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Telling the Stories
A history of sex between white women and black men in the nineteenth-century American South is also the history of a powerful category of illicit sex in the United States. When in 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws prohibiting marriage between people of different races were unconstitutional, sixteen states had such laws. Decades later, the legacy of this history remains evident, notably in the modern-day annals of white violence, in both North and South. Researching this book, I never found whole stories in the archives. Rather, I found shards and bones, parts of conversations, and laconic responses to frightening questions. Sometimes I wondered, why not write a work of fiction on the same subject? Why was I compelled to write history—to tell not just a story, but a true story? In fiction I could have dispensed with documentation and freely invoked imagination. But as I continued my research, I understood why I could not have undertaken this book as a work of fiction. As I began to write the history of sex between white women and black men in the nineteenth-century South, I realized I had found stories that did not conform to what I had anticipated. This was a narrative that had to be told first as history.
The Historical Development of White Anxiety
White anxiety about sex between white women and black men is not a timeless phenomenon in the United States; rather, it is a historical development that evolved out of particular social, political, and economic circumstances. Scholars agree that the most virulent racist ideology about black male sexuality emerged in the decades that followed the Civil War, and some historians have recognized that the lynching of black men for the alleged rape of white women was comparatively rare in the South under slavery. This book explains how whites in the antebellum South responded when confronted with sexual liaisons between white women and black men, and how and why those responses changed with emancipation. Under the institution of racial slavery, I argue, white Southerners could respond to sexual liaisons between white women and black men with a measure of toleration; only with black freedom did such liaisons begin to provoke a near-inevitable alarm, one that culminated in the tremendous white violence of the 1890s and after. Two of the nation's foremost black activists, Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, called attention to this transition as it occurred before their eyes in the post-Civil War South. Both observed that the accusation of rape of white women by black men was relatively uncommon in the slave South, as well as during the Civil War, when white men were absent from Southern homes. "The crime to which the Negro is now said to be so generally and specially addicted," stated Douglass at the height of the lynching era in 1892, "is one of which he has been heretofore, seldom accused or supposed to be guilty." During slavery and in wartime, Douglass noted, black men were "seldom or never ... accused of the atrocious crime of feloniously assaulting white women." Or as Wells told her listeners that same year: "The world knows that the crime of rape was unknown during four years of civil war, when the white women of the South were at the mercy of the race which is all at once charged with being a bestial one." Although white people in North America had professed beliefs about the greater sexual ardor of black men ever since the colonial era, and although black men had been accused and convicted of raping white women within the racist legal system of the slave South, Wells and Douglass were nonetheless correct that those ideas and inequities did not include relentless, deadly violence toward black men before the late nineteenth century.
Sanctions against sex between white women and black men in the slave South must have accounted in part for the infrequency of such liaisons; yet my concern is not to point out that sex between white women and black men occurred with a particular frequency. Rather, my concern is to demonstrate that when such liaisons did occur, white Southerners could react in a way that complicates modern assumptions. Statistics are difficult to gather in part because sex between white women and black men did not enter the historical record under a uniform heading. Antebellum legal records do not employ any one word to define this particular transgression. The word miscegenation was invented during the Civil War, and until then liaisons between white women and black men went on record as a result of other crimes or legal disputes. Given the laws against marriage between blacks and whites, such liaisons could be prosecuted as fornication or adultery; if children were produced, the protagonists would be guilty of bastardy as well. Yet white women and white men were also routinely charged with fornication, adultery, and bastardy, demonstrating that Southern authorities did not simply target liaisons between white women and black men under the name of other sex crimes. A liaison between a white woman and a black man could also be revealed through rape charges, further clouding the possibility of straightforward statistics. Other liaisons entered the record under civil and criminal categories unrelated to sex crimes, including illegal enslavement, contested inheritance, libel, slander, and murder. Moreover, testimony in all such cases often made it clear that white neighbors had known about a liaison before (and often years before) it was revealed in a legal document, and therefore in the public record, for some other reason. For every liaison that unfolded in a county courtroom, there must have been others—it is impossible to say how many—in the antebellum South that never entered the record.
White responses to liaisons between white women and black men differed markedly from the permissiveness displayed for sex between white men and black women, which most often involved the rape of female slaves by masters or other white men. Antebellum Southerners and their historians have written about the tacit acceptance on the part of whites for this phenomenon of slave society. Fugitive slave Harriet Jacobs told readers of her 1861 memoir that "if the white parent is the father, instead of the mother, the offspring are unblushingly reared for the market." Plantation mistress Mary Chesnut wrote in a now-famous diary entry of 1861 that "every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody's household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds."
That sex between white women and black men did not necessarily provoke white violence by no means implies its sanguine acceptance. There is a crucial nuance of language here: tolerance implies a liberal spirit toward those of a different mind; toleration by contrast suggests a measure of forbearance for that which is not approved. I use the term toleration to describe, in part, white attitudes toward sexual liaisons between white women and black men in the slave South. Yet the phenomenon of toleration, no matter how carefully defined, cannot convey the complexity of responses: white neighbors judged harshly, gossiped viciously, and could completely ostracize the transgressing white woman. As for the black man, it was the lack of sure violence that is historically significant, and this is difficult interpretive terrain: the evidence yielded striking absences, and absences are harder to interpret than their more tangible opposites. If a degree of local indifference is apparent at certain points in the stories that follow, the narratives also demonstrate that white toleration was mediated by limits of both patriarchy and class.
First, male authority and honor in white families and communities was a crucial component of the slave South, and patriarchal patience for illicit sex on the part of white girls and women was not forthcoming under any circumstances. More specifically, Southern lawmakers had written statutes so that sex between white women and black men confounded the system of racial slavery and had entirely different consequences from sex between white men and black women. In the antebellum South, a child's legal status as slave or free followed the mother: if your mother was free, you were free; if your mother was a slave, you were a slave. Sexual liaisons between white women and black men therefore threatened racial slavery in a way that sex between white men and black women did not. When white women had children with black men, two important social categories were eroded: racial categories were eroded because the children would be of mixed European and African ancestry, and categories of slavery and freedom were eroded because free people of African ancestry endangered the equation of blackness and slavery. The possibility of white toleration for sex between white women and black men in the slave South sheds light on patriarchal power within white households and its crucial connections to the institution of racial slavery.
Second, class boundaries played a role in white responses to sexual liaisons between white women and black men. The white population of the antebellum South ranged from wealthy plantation owners who commanded large slave-labor forces to work their substantial landholdings to yeoman farmers who strove for economic self-sufficiency, perhaps assisted by a modicum of slave labor, to poor whites who owned no slaves and little or no land. The economic status of any one family, especially outside the planter classes, might rise or fall over time with, for example, the purchase of a slave or the loss of property to debtors. The upcountry regions of the South were largely (though not exclusively) home to yeoman farmers and poor whites, while in lowcountry, tidewater, and blackbelt areas, small slaveholders and nonslaveholders coexisted with masters of large plantations. Distinct social tensions governed interactions among white Southerners of different classes. Such struggles can also be found in the stories of white women and black men narrated in these pages. Specifically, dominant ideas about poor white women included convictions about their promiscuity and debauchery that could mitigate blame of a black man. As Nell Irvin Painter points out, "The stereotypes are centuries old and have their origins in European typecasting of both the poor and the black, for sex is the main theme associated with poverty and with blackness." And as Victoria E. Bynum writes, "Poverty defeminized white women much as race defeminized black women." In the dominant visions of the antebellum South, then, black women seduced white men, and poorer white women were capable of seducing black men.
The danger of a liaison across the color line was graver for black men and elite white women because those women were at the center of white Southern ideas about female purity. Legal records concerning sex between white women and black men largely (although not uniformly) relay stories about white women outside the planter classes; it is difficult to know whether this was due to the greater surveillance of planter-class women by their families or whether it reflected the ability of wealthier white women and their families to keep sexual transgressions out of court and therefore out of the historical record. Dominant ideas about the sexuality of black men and white women were closely bound up with ideas about the sexual depravity of black women. All of these ideas were part of a system that ideally would permit white men to control all white women and all black people; the sexual abuse of black women by white men was the most extensive and gruesome component of this system.
Third, the legal status of slave men as the property of white people, and the potential of free black men to become property or to be treated as such meant that white Southerners had a stake in protecting their human chattel from extreme violence or murder. White concerns about the preservation of slave property could therefore check violent reactions to a sexual transgression between a white woman and a black man. The end of slavery also meant the end of property concerns and thus helps to explain the disintegration of restraints and the shift toward extreme white violence in the decades following emancipation. With the demise of slavery as a rough dividing line between black and white, the total separation of black people and white people became essential for whites who hoped to retain supremacy. White ideas about the dangers of black male sexuality were not newly formed after the Civil War, but white virulence reached a greater intensity with the transition from black slavery to black freedom. Beginning in the Reconstruction era, black men were terrorized and often murdered, and white women were subjected to extreme abuse, if they engaged or allegedly engaged in sexual liaisons across the color line. Furthermore, white Southerners explicitly conflated black men's alleged sexual misconduct toward white women with the exercise of their newly won political rights. Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells understood this phenomenon. Douglass directly equated accusations of sexual transgressions against white women with black men's newfound political power. "It is only since the Negro has become a citizen and a voter," he wrote in 1892, "that this charge has been made." Lynching, Wells wrote early in the twentieth century, was "wholly political, its purpose being to suppress the colored vote by intimidation and murder."
Contradictions, Crises, Voices, Language
My purpose here is not to prove the existence of simple white toleration for sex between white women and black men in the antebellum South. Rather, I seek to uncover and explain how some white communities responded when such liaisons came to light and then to explore why, in the decades that followed emancipation, the majority of the white South became enraged about this particular category of illicit sex. Such explanations and explorations require a level of comfort with paradoxes; indeed, all answers to questions about societies that operated under human bondage include paradoxes. In fact, although Southern laws made liaisons between white women and black men dangerous to the institution of racial slavery, there was a contradictory lack of action in the face of such liaisons. In the antebellum South, white women and black men who engaged in illicit sex did not uniformly suffer swift retribution, for under slavery such liaisons did not sufficiently threaten the social and political hierarchy—as they would after emancipation. The roots of this strained toleration lie in two contradictory but coexisting factors: the insignificance of such transgressions in the face of the power of racial slavery versus the explosive nature of those transgressions, also in the face of racial slavery. For whites to refrain from immediate legal action and public violence when confronted with liaisons between white women and black men helped them to mask some of the flaws of the antebellum Southern systems of race and gender.
Excerpted from White Women, Black Men by Martha Hodes. Copyright © 1997 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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