Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860

By Thomas D. Morris | Go to book overview

14
Slaves, Sexual Violence, and the Law

The presumption that a white woman yielded . . . to the
embraces of a negro, without force . . . would not be great.
Pleasant, (a slave), v. State ( Arkansas, 1855)

Black male sexuality has been a subject of fascination, ribaldry, and considerable fear among whites. Scientific thought and deep-seated sexual insecurity led whites to write "sexual retaliation" into law, to use Jordan's phrase. Lazarus, one of Eldridge Cleaver's characters in Soul on Ice, understood. He also understood the relationship between miscegenation and rebellion: "the white man forebade me to have the white woman on pain of death. Literally, if I touched a white woman it would cost me my life. Men die for freedom, but black men die for white women, who are the symbol of freedom." Fear of white retaliation ran deep.1 A very different chord was struck in the classic work of W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South. Cash discussed the "rape complex," which critics of the South believed to be a "fraud, a hypocritical pretext behind which the South has always cynically and knowingly hidden mere sadism and economic interest." The "ultimate secret of the Southern rape complex" rested in the perceptions of Southern white women, who were identified with the "very notion of the South itself." This came, Cash believed, "from the natural tendency of the great basic pattern of pride in superiority of race to center upon her as the perpetuator of that superiority." More recently, Suzanne Lebsock suggested another view. She concluded that the "mythology of rape" developed after the Civil War as a way to reestablish the hegemony of white men. "In the myth of rape, the suppression of blacks and the suppression of women came together with new and sickening clarity." None of this, of course, wholly captures the range of sexual relationships between black and white people in the American South. Considerable evidence of miscegenation is explored in the work of scholars like James Hugo Johnston and Joel Williamson.2

Cases in which people crossed a color line can be multiplied from all over the South throughout the history of slavery, even though it did not occur as often as in Brazil or the Caribbean.3 Whatever the frequency it did occur, and occasionally it became a legal matter. For example, in 1849 in New Hanover County, North Carolina, a jury was asked to support a request for divorce because the husband,

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