- Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History by Gregory D. Smithers
Scholars who have dismissed as unfounded (as many have) charges that antebellum slaveholders deliberately bred slaves for financial gain should think again. Smithers argues that slave breeding not only occurred but also remains a legacy of slavery because its memory lives on in the minds of African Americans whose ancestors were violently and sexually exploited. Smithers gives the phrase “slave breeding” a “broad interpretive significance” by showing how it has served “as an historical trope” for understanding past and present-day racial and sexual violence (2, 3).
In the first chapter, Smithers demonstrates that black abolitionists in the antebellum era used the trope to gain sympathy for enslaved people and to argue for the end of the institution within the United States. While white abolitionists focused on preventing the westward expansion of slavery into newly acquired territories, black people were more intent on using the imagery of slave breeding—including the separation of families—to move public opinion beyond this limited objective. “Slave breeding discourse” became a staple of the arguments about the place of slavery in the nation, a dispute that drove the country toward Civil War (24). Smithers takes senior historians (whom he describes as overwhelmingly male and white) to task for failing to take this discourse seriously. The language used by black abolitionists was “not simply a narrative device” but also a collective understanding of “real experiences and memories of life in slavery” (42).
The memories of slave breeding may have persisted in black America, but not in historical narratives produced by professional historians. Chapter 2 argues that the seemingly scientific approach to understanding the past taken by professional historians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries presented a “grotesquely misleading” picture of slavery as benign, even educational (46). Historians and other scholars (particularly economists and sociologists) discounted the oral histories of slaves and the work of black scholars like W. E. B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson in favor of documents produced by current and former slaveholders.
Smithers moves beyond a historical framework to explore the trope of slave breeding in music, literature, and political rhetoric. Separate [End Page 277] chapters address how slave breeding has been depicted in theatrical plays, in oral interviews conducted during the Great Depression by government agents of the Works Progress Administration, and in film and the new media. At times, these chapters read more like a laundry list of writers and filmmakers than a true analysis of how Americans (black or white) have understood the place of racial violence and sexual exploitation in the country’s past, but the message is loud and clear: Black people have tended to depict slave breeding in starker terms than have white people.
Slave Breeding is sure to have critics. One problem is that Smithers’ definition of slave breeding can mean anything from the rape of black women and the genetic breeding of people (like livestock) to any manipulation of family life (as in the encouragement of marriage and the separation of family members). Later chapters at times lose focus, and the author produces little evidence to show that ideas contained in poems, plays, and movies were widely embraced within the black community. Although the book jacket maintains that Slave Breeding helps to explain “America’s history of … gender discrimination,” women’s experiences and voices are not well represented in the book’s pages. Despite these shortcomings, the book deserves a wide readership because it boldly and persuasively challenges received wisdom about the American narrative during the last two centuries as depicted by professionals in the arts, social sciences, and humanities.