- How Did It Feel? Open Secrets about Sex and Race in Early America
Since the 1990s, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality has inspired scholars to analyze the coconstitutive regimes of race, gender, class, [End Page 157] and nation. Landmark studies of early America, such as Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs, Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women, Clare Lyons’s Sex among the Rabble, and Sharon Block’s Rape and Sexual Power in Early America, have located sexual regulation and exploitation at the heart of interlocking systems of colonialism, slavery, patriarchy, and class stratification. Emerging scholars of sex imbibed this rich tradition as part of our graduate training. We learned to conceive sexuality as a kind of engine that produced colonial and early national hierarchies and defined our actors’ places within them. Beginning from the premise that these hierarchies generated and reinforced one another, scholars treated sex as a uniquely traceable point of intersection among them: the disciplinary violence through which one became a colonized person, a slave, a wife, a patriarch, a wage laborer, and so on.
Current scholarship has also taken a new direction toward interrogating the ways in which early American people might have experienced the sexual desires that were so critical to surveillance, commodification, and control. Cultural historians and literary scholars increasingly draw on queer theory to make sense of the diverse—often vexingly unfamiliar—ways of feeling sexual in early America. Queer scholarship values the study of both sensory and affective feelings as registers of alterity. It also raises questions concerning who, or what, should be considered queer prior to the normalizing discourses of late nineteenth-century sexology and twentieth-century politics. Since queer theory arose in response to those discourses, early Americanists may rightfully question some of its foundational assumptions—particularly whether the closet, or the “open secret” of same-sex eroticism, has historically defined queerness. The five titles under review raise just these sorts of questions: What kinds of desires did oppressed people feel amid systematic violation? Could pleasure, in itself, upset certain social hierarchies? Who invoked sex to assert their own subjectivity? Who kept their sex lives secret, and to what ends? The most exciting examples of this new scholarly trend, particularly Vincent Woodward’s The Delectable Negro and Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully’s Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus, raise fresh questions such as these while grounding their readings in intersectional historiography and theory.
The Delectable Negro is a brilliant, fearless, and deeply political book. Woodward views desire as historically produced and envisions its resistant and restorative potential. He begins with a profound question: how did it [End Page 158] feel to be commodified in the Atlantic slave trade? Striving to comprehend the feelings of the enslaved, he engages three open secrets about slavery: it was premised in cannibalism, maintained by same-sex rape, and resisted through homoerotic desire.
The cannibalistic dimensions of Atlantic slavery—consumption of people as commodities, “seasoning” meant to break their bodies and souls, and rituals of mastery organized around the cutting and eating of flesh—were widely reported between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Though white cannibalism was remembered by slaves from Central and West Africa, the Caribbean, and North America, most prior scholars have dismissed stories of it as “superstitious thought or unfounded indigenous terrors” (32). Woodward reads against the grain of historical and anthropological studies to validate black perceptions of reality, then mines slave narratives, abolitionist writings, and modern...