Power, Perception, and Interracial Sex: Former Slaves Recall a Multiracial South

Article excerpt

MY FATHER'S NAME WUZ ROBERT STEWART. HE WUZ A WHITE MAN. My mother wuz named Ann. She wuz part Indian. Her father wuz a Choctaw Indian and her mother a black woman--a slave." (1) This is how Charley Stewart, a former slave, described his lineage. Stewart was not alone in claiming parents and grandparents of mixed racial heritage; there are many references to mixed-race ancestry in the interviews of ex-slaves collected by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. The interviews also contain candid observations about interracial unions in general and about how people of African descent understood relationships that crossed social, legal, and racial boundaries. The former slaves described various combinations of racial unions and their ramifications for the participants, families, fellow slaves, and offspring. This article will consider the words of ex-slaves, using the WPA collection and a selection of biographies and autobiographies of slaves, and will re-create descriptions of and attitudes toward interracial sex during the nineteenth century. (2) These accounts indicate that their views on interracial sex varied according to the race of the participants because power with regard to sexual consent also varied according to race.

The reminiscences of former slaves reveal that they had been aware of the interracial relationships around them and their heritage as the progeny of these relationships. (3) Though both types of relationships--between black slaves and whites and between black slaves and American Indians--traversed racial boundaries, the ex-slaves interpreted the power dynamics within these unions differently. In the eyes of many ex-slaves, relationships between whites and blacks were usually matters of forced sex between the powerful and the powerless: "[I]mmoral white men have, by force, injected their blood into our veins...." (4) From the perspective of former slaves, relationships between blacks and American Indians, in contrast, were apparently more equal because both groups were stigmatized by the dominant white culture. Thus, the ex-slaves understood sexual relationships between blacks and whites as coercive and unions between blacks and American Indians as consensual. Some of these accounts also discuss the thoughts and feelings of the offspring of interracial unions and the slave community's response to mixed-race progeny. The narratives illustrate that within the slave community interracial sex provoked a range of emotions from anger and fear of racial degradation to acceptance and pride, depending on how slaves perceived the context of such unions.

This examination of interracial sex in the nineteenth-century South deliberately focuses on the slaves' voices. Other historians of this region and era usually touch on the topic only briefly and rely heavily on sources produced by whites, such as travel diaries, personal papers, plantation records, and legal documents. (5) Consequently, the behaviors, thoughts, and words of black participants are mediated through white informants. Or the black perspective in such relationships is lost altogether; black people become silent figures instead of actors in their own right. Furthermore, scholars have questioned the accuracy of the WPA slave narratives and of biographies of and autobiographies by slaves. Despite questions of emphasis and accuracy, however, these sources provide direct links to the inner lives of slaves. (6) Many of the ex-slaves spoke quite passionately about the pain of racial amalgamation in the antebellum South. (7) In autobiographies and biographies, former slaves recounted their own histories as the progeny of interracial liaisons and gave their opinions of such relationships. Moreover, former slaves did not talk about interracial sex only in terms of black and white participants; they also mentioned American Indian relatives and ancestors--in other words, progeny of and participants in another category of interracial sex. …