Sexual Exploitation and Miscegenation

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Sexual Exploitation and Miscegenation

The term miscegenation entered the American lexicon during the election of 1864, when a group of Democrats circulated an anonymous tract suggesting that the Republican Party "advocated sex and marriage across the color line" (Hodes 2003, p. 115). Intended as political sabotage, the pamphlet exploited white anxieties about the potential for interracial relationships to disrupt an American class system that was inextricably entwined with ideologies of race. The construction of this social hierarchy, along with racial categories, began in the seventeenth century when new colonial laws increasingly transformed servitude from a multiracial system of fixed term indenture to one of lifelong race-based slavery. As Elise Lemire writes, prohibitions on interracial sex and marriage "ensured that social and economic equality would not occur between whites and blacks and that slavery would be perpetuated as a race-based system by making interracial marriage illegal." These laws also "legally substantiated" ideologies of white racial superiority, and "made the children of inter-racial couples bastards and thereby concentrated freedom [sic] and wealth in white families by not allowing these illegitimate children to inherit" (2002, p. 2). Antimiscegenation legislation and attempts by white male legislators to control the sexuality of African American men and white women helped construct and reify a social hierarchy that ensured the power of a white male patriarchy. As historian Peter Bardaglio writes, Southern white men "viewed female sexuality as property that they owned, like slaves, and protection of this property was a key to preserving their position in society" (1995, p. 65).

In colonial South Carolina, men and women of European, African, and Native American descent frequently had relationships with a person of different ancestry. Only with the passage of a 1717 law did it constitute a punishable offense for a white man or woman to conceive a child with a partner of African descent. The penalty, whether the accused was a white man or woman, or free or indentured, was a fixed period of seven years servitude (Wood 1996, p. 99). In Virginia and Maryland, antimiscegenation legislation was adopted much earlier. Because white women constituted a small percentage of the colonial population, legislatures tried to prevent interracial marriage and childbearing by making both punishable with fines, indenture, banishment, or incarceration (Clinton 1991, p. 56). As historian Peter Wood writes, the emergence of antimiscegenation laws suggests the frequency with which multiracial children were born into the population, "only to have their descendants sifted back into the ever more arbitrary and rigid 'black' and 'white' categories of later times" (1996, p. 99).

Evidence of the social stratification that emerged with antimiscegenation laws was also evident in Southern rape law, which meted out unequal punishment for those convicted of sexual assault. For white men the penalty was typically incarceration. For black men, the penalty in the colonial period was castration, whereas in the antebellum period it became death. Mostly concerned with the rape of white women, the legal codes were largely silent on the rape of black women. Though a white man could be convicted of raping another master's slave, the assault was considered by the courts a crime against the slaveholder for violating his property. A Mississippi law prescribed punishment for male slaves' rape of female slaves only in cases involving children under the age of twelve (Bardaglio 1995, p. 68).

An 1861 Georgia law demonstrates how prolonged resistance was to regarding the sexual assault of slave women as a crime. According to the statute, rape was defined as "the carnal knowledge of a female whether slave or free, forcibly and against her will." But drafters of the law justified the inclusion of slaves in the law on the grounds that it would "preserve the integrity of the statute books." As for the sexual abuse of a slave woman, the legislator believed that "the occurrence of such an offense is almost unheard of" (Bardaglio 1995, p. 68).

Indeed, this legislator's position mystifies the frequency with which enslaved women endured sexual exploitation by slaveholders. Antimiscegenation laws made interracial sex a criminal offense, but these laws were aimed at preserving white men's assertion of ownership over white female sexuality and reproduction. At the same time, white men created a legal and social milieu in which they were virtually uninhibited to sexually exploit their bondwomen. These relationships of interracial sex, rather than challenging white male power in the racialized and gendered social hierarchy, reinforced its hegemony.

Ex-slave Louisa Picquet (2003) recounted in her astold- to autobiography how at the age of fourteen she became the object of sexual advances by her owner, Cook, the man she also presumed to be the father of the three children her mother bore while owned by Cook Picquet evaded Cook's advances but was flogged so unmercifully for it, she resigned herself to resisting no more. Her seizure by the sheriff to pay Cook's debts seemed a temporary reprieve until she was bought by Williams, who made her his concubine. Picquet had four children, of whom Williams was the biological father, a fact he never acknowledged.

Though slaveholders rarely acknowledged their paternity of slave children, the sexual exploitation of female slaves was known by diarist Mary Chesnut (1823–1886) as a common practice. "Like the patriarchs of old," Chesnut wrote, "our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children—and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody's household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think" (1981, p. 29).

Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, married to a Southern planter, also criticized the sale of slave women as concubines in an an 1858 journal entry: "Oh is it not enough to make us shudder for the standard of morality in our Southern homes?" (1990, p. 168). As a "most striking illustration of the general feeling on the subject," Thomas cited the case of George Eve, who carried a slave woman north with him to live as his concubine. "It was well known," Thomas recalls, "that he lived with her constantly violating one of God's ten commandments, yet nothing was thought of it." But when Eve's family received a report that a marriage ceremony had taken place between Eve and the woman, "public opinion was outraged" and Eve's father, who was "terribly mortified," attempted to have the groom declared insane (p. 168). For Thomas, the case clearly illustrated the hypocrisy of religious and social mores. The Eve family and the general public would tolerate the woman's concubinage but leveled a charge of insanity when the son dared violate the cultural taboo against interracial marriage.

But despite her frank criticism of these sexual mores, Thomas herself was not immune. Her musings on the subject were prompted by the entrance of the slave Lurany and her daughter Lulah, whom Thomas described as "white as any white child" (p. 167). "There is some great mystery about Lurany's case," Thomas wrote, "How can she reconcile her great professions of religion with the sin of having children constantly without a husband?" (p. 167). If Thomas deduced that Lurany's children might have been the product of a forced sexual union, she nevertheless adhered to the custom of many mistresses, who blamed female slaves for the exploitation committed by slaveholders.

Such was the case for Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897), who famously lived in her grandmother's garret for seven years to avoid sexual assault by the man who owned her. The harassment Jacobs endured began when she was fifteen and the man, represented in her narrative as Dr. Flint, began whispering obscenities in her ear and passing her licentious notes. Knowing of her husband's base designs, Mrs. Flint regarded Jacobs as an object of "constant suspicion and malevolence." Jacobs recalls many nights waking to find Mrs. Flint bending over her or reenacting Dr. Flint's harassment: "She whispered in my ear, as though it was her husband who was speaking to me, and listened to hear what I would answer" (1987, p. 34). Jacobs eventually made her way to New England, but the seven years she spent hiding in the cramped crawl space of her grandmother's attic in order to resist Flint's abuse left her physically impaired for the rest of her life.

Cherry Loguen chose a different method of resistance. She used a stick to beat her knife-wielding attacker unconscious (White 1999, p. 78). But there could also be serious reprisals for women who defended themselves with violence or otherwise resisted would-be rapists. Frederick Douglass's aunt Esther rebuked the sexual advances of her master Anthony and defied his orders against accepting the courtship of another slave. According to Douglass, Esther was "evidently much attached to Edward, and abhorred—as she had reason to do—the tyrannical and base behavior of old master…. His attentions were plainly brutal and selfish, and it was as natural that Esther should loathe him, as that she should love Edward" (2003, pp. 37-38). For her assertion of sexual autonomy, Esther was tortured with severe and repeated floggings, which assumed an explicitly sexualized quality. Though it is unclear whether she continued to resist Anthony, Douglass writes, the physical abuse was "often repeated in the case of poor Esther, and her life, as I knew it, was one of wretchedness" (p. 38).

Slaveholders also tried to manipulate sexual relationships between slaves, sometimes by forbidding courtship, as in the case of Esther and Edward, but more often by encouraging relationships that would likely produce children. According to historian Marie Jenkins Schwartz, "Efforts by slaveholders to foster childbearing ranged from subtle persuasion to outright force" (2000, p. 188). The latter tactic was extremely rare, but Sam and Louisa Everett, a Florida couple who legally married after the Civil War (1861–1865), told an interviewer in 1936 that they had been forced together by a slaveholder. Louisa told the interviewer that because the union produced healthy children, "I never had another man forced on me, thank God" (Born in Slavery, Florida Narratives, vol. 3). Though such cases constituted rare exceptions, Schwartz notes, "the knowledge that forced pairings occurred occasionally worried slaves and pushed them into early marriages of their own making, rather than marriages arranged by their owners" (2000, p. 188).

While some bondpeople found ways to resist sexual exploitation, these means were generally confined to the master-slave relationship, as the law offered little protection or recourse to slaveholders' sexual abuse. In fact, the law legitimized and reified the gendered, racialized caste system that condoned the sexual exploitation of slaves. Long after slavery's demise, these racialist ideologies remained sanctioned in law. Legal prohibitions on racial intermarriage persisted until 1967, when they were finally declared unconstitutional (Lemire 2002, p. 2).


Bardaglio, Peter. Reconstructing the Household: Families, Sex, and the Law in the Nineteenth-Century South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer's Project, 1936–1938. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. Florida Narratives, vol. 3.

Chesnut, Mary. Mary Chesnut's Civil War. Ed. C. Vann Woodward. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.

Clinton, Catherine. "Southern Dishonor: Flesh, Blood, Race, and Bondage." In In Joy and in Sorrow: Women, Family, and Marriage in the Victorian South, ed. Carol Bleser. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom [1855]. Reprint, New York: Modern Library, 2003.

Hodes, Martha. "Wartime Dialogues on Illicit Sex: White Woman and Black Men." In Sexual Borderlands: Constructing an American Sexual Past, ed. Kathleen Kennedy and Sharon Ullman. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003.

Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself[1861]. Reprint, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Lemire, Elise. "Miscegenation": Making Race in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Picquet, Louisa, and Hiram Mattison. Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon: A Tale of Southern Slave Life [1861]. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Schwartz, Marie Jenkins. Born in Bondage: Growing Up Enslaved in the Antebellum South. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Thomas, Ella Gertrude Clanton. The Secret Eye: The Journal of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, 1848–1889. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

White, Deborah, Gray. Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South [1985]. Reprint, New York: Norton, 1999.

Wood, Peter. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion [1974]. Reprint, New York: Norton, 1996.

                                Christina Adkins