Etymology

One of the interesting things about Mary Boykin Chestnut's resentment over barely concealed slaveowner dalliances with slaves is that it was directed at the wrongs she saw committed against white women, who were made to suffer in silence their husbands' infidelity.

The lingering view of slave plantations as personal harems for their owners is a relic of antebellum abolitionist rhetoric, written by upper-class New Englanders with little practical experience in the South or with blacks. Built into it is the racist assumption that black women were more promiscuous and lascivious than white women, were less inclined to resist advances, and that laboring folk of any sort -- Irish peasants included -- were carnal by nature.

Nobody denies that it happened. But even if all the reports are true -- and many are mere hearsay -- of slaveowners having mistresses in the quarters or beloved mulatto children around the house, they amount to a few hundred in a population of millions. The question remains, were these cases the tip of an iceberg, or rare events that were much gossiped about?

Some people seem to assume that, just because the law allowed owners to ravish slave girls, it had to be going on all over the place. This ignores the other forces (social, moral, religious, economic) that were involved. For instance, the seduction of the wife or daughter of a slave would undermine the plantation's discipline, which the planters worked hard to maintain. It would also undermine the planter's reputation both in the slave quarters, in his own home, and in the whole white community.

If a man wanted an outlet to sexually exploit women, there were easier and more accepted ways to do it. Big slave-owners were rich men, who could easily afford to maintain a mistress in town or patronize high-class brothels.

Likewise, a slave overseer who was caught abusing the boss's property like that was basically out of a career. "Never employ an overseer who will equalize himself with the negro women," one planter advised his children. "Besides the morality of it, there are evils too numerous to be now mentioned."

Another unpleasant fact of 19th century America also enters into the picture: pervasive racism. The sense of black inferiority, often to the point of inhumanity, inhibited the lust of white men for black women as sexual partners. In Nashville -- the only Southern city for which data on prostitution is available -- in 1860 just 4.3 percent of the prostitutes were black, although a fifth of the city was black. All the black prostitutes were free and light-skinned. The absence of slave women in brothels is in itself a telling sign about the nature of desire.

Distribution of ages of slave mothers at the time of birth of their first surviving child also turns the myth on its head. Average age at first birth was 22.5; median age was 20.8. In a well-fed, non-contraceptive population, this doesn't indicate a wanton pool of unmarried teen-age girls getting knocked up by their masters, or by anybody else. Quite the opposite. Sexual mores of the slaves were not promiscuous, but prudish, in spite of the lurid racist claims of abolitionists.

Instead, the issue is one of the subjugation of women in American culture of that time. Women were chattels in the eyes of the law in most states, North and South. They were legally dependent on a father or husband, and could not control property or children. Slave women were vulnerable to their masters, but they were equally vulnerable to black sexual aggression. A slave's rape of a black woman would be ignored by state law.

Men North and South, black and white, satisfied their sexual desires by taking mistresses and concubines, seducing young girls, and patronizing prostitutes. Black women were not the only women so exploited. It is unlikely that black women were even more exploited than white women, despite the assumption that, just because planters had total control over slaves, they used it sexually.

Slaves were a subject population. So were women. Sexuality can be a ladder out of that. There were slave women who maintained long-term relationships with white men that came close to common-law marriages. Others voluntarily formed shorter-term liaisons for a variety of motives. These relationships were clearly based on more than overt use of physical force by planters.

The presence of mulattoes is supposed to support the old notion of the plantation-as-harem. Northern travellers in the South often remarked at how light-skinned the slaves were, certainly much lighter than the robust black skin of the Guinea coast Africans.

But mulattoes were not evenly distributed through the South; they were concentrated in the cities, and especially among freemen. According to the 1860 census, 39 percent of freedmen in Southern cities were mulattoes. Among urban slaves, the proportion of mulattoes was 20 percent. One out of every four black people in a Southern city was a mulatto. The travellers who noted a high proportion of mulattoes in the South evidently had much more contact with city populations, and freedmen, which makes sense given the nature of travel. But 95 percent of the slaves did not live in the cities.

As a legal or census definition, "mulatto" meant not just the product of a union of a white parent and a black one, but also of the union of a black and a mulatto. The child of any slave who had one white grandparent, whether by a white or black spouse, would be a mulatto.

Other bodies of data support the conclusion from the census. In the W.P.A. survey of former slaves, of those who identified parentage, only 4.5 percent indicated a white parent. And the work of geneticists lowers the number even further: measures of DNA mutations that are identifiably African or European among modern Southern rural blacks indicate that the share of black children fathered by whites on slave plantations probably averaged between 1 and 2 percent.

There is an intriguing discrepancy in the 1860 census publications of 1862 and 1864. In the "Preliminary Report on the Eighth Census, 1860," published in 1862, Census Superintendent Joseph C. G. Kennedy concluded, "In a simple statement, when viewed apart from the liberations or manumission in the southern States, the aggregate free colored in this country must represent nearly what is termed 'a stationary population,' characterized by an equality of the current of births and deaths." (Kennedy was a disciple of the influential Dr. Josiah Clark Nott, who wrote extensively on racial purity and posited a theory of "mulatto inferiority." According to Nott, the mulatto population could never have equality of births and deaths and would eventually die out because of frailty and sterility.)

In "Population of the United States in 1860," published in 1864, Kennedy altered his previous viewpoint by stating, "These developments of the census, to a good degree, explain the slow progress of the free colored population in the northern States, and indicate, with unerring certainty, the gradual extinction of that people the more rapidly as, whether free or slave, they become diffused among the dominant race."

Kennedy made his 1862 statement before all of the data were tabulated; however, this is all the more significant in light of the fact that the 1862 figure for the "Free Colored" increase was 10.97% compared to a higher 12.32% in 1864. For Kennedy's statements to be in accord with his statistics, these two figures should have been reversed.

Others are reading

Advertisement

Latest stories