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19th Century Sexual Politics (Part 2 of 5)

It was tough being a slave in antebellum 19th century America.  Female slaves had the added concern of being raped by their slaveholders.  There has been speculation that even though Jane Manning James was born free, she may have been raped resulting in a pregnancy.  I asked Dr. Quincy Newell if that was true.

Quincy:  Black women were subject to sexual violence by white men on a fairly regular basis in the antebellum United States.  It’s a known fact. On the other hand, I don’t want to simply assume that because Jane was black, she was raped.  It’s really easy for us to sort of take a black woman and just assume that her life circumstances fall into line with the statistics that we know about it and sort of the worst statistics that we know about, in terms of the lives of black women during that time period. So, in that sense, I’m reluctant to say for sure. I think our best bet is,  yeah, she was probably raped.

GT  Was it a minister?

Quincy:  I don’t think so. Well, I don’t think that we have enough evidence to say this is really the answer there. The theory that it was a minister comes from a comment that Jane’s brother, Isaac, made to Elizabeth Roundy, sometime between 1902 and 1908.  Elizabeth Roundy is the person to whom Jane dictated her autobiography. She was asked by a church leader to inquire after the circumstances of Sylvester’s parentage, because somebody was wondering. And so Elizabeth Roundy doesn’t actually ask Jane, as far as I can tell.  Instead, she goes and talks to Jane’s brother.  I think that’s because Jane just sort of shut that line of inquiry down. Jane’s brother says it was a white minister, but he couldn’t remember if it was Methodist, or Presbyterian. So this is the brother of a woman who might have been raped, talking about the circumstances of that 60 years after the fact. So the fact that Sylvester’s conception is still a topic of discussion at that point, is really striking to me. Because it suggests a certain kind of obsession with black women’s sexuality, which I think is really interesting, and worth noticing. But also, I don’t trust Isaac to know what’s going on 60 years after the fact.  Given Jane’s silence about Sylvester’s conception, I’m not sure that she ever would have told her brother.

I was quite surprised how complicated it was for black women, slave or free, to navigate sexual politics of the time.   Was it possible Jane entered a sexual relationship willingly?

Quincy:  Well, I think there are good reasons that Jane might have had to choose a sexual union with a man, but still maybe not want to talk about it all that much.  I use the comparison with a woman named Harriet Jacobs, who wrote a book called, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” She was enslaved in North Carolina, I believe, and she believed that her master was intending to rape her eventually. So as a way to sort of defend herself against that, she actually deliberately took another white man as a lover and eventually had two children with him. So there’s a kind of strategic move there, a use of limited options, in order to avoid what seems like the worst option, and it’s possible that Jane felt similarly threatened and used a similar kind of strategy.

Check out our conversation….

Jane Manning James was silent concerning the circumstances of the birth of her firstborn, Sylvester.


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