a broader reconceptualization of how all historians pursue their research and writing.
Those working in the literary arts have demonstrated the need to consider sexuality as a fundamental component in the history of slavery, and they have also modeled how historians can better develop their voice, use their imagination, and reach broader audiences in the study of the past. If historians do not rethink their craft, the more likely it is that those in the arts will become the official narrators of the past.
1. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1990); Jim Downs, “With Only a Trace: Same Sex Sexual Desire and Violence on Slave Plantations,” in Connexions: Histories of Race and Sex in North America, ed. Jennifer Brier, Jim Downs, and Jennifer L. Morgan (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 15–37.
2. Ann Stoler offers an example. See Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009).
3. Marisa Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 6.
4. Gender historians have been most apt at avoiding these pitfalls, in part because their work inherently pushes against both the logic of the records and the values and concerns of planters. See, for example, Daina Ramey Berry, Swing the Sickle for the Harvest Is Ripe: Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007); Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2004); Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
5. See Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977); Stoler, Along the Archival Grain; Nell Irvin Painter, “Soul Murder and Slavery: Toward a Fully Loaded Cost Accounting,” in Southern History across the Color Line (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 15–39; Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 1–14; Jennifer L. Morgan, “Why I Write,” in Why We Write: The Politics and Practice of Writing for Social Change, ed. Jim Downs (New York: Routledge, 2006), 39–48.
6. Here I draw on Tera W. Hunter’s incisive analysis of dance in post-Reconstruction Atlanta as a backlash against the regimented movement that domestic service demanded. Tera W. Hunter, To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997).
7. Elizabeth Alexander, keynote address, “VENUS 2010: They Called Her ‘Hottentot,’ An Interdisciplinary Symposium on Sarah Baartman,” New York University, March 27, 2010.
8. Darlene Clark Hine, “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women: Thoughts on the Culture of Dissemblance,” in Hine Sight: Black Women and the Re-Construction of American History, ed. Darlene Clark Hine (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1994), 37.
9. Farah Jasmine Griffin, Beloved Sisters and Loving Friends: Letters from Rebecca Primus of Royal Oak, Maryland and Addie Brown of Hartford, Connecticut, 1854–1868 (New York: Knopf, 1999).
10. Drawing on cultural theory and archival research, Marisa Fuentes and Aisha K. Finch each offer new ways of engaging these issues. See Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives. Also see Aisha K. Finch, Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841–1844 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
11. I develop this point further about enslaved women resisting being found in the archives in Jim Downs, “Harriet and Louisa Jacobs: ‘Not without My Daughter,’” in North Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times, ed. Michele Gillespie and Sally G. Mc-Millen (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014), 117–32.
12. Newer scholarship aims to do this. See, for example, Deirdre Cooper Owens, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017); Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007); Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts”; Carla Peterson, Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2012).
13. Historians have since written about Garner. See, for example, Nikki M. Taylor, Driven Toward Madness: The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner and Tragedy on the Ohio (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2016).
14. Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory,” in Inventing the Truth: the Art and Craft of Memoir, ed. William Zinsser (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), 92.
15. Thomas A. Foster, “The Sexual Abuse of Black Men under American Slavery,” in “Intersections of Race and Sexuality,” special issue, Journal of the History of Sexuality 20, no. 3 (2011): 445–64. Also see Downs, “With Only a Trace.”
16. In Out of the House of Bondage, Glymph offers one of the best detailed descriptions of the everyday forms of violence, intimidation, and abuse that enslaved people endured. Yet, despite Glymph’s herculean excavation, her book is not the end of the conversation but perhaps the beginning of it. Morrison’s novel imagines the multiple ways that violence could have unfolded.
17. Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017). Sowande N. Mustakeem also captures the intimate lives of enslaved people in her gendered analysis of the Middle Passage. See Mustakeem, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2016).
19. “Brief History of the AHA,” American Historical Association, https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/brief-history-of-the-aha, accessed December 7, 2017.
20. Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
21. Jill Lepore, “Writing for History: Journalism, History and the Revival of the Narrative,” in Why We Write: The Politics and Practice of Writing for Social Change, ed. Jim Downs (New York: Routledge, 2006), 85.
22. For more on how the present defined the past and the broader politics of writing social history, see Eric Foner, Who Owns History: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (New York: Hill & Wang, 2003).
23. On the influence of Marxism, see Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon, 1974). On the influence of social history of the so-called history methods, see Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 (New York: Pantheon, 1976).
24. Other fields have pushed for empirical analysis, which has resulted in only more confusion, as those counting often employ problematic methods. In the early American field, historians debate the number of Native Americans who died at the moment of contact. Henry Dobyns’s scientific approach has proven to be flawed. Similarly, in the nineteenth century, historians continue to count the number of people who died during the Civil War, but the categories they employ to make this assessment reflect nineteenth-century models of analysis and omit the experiences of black people. Henry Dobyns, Their Number Become Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983); David Henige, Numbers from Nowhere: The American Indian Contact Population Debate (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998); J. David Hacker, “A Census-Based Count of the Civil War Dead,” Civil War History 57, no. 4 (2011): 307–48. James Downs, “Color Blindness in the Demographic Death Toll of the Civil War,” April 13, 2012, OUPblog, https://blog.oup.com/2012/04/black-white-demographic-death-toll-civil-war/, accessed August 10, 2013.
25. Betty DeRamus, Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad (New York: Atria, 2005). Also see Tera Hunter, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2017).
26. Jessica Millward, Finding Charity’s Folk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015), 74.
27. Further, many details about the inner lives of people from the past have been discarded and thrown into the trash, as their descendants wanted to either conceal a relationship or did not recognize it as important. In Martha Hodes’s nonfiction study, The Sea Captain’s Wife, about an interracial relationship between a New England white woman and a West Indian black man, major chunks are missing from a trail of correspondence that likely revealed more about this relationship. While Hodes does not directly surmise why this void exists, one might speculate that a family member with political ambitions who was one of the last to own the letters, may have purposely destroyed the missing letters. See Martha Hodes, The Sea Captain’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007).
28. For more on the changing notion of evidence, see Marc Bloch, Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It (New York: Vintage, 1964).
29. Microhistory, narrative history, and cultural history have all in some way adhered to various iterations of these ideas, which likely became the first places where my thinking on this topic originated. See Hodes, Sea Captain’s Wife; John Demos, The Unre-deemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (New York: Knopf, 1984); Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, transl. John Tedeschi and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).