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  • Illicit Love: Interracial Sex & Marriage in the United States & Australia by Ann McGrath
  • Alecia Simmonds
Illicit Love: Interracial Sex & Marriage in the United States & Australia. By Ann McGrath. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. Pp. 538. $45.00 (cloth); $35.00 (paper).

In 2001 Ramón A. Gutiérrez responded to Ann Laura Stoler’s exposition of the relationship between intimacy and empire with a question originally posed by the American rock star Tina Turner: “What’s love got to do with it?” In response to Stoler’s claim that “sentiments of a private foundation have not just facilitated imperial ambition but serve as the very ground for the creation and maintenance of imperial power,” Gutiérrez argued that attending to intimate discourse obscures the violence of the imperial encounter.1 But his query resonates on another level: Where is the love in our scholarship on intimate imperialism? Can we leave room for tenderness, giddiness, and affection in the brutal history of colonization? Ann McGrath’s magisterial comparative history of interracial marriage in the settler-colonial states of Australia and America answers Gutiérrez resoundingly in the affirmative. McGrath follows scholars such as Matt Matsuda, Katrina Ellinghaus, Patrick Wolfe, Sylvia Van Kirk, and Peggy Pascoe in showing how sex and love fed into imperial projects, from eugenics and colonial governance to assimilation and dispossession, but she departs from these analyses by insisting upon the intimate as well as the instrumentalist, the pull rather than the impossibility of love across colonial borders. She holds love and law simultaneously in her sights at all times. Expressed through legitimate heterosexual marriages, love is not just a transgression of law, it is the supreme instantiation of law. “Marriage,” McGrath provocatively argues, is “a performance of sovereignty” (2), and in the early national periods of America and Australia “intermarriage became an enactment of transnational sovereignty” (11).

In exquisite prose McGrath pursues her argument around sovereignty with varying degrees of success. The Cherokee nation in the early nineteenth century provides an exemplary case study. In chapter 3 we learn that the “wealth and resources of the land” were transmitted through powerful matrilineal clan bodies (154), which meant that white men’s marriage to Cherokee women could lead to a usurpation of dominion. In response to the invasion of white frontiersmen and the American government’s complicity in territorial expropriation, the Cherokee Parliament devised a series of laws between 1816 and the 1830s restricting intermarriage. They fused “the issue of marital controls with the exercise of sovereignty” in an effort to “hold on to the land of their ancestors and their autonomy as a nation” (147). As public ceremonies, weddings contained all the ingredients of popular will and contractual consent, and [End Page 494] they were a crucial means by which “modern Cherokee sovereignty could be performed” (159).

This argument, advanced in chapter 3, provides the context for the case studies of the marriages between white missionary Harriet Gold and Cherokee leader Elias Boudinot in chapter 1 and between Mary Bryan Stapler, a white sixteen-year-old student, and John Ross, a wealthy Cherokee politician, in chapter 4. McGrath depicts the love between Gold and Boudinot as a rebellious force that defies the religious, familial, and community prohibitions against interracial marriage in 1820s Cornwall, Connecticut, depicted most startlingly in a town bonfire in which effigies of the lovers and a female “instigator of Indian marriages” were burned (39). Boudinot and Gold, McGrath argues, insisted upon the radical particularity of love in the face of generalizing racist tropes of the “squaw wife” or female captivity, a theme that is developed in the study of Ross and Stapler, whose love letters reveal the protagonists playing with and subverting such clichés (228–29). McGrath uses these examples to advance her paradigm of a “marital middle ground”: each relationship is a matter of intimate diplomacy in which “dual and dueling sovereignties are enacted.”

However, in her ebullient search for agency, McGrath overlooks the implications of gender power imbalances for her argument around sovereignty. How do we reconcile sovereignty, with all its associated meanings of autonomy, power, and legal primacy (beyond its strictly juridical meanings...


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pp. 494-496
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