Introduction-Discourses on Race, Sex, and African American Citizenship

By Chateauvert, Melinda | The Journal of African American History, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Introduction-Discourses on Race, Sex, and African American Citizenship


Chateauvert, Melinda, The Journal of African American History


From the mid-19th century and even earlier, African Americans have demanded "first class citizenship," "the full works ... with no reservations ... and nothing less," as black labor leader A. Philip Randolph asserted in 1942. (1) But what exactly is "citizenship?" What rights are conferred by citizenship? What obligations are exacted by citizenship? At the most basic level, citizenship defines a person's relation to the State. When Dred Scott sought to assert his rights as a citizen in 1857, Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney posed the question: "Can a Negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen?" Among those privileges, Taney continued, was the "privilege of suing in a court." In his opinion, African Americans, both free and enslaved, were not citizens. (2) The Civil Rights Act of 1866, the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, and the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, recognized African Americans as citizens, and granted African Americans "civil rights"--that is, the rights to sue in court and to participate in civil affairs on equal terms.

Civil rights in the 19th century were defined in the federal Civil Rights Act of 1866 as the right "to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property." (3) These civil rights are central to the public realm and for economic transactions, but contract and due process rights do not protect privacy, nor do they envision social equality or personal freedom in sexual matters. Without the right to sexual privacy and self-determination, African Americans remained second-class citizens even as black men exercised the vote, bought land, and established families. In the aftermath of Reconstruction, the loss of civil and political rights came after a campaign of terror that used rape and lynching as its weapons. As the essays in this Special Issue of The Journal of African American History show, the continuing vulnerability of African Americans to accusations of sexual crimes or improprieties compromised their citizenship rights.

The five historians whose essays appear in this Special Issue challenge traditional constructions of citizenship through their explorations of gender and sexuality in African American history. Destabilizing the rigid categories of race that were one result of interracial sexual relations is not a new project as we are reminded in Ann S. Holder's important essay, "What's Sex Got to Do With It? Race, Power, Citizenship and 'Intermediate Identities,' in the Post-Emancipation United States." Commentators, including Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper, T. Thomas Fortune, and Richmond, Virginia, editor John Mitchell challenged slavery and segregation by reminding their readers that "racial certainty had to be forged from a landscape of indeterminancy." Deploying community gossip and local traditions about the sexual liaisons of white politicians, Mitchell's Planet undermined their blustering rhetoric of racial purity. In a democracy, citizenship and public service could only be non-racial, Mitchell argued, because all people contributed. Holder also provides a succinct and important chronology that traces the ideological and legislative evolution of prohibitions on interracial sex from colonial times to the 20th century.

Lynn Hudson points out in "Entertaining Citizenship: Masculinity and Minstrelsy in Post-Emancipation San Francisco," even asking for a glass of whiskey in a saloon on San Francisco's Barbary Coast was an assertion of black manhood and citizenship. In public spaces, "arenas which have not traditionally been understood as political," in the streets, at the theater, and at public entertainments, African American men negotiated citizenship against the derogatory images of minstrelsy. …

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