Black Thought and Sexual Politics: An Interview with Guy Emerson Mount

In today’s post, Christopher Shell, a PhD student at Michigan State University, interviews historian Guy Emerson Mount about his chapter in New Perspectives on Black Intellectual Tradition, edited by Keisha N. Blain, Christopher Cameron, and Ashley Dr. Farmer. Guy Emerson Mount is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Auburn University and currently an Associate Editor of Black Perspectives. His work focuses on Black transnationalism, American empire, and the legacies of slavery. Previously he has conducted research on Black sexual politics, masculinity, interracial marriage, mixed race identities, Black religion, and Black radical politics. His current book project seeks to tell a global history of empire and emancipation through the everyday lives of transnational Black workers who jettisoned the Atlantic World for a new life in the Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @GuyEmersonMount.

Christopher M. Shell: Please briefly summarize the main argument in your essay.

Guy Emerson Mount: The main argument is that postemancipation Black thought regarding interracial marriage and sexuality has experienced a case of what I call “historical ventriloquy” over the past century and a half. By historical ventriloquy, I mean that knowledge producers in a given era tend to look back on prior Black thinking and, instead of wrestling with the true complexity of Black thought in a particular moment, put words in the mouths of prior Black people to make those subjects say what they want them to say. This is different from presentism—where events in the past are simply interpreted through the lens of present-day political concerns. Historical ventriloquy changes the facts altogether. It crafts a fiction that does real violence to the ideas of prior Black thinkers.

In this case, Black thought about Frederick Douglas’s interracial marriage to Helen Pitts has been absolutely butchered over time. When it happened in 1884, Black communities were overwhelmingly in support of it. Even Black people who questioned Douglass’ decision to marry a white woman demanded his absolute right to make that decision as part of a commitment to freedom and equality. Yet beginning with Booker T. Washington (and accelerating through a narrowly drawn pop-cultural Black nationalism that has slowly crept into the academy), I trace how historical ventriloquy took hold and began to imagine that seemingly all Black people in 1884 (including somehow Douglass’s children) must have been universally against interracial marriage in general, and Douglass’s marriage specifically. This enormous gap between the primary historical record, and how historians and everyday people imagine that historical record, is what this chapter is all about.

Shell: Can you tell us more about the factors and/or motivations that led to your decision to write about Douglass’ interracial marriage?

Mount: I first discovered this problem in the historiography almost a decade ago while working on my M.A. thesis. At the time, I was looking at the great African American newspaper editor T. Thomas Fortune and how he navigated mixed-race identities and interracial marriages in a postemancipation Black political context. Fortune was enslaved at birth, had two enslaved parents, both of whom were quite light-skinned, and was essentially white-skinned himself. As he tried to figure out how his largely white body would play into growing concerns over what it meant to be Black in a postemancipation America, the Douglass marriage became a critical touchstone for him. Fortune obsessively reprinted a seemingly endless stream of articles from the Black press about the Douglass marriage. It was an absolute media sensation in 1884. The Washington Post even deemed it “[n]ext to the Emancipation proclamation…the most important event in the history of the race on this continent.”

It was indeed a crucial crossroads for Black America. What would Black families look like after slavery? Who would decide? We know now that anti-miscegenation laws would eventually become what I call “the very core of the Jim Crow regime.” Segregation, discrimination, and violence all demanded that Black families and Black sexuality become (self)disciplined and that Black people must be visually identifiable (however imperfectly) as Black. Mixed marriages and mixed people were a serious problem ontologically for white supremacists. When I discovered that Black people at the time understood this (and were defending interracial marriage as a political strategy) but that white historians like William McFeely and Maria Dietirch and even Black historians like Waldo Martin and Mia Bay would eventually get it wrong, I knew something was up. So I went on a quest to find everything I could on the Douglass marriage from 1884 until the present in hopes of discovering what happened.

Shell: In your article you state that Douglass’ marriage to Helen Pitts in 1884 has been “ignored, distorted, and miswritten over time.” Can you tell us more about the process of conducting research on a topic that has largely been misrepresented in the historiography?

Mount: It’s a strange thing. Why would historians do this? At first, I thought it was just a case of people relying on secondary material over primary material and repeating the errors of prior historians. But, when did the first distortion occur? Was it intentional? From what I can tell, Booker T. Washington was the first to get it wrong and, yes, it was very intentional. He clearly reversed Black political thinking on interracial marriage as part of his wider Atlanta Compromise program. Washington, in his biography of Douglass in 1907, assured his white readers that black people were universally against the Douglass marriage and all other forms of “social equality.”

This deeply conservative lie (always in the minority among Black people) then got canonized over the course of Jim Crow before it was extended by people like Benjamin Quarles and other Civil Rights-era Black historians. After three-quarters of a century of state-mandated all-Black families, Quarles, Waldo, Bay, and others began to reimagine those Black families as sites of Black pride, Black culture, and Black power. And that’s a beautiful thing. But what happened in the process, is that they imagined the all-Black Black family as a natural development that was somehow destined to appear through a pre-ordained Jim Crow order.  They then imagined that Black people in 1884 thought of interracial marriage with the same indifference (if not distain) that many in the post-Black Power era do. Much like Barbara Diane Savage found in the historiography on “the Black church,” historians analyzed interracial marriage through the Black Power movement and read backwards into the historical record to imagine a nineteenth-century Black reality that matched their own analysis of what they knew already happened (but that Black people at the time did not anticipate).

But Black expectations in 1884 involved a very different (yet still radical) idea where freedom meant total freedom—domestic, political, economic, social, and even sexual. As Mary Church Terrell so astutely noticed, the same people that “were continuously clamoring for equality—absolute equality along all lines” eventually came to condemn Douglass “for practicing what they themselves have preached long and loud.” The absolute sovereignty and autonomy of Black family life was simply a non-negotiable for formerly enslaved peoples. Black communities saw complete marriage equality (a term I use wittingly) as central to the realization of emancipation.

Shell: What did you uncover about the black press and leading African American spokespersons’ response to Douglass’ marriage to Pitts most surprising and/or interesting?

Mount: Just how causal and unremarkable it was. Black people (and a good many white people as well) simply took interracial marriage for granted in 1884. It was a foregone conclusion. Black led state governments had already been repealing anti-miscegenation laws assuming that they violated the 14th Amendment. The Pace v. Alabama case of 1883 hadn’t really sunk in yet and it technically didn’t even rule on interracial marriage per se, just on the legality of different punishments for interracial vs. non-interracial sex outside of marriage. Fortune in his comments on the Douglass marriage said that interracial marriages are “not only natural but are likely to be of more frequent occurrence in the future.” This framing of ‘the natural’ really turns the tables on scholarship like Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally, which sees anti-interracial marriage sentiments as a strangely natural historical development rooted in an appeal to a natural order. Black people in 1884, however, saw mixed-race people and interracial marriage as the natural consequence of emancipation. Douglass himself said widespread interracial marriages like his own were “inevitable” and would lead in short order to a fully “composite America.” Black people in this moment simply did not expect Jim Crow to become as entrenched and extreme as it did. They did not imagine the legacies of slavery continuing into the twenty-first century as they have. Just because we know in retrospect what was coming doesn’t mean they did.

Shell: What do you hope people will take away from reading your chapter?

Mount: Just to be careful in their assumptions and to avoid historical ventriloquy at all costs. I also hope that scholars will revisit interracial marriage, cross-racial sexuality, and mixed-race people more broadly, especially as it relates to radical Black political traditions. The moment we codify ‘the’ Black intellectual tradition or ‘the’ Black radical position, we lose the rich diversity and transformative potentialities of prior generations. Black traditions are always plural. Black communities are always plural. Black families are always plural (and aren’t even always exclusively Black). While certain discourses today surrounding mixed-race identities can be problematic as hell (something historian Greg Carter has called “mixed-race utopianism” and Jared Sexton has just called deeply anti-Black), radical Black politics in the nineteenth-century were not necessarily inconsistent with support of interracial marriages and cross-racial sexuality. There is no reason the same can’t be true today. In the end, I hope this chapter will advance some small part of a grand synthesis between Critical Mixed Race Studies and a radical Black Intellectual History.

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Chris Shell

Christopher M. Shell is a PhD student in History with a specialization in Latin American and Caribbean history at Michigan State University. His research interests include immigration/migration, the modern Caribbean, black internationalism and 20th century socio-political movements. His dissertation project explores the activities of lesser-known itinerant Garveyites and their social, political, and religious activities in the Caribbean, United States, and Europe during the inter-war years. He is a recipient of the Michigan State University enrichment fellowship. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisShell95.