Joshua D. Rothman. Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. 341 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-5440-2; ISBN 978-0-8078-2768-0.
Reviewed by Christie Anne Farnham (Department of History, Iowa State University)
Published on H-SHEAR (July, 2003)
How Sex Confounds Race
How Sex Confounds Race
Today's historians see race not as a scientific category, but as a social construction. Populations are insufficiently isolated from others to develop unique gene pools. Human phenotypes vary on a continuum, so that marking boundaries between races becomes an impossible task. Because those boundaries are so difficult to maintain and shift over time, historians view race as constructed by the changing demands of the dominant social group. Joshua Rothman's excellent study of interracial sex in early national and antebellum Virginia provides an important illustration of how sexual attraction across racial boundaries confounds racial categories.
Although monogamy was the ideal, social norms accepted a double standard that was exacerbated by chattel slavery. Since slave women were the physical property of their owners, they were not protected against crimes such as rape. However, it has only been in recent years that historians have examined the existence of interracial relationships that were equivalent to marriages, or consensual relationships between white women and black men. The latter is of particular interest because, during the high tide of lynchings from the 1880s to the 1930s, such relationships were not tolerated. White supremacy was undergirded by the development of the myth of the black rapist, which charged every black man with an inherent lust for white female flesh. This myth served as the rationale for actions against black men and black communities that could better be described as emanating from economic competition. The fact that such relationships existed unchecked during earlier periods only serves to demonstrate how the supposedly unchanging characteristics of race changed over time.
Rothman begins his study with the most famous interracial relationship of Virginians--that of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. Most historians of the past found it inconceivable that such a relationship could have existed, in the context of Jefferson's character. Today's debate focuses on DNA. Rothman, however, focuses his analysis on the society within which Jefferson lived. The great strength of Rothman's scholarship lies in his ability to ferret out all possible reasons for a set of actions, by examining the consequences of choices available to the historic actors. For example, although it would have been theoretically possible for Hemmings to establish her freedom while she was in France, it was practically impossible. Rothman then follows the lives of some of the couple's descendants as they established kin networks in Charlottesville. Charlottesville was also the home of a Jewish merchant who had the equivalent of a marriage with a free black woman, and Rothman details their trialing attempts to maintain financial independence for themselves and their children. Although they were respected members of the community, they were vulnerable to white efforts to take advantage of their precarious legal status.
One of the study's most important contributions is Rothman's demonstration of how the toleration of interracial sex in Richmond changed during the 1840s and 1850s, something which previously authors assumed did not occur until after the Civil War. Prior to the 1840s interracial prostitution was contained by the police. However, with population growth whites became concerned about jostling with strangers on the streets, and white men felt threatened by black male sexuality. These fears combined with the impact of evangelicalism and industrialism, to change attitudes from a tolerated dislike to an attempt to deter such behavior altogether.
Although neighbors might have gossiped, they seldom intervened in cases of slave abuse, and slaves were so disadvantaged that they seldom fought back. Rothman examines two cases where they did violently resist. He also analyzes legislative divorces dating back to 1851, finding that they were granted to just under 70 percent of the men who charged their wives with adultery with a black man, and to only 55 percent of women who charged their husbands with keeping a black mistress. Interestingly, the charge of interracial relationships was seldom the primary reason given by the petitioner, and petitions were not instigated immediately upon such a finding. On the one hand, some historians might find this to be evidence that interracial sex was not as important as one might assume. Rothman, on the other hand, examines the consequences that would have ensued had the petitioner set forth the illicit relationship as the principle cause of the desire for divorce. It is the author's ability to reason as the historical actor might and to consider all the options and their consequences, which make the reading of this evidence both brilliant and compelling.
Finally, Rothman looks at the definition of "black." For contemporary Americans used to the "one-drop rule" of segregation, it is surprising to find that colonial Virginia set the boundary at one-eighth black ancestry. In 1785, for reasons that Rothman cannot understand, the boundary was changed to one-fourth. By these definitions there were white slaves, and free white citizens with African ancestry. By Jefferson's own explication of this legality, it appears he might not have considered Hemmings to have been black. Most Native Americans had vanished from Virginia by the antebellum period, leaving Virginia society bi-racial, but there were enough "mixed bloods" that when the legislature passed a number of laws further restricting free blacks, following Nat Turner's Rebellion, it was unclear if these were also applicable to them. As a consequence legislation was passed allowing such persons to get a certificate from a county court stating that they were "not a negro." Circumstances continually forced the refining of the definition of race.
Rothman's research makes clear that illicit sex across racial boundaries was ubiquitous and conducted by all classes and both genders. Such interracial congress was tolerated if white men were considered respectable and kept their relationships quiet. Enslaved men, however, had higher status than poor, promiscuous white women; but an enslaved male never had higher status than a white male. Whether one was found to be white or black was based on more than racial ancestry. Courts decided such issues on a case-by-case basis, balancing social stability with the enforcement of the law by basing their decisions on the social context (e.g., was the individual treated by whites as one of them).
The silence of society regarding such sensitive issues means that Rothman had to base his findings on those incidents in which public exposure left court records and newspaper accounts. Unfortunately, such materials make it difficult to understand the meaning of interracial sex to the lower class, and especially to lower-class women. Although Rothman is a master at explaining the logic of different behavioral choices, this reader would like to have seen a greater effort made to retrieve the viewpoint of white prostitutes, and a discussion of why they were treated differently from lower-class white males engaging in illicit sex. Nevertheless, Rothman is to be commended for increasing our understanding of the social construction of race, and demonstrating how central interracial congress was to its construction.
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Christie Anne Farnham. Review of Rothman, Joshua D., Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861.
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Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.