Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

What's Sex Got to Do with It? Race, Power, Citizenship, and "Intermediate Identities" in the Post-Emancipation United States

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

What's Sex Got to Do with It? Race, Power, Citizenship, and "Intermediate Identities" in the Post-Emancipation United States

Article excerpt

In the past two decades, U.S. audiences have been recipients of numerous popular accounts that seem to show the role of sexuality in destabilizing or confounding expectations of racial difference. For every highly public case, from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings to revelations about South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, there have been scores of memoirs or loosely fictionalized tales of common everyday folks whose lives were reshaped or upended by instances of interracial sexuality, mixed identity, or rediscovered interracial family heritage. (1) Even historians have gotten into the act, combing the archives for long-buried details of public or private scandals. (2) While these stories suggest that our contemporary propensity to "see race" runs counter to the historical evidence, they also in effect repackage common knowledge from earlier periods as expose or revelation. Missing, in most of these accounts, are the ways stories of racial uncertainty actually challenge the stratified political and cultural order that characterized the United States at the turn of the 20th century. Missing, in other words, are the historical vicissitudes of citizenship and its exclusions, as shaped by interlocking histories of race and sex.

This essay examines the post-emancipation United States, a moment of stark conflict between the commonly acknowledged history of interracial sex and new efforts to establish a fiction of racial difference. The stakes for the outcome of post-Civil War citizenship were high. (3) For almost 250 years of slavery, racial difference was driven and determined primarily by status, rather than visible distinction or legal definition. There were vested interests in keeping race vague in the service of reproducing the slave regime. Emancipation and the 13th Amendment overturned distinctions of "condition," and the political expansiveness of the Reconstruction Amendments launched a pitched battle between advocates of full, non-racial citizenship and those who sought to recreate slavery's color line by denying citizenship rights on racial grounds.

New legal definitions of race, in connection with the regulation of reproductive sexuality, were key elements, not just sideline issues, in efforts to undermine the postwar politics of non-racial citizenship. For southern white traditionalists, laws that carved out a sphere of racial distinction were the best hope of maintaining the social and political divisions that slavery could no longer enforce. Racial certainty had to be forged from a landscape of indeterminacy, and the immediate postwar emphasis on preventing "miscegenation" and/or interracial marriage played a pivotal role in that project.

On the other side of the debate, activists and intellectuals committed to non-racial citizenship countered by asserting the long history of interracial sex, most poignantly the history of coerced sexual exploitation under the slave regime. Dramatizing the impossibility of racial purity, they resisted efforts to write into law social or civil distinctions based on race. The special difficulty they faced was to transcend racial categories on behalf of citizenship rights, while at the same time building a constituency that was willing and prepared to challenge political assaults and acts of terror that were highly racialized.

Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper, and T. Thomas Fortune were among the best-known commentators on these topics, but they also represented a deep, broad-based, and multifaceted repository of common knowledge about interracial sex and intermediate racial identities that helped fuel political demands for non-racial citizenship. Indeed, some of the most profound contributions came from those whose names are less well-known, such as Richmond's John Mitchell, Jr., who demonstrate the extent to which the analysis that Douglass, Wells, Mitchell, and others publicized was based on knowledge with profound historical roots among the formerly enslaved, free people of color, white abolitionists, and anti-slavery radicals. …

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