Monday, December 31, 2012

Just Finished Reading

Well, with another quick read this past weekend I have fallen a little behind in my "Just Finished Reading" posts, so I'll try to attempt to catch up here. If you follow my blog you know that I have read some great books this year. New studies are coming out seemingly each week on diverse historical topics, and there is an almost never ending list of previously published books like this one that I am trying to get into my queue for the upcoming year.

Of the 69 books I read this year Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861, is certainly in the top five. In this fascinating look at mixed race relationship issues, University of Alabama professor Joshua D. Rothman uses numerous court records from the early republic and antebellum periods to complete a fascinating and illuminating look at relationships that were more often than not taboo, but not so rare as once thought.

Rothman starts out the book by looking at what is probably the most famous mixed race relationship in American history; that of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Rothman particularly examines the political attack that James Callender, a writer for the Richmond Recorder, made on Jefferson in 1802 about this very issue. Rothman concludes that Callender misjudged the effect the exposed situation would have. White Virginians understood that interracial relationships were a fact of life in the slaveholding state, but they did not appreciate their "dirty laundry" being aired publicly, especially when it concerned a venerated son of Virginia. Rothman contends that Callender's expose backfired, "By moving the rumor of Jefferson's interracial sexual affairs from private to public discourse, Callender touched off whole new rounds of discussions about the president all over the country, but he also succeeded in cementing his own reputation as a scoundrel, a judgement that has lasted for two hundred years."

Another case that Rothman investigates closely was also from Charlottesville, Virginia. It involved the long-term relationship between Jewish mercantile business owner David Isaacs and free woman of color Nancy West. Not allowed to marry due to Virginia laws, Isaacs and West maintained a common law relationship that proved instead of being detrimental to be one of great benefit to each partner. The couple lived together for forty years and had seven children together. At times they faced harassing suits from business competitors intent on seeing a rival go out of business, but they persevered and prospered.

Chapter 3, "Sex and Race on the Streets of Richmond," is a fascinating look into the back alleys and dark illegal businesses that thrived in the antebellum capital of Virginia. Rothman makes strong use of Mayor Joseph Mayo's court records, which handled many of the misdemeanor cases that involved prostitution and illegal trading of goods with slaves. Urban slavery was quite different than rural plantation slavery. In cities such as Richmond, slaves often had more "liberty" to hire their time and make their own living arrangements. These "freedoms" often led to illegal activities that led to illicit ways to earn income. Rothman writes that "Interracial sex became not only unpalatable to Richmonders but something that needed to be rooted out and prevented. No matter how vigilant white Richmonders came to be by the onset of the Civil War, however, they never effectively stamped out the interracial vice in their midst."

Other fascinating chapters cover violence that slaves extracted on owners who took sexual advantage of women slaves; divorce petitions from men asking to sever their marriages to women who were found to have had relationships with black men - by pregnancy results or eyewitness accounts; and from women whose husbands flagrantly lived in adulterous relationships with slave women. I was amazed to find how blatant slaveowning husbands often were toward their wives. I suppose they were because they knew how powerless women were, both wives and slave partners, to effect much change in the male's behavior.

In the "Epilogue" Rothman sums up his findings quite nicely: "For most of the seventy-five years before the Civil War, whites met the discovery of sex across the color line with disapprobation but also with equanimity. They recognized that exploitative, familial, commercial, and adulterous interracial sexual liaisons were all unavoidable in a multiracial world, especially where 'our family, white and black,' served as one of the central metaphors of understanding social and economic relations in that world. Accommodation of such illicit sexuality was not without its consequences, foremost among which were the instabilities wrought by the emotional suffering of members of white and black families alike, the bitter tensions and ferocious violence provoked by the systematic sexual abuse of African American women, the periodic dissolution of marriages, and the blurring of the line theoretically separating black from white, and the existence of individuals and families who seemed beyond the reach of the laws designed to make their lives difficult and dangerous. But bending to the winds of social and legal contradiction helped keep early national and antebellum Virginia from breaking. Moreover, the presence of slavery guaranteed white supremacy, enabling white men in positions of power and authority at both the local and state levels to respond to situations involving interracial sex requiring their intervention without consistently making the enforcement of laws that demanded rigid racial and sexual boundaries their sole or even top priority."

I give Notorious in the Neighborhood a hearty recommendation to those wishing to better understand the seemingly contradictory nature of race relations during slavery in the South. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.75.  

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