Interracial Sex

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Judging by the laws and rhetoric of early Americans, the notion of sex across the color line struck them as repulsive, unnatural, and intolerable. White concern over the act of interracial sex can be traced to seventeenth-century colonial America. Criminalization of interracial sexual relations stood as a monument to white society's commitment to maintaining the "purity" of the white race.

The ideal of racial purity proved elusive, however, as conditions in the very early years of colonial settlement simply did not permit the absolute sexual separation of the three races: indigenous Indians, African slaves, and Europeans. The dire scarcity of European women in some regions, especially in the southern colonies, left many European American men partnering with non-European women, some merely for sex, but others in marriage. Also, during this time racial categories had not yet fully formed, so there was greater fluidity across racial lines. Some colonial historians have even claimed that full-blown racism, long associated with the American South, was inchoate in colonial America, permitting a certain degree of tolerance of interracial sexual relations that continued through the Civil War.

In 1662, however, the first clear statutory legal proscription against interracial sexual relations was adopted. The Virginia law reflected a new, harsher racism that had taken hold in the Chesapeake as African slaves began significantly to supplant European indentured servants as the chief labor source. This law, which punished only whites for broaching the color line to have sex, seems to have emerged primarily in response to a social conundrum in the New World: What to do with mixed-race children in a society that was increasingly associated with racial slavery? Prohibitions against interracial marriage soon followed. Antimiscegenation laws, as they were known, continued throughout much of the United States well into the twentieth century.

By the eighteenth century, lawmakers' aversion to racial mixing was shored up by an emerging ideology that cast sexual intimacy across the color line as abominable. Clearly the notion of interracial sex offended the sensibilities of many whites, signifying underlying fears of racial difference and worries that a mixed-race population could undermine slavery and confuse the social and racial order. Famously, Thomas Jefferson decried "amalgamation" or the "mixture of colour," which he equated with the degradation of whites. Less famously, countless Americans voiced their disgust with the possibility of racial mixing. James Wilson, a Pennsylvania delegate at the Constitutional Convention, announced to the gathering that he, like his constituents, responded to stories of racial miscegenation with "disgust."

Based on pronouncements like Jefferson's and Wilson's, as well as the statutes denouncing and punishing interracial mixing, historians long believed that actual cases of miscegenation were infrequent. Because of the public antipathy toward interracial sex, of course, few whites would risk social opprobrium by publicly acknowledging they had traversed sexual and racial boundaries. Hence, traditional sources of evidence failed to reveal a pattern of extensive racial mixing. However, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, social historians relying on different kinds of historical sources (for example, local court transcripts rather than statutes) have asserted that miscegenation was common, even ubiquitous, at some times and in some places.

Few Americans at the beginning of the twenty-first century are unaware that the founding father and third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson, likely had a long-term intimate relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, that produced several children. Journalist James Callender, Jefferson's chief political enemy, first publicized allegations of the affair to a mass audience in 1802, but neighbors near Jefferson's Monticello home had long been aware of such rumors. While the nature of the relationship continues to be debated by historians, scientists, and laypersons, the larger truth is that Jefferson's purported relationship with Hemings was hardly an isolated or even an unusual episode in the early American slave South. Sexual relations between master and slave, which took many forms including rape and other forms of nonconsensual sex, as well as longlasting, loving concubinage, were relatively common.

Not only was interracial sex rather common in early America, but much of society tacitly if begrudgingly tolerated such relations in their communities. If the offending interracial couple acted discreetly, not flaunting the taboo relationship, it was not uncommon for southerners to look the other way, in much the same way as turn-of-the-century Virginians seemed nonplussed at Jefferson's rumored relationship with one of his slaves. This pattern is documented throughout early America.

While sexual relations between black men and white women were less common, they nonetheless occurred with regularity. White women's sexual relations with slaves were especially policed in nineteenth-century America, in large measure because of

worries about the economic welfare of the offspring whose fathers might be enslaved, but also to enforce the fiction of racial purity that permeated much of early America, including the area outside the South. While sporadic attempts were made to outlaw interracial sex in the North, the policing was never as strict as in the slave South. Slave fathers obviously could not provide for their mixed-race children. Still, white women—especially of poor and middling rank—had frequent contact with men of color, free and slave. They sometimes worked as servants alongside slaves. Or sometimes they traveled on errands with little or no protection, making them susceptible to sexual assault. White women without husbands or fathers to support them and their families may have engaged in sexual bartering or exchange with blacks occasionally or regularly. As with master-slave sexual relations, suspecting neighbors typically ignored such activities unless a pregnancy or an accusation of rape forced the community to deal openly with the relationship.

See alsoJefferson, Thomas; Rape; Sexuality .


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Clinton, Catherine, and Michele Gillespie, eds. The Devil's Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Gordon-Reed, Annette. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

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Jennings, Thelma. "'Us Colored Women Had to Go through a Plenty:' Sexual Exploitation of African-American Slave Women." Journal of Women's History 1 (1990): 45–74.

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Lewis, Jan Ellen, and Peter S. Onuf, eds. Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.

Rothman, Joshua D. Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787–1861. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

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Diane Miller Sommerville