Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History

Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History

Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History

Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History

Synopsis

"A thought-provoking piece of scholarship that sheds light on the complex history of slave breeding in America. Smithers's book will be hotly debated in the profession."--Michael L. Ondaatje, University of Newcastle, Australia

"As engaging as it is compelling, bold, and captivating, Smithers's Slave Breeding pulls the reader through its pages with heart-wrenching exposition of the dark and ugly chapter of what could rightly be characterized as the sexual zeitgeist of American national history."--Tunde Adeleke, Iowa State University

For over two centuries, the topic of slave breeding has occupied a controversial place in the master narrative of American history. From nineteenth-century abolitionists to twentieth-century filmmakers and artists, Americans have debated whether slave owners deliberately and coercively manipulated the sexual practices and marital status of enslaved African Americans to reproduce new generations of slaves for profit.

In this bold and provocative book, historian Gregory Smithers investigates how African Americans have narrated, remembered, and represented slave-breeding practices. He argues that while social and economic historians have downplayed the significance of slave breeding, African Americans have refused to forget the violence and sexual coercion associated with the plantation South. By placing African American histories and memories of slave breeding within the larger context of America's history of racial and gender discrimination, Smithers sheds much-needed light on African American collective memory, racialized perceptions of fragile black families, and the long history of racially motivated violence against men, women, and children of color.

Excerpt

“My marster … started out wid two ’omen slaves and raised 300 slaves.” So testified John Smith, a 108-year-old former slave who was interviewed by a Works Project Administration employee in the late 1930s. Smith’s testimony was as sensational as it was disturbing. He recalled that “Short Peggy” and “Long Peggy,” the two women his master “started out wid,” were prized for their fecundity. The sexual exploitation that Smith claimed these women experienced led to the reproduction of slaves who enriched Smith’s master through their labor or sale. But Smith also insisted that the exploitation of enslaved women like “Short Peggy” and “Long Peggy” resulted in the master appointing them to positions of authority among fellow slaves. Smith explained, “Long Peggy, a black ’oman, wuz boss ob de plantation. Marster freed her atter she had 25 chilluns. Just think o’ dat,” Smith concluded, “raisin’ 300 slaves wid two ’omen. It sho’ is de truf, do’ [though].”

Smith’s memories of slave “raisin’” served to highlight the sexual exploitation that formed a critical part of many former slaves’ memories of nineteenth-century bondage in the American South. Slave breeding, as coercive, often violent, reproductive practices were known among the enslaved and their descendants, structured African American historical, ethnographic, and cultural understandings of black life in the United States. As former slaves like Smith recalled during the depths of the Great Depression, slave masters selected women who were purported to be particularly fecund. These women were to reproduce, or breed, future generations of slaves. As Smith remembered, “Long Peggy’s” status among her fellow slaves rested on her master’s assessment of her as an efficient breeder of slaves. Indeed, her master predicated her future freedom on the birth and survival of her twenty-fifth child. Perhaps this was why Smith “never married befo’ de war,” aware, as many slaves were, that a history of violent sexual exploitation meant that “Nobody married on marster’s plantation.”

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