- Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina.
In Suspect Relations, Kirsten Fischer examines “the continual contestation, reassertion, and reconfiguration of racial categories within the context of sexual relations” in colonial North Carolina. (5) Fischer does so in a readable, assignable, and enjoyable book that is far more than a case study of a single colony. Fischer convincingly shows us how colonial Americans created a seemingly biologic basis of race, in large part, through the regulation of sexual relations and of women’s bodies.
Suspect Relations expands on recent influential work by both colonial North American scholars (ie. Kathleen Brown, Jennifer Spear, Jennifer Morgan) and by worldwide scholars (ie. Anne McClintock, Ann Stoler, Antoinette Burton) who address the intersections of race, sex, and imperial projects. Fischer’s work is valuable to colonial U.S. historians for her reconstruction of North Carolina history, and for her ability to frame that history in a sophisticated theoretical analysis of race, gender, and sexuality. Fischer bolsters what others have said about the racial process in colonial British America, filling in the crucial transformation of the eighteenth century that has too often been either the starting or ending point of other scholarship. Fischer’s sophisticated unpacking of the intersection of racial and sexual hierarchies will also resonate with scholars of imperialism and colonialism more generally, as she adroitly shows the relations between state-sponsored ideology and lived practice.
Fischer bases Suspect Relations largely on court records, travel narratives, and other documents written by visitors and residents of North Carolina. She has done an especially admirable excavation of North Carolina court records, far beyond the accomplishments of previous North Carolina historians. Through her excavations, Fischer makes heroic efforts to move beyond the institutional and elite sources that provide only one perspective on sexual and racial regulations. Fischer consistently reminds the reader that political directives did not necessarily equate to individuals’ behavior or widespread beliefs. Instead, she teases out the many ways that women and men of all racial backgrounds may have reacted to the increasing hardening of racial categories. Native American women made choices about intercultural sexual relations based on their own best interests in a given social context, English women readily brought slander cases when they felt themselves sexually insulted, and African women struggled to create families despite the institutionalized racial hurdles increasingly set in their path.
Fischer begins her study by showing the necessity of intercultural cooperation in the first decades of the North Carolina colony. Despite this early period of intercultural interactions, Fischer convincingly shows how the seventeenth-century North Carolina social order built itself on the regulation of disorderly women of all races. In her second chapter, Fischer effectively traces the social and political contexts that shaped intercultural sexual relations between Indian women and English men, and sets these relationships against the growing European caricatures of Native American women. The remainder of Suspect Relations moves to a consideration of the racial boundaries we more commonly associate with southern colonies: white v. black, European v. African. Here, too, Fischer pays careful attention to the differences between institutional policies of cross-racial relations and individual on-the-ground interactions. In a chapter on “Sexualized Violence and the Embodiment of Race,” Fischer enlarges traditional notions of sexual violence beyond rape, examining how public forms of corporal correction had an eroticized dimension that set black bodies apart from white bodies. Public whipping of naked enslaved women and the display of enslaved rapists’ severed heads on roadside poles were physical enactments of the sexual boundaries of race. Along with the sexual privilege of white masters and the sexual exploitation of enslaved women, these forms of erotic violence marked the gross inequities of power necessary to North Carolina’s increasingly racialized slave system. While it might be tempting to tell this history as a declension narrative of intercultural opportunity transformed into inescapable strictures of race, Fischer continually reminds the reader that none of these shifts were uncontested or absolute. Women and men continued to make choices, resist regulations, and reformulate ideologies according to their...