Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History

By Sommerville, Diane Miller | The Journal of Southern History, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History


Sommerville, Diane Miller, The Journal of Southern History


Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History. Edited by Martha Hodes. (New York and London: New York University Press, c. 1999. Pp. xvi, 542. Paper, $24.95, ISBN 0-8147-3557-6; cloth, $75.00, ISBN 0-8147-3556-8.)

In editing this collection, Martha Hodes has performed an invaluable service to those of us in the profession who endeavor to teach what has been the focus of our own scholarship: race and sex. Hodes has marshaled twenty-four engaging essays that--despite traversing time, region, and ethnicity--serve to make two important arguments. First, the volume convincingly demonstrates the futility of latching onto racial categories. These essays collectively defy, subvert, co-opt, and contest placement of historical subjects into neat boxes of racial and ethnic identity. Second, while custom and law may have snookered many historians enamored with racial classifications into believing that distinct racial boundaries effectively cordoned off groups from one another, the authors here repeatedly illustrate the permeability of racial boundaries.

Many of the selections in this collection have appeared in print elsewhere. This is not meant as a criticism: on the contrary, this volume contains some of the most important essays written to date about race and sex, and it will make that scholarship far more accessible to a larger audience. Hodes opens the book, logically, with Gary Nash's 1995 Organization of American Historians presidential address, "The Hidden History of Mestizo America." This surveys racial and ethnic mixing in North America from the 1690s to the 1970s, and it is wonderfully expansive in scope. Nash castigates what he calls "America's Achilles' heel of race" and throws down the gauntlet by insisting that historians need to recognize and to laud the salient trend of hybridity in America's past. Much of the work in this collection that follows heeds Nash's call for a reconceptualization of race studies that is infused with a "pan-ethnic, pan-racial, antiracist sensibility" (p. 27).

Several of the contributions explore intimate interracial relations between Indians and non-indigenous groups, and a few focus on sexuality and ethnicity in the West, but, understandably, many of the essays focus on black-white relations in the American South. This group includes Thomas E. Buckley's "Unfixing Race: Class, Power, and Identity in an Interracial Family," one of the most important and persuasive: articles ever written on antebellum racial identity. Buckley examines the life of Robert Wright, a free African American in Virginia. Wright--who is the son of a well-to-do "gentleman farmer" and his African slave--twice marries white women. Buckley's narrative reveals an openness about interracial sexual relationships that contrasts sharply with much traditional scholarship that has emphasized the rigidity and impermeability of racial boundaries. Class, not race, shaped Robert Wright's identity.

Tolerance of interracial relationships is likewise woven into the essay co-authored by Josephine Boyd Bradley and Kent Anderson Leslie. They tell the story of Amanda America Dickson, a Georgia slave begot by the rape of her slave mother by her master father. Dickson, although legally a slave through her childhood, was raised in the white household and was as doted on and spoiled by her father and grandmother as any white child would have been. …

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