Institute of Historical Studies
Institute of Historical Studies

Groundbreaking conference examines sexuality & slavery, draws hundreds of attendees

Fri, December 9, 2011
Groundbreaking conference examines sexuality & slavery, draws hundreds of attendees
Profs. Jacqueline Jones, Wilma King, and Steven Deyle

Hundreds of scholars, students, and guests from across the country attended a symposium hosted by the Institute for Historical Studies at The University of Texas at Austin entitled "Sexuality & Slavery: Exposing the History of Enslaved People in the Americas."

The two-day conference placed sexuality at the center of slavery studies in the Americas. Conference conveners Daina Ramey Berry, associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, and Leslie M. Harris, associate professor of history at Emory University, chose the theme to privilege the importance of sexual practices as a core terrain of struggle between slaveholders and enslaved people.

Fourteen scholars presented papers that explored consensual sexual intimacy and expression within slave communities, as well as sexual relationships across lines of race, status, and power. Their papers focused on the use of sexuality as a tool of control, exploitation and repression, but also as an expression of autonomy, resistance and defiance.

Five panels were arranged to address legal issues, economic concerns, gender questions including masculinity, agency and bondage, and considerations of visual and linguistic culture, and they coalesced to expand and deepen our understanding of the intimacy of power.

Panel 1: “Regulating Sexuality and Slavery in the Legal Sphere”

Two papers in the first panel focused on the legal prosecution of enslaved Black males accused of sexual crimes. Taken together, they argued that trials of Blacks accused of rape were actually more flexible than historians usually assume. At least in the legal sphere — that is, beyond the more direct control experienced in plantation spaces — alleged sexual deviance by enslaved men was not automatically punished severely.  Not all Black men accused of raping white women were sentenced to death, and enslaved Blacks sometimes even enjoyed more protection from the legal system than free Blacks.

Dr. Wilma King, Arvarh E. Strickland Distinguished Professor at the University of Missouri, took a long historical view on the history of the sexual exploitation of Black girls that spanned from the Antebellum era to the present. She pointed out that rape as a word was raced and gendered and, thus, it has become conventional wisdom that Black men raped white women and white men raped Black women. King illustrated this point for the Antebellum period by examining a court case in which an enslaved grave digger is accused of raping both Black and white children. Dr. King then took the unconventional historiographical step of pushing her forward into the eras of Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and even up to the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. She presented brief examples concerning rapes of young Black girls throughout these periods in order to determine “what’s new?” in the legal repercussions of these attacks in the post-slavery era. She found that the legal system had, in fact, provided stiffer penalties for white men accused of raping Black girls, particularly since the rise of the civil rights movement.  

Dr. Stephen Deyle, associate professor of history at the University of Houston, presented the strange case of Peregrine Smith, an enslaved Black man in Baltimore accused of bestiality with his mistress’s cow. Deyle argued that it is impossible to determine whether or not Smith raped the cow. The more important aspect of the trial is that it illustrated the flexibility of southern constructions of race and gender, especially when the issue of class was involved.  Smith’s mistress came to his defense by attacking the credibility of his lower-class white accusers, and her intervention in the trial suggests that, at certain times, slaves had more leeway in the court system than free Blacks because influential whites were far less likely to advocate for free people of color.

The panel was chaired by Dr. Jacqueline Jones, Walter Prescott Webb Chair and Mastin Gentry White Professor of Southern History at the UT Austin. Dr. Jones noted that these two papers should inspire historians to think harder about how the legal system interacted with the various levels of authority on plantations. The cases of sexual exploitation that both panelists considered took place away from the plantation, and Dr. Jones encouraged both scholars to consider if the law had equal weight on the plantation as it did in the outside world or if state and federal laws were in fact irrelevant on plantations, spaces with their own systems of power and discipline.

Panel 2: "The Slave Trade and the Value of Sexuality"

Dr. Tiffany M. Gill, associate professor of history at UT History, chaired the second panel of the conference. This group of scholars brought together what appear, on the surface, to be seemingly disparate concepts but which actually worked in tandem in many important ways: gender and sexuality, which are often personal and intimate subjects, and the market, which is seen as an impersonal, overarching, and demanding force.

Assistant professor Sowande' Mustakeem, Washington University in St. Louis, presented a paper entitled, "'He Was Sorry He Lost So Good A Chair': (De)-valuation and Death of the Sexualized Black Female Body in the Seafaring World of Slavery." Her paper looked at the late-18th century murder of an enslaved woman during the middle passage. Her murderer was the captain of the ship, James De Wolf, a member of a prominent and wealthy shipping family. The woman was ill and so De Wolf had her strapped to a chair, blindfolded, and tossed her alive over the side of the ship. Mustakeem's work re-centered the story on the woman instead of on the men who killed her. In doing so, Mustakeem shifted focus to the lived experiences of women in the middle passage, highlighting issues of gender, health, and the human embodiment of pain and trauma.  She reminded the audience that this is a story of human victimization, one that shows how important social capital (in comparison to monetary capital) was during the middle passage.

Assistant professor Kym Morrison, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, presented a paper entitled, "Prostitutes, Wives, and Breeders: Feudal and Capitalist Temporality in Colonial Cuban Visions of Female Slave Sexuality." In her work, Morrison challenged prevailing notions about how the shift from feudalism to capitalism worked within slave systems by geographically moving the story from the U.S. South to Cuba. Looking at the way in which the Spanish empire and Cuban society divided enslaved women into the three categories of prostitute, wife, and breeder, Morrison argued that the emergence of capitalism in Cuba brought a resurgence of interest in enslaved reproduction.  The enslaved single mother, who had rights because of the earlier feudal state, existed as an unmanageable and disruptive image for Catholicism and capitalism. Morrison's work draws attention to the way in which enslaved women maneuvered through economic, social, and cultural systems to find social meaning for themselves.

Professor Trevor Burnard, University of Melbourne, presented, "Why are Slave Women Worth Less?" Focusing primarily on eighteenth-century Jamaica and built upon a large and impressive database about slave prices, Burnard's paper looked at the reason that enslaved women cost less in the market even though their labor would, it seems to us, have been worth more. Women lived longer even if they were more unhealthy, they did the same work as men and often work that was the most economically valuable, could be trained as tradesmen, and had the ability to both produce and reproduce. Assuming slave owners to be rational economic agents in a broad sense, Burnard contended that the most probable answer for why women were valued less was cultural, namely the long-held patriarchal idea that white men were more valuable to society than white women, an idea that bled over into how the British viewed enslaved men and women.

Panel 3: "Men, Masculinity, & Sexuality"

The charge of the third panel was to not only insert the male voice and experience into the slavery discussion but also to interrogate how scholars, the courts, and even the archive have played complicitous roles in shaping our (mis) understanding of men, masculinity, and sexuality under the institution of slavery. Chaired by Kali Gross, associate professor at UT Austin, the panel also included Thomas Foster, associate professor at DePaul University, Leslie M. Harris, associate professor at Emory University, and Marisa Fuentes, assistant professor at Rutgers. Each of the three panelists has written extensively about slavery or gender and sexuality.

Dr. Foster, a scholar of early America and gender and sexuality, outlined the main argument of his essay, “Sexual Abuse of Black Men under Slavery,” which used rape as a metaphor for enslavement. Foster asserted that Black men were indeed sexually assaulted by both white men and white women, and this sexual violence took form in “outright penetrative assault, forced reproduction, sexual coercion and manipulation, and psychic abuse.” Foster was cautious, however, to speculate on the prevalence of such sexual violence leveled toward Black men, but he suggested that a closer engagement with the archive and the few cases cited by other scholars may in fact shed light on the scope of this particular phenomenon. The cases chronicled in his paper, he maintained, “have been hidden in plain sight,” and none of them came as a direct result of archival work done by Foster himself. Instead, he used cases found in the works of other scholars and performed his own reading of those incidents. After briefly sketching out some of the methodological hurdles to doing this work, which involves a total reconsideration of the notion of rape, Foster branded his research as a “moral imperative” to uncover the sexual terror faced by enslaved men. Themes that Foster addressed were the cultural fixation on the Black male body, sexual stereotypes of Black hypersexuality, homosexual sexual violence, slaveholders’ use of forced coupling to increase their own profits, and the wanton use of sexual violence as a psychological tool by male and female members of the planter class. In the end, Foster reiterated his injunction that we free ourselves from thinking that the sole victims of sexual violence were enslaved women, or just women period. Enslaved men, he argued, had an equally fraught history under slavery.

Dr. Fuentes focused her attention on the enslaved experience in eighteenth-century Barbados. By examining a “1743 Barbados court case where the specter of race, gender and sexuality lurk beneath a tale of adultery, cross dressing, attempted murder and immorality between a white family and a white male sexual interloper and the men and women they enslaved,” Fuentes sought to compare the sexualities of enslaved women and men to white women on the island. Though Fuentes believed she had discovered a gold mine in the form of a 55-page handwritten court deposition in this particular case, what she quickly realized instead was an “archival silence.” The archives of slavery in the colonial Caribbean, Fuentes argued, were “scant and violent.” She found that the voices of the enslaved participants in the grotesque sexual drama were noticeably absent, though in fact exceedingly important. For Fuentes, this revealed some of the methodological and theoretical limitations to getting at the heart of notions of enslaved male sexuality, particularly since a cross-dressing male slave played a central role in Agatha and Daniel Moore’s violent sexual saga but was practically ignored in the court records. Working with this perceived source disadvantage forced Fuentes to solicit recommendations from the panelists and audience members on how to proceed with her project. Fuentes explained how the silence of the archive complicated the construction of a sexual and racial history of enslaved Bajans. Fuentes' thoughtful explanation of taking particular care and attention to not re-present and re-produce sexual violence in Caribbean history sparked a vigorous and constructive debate during the question and answer period.

Dr. Harris began her talk with a story about her own teaching. As a history professor at Emory, Harris noticed that she was unable to find texts on American slavery that dealt adequately with the enslaved male experience, particularly surrounding the issues of intimacy and sexuality. Though the slave male has served as the most iconographic image associated with enslavement, little is known about his intimate and sexual life under slavery. Harris noted that Black manhood was “in need of rescuing,” and in order to do this, one must survey the existing historiography, which she deemed highly problematic, and read it in conjunction with what the slaves themselves had to say about a host of topics. Thus, Harris demanded that we return to the sources. Citing the postbellum slave narratives as the least utilized by historians, Harris suggested that a re-engagement with these particular sources will potentially uncover more useful information about Black manhood and masculinity.  From her cursory reading of the three sets of available slave narratives, Harris noted multivalent experiences and memories of slavery emerge, as do various modes of sexual expression. Harris asked rhetorically why then does a glaring lacuna exist within slavery studies on the topics of male sexuality and intimacy. Though many historians have claimed that the enslaved were fond of dissembling fairly private information, Harris is not convinced. She asked, “Who is really dissembling? The historians or the enslaved?” For those present, Harris’ talk was a clarion call to all future slavery scholars to take seriously the issues of intimacy, sexuality, manhood and masculinities among the enslaved. 

The audience praised each panelist for engaging with sources and topics outside of the realm of heteronormativity. Positioned on the cutting edge of slavery scholarship, these papers inspired those assembled, who expressed excitement about the publication of a forthcoming volume from the entire conference, which will bring this innovative work to a broader audience.

Panel 4: "Seeking Sexual Autonomy Amid Enslavement"            

The fourth session was both productive and provocative, continuing to challenge historiographical categories and limits. Chaired by Elizabeth Clement, associate professor at the University of Utah, the papers in this panel focused on how enslaved people maneuvered between, around, and through the legal bonds that held their bodies to individually experience their own pleasure, marriages, and reproductive lives.

The first paper, presented by Dr. Tera Hunter, a professor at Princeton University, illuminated the way in which the prohibition against marriage was at the foundation of denying enslaved people personhood, as well as central to the maintenance of chattel slavery as a legal institution. Despite this prohibition, Hunter analyzed sources which revealed the emotional and spiritual potential available within the “custom” of marriage among enslaved people, while understanding that the rights of the slaveowner superseded any other claim. The question and answer session allowed Hunter to explain some of the most interesting ways she was able to read the sources, yet she explained that she is still confounded by the sources’ inability to reveal the depth of romantic and sexual relationships once a couple “married.”

Dr. Jessica Millward, assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, examined the reproductive demands placed on enslaved women and the ways in which these demands manifested in legislation and practices to keep enslaved women subjugated, even if their children could be free. Her paper also sparked a rich discussion of pedagogy, and allowed the panel and audience to explore new ways of presenting an often bleak narrative to undergraduates, as well as calling on interdisciplinary approaches that might help historians address some issues not found in traditional archival sources.

Dr. Barbara Krauthamer, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and currently a Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Historical Studies at UT Austin, presented a paper that explored the “possibilities of pleasure” despite the restricted and often depraved conditions Black women experienced under slavery. The panelists and the conference attendees found it exciting and challenging to be able to explore Black female sexuality within a different context. While they acknowledged that the realities of sexual abuse and exploitation dominate the literature, they argued that this fact should not foreclose the possibility of finding instances of love or sexual relationships which can add dimensionality to the story of Black women without misrepresenting their experiences while enslaved. In the final question of the session, Ava Purkiss, Ph.D Candidate in History at UT Austin, provided a provocative imperative to scholars when she suggested that historians can use existing sources to find other sites of pleasure as means to understand the experiences of enslaved Black women.

Panel Five: "Feminist, Visual and Linguistic Approaches to Slave Sexuality"

The final panel of the conference, chaired by Jennifer M. Wilks, associate professor of English at UT Austin, was a fitting end to a thought-provoking conference. Continuing to expand the theme into areas of gender studies and visual and linguistic culture, these final three papers showed how categories and assumptions can be explored, amplified, clarified, and extended through creative methods and approaches.

Dr. Jennifer L. Morgan, Professor at New York University, led the session with a talk about her paper entitled, "Towards a Black Feminist Epistemology of Gender and Slavery." The overarching theme of her paper was tracing the connection between the feminist movement that began in the 1970s and the historiography of women and slavery. In her work, Morgan proposed a "Black feminist epistemology," a method that centers (enslaved) women and refuses to turn the historical gaze away from them. This led to two important points. First, she reminded the audience that the conversation about enslaved women's history is ongoing and that the work of scholars such as Deborah Gray White was never about ending the conversation about the history of enslaved women but was rather a new beginning. Second, Morgan challenged the type of information scholars privilege, questioning both the database and the archive. Databases and the counting of bodies, Morgan argued, are the very technology of racism because they recreate the rationality of evidentiary practices that are precisely located at the crux of racial and gender violence. Archives, on the other hand, serve as testimony to the violence that historians of enslaved women are trying to understand. The very creation and maintenance of archival documents reveals the systemic refusal and calculated absence of specific people and information. Black feminist epistemology, Morgan said, helps to produce a relationship to the archive that actively acknowledges the ways in which power is exercised in the archive.

Dr. Daina Ramey Berry, associate professor at UT Austin, presented her paper, "'Buck,' 'Pussy,' 'Angus' and 'Wench':  Naming, Sexuality, and Personality in the Slave South." Berry's project looks at how slaves in the U.S. South were named, specifically focusing on names that were sexual in meaning. To do this work, Berry stated that she could not rely on a constructed narrative and had to accept that it would require imagination and respect for the silences inherent in the historical record. The work, though, is necessary because names are profound descriptions of a person's origin and personality, and, in many cases, may be the only record we have of an enslaved person's existence. Berry admitted that it is a difficult project because slaves were given names, often multiple different names throughout their lives. Berry's paper focused on names with a sexual connotation to draw attention to the phenomenon itself and to begin to contemplate the reasons for it.  She also contended that these sexualized names, especially those for women - wench, pussy, and clit - are examples of the ways in which we gain access to history through enslaved (women's) bodies. In the end, interrogating the names of enslaved people and the meanings and motivations behind them, Berry argued, may bring us closer to revelations about the institution of slavery as a whole.

Dr. Tamara J. Walker, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, presented a paper entitled, "Ladies, Gentlemen, Slaves & Citizens." Walker's work considered both the physical labor and symbolic labor of Black bodies in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Peru, mainly by looking at how people thought about and used clothing to define themselves and others. In comparing the colonial to the Republican period, Walker found there to be dramatic differences. In the latter, as the new nation attempted to consolidate its power and population, there was an erasure of color terms in the archive; the term "slave" existed but not "free people of color," for example. Walker argued that clothing, though, gave people of African descent a chance to define themselves within. She showed images of items such as uniforms worn by soldiers and the changing shapes of skirts to illustrate these desires. In conclusion, she stated that by looking at how enslaved people chose to clothe their bodies, historians can understand better how these individuals saw themselves, despite the efforts of the larger culture to define them.

Each of these panels successfully worked to challenge and broaden our understanding of sexuality and slavery. Participants, organizers, and audience members left with new questions to consider and new perspectives to incorporate into their work and into their lives. One high school student, Paige Hall, who attended the conference after she heard about it from a teacher, explained, "It’s made me realize that there was no uniform experience of slavery that either men or women had. They were individuals and they had independent struggles that they had to overcome as they formed their own place in society.”

The Institute for Historical Studies was honored to help bring this groundbreaking work into the conversation concerning slavery in the Americas. The conference was co-sponsored with the kind support of the Department of History, the Littlefield Fund for Southern History, the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference at Emory University, the College of Liberal Arts, the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, Program in British Studies, and the Center for Women's and Gender Studies.

Conference Web site:

COLA feature on the "Sexuality & Slavery" conference:

Panel I —Cameron Strang, Panel II — Jessica Wolcott Luther, Panel III — Jermaine Thibodeaux, Panel IV — Adrienne Sockwell, Panel V — Jessica Wolcott Luther, Edited by Angela Smith.

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