- Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History by Gregory D. Smithers
Slave Breeding is the evocative title of Gregory D. Smithers’s new book on the representation of sexual violence and family relationships in African American history. The book’s subtitle is perhaps a more accurate (but less sensational) descriptor of the study that follows. Smithers did not write this book to prove or disprove the existence of slave breeding; he works on the premise that it did exist, albeit somewhere outside the archival scaffold used by traditional historians. Casting his gaze beyond the voluminous collections of white southern family papers, Smithers carefully mines a host of unexplored material, including abolitionist and political speeches, religious sermons, oral histories, folklore, plays, and fiction, to investigate “how black Americans defined, constructed, and used memories of slave breeding to structure historical narratives about sexual violence, explore the connections between life and death in American society, and discuss the importance of family in African American history” (2). His focus on representation through a vernacular lens complements similar interdisciplinary works by Hannah Rosen and Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, providing readers with new ways of understanding historiographical questions not easily answered by conventional sources.1
Smithers’s study begins in antebellum America, where Manifest Destiny had gripped farmers along the Eastern Seaboard and debate raged over the westward expansion of slavery into the territories. Smithers argues that white abolitionists utilized slave breeding as part of a broader political strategy to save the nation from slavery, and with it, the slave. Westward expansion provided the ideal political context in which to situate a human narrative about the sexual exploitation of enslaved women, the separation of families, and the violence manifested by the plantation model, a “train of moral and physical evils” that would scourge the new territorial landscape as it had done in the South (28). Smithers argues that by the 1830s, African American leaders, writers, and orators used firsthand accounts to create a slave-breeding discourse that bore witness to violence, sexual abuse, and family separation through sale. This narrative, coalesced around the most [End Page 599] “degrading dimensions associated with slavery’s daily rhythms,” confronted the proslavery lobby and called for compromise with a message that was both “politically expedient and morally necessary” (27).
While thousands of African Americans fought and died during the Civil War “for the more immediate and personal goal of toppling the slave-breeding South,” the conflict threw up fundamental questions about the principles of union, democracy, and emancipation (43). After the war, white southerners drowned their sorrows in Lost Cause mythology that transformed memory into memorialization. Smithers contends that former abolitionists preserved slave-breeding discourse in the face of Lost Cause fervor by centering their narrative around three historical themes: the sale of slaves from the Upper South, the abolishment of the Atlantic slave trade, and the role of compromise politics in territorial expansion. By the early twentieth century, a host of self-taught African American intellectuals led by W. E. B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, and E. Franklin Frazier highlighted the “impact that sexual exploitation and racial violence during slavery continued to have on black life and culture” (69). Their work stood as a counterpoint to Ulrich Bonnell Phillips’s benign portrait of the peculiar institution, writes Smithers, and became “a forceful scholarly articulation of what millions of black Americans recalled and spoke about in private” (81). In the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance—comprising African American writers, playwrights, and actors—created literature, performance, and parody to resist Lost Cause ideology and the typecasting of African Americans in popular culture. By the 1930s, another wave of slave-breeding discourse surfaced in the accounts of former slaves interviewed by the Works Progress Administration. Smithers notes that while black women often concealed their histories in an effort to protect their families and safeguard their reputations, others spoke freely about plantation “studs” and “wenches,” the commodification of slave sexuality, and the legacy of the auction block on the African American family. Tied...