"Miscegenation": Making Race in America

"Miscegenation": Making Race in America

"Miscegenation": Making Race in America

"Miscegenation": Making Race in America

Synopsis

In the years between the Revolution and the Civil War, as the question of black political rights was debated more and more vociferously, descriptions and pictorial representations of whites coupling with blacks proliferated in the North. Novelists, short-story writers, poets, journalists, and political cartoonists imagined that political equality would be followed by widespread inter-racial sex and marriage. Legally possible yet socially unthinkable, this "amalgamation" of the races would manifest itself in the perverse union of "whites" with "blacks," the latter figured as ugly, animal-like, and foul-smelling. In Miscegenation, Elise Lemire reads these literary and visual depictions for what they can tell us about the connection between the racialization of desire and the social construction of race.

Excerpt

Between the Revolution and the Civil War, descriptions and pictorial representations of whites coupling with blacks proliferated in the North. Novelists, short-story writers, poets, journalists, and political cartoonists, among others, devoted a vast amount of energy to depicting blacks and whites dancing, flirting, kissing, and marrying one another. Invariably, the blacks are portrayed as ugly, animal-like, and foul-smelling. This makes them easily distinguishable from the whites, who are usually portrayed as physically attractive. in most cases, the whites portrayed coupling inter-racially are abolitionists. in all cases, the depictions appear when and where the question of black political rights was debated most vociferously. in this book, I read depictions of interracial couplings created in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts during three distinct waves of hysteria about inter-racial sex and marriage between 1776 and 1865. I focus on what these depictions can tell us about both the racialization of sexual desire in the wake of attempts to expand the purview of liberal democracy and the concomitant invention of “race” as a set of traits that are more or less sexually desirable.

The first widespread discussion in American history about inter-racial sex was sparked by a report published in Richmond, Virginia, in 1802, that the author of the Declaration of Independence was having sex with one of his slave women. Thomas Jefferson’s political opponents, the Federalists, responded with numerous poems in Philadelphia about the affair that linked it to Jefferson’s embrace of liberal democracy. the Federalists argued that Jefferson’s personal behavior was a corollary to his political beliefs and that those like Jefferson who viewed all men as equal would foolishly find black women attractive sexual partners.

In the 1830s, after the immediate abolitionists began to organize widely and effectively, there was a much bigger explosion of anxiety about black political rights, expressed in the form of far more graphic images and descriptions of inter-racial sex. Detailed rumors abounded in the anti-abolitionist . . .

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