The implications of considering one human being as another’s property in bona fide, are a myriad of moral, psychological, political and economic topics that many would rather avoid talking about.
You may even sympathize with them because these discussions are cumbersome.
Apart from the near-universal repudiation of what was chattel slavery and its trade, there are still somewhat well-meaning people who have not come around to accepting how slavery has shaped modern America.
Consider sexual relationships between enslaved Africans and free white people.
Sally Hemings comes to mind. There are those who have sought to portray Hemings’ relationship with the patriarch Thomas Jefferson as a loving relationship.
This is in spite of the glaring fact that Hemings was Jefferson’s literal property.
What may have been an attempt at pointing at the silver linen in slavery, – as if there were any – results in these silver linen seekers overlooking the social essence of “property”.
Part of our society feels the incessant need to whitewash the ugliness of white slaveowners having sexual relations with enslaved black women.
What proceeds from this whitewashing is collective amnesia over how young black women and girls have become constant sexualized images in the minds of those who hold power and influence.
The former slave, Harriet Jacobs, wrote for posterity in 1861 about the very foundation of the idea of the “whorish black woman” in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
In contrast to black women who were considered whores, is the idea of white women, especially in the Antebellum South, who were seen as pure and virtuous.
Southern women, especially of the plantation class, were the precious jewels of Southern culture. In the thought of the times, they were to be taken care of by their men.
Their supposed purity was linked to their sexuality and virtue to their ability to maintain a home according to traditional Southern Christian values.
They also existed to humanize their men, a social process best summarized by the Rev. William Hooper addressing women at the Sedgwick Female Seminary, North Carolina in 1847:
“Leave men to themselves without the intermixture of female society and the softening influence of female modesty, gentleness and affection, and they would infallibly become rude, harsh, coarse, quarrelsome, and in their quarrels cruel and unrelenting. The world would resemble an amphitheatre of wild beasts.”
Prudence, modesty and restraint were expected of a white Southern woman. These were to make up for the believed inferiority in their intellectual capacity.
The idea that a white woman needed to be spatially and physically protected was why an enslaved black man could lose his life if found in an intimate relationship with her.
As with human nature, the fear of death never quite stopped some from living dangerously. In this case, a white woman, with not much to lose if found out, would most likely initiate the affair.
The worst that could have happened to an upper-class Southern wife caught sleeping with an enslaved man was to be cast out of her social circles.
Why then would they sleep with an enslaved man?
The theories abound. Everything from Freudian justifications of fulfilling carnal desires and curiosities to good-old love and romance has been propounded.
Whatever the reasons, there are documented allegations of relationships between white women who initiated their enslaved black men.
Captain Richard Hinton, a Union soldier in the Civil War, wrote, as per Martha Hodes’ account:
“I have never found a bright-looking colored man, whose confidences I have won… who has not told me of instances where he has been compelled, either by his mistress, or by white women of the same class, to have connection with them.”
In her narrative too, Jacobs recounted a story of a daughter of a plantation owner who got pregnant sleeping with a slave:
“They know that the women slaves are subject to their father’s authority in all things; and in some cases they exercise the same authority over the men slaves. I have myself seen the master of such a household whose head was bowed down in shame; for it was known in the neighborhood that his daughter had selected one of the meanest slaves on his plantation to be the father of his first grandchild. She did not make her advances to her equals, nor even to her father’s more intelligent servants. She selected the most brutalized, over whom her authority could be exercised with less fear of exposure.”
But these anecdotes do not also explain the deep-seated antipathy towards the sexuality of the African man. The answer to that question goes further than slavery in the Americas.
European spectatorship on the physicality of the African man has roots in the 15th-century pseudoscience of the European Enlightenment. Historically, in their interaction with Europeans, black bodies have been good for two things, either to be maligned or exploited.
The malignancy of black bodies is inextricably linked to the fetishization of the black man’s “strength” and “virility”. He is beastly and as such, brawny but without brains.
It is why apart from the menial tasks on the plantation, slaves could be asked to fight each other for slavemasters’ pleasure. The movie Django Unchained got this historical fact right.
Such beastly folks were thus never to be seen with white women. We thus understand the furor that led to the lynchings of Emmett Till and Willie Howard in times even after slavery.