The refusal of states to recognize the marriages of enslaved people legally was among slavery’s most significant cruelties, mocking deep ties of [End Page 156] affection among the enslaved as pretenses unworthy of acknowledgement by white people or the law. As Hunter demonstrates in Bound in Wedlock, however, the lack of legal sanction for slave marriages was, in important ways, the fundamental precondition for maintaining chattel slavery as an inheritable and permanent condition in the United States. Marriage was a legitimate contract; allowing slaves to enter into it and make legally sustainable claims to their families was incompatible with the prerogatives of slaveholding, especially regarding the reproductive capacities of enslaved women. Slaveholders destroyed one in every three first marriages among enslaved people. Marriages between enslaved people and free people of color, which Hunter refers to as “mixed-status marriages,” were equally at the mercy of white people and the vagaries of the law. Hunter shows how even antebellum free black marriages existed in a constant state of uncertainty.
Bound in Wedlock focuses, in part, on delineating the wide range of partnerships and intimate relationships created by black people in the nineteenth century. Hunter describes the vulnerabilities and contingencies of those relationships, the adaptability and flexibility often required of them for survival and mutual support, and how they changed over the course of time and the transition from slavery to freedom. The book’s most significant contribution is showing that not even gaining the right to marry legally guaranteed equality or even respect for black couples and their children. On the contrary, black marriages recognized by the state gave white landowners, judges, and government officials a new tool for racial oppression and new opportunities to pathologize black families.
The pattern was evident during the Civil War. At military facilities, the federal government offered “marriage under the flag” that sanctioned black unions. But it also failed to account for the complexity of relationships under slavery, imagining instead that black marriages would serve as the foundation for a new male-dominated agricultural regime comprising nuclear-family labor units. Moreover, military officials in contraband camps established systems of work and compensation that made the self-sufficiency desired by newly married people nearly impossible to achieve, and they then laid the blame for the failures on black people’s immorality or irresponsibility.
When the war ended, black people across the slave states had to renegotiate the terms of their intimate relations, sorting through the challenges, separations, traumas, and informalities that carried over from the era of slavery. Many jumped at the chance to be married formally, envisioning that it would bring economic, legal, and cultural advantages, not to mention public avowal of their love. But white attempts to use marriage to control the behavior of black people worsened after the Civil War. Freedman’s Bureau officials commonly tried to coerce black people into monogamous marriages that conformed with middle-class gender roles and Christian behavioral standards. Southern whites used restrictive labor contracts signed by male heads of households to dominate black workers, and law-enforcement officials deployed racially [End Page 157] disproportionate prosecutions for such “moral” crimes as adultery, fornication, and bigamy that let them interfere with black families.
Hunter makes clear that the restrictions against, and judgments of, black marriages did not always originate from the outside. Black churches wanted former slaves to cleave to a bourgeois marriage model as a path toward respectability and racial progress. Near the end of the nineteenth century, black intellectuals such as W. E. B. DuBois advocated black self-help for families and marriages that they considered pathological, sexually licentious, and uncivilized. But in Hunter’s view, these critics failed to see the structural constraints on black lives that grew out of slavery and emancipation: “No amount of Victorian emulation could save black people from this lasting legacy of bondage” (263).
Hunter notes that although unknown statistically at the time, black people at the turn of the twentieth century married at higher rates than white people...