Institute of Historical Studies
Institute of Historical Studies

Conference examines sexuality in early American slave societies

Fri, October 21, 2011
Conference examines sexuality in early American slave societies
Isaac & Rosa, slave children from New Orleans; Photographed by Kimball; Ent'd accord'g to act of Congress in the year 1863; Library of Congress.

“Buck.” “Wench.” These were actual names given to enslaved people in the antebellum South. They signified the ways in which slaveholders saw enslaved people as sexual beings, but also represented the power of the slaveholding class. By contrast, enslaved couples participated in courtship rituals that often led to love, intimacy, and marriage (although not legally sanctioned). 

The Institute for Historical Studies 2011 conference, “Sexuality & Slavery,” explores the critical but understudied subject of the meaning of sexuality in slave societies in the Americas. Sex and power are often intricately intertwined, and rarely more so than when the individuals involved are not sanctioned to make independent decisions regarding their bodies, their relationships, and their decisions whether or not to bear children.  The right to consensual sexual intimacy, as well as the right and ability to prevent sexual exploitation by the slaveholding class, comprised a core terrain of struggle between slaveholders and enslaved people.

"The conversation we hope to generate during this conference is an important one," says conference co-convener and associate professor of history, Daina Ramey Berry. "Issues of sexual exploitation, expression, repression, and reform have always been central to studies of slavery, but they have not always been clearly addressed. We stand on the shoulders of several scholars who in the past and present are eager to move forward with this conversation. Our students are ready, we are ready, and I believe the University of Texas is poised to take this difficult subject to the next level."

Scholars studying sexuality and slavery in locations across the Americas will present their work. Sexuality was central to the definition of enslaved people as commodities in early capitalist systems in the Americas, as papers by Sowande’ Mustakeem, Trevor Burnard, and Kym Morrison explain.

Papers by Wilma King, Adrienne Davis and Steven Deyle show that court systems rarely if ever prosecuted owners for instances of sexual abuse, although enslaved people could be policed for instances of sexual deviance—as long as this policing did not disrupt the rights of slaveholders to continue to benefit from the enslaved person.

Leslie M. Harris, Thomas A. Foster, and Marisa J. Fuentes will present, respectively, on the roles of men and women in creating and negotiating landscapes of intimacy in the nineteenth-century Deep South, black masculinity in early America, and the sexual culture of enslaved people in  eighteenth-century colonial Caribbean.

Despite the lack of legal protections in either instances of abuse or recognition of marriages, enslaved people worked to shape sexual autonomy and sexual intimacy through a range of practices, as explored in papers by Jessica Millward, Barbara Krauthamer, and Tera Hunter.  

Daina Ramey Berry, Jennifer L. Morgan, and Tamara J. Walker will examine cultural practices such as names given to enslaved people, the clothing enslaved people wore, and the ways in which enslaved and slaveholders discussed intimacy. These were vital areas of struggle over the meaning of sexuality in slave societies.   

This groundbreaking and provocative conference follows a workshop structure providing pre-circulated papers online (for registrants only).  During the two-day gathering, the audience is expected to interact with the participants regarding a variety of exciting new topics related to “Sexuality and Slavery.”

All events take place on November 11th and 12th on UT campus, at the AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center, 1900 University Avenue. Free and open to the public.

More information:
Conference Site

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