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  • Chains of Love: Slave Couples in Antebellum South Carolina
  • Kibibi Mack-Shelton (bio)
Chains of Love: Slave Couples in Antebellum South Carolina. By Emily West. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004. Pp. x, 184. Cloth, $30.00.)

Chains of Love examines slave couples and their marital relationships in antebellum South Carolina. Emily West describes the culture of courtship among slaves. She argues that these slave couples had a close, loving bond in spite of their enslavement, and that slaves' marital bonds were more important than any others held in the slave community. West asserts that these marriages served as havens, giving them strength, support, and psychological solace from their hostile environment.

Chapter 1, "Courtship and Marriage," examines the impact that West African and English culture had on shaping slave courtship and marriage in the U.S. South. West reconstructs the pattern of slave courtship and marriage rituals in South Carolina, revealing how their relationships were characterized by genuine bonds of love and support for each other.

In Chapter 2, "Family Life," West explains how slave couples sought to have autonomous family lives complete with love, affection, and stability. She describes the disharmony emanating from "rocky, tempestuous" marriages (60–61), usually as a result of forced marriages arranged by masters. This chapter examines both "same residence marriages"—where couples live together—and "cross-plantation" or "abroad" marriages (44)—where spouses reside on separate farms or plantations.

Chapter 3, "Work, Gender, and Status," focuses on the gender-segmented work culture in both the slave community and household. West argues that female slaves experienced a "triple-exploitation," as they "toil for their masters," "in their cabins," and "with reproduction and childcare matters" (61). Slave masters valued work output as determining the worth and status of slaves and viewed women as having lower status since reproduction and childrearing variants decreased their work output.

Chapter 4, "Interracial Sexual Contact," describes the culture of sexual contact between antebellum blacks and whites. Stereotypical ethnic notions held by whites led them to view slaves as sexually promiscuous, with female slaves being innately immoral and male slaves capable of being rapists. West describes how this thinking led to white men being absolved from any blame of sexual misconduct, whether it was "involuntary," i.e., forced sexual contact, or "voluntary" (117), i.e., consensual sexual contact between men and women. [End Page 333]

Lastly, Chapter 5, "Enforced Separations," describes the various ways that slave families were separated involuntarily. Most were sold, while others were given away as gifts or inherited by others via an estate will. These separations were even more painful to the slaves if loved ones were sent far away from their families.

West rightfully argues that scholarship has provided little or no insight as to what happens to slave couples "after sundown" (19). Her attempt to reconstruct the slave courtship process and provide an insightful account of slaves' marital affairs is a difficult task with the limited amount of data available. Because the intimacies of slave relationships are usually unknown, research in this area would increase the understanding of antebellum black culture. Using slave testimony, West describes how slave couples attempted to build stable marriages based on mutual love and affection. She argues that these marriages and families were real relationships, not just a pair of slaves thrown together for reproduction.

West provides a balanced perspective that reflects both the slaveholders' and slaves' views on themes such as courtship, abroad marriages, and interracial sexual contact. While acknowledging the much-debated shortcomings of ex-slave narratives, she carefully uses slave testimonies from George Rawick's Works Progress Administration (WPA) narratives, slave autobiographies, and Freedmen's Bureau records. For the white perspective, she uses church records, government documents, and the private diaries, letters, records, and papers of slaveholding families.

Unfortunately, West's attempt to fill this void in antebellum scholarship is unsuccessful. Two major problems in the book are the lack of original information and the lack of clear organization. While Chains of Love introduces a new interpretation of existing data, it does not introduce any new or original information. The book compiles other studies, including Deborah White's Ar'n't I A Woman? (1985), Elizabeth...


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pp. 333-335
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