"The Relics of Slavery": Interracial Sex and Manumission in the American South

Article excerpt

As an undergraduate student in Professor Peggy Pascoe's course on women's history in spring 1994 at the University of Utah, I learned the foundational lesson that women are the architects of their own history and that we, as historians, have a responsibility to push the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is natural. As one of the only women faculty members in the Department of History, Dr. Pascoe embodied her message to her students that women should excel not only in the making of history but in the telling of that history as well. Therefore, this essay honors the contributions Dr. Pascoe has made as a colleague and mentor as it explores What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America. (1)

In What Comes Naturally Pascoe continues her rigorous commitment to exposing the complex interaction between gendered assumptions about private space and the manifestations of power in the public domain. Pascoe effectively demonstrates that laws governing interracial relationships served as mechanisms to determine and uphold notions of "difference." (2) Indeed, her discussion of the laws governing sexual relationships between white men and black women in the slave South underscores this point. White men could legally marry white women and at the same time force their sexual desires upon enslaved women. While the laws of slaveholding supported violations by slave owners against enslaved women, legislation also erased evidence of bondwomen's intimate relationships with enslaved men. As human property, enslaved women and men were legally "incapable of civil marriage." (3) As these examples and Pascoe's research suggest, definitions of marriage and family were inherently inequitable during much of the history of the United States. Moreover, trumpeting the end of antimiscegenation legislation during the twentieth century without acknowledging the complicated legacy of race and sex during the nineteenth century tells a partial history. One cannot celebrate the triumph of Loving v. Virginia without understanding the complicated and at times traumatic history of interracial relationships in the American South. Taking a cue from Pascoe, this paper focuses on the relationship between interracial sex and slave manumissions in the American South. Specifically, this article focuses on manumission from the perspectives of slaveholders and of the women whom they held in bondage. I argue that laws governing manumission not only upheld pejorative notions of difference but also underscored the complex nature of choice and compliance within the Southern slave system.

Enslaved women in the American South lived in constant fear of sexual exploitation by both white and black men. Bondpeople recounted the violence inflicted upon enslaved women in printed biographies and oral interviews. Frederick Douglass depicted the violent whipping of his aunt Hester. (4) Harriet Jacobs detailed the psychological violence she endured from her owner, who often whispered his "indelicate" desires in her ear. (5) Texas slave Rose Williams was confused at learning she had been paired with fellow bondman Rufus in order to make "portly children" for her owner. (6) Williams did not understand that "marriage" for enslaved people often meant breeding more bondpeople for the ruling class, regardless of the feelings of the partners for each other. (7) Williams strongly objected to the sexual terrain of her marriage. When Rufus first attempted to bed her, she stabbed him with the fire poker. (8) This scene of sexual aggression and defiant resistance was replayed more than once during the course of Rose's arranged marriage to Rufus. Historian Nell Painter views these types of physical and psychological sexualized violence as contributing to the "soul murder" of African Americans. (9) Likewise, scholars of African American studies such as Deborah Walker King argue that sexual violence during slavery acted as one of the key imprints in the African American "culture of pain. …