Wounds of Returning: Race, Memory, and Property on the Postslavery Plantation

By Jessica Adams | Go to book overview

1. Sex and Segregation

Ownership is the most intimate relation one can have to objects.
Walter Benjamin

“New Orleans is paved with Negro skulls,” said one American author. He
would have done better to say that New Orleans is paved with beautiful
women, although this would not disqualify the first observation.
Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein

It was the end of the nineteenth century. Consumer culture was emerging as a force to be reckoned with in the United States, and the mechanisms of production were poised to outstrip demand, with advertising about to step into the breach to inspire fresh desires.1 Segregation was congealing as social practice even as everyday life was inevitably more complicated than an overview of the laws would suggest. And the southern plantation was being renewed as myth. White culture invoked evidence of the Old South as a bulwark against encroachments of blackness into post-Emancipation “mainstream” culture—encroachments that, in fact, white culture found very seductive. Women of color were still serving as cooks, nannies, and maids in white southern households, and white men still wanted to sleep with them. In nineteenth-century Louisiana, the taboo against sex and intimate relationships across the color line grew stronger as segregation grew more entrenched.2 The social difficulties involved in white men’s cross-racial desires could be managed, and the fulfillment of these desires facilitated, however, through their confinement to certain spaces and geographies: brothels and, later, the officially sanctioned environment of Storyville, the red-light district for which New Orleans would become famous.

-21-

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