On the use of “Slave Mistress”


The passing of the great civil-rights leader Julian Bond earlier this week ignited a firestorm of activity on Twitter. Historians of African American women’s history noticed and commented on something suspect in Bond’s obituary, a brief line embedded within: in the obituary, Julian Bond’s great grandmother, Jane Bond, was described as “the slave mistress of a Kentucky farmer.”

The conversation that followed this revelation offers a glimpse into some of the most challenging questions within the history of African Americans. The history of sex and slavery remains both difficult to approach and critical to our understanding of the full, complex, and violent lives of enslaved African American women. And around the phrase “slave mistress” converges some of the key issues that make that history difficult to tell.

What is particularly exciting about this confluence of historians of African American women’s history collectively riffing on the problematic of “slave mistress” is the extent to which their public conversation maps the contours of the historiographic debate on sex and slavery. (It is also a mark of the power of this conversation that the New York Times issued a statement of regret about their language yesterday). Rather than rehearse their conversation here, I have reproduced it in Storify form, and will spend the duration of these comments pulling out what I see as key moments that cite the wider debate.

First, what’s wrong with “slave mistress” as a moniker for women of color who had sexual liaisons with white men? As this group of feminist historians points out, quite a lot. As Judith Weisenfeld explains, the phrase performs an “erasure of sexual violence against black women.” These historians point to the tension within the apparent contradiction of “slave” beside “mistress,” that is, the collapsing of an enslaved existence with a word that implies agency and willingness. In other words, the use of “mistress” to describe women of color who performed sexual labor during slavery reiterates the fantasy of the slave holder who owned her in our own language, reproducing the mythology that women of color in sexual liaison with white men somehow transcended the experience of slavery. As Marisa Fuentes writes elsewhere, the historiography of sex and slavery struggles with questions of agency, where phrases like “slave mistress” “might too easily equate black female agency with sexuality” (Fuentes, “Power and Historical Figuring,” Gender and History 22.3, 568). On the feed, Martha Jones continues, “the word ‘mistress’ connotes status, power, and respect that few enslaved women inhabited.” Annette Gordon-Reed complicates the phrase where she points to a tension between “slave” and “mistress,” asking “Is there some thought that ‘slave mistress’ refers to a good position? The word ‘slave’ tells the story.”

In other words, the phrase “slave mistress” erases the violence of slavery because it smuggles a notion of consent into the space between Jane Bond and the man who owned her. Thus a theme of this conversation—and a major theme within the history of black women’s sexual labor, generally—is the presence of rape as a response to the mythology of “slave mistress.” “Rape” is a useable shorthand for the complex and violent sexual experiences that marked Jane Bond’s life. Martha S. Jones asks “Can we venerate our great grandmothers and also acknowledge that they were victims of rape?” Similarly, Judith Weisenfeld explains “Preston Bond is the name of the slaveholder who likely raped Julian Bond’s great-grandmother.”

And yet, where Jones describes “the smattering of relationships” involving white men and black women in the antebellum South, she points to the complexity of describing sexual lives lived in the context of ubiquitous violence, a complexity perhaps not fully captured by the juridical vocabulary of “rape.” Again, elsewhere, Fuentes suggests the terms “rape and consent…fail to account for the sexual experiences of these enslaved women” (Fuentes 577). This points to a bigger question, that is, how can our language account for the experiences of women of color like Jane Bond, whose sexual lives existed in the context of the utmost structural and intimate violence? Can we tell the story of Jane Bond and others without the violent erasures of “slave mistress” or the totalizing language of “rape”? What do the juridical formations of “rape” and “consent” reveal about those experiences, and how does the extra-legal and everyday violence that structured Bond’s life (and sexuality) escape the capacity of those terms? In other words, what language can we deploy to describe the lives of women like Jane Bond?

This latter question ties into what is perhaps the most provocative element of this conversation, that is, the question of respectability. Jones opens the question of respectability when she asks “Does @NYTimesObituary think ‘slave mistress’ is a polite turn-of-phrase?” In other words, she continues, “Does my respectability demand denial of the sexual violence to which my foremothers were subjected? No.” The intimate history of slavery is deeply tied to the history of respectability and dissemblance as tools for shielding ourselves from sexual violence, the ways that, Jones describes, “Stories of ‘slave mistresses,” [were] too painful, shameful.” Where Jones asks, “Can we tell them now?” she calls us to consider the fallout of “the secret of ‘slave mistresses.’”

What is their secret? From where does the impulse to leave the history of slavery’s sexual violence “to abstraction and generalization”–and impulse that these historians have shown us it is possible to push against–emerge? What is the relationship of sex, violence, and shame in the history of African American women? Where Jones writes, “No woman in my family spoke of love, affection, or romance bestowed on ‘slave mistresses.’ They shielded me with silence” which kinds of silences is she referencing? How do we tell the story of sex and slavery in it’s disrespectable complexity while never losing sight of what Gordon-Reed declares was “no romance at all”? How do we do this, knowing these stories are, as Jones searingly points out throughout the conversation, our own stories? The feminist historians in this conversation show us the way.

I’ll close here by offering a brief—and working—bibliography of texts that address the history of sex and slavery. In the vein of the recent #blkwomensyllabus and #blackwomensyllabus I offer this as the beginning of a collective resource on this history. Please add more in the comments!

Abdur-Rahman, Aliyyah I. Against the Closet: Black Political Longing and the Erotics of Race. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

Baptist, Edward. “‘Cuffy,’ ‘Fancy Maids,’ and ‘One-Eyed Men’: Rape, Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States.” American Historical Review 106 no.5 (2001): 1619-1650.

Camp, Stephanie. Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Planation South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Clark, Emily. The Strange Career of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

Davis, Adrienne. “Slavery and the Roots of Sexual Harassment.” Directions in Sexual Harassment, edited by Catherine MacKinnon and Reva B. Siegel. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003.

Fuentes, Marisa J. “Power and Historical Figuring: Rachael Pringle Polgreen’s Troubled Archive.” Gender and History 223 (2010): 564-584.

Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008.

Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

_____. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 12, no.2 (2008): 1-14.

Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Hine, Darlene Clark. “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West.” Signs 14, no.4 (1989): 912-920.

Jones, Jacqueline. Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.

Jones, Martha S. “All Bound Up Together”: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830-1900. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Mitchell, Michelle. “Silences Broken, Silences Kept: Gender and Sexuality in African-American History.” Gender and History 11, no.3 (1999): 433-444.

Morgan, Jennifer. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Painter, Nell Irving. “Of Lily, Linda Brent, and Freud: A Non-Exceptionalist Approach to Race, Class, and Gender in the Slave South.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 76, no.2 (1992): 241-259.

Rosen, Hannah. Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Schafer, Judith Kelleher. Slavery, the Civil Law and the Supreme Court of Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

Scott, Rebecca and Jean M. Hébrard. Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Spear, Jennifer. Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Spillers, Hortense, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, and Jennifer L. Morgan. “‘Whatcha Gonna Do?’: Revisiting ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book’: A Conversation with Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, and Jennifer L. Morgan.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 35, no.1, 2 (2007): 299-309.


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Comments on “On the use of “Slave Mistress”

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    This post fails to mention the linguistic incongruity and inaccuracy of such usage. The term “slave mistress” has historically been reserved to refer to the female owner of slaves — the wife, daughter, mother or other woman attached to the “slave master,” or, in New Orleans, in particular, a woman sufficiently financially independent to own slaves outright. Black women, enslaved or free, who were widely known to have sexual relations with a slave master or other white man such that a “relationship” appeared to exist were referred referred to as free or slave concubines. As late as the early 1960’s, African American women working as domestic laborers across the South referred to their white women employers as their “mistresses” — as in, “My mistress is really tight with a dollar” — a common enough complaint, apparently.
    In my home of New Orleans, free Black women who entered into relations with white men on their own volition or through arrangement by their families were called ( in Creole) placées. The terms placée and concubine, which were not equivalents, at least not in New Orleans, had legal standing and carried legal ramifications. It seems that this contemporary usage of “mistress” is an attempt to find a contemporary euphemism for master-slave sexual relations. Although, since the history and lived experience of the slavery industry is ever-present, why such euphemism is deemed necessary is as baffling as the misuse of the term “slave mistress.”

    Brenda Marie Osbey

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