Dangerous Liaisons

White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South

by Martha Hodes
Yale University Press, 388 pp., $30.00

Getting at the truth of such subjects as fornication, rape, bastardy, adultery, divorce, and domestic violence is difficult enough in any case. But when they are mixed with constantly changing attitudes about race, class, freedom, slavery, servitude, and male authority and honor, especially in times of civil war, invasion, defeat, and slave emancipation, and accompany the politics and violence of white supremacy, the search for “truth” often seems hopeless. This may explain why historians have tended to avoid such subjects and the frustration they involve.

Martha Hodes, a historian at New York University, is courageous but not reckless in undertaking one of the few studies that have been made of the sexual relations between white women and black men in the South. She seems quite aware that she is entering “difficult interpretive terrain” and that serious risks are unavoidable. Her extensive researches turn up “shards and bones” or “laconic responses to frightening questions” as the only evidence in some cases. She makes frequent use of sworn legal testimony about adultery, with an awareness that lies under oath are still lies—along with confessions in secret diaries, the findings of congressional investigations, and the private correspondence between officials of high national rank. References to sex between a white woman and a black man were usually “brief and elusive, sometimes only a single line in a legal ledger.” She adds that “some who commanded my sympathy turned out to be liars.”

The strategy Professor Hodes uses is, for one thing, to select “cases for which there existed a considerable body of evidence,” and follow them with several “less well documented scenarios.” In addition she tries to “refrain from smoothing over the inconsistencies” and the “incoherence” of the evidence. Another precaution is her frequent resort, as she puts it, to “the language of speculation, even uncertainty,” with such words as “presumably,” “possibly,” and “perhaps.” I counted the use of “perhaps” eight times in as many efforts to explain one event.

I do not mean to suggest tedium but rather credibility. Professor Hodes does not pretend to have exhausted her subject or to be devoid of biases of her own. She unfortunately feels obliged to omit South Carolina and Louisiana from her study because of the “intermediate class between ‘black’ and ‘white,”’ recognized especially in Charleston and New Orleans, that would “introduce further complexities.” She invites others to complete her unfinished work and modestly describes it as “inquiring and exploratory rather than definitive and conclusive.”

The title of the book suggests limitation of the subject to illicit sex in one century, but fortunately that is not the case. The first example offered of a white woman with a black mate is that of an indentured servant of the third Lord Baltimore in Maryland called Irish Nell and a black slave named Charles, who belonged to a planter at whose plantation Baltimore boarded. They were married in 1681 by a Catholic priest at a wedding attended by Maryland planter families who wished the couple …

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