Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

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

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

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

Article excerpt

Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History. By Gregory D. Smithers. (Gainesville and other cities: University Press of Florida, 2012. Pp. xii, 257. $74.95, ISBN 978-0-8130-4238-1.)

This book makes the compelling case that historians have incorrectly downplayed the role of slave breeding within the peculiar institution. This error is the result of several issues, the most important being how to define slave breeding. For most readers slave breeding likely conjures up images of plantations where people were the main crop and masters forcibly bred black men and women like livestock. Author Gregory D. Smithers makes it clear that while this practice did occur, it is not a sufficient definition. Slave breeding, he argues, should really apply to all acts by masters to control the sex lives and reproductive activities of the enslaved, including forced marriages, rape, and the targeted sale of family members. Smithers finds his evidence in the "'vernacular' history of slavery," that is, in the oral narratives and creative arts performed by slaves and their descendants, rather than in plantation records, slave sales, and the diaries of slave owners, which have traditionally been used by historians of the slave South (p. 6).

As the book makes clear, the interstate slave trade and slavery's westward expansion, while usually discussed as economic responses to the end of the Atlantic slave trade and the shift to cotton production, were also a result and function of the slave-breeding practices that nineteenth-century abolitionists and plantation owners spent much of their time writing and arguing about. Breeding was not only about economics but also about asserting the power and dominance of whites over African Americans. Whites continued to intervene in the sex lives of blacks after passage of the Thirteenth Amendment; the legacy of slave breeding was transformed both by using supposed sexual assaults as justification for lynching black men and by the very real rapes of black women by white men who viewed their actions not only as legal but also as part of white male privilege. …

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