Overcoming the Sexual and Religious Legacies of Slavery

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Slavery Exhibit

Art in an exhibit remembering the evils of slavery around the world. Credit: Creative Commons/quadelirus.

Because of the U.S. history of slavery, assumptions about the sexuality of African American women in the United States differ from those made about European American women. Racial stereotypes rooted in the beliefs of the slavery era pervade U.S. culture. These include the asexual Black Mammy who cares for white children but not for her own; the hypersexual, irresponsible Jezebel who tempts white men to sin; the Welfare Queen who cheats the taxpayers; and the domineering Black Matriarch who is to blame for her children’s failures. The sexual stereotype of enslaved women as licentious extends far back into history; modern racism extended it to all Black women and also used the myth of Black hypersexuality as a reason to enslave Black people.

Two stories illustrate how slaveholders have blamed the enslaved victims for their sexual exploitation. The first story is a nineteenth-century U.S. slave narrative written pseudonymously by Harriet A. Jacobs, who describes how her owner, “Dr. Flint,” who had recently become a church member, told her to obey him by having sex with her. The fifteen-year-old “Linda” sensed Mrs. Flint’s jealousy, even though “I had hitherto succeeded in eluding my master, though a razor was often held to my throat to force me to change this line of policy.” Dr. Flint, already the father of eleven slaves, threatened to sell her or to beat her if she did not give in, and said, “I would cherish you. I would make a lady of you. Now go, and think of all that I have promised you.”

Saint Andrew

Saint Andrew. Credit: Creative Commons/Fergal of Claddagh.

Centuries earlier, around the second century CE, the popular Acts of Andrew recounted the legend of Maximilla, a Christian woman who tried to lead a celibate life, much to the chagrin of her pagan husband, Aigeates. To avoid sex with her husband, Maximilla devised the remarkably successful plan of selecting her beautiful and “by nature extremely undisciplined” slave woman to act as her surrogate. The slave woman’s character and euphemistic name “Euklia” (Greek for “of good reputation”) seem to have predestined her for the task. Not being pure (because she was enslaved and thus by definition impure), she could not be corrupted. The whole plan went horribly wrong when Euklia, like Hagar in Genesis, took pride in sleeping with the master and even told others. In response, her master mutilated her body and cast her out into the street until she should die and the dogs consume her corpse. But the Acts of Andrew describes Maximilla as the “blessed one,” not criticizing her with a single word.

The logic of slavery is to blame the enslaved for their plight.

Resilience and Resistance

Throughout history, enslaved women and girls, men and boys, have resisted the role of victim. Beginning with Genesis, in which Hagar fled her mistress Sarah’s harsh treatment, fleeing slavery is an age-old form of resistance. Flight from cruelty testifies to enslaved persons’ rejection of their treatment as lesser beings or as property and challenges anyone today who believes that slavery may have been morally tolerable in the past. If slavery were morally acceptable to enslaved people, why do the most ancient of historical sources document their attempts to flee their owners?

Hagar Leaves the House of Abraham

“Hagar Leaves the House of Abraham” by Pieter Paul Rubens. Credit: Creative Commons/Jojojoe.

In some circumstances, enslaved women were able to take legal steps to challenge their position. Of ninety-four lawsuits demanding freedom that were filed between 1425 and 1520 in Valencia, in what is now Spain, thirty-three were filed by enslaved women who claimed that their masters had fathered their children or that their own fathers were free men, and thus they were due their freedom under the law. They characterized themselves as virtuous or as devoted concubines to their masters. “Of these thirty-three women,” historian Debra Blumenthal writes, “fifteen won.”

Enslaved women in the United States had no such right. Antebellum inheritance cases illustrate how little enslaved women in the United States could hope to gain from a liaison with the master. In Louisiana, some masters freed their enslaved sexual partners in their wills. But heirs frequently contested these manumissions because under state law, a man was not allowed to bequeath more than ten percent of his estate to a concubine. If the value of the concubine herself exceeded ten percent of her master’s estate, she remained enslaved. In the “sexual economy” of slavery in the United States, judges had to walk a fine line between recognizing men’s right to control and dispose of their property as they wished, and preserving the racial hierarchy that kept wealth in the hands of whites while keeping many African Americans enslaved.

Bust of Emperor Vespasian

A bust of the Roman Emperor Vespasian. Credit: Creative Commons/Richard Mortel.

In spite of their precarious position, enslaved girls and women sometimes initiated sexual relationships with their masters or other free men. Sexual attractiveness and the ability to bear the master or his son a child could be an enslaved woman’s best hope for a better life and could even entitle her to legal rights. In the Roman Empire, including among early Christians, most unmarried men could free an enslaved woman and then legally marry her. Similarly, when a woman enslaved to a Muslim man, who acknowledged paternity of her children, gave birth to free children, could not be sold and would be free upon the master’s death. Contrast Sally Hemings’s situation as Thomas Jefferson’s slave woman with that of Caenis, the formerly enslaved concubine of first-century CE Roman Emperor Vespasian: “Even after he became emperor he treated her almost as a lawful wife.”

Public Policy and Law

When the Civil War ended in 1865, the majority of religious people in both the North and the South who found biblical support for slavery did not turn to the Book of Deuteronomy, which commanded slaveholders to give freed slaves what they needed to start a new life. They turned back to what they knew: slavery as a God-given right. De facto slavery persisted, particularly in the Southern states. A number of African American men were arrested on trumped-up charges such as loitering and forced into industrial slavery. The Ku Klux Klan, a Protestant Christian terrorist organization, employed all means of violence against formerly enslaved people and their descendants. The Klan’s reign of terror included sexual violence against women and men, practiced with impunity.

The U.S. criminal justice system arguably still reflects the attitudes of the slavery era. This will seem implausible to some readers, especially decades after the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, the conceptual linkage between slavery and imprisonment in the United States dates to at least the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery in 1865: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

But the problem of how U.S. society treats African Americans (and others) who break the law actually lies deeper, in the assumption that only the virtuous deserve freedom or citizenship. Nineteenth-century abolitionists understood this assumption, promoting narratives of formerly enslaved women and men who strove to attain Christian virtue.

Virginia Christian

Virginia Christian, the first woman executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Credit: Creative Commons/Virginia Penitentiary.

Every society needs a criminal justice system to hold perpetrators accountable for their behavior. That justice system, if it is to retain its authority and effectiveness, must carefully determine guilt and innocence, and it must treat convicted persons according to the highest moral standards. A moral society is one that treats all its members—even the weakest, most vulnerable, and most damaged—with equal respect for their rights as human beings. But as human rights activist Ellen Barry has documented, African Americans are incarcerated in numbers highly disproportionate to their percentage of the population, which means that prison policies disproportionately affect them. Certain prison practices echo the treatment of women enslaved in the United States, including shackling while women are giving birth (a practice that in its brutality goes even beyond the treatment of most enslaved women in the United States), the removal of newborns from their mothers, and using men to guard female prisoners.

The attitudes of the slavery era also continue to shadow the U.S. justice system’s treatment of women who have been sexually assaulted. In the time of slavery, European Americans portrayed Black women as hypersexual and enslaved women had no legal right to protection from rape. After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan used sexual violence against African Americans with impunity. As studies by Elizabeth Kennedy and Jennifer C. Nash show, Black women are less likely to report a rape, prosecutors are less willing to file charges, and juries are less prone to convict than if the rape complainant were white.

Changing the Stories We Tell

People in the United States are beginning to recognize the ways in which the stories they tell about themselves and each other reinforce the damage done by slavery. They are also starting to realize that it is possible to change those stories to reflect the society that they wish to create. In a book I edited titled Beyond Slavery: Overcoming Its Religious and Sexual Legacies, Frances Smith Foster analyzes how stories about slavery can keep women whose ancestors were (or could have been) enslaved separated from those whose ancestors were (or could have been) slaveholders. The difficulty of sustaining interracial friendships between women hinders the struggle for racial and sexual equality, making it more difficult to promote the goals of feminist sexual ethics: sexual relationships based on meaningful consent (that is, consent without any form of pressure, whether economic, familial, social or political) and the mutual respect and pleasure of each partner.

Foster uses Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose to illustrate how differing stories about slavery keep women apart. In the novel, Ruth, a white woman, remembers the love of her “Mammy,” the Black woman who cared for her as a child. Dessa asks what “Mammy’s” real name was, and Ruth replies sharply that “Mammy” was her name. But Dessa says that “Mammy” had a name of her own and children of her own. Foster argues that we can change our stories, because it has been done before. Nineteenth-century progressive African American women claimed the title “Mrs.” (whether or not they were married) to counter the prevailing view that they lacked sexual virtue and family ties. Foster challenges the reader to create new stories that will unite rather than divide. This includes recognizing that many enslaved women were not raped, not all African Americans are the descendants of slaves, and many enslaved women resisted victimhood.

Homer's A Visit from the Old Mistress

“A Visit from the Old Mistress” by Winslow Homer. Credit: Creative Commons/Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of William T. Evans.

Florence Ladd is another writer who is participating in a similar project. For example, she creates a new story in her poetic meditation on Winslow Homer’s painting A Visit from the Old Mistress. In point/counterpoint, she gives voice to the differing narratives of the previously enslaved family and the former mistress who visits their cabin. Ladd lays bare the chasm between the two sides, inviting the reader to a greater understanding of the costs of slavery to both enslaved and enslaver.

And author Nancy Rawles creates a new story in her prayer for her daughter, that her child not be afraid; that she understand her ancestral history, but never experience its humiliations; that she know the power of love over hate; and that she gain strength from her mother’s love.

Religious Communities and Governments Face Up to Past Support for Slavery

In 1975, John Francis Maxwell, a Roman Catholic priest, introduced his collection of Catholic historical sources on slavery by arguing that it was not good enough to sweep evidence of the church’s complicity under the rug. He proclaimed that an error of such gravity requires official correction, investigation of its causes, and attempts to ensure that it does not happen again. This eminently reasonable proposal matches what we expect from government, business, and nonprofit organizations, but we rarely expect religious institutions to correct their mistakes. Yet the church was complicit in slavery. Popes were slaveholders; canon law excommunicated those who persuaded an enslaved person to flee from their master; in the fifteenth century, the Vatican granted official approval to Portugal and Spain to engage in the slave trade in West Africa “to invade, conquer, crush, pacify, and subjugate any whomsoever Saracens, and pagans, and other enemies of Christ … and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery”; and the Vatican supported slavery as late as 1866.

In the current era it’s necessary for religious communities to take a hard look at our institutions support for slavery. Why did Roman Catholicism and other branches of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam accept slavery for so many centuries? How has slavery shaped gender and sexual ethics in these three religious traditions? And how can Jews, Christians, and Muslims draw upon the compassionate values of their traditions to overcome the lingering effects of slavery.

Molnar's Moses leading the Israelits from Egypt

“Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt” by József Molnár. Credit: Creative Commons/Csanády.

The Book of Leviticus prefaces its slave law with instructions on how to prevent slavery: “If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent upon you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens.” Leviticus also reminds the Israelites of their own past enslavement. As in the time of Leviticus, society can create public policies that support the millions of persons worldwide at risk of enslavement.

Christian ethicist Emilie Townes has proposed a way to think about public policy that is free of the racial-sexual stereotypes developed during and after the U.S. system of slavery. She describes how the lingering perception of African American families as depraved has shaped contemporary welfare policy. She suggests that the stereotypes of the Welfare Queen and the Black Matriarch, for example, led lawmakers to focus on preventing teenage pregnancy rather than on resolving the deeper structural problems of bad schools and the lack of affordable day-care centers. Christian values can, however, help to create a more just society. Townes implies that sexual morality never exists in a vacuum—that people make sexual decisions within the context of their educational opportunities, their ability to engage in meaningful work, and their access to health care. She calls upon individuals to care for one another, rather than first and foremost for themselves. For Christians, their life’s meaning lies in their relationship to God and to others in the world, and not just in their job.

Creating a sexual ethics untainted by slaveholding values requires first grasping the full implications of the past religious belief that owning another person’s body is morally permissible and then developing sexual ethics based on the premise that all human beings deserve freedom. Sexual ethics includes a society’s assumptions about the sexuality of an ethnic group; the ways in which young people’s access to health care, safe neighborhoods, and a good education affect their sexual experiences and choices; how a criminal justice system treats an incarcerated woman while she takes a shower or gives birth; whether religious marriage grants equal rights and responsibilities to each party; whether religious and civil marriage are restricted to one man and one woman or include same-gender marriage; whether prosecutors and juries respond to all rape complaints based on the merits of the case rather than on biased assumptions; and how families and communities respond to sexual abuse within a family.

Numerous Jews, Christians, and Muslims already now read their sacred scriptures and religious law through the lens of freedom, and most people today, and the laws of all nations, reject slavery. Why did this seismic shift happen? Perhaps religious people chose the most compassionate aspects of their tradition, those that stress human equality and caring for one another. Or perhaps religious people have adopted the human rights values that became the basis of secular society, that is, Enlightenment values.

We are witnessing unprecedented progress in facing up to the history of slavery. The Church of England has apologized for having sustained and benefited from slavery in the Caribbean in the eighteenth century. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams explained, “The Body of Christ is not just a body that exists at any one time; it exists across history and we therefore share the shame and the sinfulness of our predecessors, and part of what we can do, with them and for them in the Body of Christ, is prayerful acknowledgement of the failure that is part of us, not just of some distant ‘them.’”

Congressman John Conyers, Jr.

Congressman John Conyers, Jr. at the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Credit: Creative Commons/Talk New Radio Service.

In the United States, both the House of Representatives and the Senate have apologized for slavery and for subsequent discriminatory laws. Congressman John Conyers, Jr., Democrat of Michigan, has introduced House Resolution 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. Some other religious denominations and groups have apologized for slavery but have made no move toward reparations.

Biblical slave law calls for owners to supply their freedpersons with some of the wealth that they helped to create: “Thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress; out of that wherewith the Lord thy God hath blessed thee shalt thou give unto him” (King James Version, as read by nineteenth-century slaveholders).

There are many and diverse ways to address the long term economic effects of slavery. Some may support governmental reparations to direct descendants of enslaved persons, or scholarships or health care targeting affected communities. Others may work toward the public disclosure of past relationships to slavery, which may expose past corporate relationships to slavery. For example, in 2005 J. P. Morgan Chase Bank apologized for its predecessor bank in Louisiana’s ownership of slaves and acceptance of slaves as collateral, and it established a $5 million scholarship fund for Black students in Louisiana.

What Congregations Can Do to Move Beyond the Legacies of Slavery

  • Individual congregations can investigate their past relationship to slavery. If a church, synagogue, or mosque were built with the labor of enslaved persons, a congregation could erect a plaque to memorialize those laborers.
  • Jews, Christians, and Muslims can look closely at the question of how slavery shaped religious thought and law about sexuality and marriage.
  • Jews, Christians, and Muslims can read their sacred texts and religious laws through the lens of freedom, rather than through the lens of slavery. This means giving preference to texts and traditions based on compassion with enslaved persons and with free wives and free children—whose treatment continues to be based on concepts founded in slavery, although to a much lesser extent than in the past.
  • Creative members of these religious communities can continue to find ways to reformulate marriage and family law so that all parties are equal.

Recognizing Slavery’s Effects on Sexuality

Sexual decisions are not isolated, individual choices. Decisions are more likely to be free and fully consensual when communities support individuals, including through education, health care, and employment. Public statements recognizing slavery’s effects will better equip everyone to:

  • Transform society into one in which all members enjoy reproductive freedom and opportunities for free and healthy expressions of sexuality.
  • Live without fear of sexual coercion.
  • Enjoy Equality within heterosexual and same-gender marriage.
  • Have full access to excellent education, health care, and employment opportunities.

Removing Echoes of Slavery in the Criminal Justice System

This step is necessary to ensure that:

  • Reports of sexual assault are judged on the merits of the case, without racial prejudice.
  • Incarcerated women and their children are treated according to international human rights standards, which grant greater rights to incarcerated persons than does U.S. law.

People also need to consider the negative effects of the extremely high incarceration rates in the United States on African American and other communities and to find ways to lower these rates.

Creating a National Slavery Museum and Slavery Museums in Each State

To confront beyond the legacy of slavery, we also need to build a national slavery museum with exhibits to explore the following issues:

  • The sexual exploitation of enslaved persons and their resistance to it.
  • The effects of slavery on the family, including the lack of legal recognition of slave marriage, the breakup of families, slave-breeding by masters, and enslaved persons’ creation of families under the most difficult of circumstances.
  • The economic advantages of slavery to consumers.
  • Religious, governmental, and other institutional roles in condoning slavery.
  • Tributes to those persons who fought back.

Curators can do this in ways sensitive to the presence of children, and they can develop educational programs on enslaved children.

Including Slavery Education in All School Curricula

  • The curriculum must be honest.
  • All teaching must recognize that legal slavery in the United States was a national phenomenon that benefited Northern slave traders, Northern textile mills and other industries, and consumers throughout the nation and in countries that imported U.S. products.

Enacting Slavery-Era Disclosure Statutes in Towns, Cities, and States

  • Publish findings locally.
  • Issue public apologies to descendants of enslaved persons.

Considering Reparations for Slavery and Subsequent Discriminatory Laws

These could be trust funds for direct descendants of enslaved persons and for those who experienced substantial discrimination during the Jim Crow period and who did not benefit from affirmative action. These funds could be directed toward the following areas:

  • Health care
  • Education
  • Housing

Preventing Forced Labor and Contemporary Slavery

Activists need to prevent all forms of forced labor and child labor. Some activists target sexual slavery alone, as if it were possible to eradicate sexual slavery before abolishing other types of forced labor. But as the essays of this volume illustrate, sexual exploitation is inherent to slavery because of the enslaved person’s economic and political vulnerability. The International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency, monitors forced labor and reports on initiatives to prevent it. Free the Slaves is one particularly effective organization.

Everyone can contribute something to freedom each day, in memory of those who lived in slavery all the days of their lives and in compassion with those who are living in slavery now.

This article was adapted from the introduction to Beyond Slavery: Overcoming Its Religious and Sexual Legacies edited by Bernadette Brooten with the editorial assistance of Jacqueline L. Hazelton (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

(To return to the Winter 2013 Table of Contents, click here.)


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