Gregory D. Smithers. Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013. xii + 257 pp. $74.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-4238-1; $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8130-4960-1.
Reviewed by Christine E. Sears (University of Alabama in Huntsville)
Published on H-CivWar (March, 2015)
Commissioned by Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz (Eastern Illinois University)
No Magnolias or Mint Juleps
Most Americans would agree that slavery existed, but they might have wildly different ideas about what slavery was like and what legacy it left. In Slave Breeding, Gregory D. Smithers exposes how these divergent views developed by tracing two historical threads: the vernacular history of a largely African American community and a professional history of primarily white, male historians. He intends to “problematize white America’s hegemonic hold over the retelling of American history and of slavery’s place in that history” and, in doing so, provide a “richer, deeper, and more complex understanding” about the meaning of slave breeding in “African American history and memory” (p. 19).
Smithers shows “how black Americans defined, constructed, and used memories of slave breeding to structure historical narratives about sexual violence” (p. 2). Doing so required “methodological agility” and the use of oral histories, literature, theater, and film (p. 11). Smithers’s monograph complements revisionist works that expose the horrific realities of the domestic slave trade and the capitalistic, cruel ethos of slave owners and traders, such as Edward Baptist, James Oakes, Robert Gudmestad, and Walter Johnson. Smithers also contributes to discourses about memory—how it is created and maintained—and historians’ role in propagating public memory.
As Smithers explains, professional historians long disavowed slave breeding, which they defined in narrow, economic terms. They claimed that no archival documents conclusively proved that slave owners ran stud farms or “interfered with slave reproduction to maximize profits ... as a general practice” (p. 3). However, many former slaves recalled “coercive and violent forms of reproductive sex during slavery” (p. 2). Smithers reframes slave breeding, applying a wider scope that better encompasses the historical experiences of African Americans. Slave breeding here refers to the coercive, often violent, reproductive and sexual practices that prevented slaves from controlling their sexuality and families.
After the Civil War, former slaves’ memoirs, oral histories, and stories were shunted aside and subsumed by the Lost Cause mythology. Professional (white, male) historians shaped, and were shaped by, the Lost Cause mythology. By championing objective, “scientific” history based on written records and deeming undocumented African American memories unreliable, professional historians propagated a sanitized version of paternal, benign slavery. This key component of the Lost Cause culminated in the Dunning school at Columbia and William Archibald Dunning’s student, U. B. Phillips.
Smithers traces a familiar historiography, but his innovation lies in juxtaposing African American vernacular history alongside that historiography. Freed people did not recall the happy slavery and benign masters portrayed by Lost Cause-leaning professional historians. They remembered how masters encouraged slave marriages and large families, not out of care for “their people” but for profit. Long before professional historians wrote about slave traders and a domestic slave trade, black intellectuals used oral history and literary works to argue that upper South masters profited by selling slave progeny to the lower South.
In the twentieth century, African American artists, scholars, and recollections gave weight to slave breeding memories and were linked to continued “degradation and sexual exploitation” under Jim Crow. Plays like Randolph Edmonds’s 1930s Breeders served as a historical text, a “theater of memory” (p. 99). Historical texts like John Hope Franklin’s 1947 From Slavery to Freedom contended that “‘surplus’ slaves were bred in the upper South and dumped on the slave market in the lower south” (p. 170). In Works Progress Administration (WPA) narratives, former slaves emphasized how fecund slaves were especially valued and often given privileged positions to distinguish them from the “average field hand” (p. 103).
White Americans and professional historians clung to a romanticized antebellum South. Educational documentaries like Coronet’s 1950 The Plantation System in Southern Life pitched slavery as part of an “orderly agricultural society” in which, like the 1950s, “racial and class harmony” prevailed (p. 159). In contrast, black parents and schools taught that “no magnolias and mint juleps” could obscure the brutal truths of slavery or racism in modern life (p. 138). Civil rights challenged such views, as did works like Kyle Elihu Onstott’s novel Mandingo (1957). Based on childhood memories of slave breeding farms in Kentucky, this novel (and later the film adaptation) highlighted the brutality of slavery, particularly sexual interference.
Smithers contributes to a growing scholarship on public memory and race. He delineates professional and vernacular histories side by side, illustrating “how easy it has been to marginalize African American perspectives on slavery” and enriching our knowledge of African American memory and history, particularly as it was articulated in theater and film (p. 173). He persuasively demonstrates that slave breeding served as a “malleable narrative shorthand” among African Americans, one that expressed the violence, racism, and sexual exploitation faced under slavery and into the twentieth century (p. 2).
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Christine E. Sears. Review of Smithers, Gregory D., Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History.
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