Dierksheide on Smithers, 'Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History'

Gregory D. Smithers
Dr. Christa Dierksheide

Gregory D. Smithers. Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013. xii + 257 pp. $74.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-4238-1; $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8130-4960-1.

Reviewed by Dr. Christa Dierksheide (Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello) Published on H-SAWH (April, 2015) Commissioned by Lisa A. Francavilla

Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History

For many historians, the early South was divided into two discrete parts—an Upper South, where slaveholders were more benign and progressive, allowing for the self-reproduction of their slaves, and a Lower or “Deep South” where white masters were more brutal and sadistic, drastically shortening the lifespans of enslaved people. But in his new book, Gregory D. Smithers questions the putative link between “good masters” and the “surplus” slave numbers in states like Virginia and Maryland during the antebellum era. Instead, Smithers argues that masters in the Upper South were no better than their brethren to the south: they knowingly and systematically bred slaves for market in order to maximize profits. Rather than focusing exclusively on the corporal punishment inflicted by slaveowners upon the bodies of enslaved individuals or on the breakup of slave families through the internal slave trade as the hallmarks of an inhumane system, Smithers shifts attention to the “coercive, often violent, reproductive practices” known as slave breeding (p. 1).

But Smithers’s main goal is not to use African Americans’ experiences of breeding regimes as a tool to reshape interpretations of slavery in the postrevolutionary and antebellum South. Rather, he is interested in breeding as an important trope deployed in the construction of historical narratives about American slavery and its legacy. Specifically, Smithers is interested in how slave breeding was appropriated and deployed by blacks during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, allowing them to explain and “contextualize contemporary acts of racial and sexual violence against an exceptionally brutal historical backdrop” (p. 3). Using a sweeping definition of “slave breeding”—a “malleable narrative shorthand in which social norms, cultural values, and historical consciousness can be ‘bred’ or learned”—that goes beyond an economic interpretation, Smithers asserts that few tropes in African American culture are as “powerfully evocative” as slave breeding (pp. 2-3, 6). Indeed, the experience of sexual violence and manipulation, he asserts, help explain the objectification of black bodies, the distortion of gender roles, the fragility of the African American family, and the need to make sense of brutality in a racially charged society (p. 10).

The first chapters explore the emergence of slave breeding in the debate between pro- and antislavery factions during the antebellum era, as well as that trope’s subsequent suppression by Lost Cause mythologizers of the postbellum period. Smithers asserts that white masters’ systematic breeding of their human chattel demonstrated that the practice “was not simply about demographics and profits,” but was, as black abolitionists saw it, “a set of interlocking practices that demeaned black people and left the life of the enslaved hanging by a thread” (p. 39). It was the assault on slave families through sexual predation, Smithers states, that attracted white allies, specifically, northern abolitionists who sought to protect the sacred institutions of marriage and family. But after the Civil War, white southerners created a Lost Cause mythology that cast “slavery as a benign system of coerced labor” and ignored the brutality and sexual violence that black and white abolitionists had ascribed to the “peculiar institution” before the war (p. 46). To counter this myth, white northern historians and social scientists in the postbellum era attempted to portray “‘illicit’ plantation encounters”—including slave breeding—as “unnatural acts of exploitation” that harmed the “moral fiber of the southern body politic and [were] destructive to the progressive evolution” of white America (p. 50). African Americans, on the other hand, grappled with the legacy of slave breeding practices in the antebellum South. Black women, in particular, who as free individuals now had the power to shape the “rising generation” of black Americans, sought to “take control of their own households, moral education, and reproductive life” (p. 61).

The next several chapters detail how a number of black constituencies—African American historians, playwrights, and former slaves—in the early twentieth century used antebellum slave-breeding practices to resist a white narrative of slavery that depicted a paternal institution and to convey a more accurate picture of the horrors of slavery and its devastating legacy on black Americans. Smithers shows how influential black historians like W. E. B. Dubois, Carter G. Woodson, and E. Franklin Frazier utilized empirical evidence and African American experiences of sexual exploitation under slavery to counter racist white historians’ claims that the “peculiar institution” was a system of “amiable patronage” (p. 63) and to undermine assertions that blacks had become “economically impoverished, politically disenfranchised, and culturally marginalized” because the “school” of slavery had been destroyed (p. 67). Just as black historians sought to revise Lost Cause mythology and whites’ explanation of the “Negro problem,” so too did black writers of the Harlem Rennaissance resist efforts to “sanitize the significance of slavery in American history and protested the racism and sexism that affected early-twentieth-century black Americans” (p. 83). During the era of Jim Crow, playwrights crafted narratives for black audiences that transferred “the very real theater of southern lynching” to the stage, where “political objectives could be achieved” by highlighting the “emotional and historical connections between sex, slavery, and violence in American history” (p. 84). Parodies, black musicals, and plays reminded African American actors and audiences that the “legacies of slavery endured in the racial politics of the Jim Crow era” and “subtly encouraged resistance against white historical accounts of slavery and early-twentieth-century race relations” (p. 91). Between 1936 and 1938, more than two thousand former slaves from seventeen states were interviewed by staff of the Works Progress Administration. In his strongest chapter of the book, Smithers shows how WPA interviewees detailed plantation practices that included directing pairings of slave men and women, rewards for fertility, and masters’ use of male “stud” slaves to impregnate multiple women. By narrating these “episodes,” former slaves were “empowered” to “actively narrate violent sexual abuses” of slavery during the violent and racist Jim Crow era, demonstrating that African Americans would not accept white historians’ attempts to erase “them from collective memory” (p. 126). It was this resistance to a white narrative, Smithers suggests, that helped pave the way for the civil rights movement.

The last two chapters describe how the memory of sexual exploitation during slavery and Jim Crow shaped the civil rights and post-civil rights era. Smithers asserts that the “memory and legacy of racial violence and sexual assault” had a profound impact on the rhetoric, politics, and protests of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Leaders used the violent and coercive nature of slavery to “force Americans to confront the darkest aspects of its past” in order to “change the republic’s future course” (pp. 128-129). Indeed, African Americans such as Martin Luther King Jr. believed that the civil rights movement was “a Christian mission to right the wrongs of American history” (p. 133). In this way, the crusade was not simply a struggle to gain political equality, but was also a platform for African Americans to disseminate their own historical narrative of slavery and its legacy, a narrative that emphasized physical and sexual brutality and was oppositional to a white narrative that “sanitized” slavery. But Smithers suggests that while civil rights leaders successfully ended segregation, they were less effective in compelling white Americans to listen to “black America’s history lessons” (p. 143). Because of this, a new generation of writers, actors, and filmmakers attempted to “shock” white audiences into engaging with the brutality of slavery during the 1970s. “Blaxploitation,” “slaveploitation,” and “shockumentary” films explored themes of sexual violence and interracial sex in graphic detail in order to revise whites’ mainstream and sanitized historical narratives of slavery (p. 145). Films, novels, and plays sought to confront the “open wound” of slavery, and slave breeding in particular, in ways that resonated with African Americans and in terms that conjured emotion rather than “statistics and data sets” (p. 171).

It is evident that Smithers is most interested in the construction of historical narratives about slavery by white and black leaders and scholars since the antebellum era. And within these narratives, slave breeding emerged either as a practice to be ignored or dismissed, as in the case of white narratives, or to be highlighted to help “understand racial violence, sexual exploitation, and the external pressures placed on black families since slavery,” as in the case of black narratives. Thus, Smithers is most interested in slave breeding as a trope deployed by different constituencies rather than as actual lived experience (p. 173). But this emphasis seems at odds with his purpose of prioritizing the “emotional” history of slavery over economic histories that often ignore the fact that slavery remains an “open wound” in America today. If slave breeding was a powerful, emotionally charged topic, then it is the experiences of sexual manipulation as related by former slaves in the WPA narratives that best illustrate Smithers’s goal. Thus, I wish Smithers had focused more on African American oral histories to demonstrate the powerful significance of slave breeding to African Americans’ memory of slavery. I would have thought that the actual experiences of sexual predation would better serve to force “individuals to grapple with the emotional dimensions of the past” (p. 172) than scholarly narratives constructed by black leaders and intelligentsia between the Civil War and today.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=43055

Citation: Dr. Christa Dierksheide. Review of Smithers, Gregory D., Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History. H-SAWH, H-Net Reviews. April, 2015. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=43055

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