Courtship and Love among the Enslaved in N.C.
REVIEW: books--courtship and love among the enslaved in north
Rebecca J. Fraser. Courtship and Love among the Enslaved in North
Carolina. Jackson University Press of Mississippi, 2007. x + 137
pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-934110-07-2.
Reviewed by Victoria Ott
Published on H-SAWH (January, 2009)
Commissioned by Antoinette G. Van Zelm
Love and Resistance in the Slave Community
In the intimate world of courtship rituals and romantic ties,
enslaved African Americans found a source of empowerment and
personhood. So argues Rebecca J. Fraser in her book on slave men and
women in North Carolina. Fraser explores the lives of courting
couples and their interactions with slaveholders and the slave
community. She aptly demonstrates how the enslaved created
relationships "grounded in particular ideals that resisted
slaveholders' definitions of these relationships" (p. 3). Adding to
an already rich tapestry of studies on slave resistance, Fraser
challenges readers to expand their interpretation of the standard
sources on slavery and think about how courtship rituals were a way
to defy the slave system.
Organized thematically, Fraser begins her study with an analysis of
the racialized stereotypes that southern whites constructed to
dehumanize slaves and validate interference into their personal and
familial lives. Echoing the conclusions of Deborah Gray White in her
study of slave women (_Ar'n't I a Woman? Female Slaves in the
Plantation South_ ), Fraser posits that whites used the female
imagery of the lustful "Jezebel" to justify the sexual exploitation
of enslaved women. Conversely, the asexual "Mammy" identity
alleviated concerns about female sexual prowess. Fraser likewise
points to the stereotypes of male slaves created in the minds of
slaveholders. The "Sambo" image, identified by John W. Blassingame
in his study of the slave community (_The Slave Community: Plantation
Life in the Antebellum South_ ), neutralized the sexuality of
enslaved men and reduced them to the status of children. Although
current research into African American manhood places more emphasis
on the sexualized image that emerged after the Civil War as southern
whites sought to reassert white supremacy, Fraser contends that such
perceptions of black men as aggressive "Bucks" existed in the prewar
period as well. Slaveholders called on these dichotomous gender
identities to intrude into the marital relations of enslaved couples
and undermine parental authority in the slave family.
Fraser next explores how competing spheres of influence--the
slaveholders' control and the slave community--shaped the communal
rules of courtships. From seeking permission to pursue relationships
to choosing marital partners, slaves found that the master was a
constant presence in the lives of courting couples. The slave
community also imposed a moral standard and created its own courtship
rituals, many of which defied the limitations of the slave system.
Fraser contends that slave preachers, family members, and extended
community relations enforced ideas of respectable behavior,
challenging the sexual imagery that southern whites promoted.
Moreover, courtship rituals required couples to seek approval of
their union from parents, family members, and neighbors. Likewise,
the larger slave community constructed courtship rituals, such as
public ceremonies in which men and women competed for the attention
of their romantic interest.
The remaining chapters provide critical evidence to support Fraser's
contention that courtships played a crucial role in defying "the
spatial and temporal limits" of the slave system (p. 63). The high
demands of work coupled with slaveholders' strict rules limiting
personal freedom diminished courtship opportunities. Yet, the
traditions of the slave community, such as the John Kooner parade
during the Christmas season, created spaces in which enslaved men and
women could "subvert and convert the system to their own ends" (p.
59). In doing so, Fraser argues, the enslaved developed new
landscapes that broadened their world. By transforming the church,
woods, and quarters into places where young people could forge new
relationships, enslaved men and women ultimately "redefined the
concepts of space and time" (p. 68).
Another significant theme in these later chapters is Fraser's
discussion of how the enslaved found ways to assert a sense of
manhood and womanhood in spite of racialized sexual stereotypes.
African American men, for example, reclaimed their masculinity by
disregarding the slave patrols and sneaking to neighboring
plantations for visits, while women defied assumptions of the
enslaved female's voracious sexual appetite through the promotion of
modesty in their courtships. Moreover, using the informal economy to
obtain extra wages or goods allowed slave men and women to fulfill
the roles of protector and provider for their families.
Fraser also asks readers to reconceptualize the function of folklore
tales, specifically the stories of "tricksters" in which slaves use
deception to subvert the slave system and triumph over their masters.
Historians typically view such narratives as revealing of a long
tradition of slave resistance. Yet, the author posits that such
tales often "elucidated upon idealized gender identities" (p. 80).
The book's final chapter takes this story of romantic relations to
its natural end by exploring the wedding ceremony. Although white
southerners denied the enslaved legal marriages, men and women
created unions regardless of approval from their masters and
constructed wedding traditions. In the view of the participants, a
divine sanctioning of marriages through public ceremonies in the
slave community trumped the legal barriers and also provided a sense
Fraser's analysis is compelling, calling on readers to reexamine the
landscape of the enslaved community. Her reading of notable primary
documents, such as the Works Progress Administration interviews of
former slaves and Harriet Jacobs's narrative, through the lens of
courtships, as well as her use of anecdotal evidence from church
documents, family records, and plantation manuals illuminates how
enslaved men and women transformed the world slaveholders created
into a humanizing environment that fostered romantic relationships.
_Courtship and Love among the Enslaved in North Carolina_ is a
welcome addition to the historiography of slave resistance and sheds
new light on efforts of the enslaved to define gender identities on
their own terms.
Citation: Ott. Review of Fraser, Rebecca J., _Courtship and Love
among the Enslaved in North Carolina_. H-SAWH, H-Net Reviews.
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