- Reviewed by
In his bold and evocative monograph, Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History, Gregory D. Smithers explores a feature of southern bondage that has become increasingly familiar in its constituent parts at the same time its systemic operations remain irretrievably obscured. His is a controversial subject, one that has been variously minimized as aberrant and dismissed as chimerical, in either case unworthy of serious study. Regrettably these judgments cannot be consigned to the distant past, as the author himself reports being repeatedly advised, typically by senior white male historians, of the essential unreality of slave breeding. Notwithstanding the contributions of historians such as Thelma Jennings and Deborah Gray White, who have underscored the significance of slave breeding in the historical experience of African Americans, particularly women, there have been few sustained discussions of the problem in the past generation. In fact, outside of Gerald Sidney Norde’s 1985 doctoral dissertation (which Smithers curiously does not cite), the most substantial interventions have been made not by a trained historian but rather by a legal scholar, Pamela D. Bridgewater, who has written extensively on the pervasive manipulation of slave reproduction. [End Page 117]
Like his feminist forebears, Smithers does not confine his analysis to a single form of masterly exploitation but rather conceptualizes slave breeding as a phenomenon that covers the entire spectrum of “coercive and violent forms of reproductive sex during slavery,” from material incentives to encourage reproduction, to compulsory intercourse between bondsmen and women, to rape, that constrained African American reproductivity (p. 2). Methodologically, this approach enables him to gather a critical mass of pertinent source material that a narrower definition would necessarily preclude; it also has the effect of elevating the narrative over the numerical, the social over the economic, a feature that will likely provoke criticism from those inclined to privilege quantitative methods. Smithers instead begins with the premise that the very persistence of slave breeding in African American cultural memory renders it worthy of scholarly inquiry, aiming to excavate its meanings from the perspective of multiple generations of African Americans who construe this facet of the slave past both as a “narrative focal point” and an “historical trope” that illuminates the long history of racialized sexual violence that has imbrued black reproductivity into the twenty-first century (p. 3).
To those inclined to doubt its existence as a coherent set of practices, Slave Breeding issues a powerful rebuttal in seven well-conceived topical chapters that unfold in overlapping chronological order to provide the most thorough review we have to date of the history and memory of slave breeding from the antebellum era to the present. After a cogent introduction, the book examines the deployment of slave breeding in abolitionist rhetoric; Lost Cause discourses; early African American history; theatre; Works Progress Administration (WPA) narratives; the civil rights era; and as it has been portrayed in literature, film, and new media. Although many historians have drawn upon the testimonies of former slaves in documenting white encroachments upon the sexual and reproductive freedoms of those in bondage, this book is distinct because of the extent to which it engages and, more importantly, credits African American subjects and sources. Beyond the testimonies of ex-slaves, preeminently those compiled by the WPA in the 1930s, Smithers relies on manuscript [End Page 118] sources, memoirs, speeches, prescriptive literature, historical writings, periodicals, plays, and novels in explicating his analysis. Indeed, his imaginative integration of such diverse sources is among the many strengths of Slave Breeding.
Slave Breeding is of course not without flaws. Most noteworthy is the tendency to conflate breeding with the predictable artifacts of buying and selling human beings, for instance “the threat of family separation” as one of its manifestations (p. 86). Smithers likewise tends to treat sexual abuse and slave breeding as synonymous, when in reality the former may or may not have been a mechanism of the latter. Finally, there are occasional statements pertaining to historical and historiographical developments that are...