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Reviewed by:
  • White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the 19th-Century South
  • David J. Bodenhamer
White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the 19th-Century South. By Martha Hodes (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1997) 338 pp. $30.00

Sex between black men and white women was the ultimate taboo for white southerners, at least until recent decades. Its place in the culture was powerful, pervasive, and persistent, and its violation, real or rumored, was the occasion for extraordinary violence. No one questioned its history, which everyone knew began with the advent of African slavery in the New World.

Or so we thought. In her provocative, carefully researched, and prize-winning study, Hodes dispels such casual assumptions. Her thesis is simply stated: “Under the institution of racial slavery, . . . white Southerners could respond to sexual liaisons between black men and white women with a measure of toleration; only with black freedom did such liaisons . . . provoke a near-inevitable alarm, one that culminated in the tremendous white violence of the 1890s and beyond” (2).

Her argument rests on evidence painstakingly compiled in a breathtaking display of historical sleuthing. Combing through countless legal records, newspapers, diaries, letters, genealogical records, and the like, Hodes reconstructs a number of these illicit relationships into stories told by multiple narrators, with shifting points of view. The re-telling of these stories, teased as they are from fragmentary records, is masterful, but ultimately what commands attention is the analysis. Hodes is keenly alert to the language and stance of the narrators, drawing our attention to how they reported events and how they reacted, not simply to what new evidence they contributed to the tale of illicit union. It is a novelistic technique—indeed, Hodes wondered early whether the stories could be told fully except as fiction—and it works.

Several recent studies have demonstrated that interracial sex was more prevalent in the seventeenth-century South than previously supposed, though by no means was it common. Nonetheless, scholarly convention still holds that a strict (and strictly enforced) color line, prompted in part by a fear of black male sexuality, was part of the social and legal baggage of slavery. Hodes demonstrates otherwise. Consensual sex occurred between white women and black men, not with regularity but often enough not to be considered rare or unthinkable. Antebellum southern communities knew of these liaisons and reacted in ways that confound modern assumptions: They tolerated them, unless they became [End Page 345] socially problematic through pregnancy and childbirth. By toleration, Hodes does not mean an acceptance of difference. Offenders were prosecuted under the law and ostracized from polite society, even though in most instances, the record makes clear that authorities and neighbors had known of the behavior for some time. Southern communities, however, were unwilling to act violently against black males. The very existence of slavery, Hodes concludes, made it possible for whites to treat these incidents as aberrations, isolated acts that did not threaten the prescribed order. (In similar fashion, this circumstance enabled antebellum southern judges to extend due-process rights to slaves accused of crimes.)

With the end of slavery, violence replaced uneasy toleration. The sexuality of newly freed black men, commingled with their potential economic and political power, posed a challenge to white supremacy, increasingly symbolized in post-Civil War politics by the issue of white women’s sexual purity. For Hodes, the cultural calculus surrounding interracial sex depends on the presence or absence of slavery.

Hodes has not written a book on miscegenation; she excludes both South Carolina and Louisiana from her study, for example, because both states recognized an intermediate class between black and white. Nor does she draw unwarranted conclusions by claiming, for instance, that lynching was only a response to the threat to racial order posed by illicit sexual liaisons, rather than a tool also used in the class struggles of the late nineteenth-century South. What she has done is offer a unique and compelling portrait of how sex and race have entered our political economy and shaped our culture. She has written a masterful work that fully deserves the acclaim that it has received.

David J. Bodenhamer
Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis

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pp. 345-346
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