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  • The Sexual Abuse of Black Men under American Slavery
  • Thomas A. Foster (bio)

In 1787 an enslaved man in Maryland raped a free black woman. The story comes to us from the female victim in the incident, Elizabeth Amwood. One white man, William Holland, had her "Pull up her Close and Lie Down he then Called a Negrow Man Slave" "and ordered him to pull Down his Britches and gitt upon the said Amwood and to bee grate with her." A fourth individual in this horrific scene, a white man named John Pettigrew, operating with Holland, pointed a pistol at the unnamed enslaved man and Elizabeth Amwood. All the while, Holland taunted them both, asking if it "was in" and "if it was sweet." Afterward, William "went up into the Company and Called for Water to wash his hand, saying he had bin putting a Mare to a horse." 1

Scholars have suggested that rape can serve as a metaphor for enslavement-thus applying to both men and women who were enslaved. As Aliyah I. Abdur-Rahman argues, "The vulnerability of all enslaved black persons to nearly every conceivable violation produced a collective 'raped' subjectivity." 2 The standard scholarly interpretation of how slavery affected black manhood is perhaps best captured by the comments of one former slave, Lewis Clarke, who declared that a slave "can't be a man" because he [End Page 445] could not protect his female kin from being sexually assaulted by owners and overseers. 3 Clark's concern, the rape and sexual assault of black women and girls, has been well documented by the historical record. Thelma Jennings and others have analyzed the literal sexual assault of enslaved women in a range of contexts. 4 Physical sexual abuse of women and girls under slavery ranged from acts of punishment to expressions of desire and from forms of forced reproduction to systems of concubinage. Slavery violated the masculinity of black men who were denied the ability to protect vulnerable female dependents. According to Deborah Gray White, "Those who tried to protect their spouses were themselves abused." 5 The emasculating psychic toll, White further argued, could have led men to eschew monogamy or resist marriage altogether. 6

The rape of Elizabeth Amwood reveals that black manhood under slavery was also violated in other ways that are less easily spoken of (then and now), namely, the sexual exploitation of enslaved men. 7 The historical sexual assault of men and boys is well known, if mostly unarticulated. 8 The scholarship on early America shows us numerous instances of rape and sexual assault of men and boys. Ramón Gutiérrez has argued that individuals of the Native American third sex, or berdaches, were frequently prisoners of war used for [End Page 446] sex and emasculated. We also know through the handful of extant sodomy cases that males have been so abused. The seventeenth-century Connecticut gentleman Nicholas Sension, for example, sexually preyed on his male servants. Virtually all of the cases of sodomy that came to the courts in early America involved individuals violating status boundaries-instructors on students, masters on servants. None involved peers. 9

In the context of slavery, literary scholars have shown that sexual abuse of men was part of the Spanish slave system in Cuba. Robert Richmond Ellis argues that the account of former slave Juan Francisco Manzano "has commonly been regarded as a searing indictment of a physical mistreatment of slaves" but "can also be read as silent testimony to a kind of abuse largely unacknowledged by historians of slavery and critics of slave narratives: the sexual violation of male slaves." As Ellis points out, the topic has largely gone unexplored for a wide variety of reasons, including the obvious barrier of the historical record in that "male victims of slave rape left behind no biological record in the form of offspring" as well as the prevalent homophobia in traditional Latin American societies, which would have prevented men from telling their stories given that "male sexual passivity . . . was particularly stigmatized insofar as it was seen as entailing a loss of masculinity." 10

This article uses a wide range of sources on slavery-early American newspapers...