Sexual Violence Against Enslaved Men

The Freedman, 1863 by John Quincy Adams Ward (Photo by Deputy Tex)

In Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men, historian Thomas Foster examines how the conditions of slavery gave rise to sexual violence against enslaved men in the Americas during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Drawing from historical studies of sexual violence against enslaved women, Foster uses a range of sources including early American newspapers, enslavers’ journals, court records, visual art, and abolitionist literature to illuminate how various forms of sexual violence, including physical assault and coerced reproduction, affected enslaved men and their communities. Rethinking Rufus also centers the experience of enslaved men by using testimonies, autobiographies, and interviews to shed light on how they responded to and navigated sexual violence in order to maintain autonomy and independence in their intimate lives. Rethinking Rufus analyzes the “history of the peculiar conditions that enslavement established, nurtured, and expanded that enabled those in power to dominate many enslaved men through sexual violence” (10). In this way, Foster’s study interrogates broader systems of power and domination that led to the sexual abuse of enslaved men.

Rethinking Rufus makes an important intervention into the historiography of slavery in the Americas. Foster uses feminist theories of sexual assault to examine how corporeal punishments functioned as displays of power that constituted sexual violence against enslaved men. Foster builds upon historians such as Daina Ramey Berry, Deborah Gray White, and Jennifer Morgan, who have used gender as an analytic to more fully understand how enslaved women experienced and challenged sexual abuse under enslavement. Foster’s combination of historical methods and feminist theories of sexual assault inform one of Rethinking Rufus’s main arguments, that enslaved men could not consent to sexual activity given their legal status as property and vulnerable position in the social order of slavery.

Through five chapters, Foster examines the multiple forms of sexual violence against enslaved men from a variety of perspectives. The book’s title, Rethinking Rufus, is in reference to the story of Rufus, an enslaved man who was forced to bear children with an enslaved woman named Rose in Texas during the mid-nineteenth century. Foster uses Rose’s interview published by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), where she negatively recounts her sexual experiences with Rufus and describes him as a “bully,” as an example of how sexual violence affected both enslaved men and women. Foster notes that while Rose’s interview documents the trauma of coerced reproduction, a form of sexual violence in which enslavers forced enslaved men and women to bear children in order increase the population of enslaved people, sources that highlight the sufferings of coerced reproduction from the perspective of Rufus are nonexistent. Foster theorizes the absence of a counternarrative by Rufus and many other enslaved men as another type of sexual violation that stemmed from a broader cultural failure to consider men as victims of sexual violence. The repeated absence of narratives from enslaved men that document their experiences with sexual violence propels Foster’s deeper exploration into the conditions of slavery that gave rise to the sexual abuse and exploitation of enslaved men.

Foster begins Rethinking Rufus by examining how enslaved men’s bodies were depicted in Western art and sculptures that were widespread in the visual culture of slavery. Foster argues that enslaved men’s bodies were “symbols of enslaved manhood and sites of violation” that were objectified through a number of cultural forms including art and literature (12). The objectification of enslaved men depicted in paintings often resembled everyday acts of terror including the public inspection of Black men’s genitals, whippings and lashings, and bodily exposure due to lack of adequate clothing. Visual depictions of enslaved men that emphasized their genitalia and sexual prowess gave way to the prevailing myths of Black hypersexuality and the Black male rapist, an archetype that ensured the extralegal protection of white women from Black men who purportedly lacked control over their sexual urges. Foster also argues that while visual depictions of enslaved men’s bodies often highlighted their athleticism, strength, and muscularity, this same imagery eroticized enslaved men’s bodies in ways that fueled the physical abuses and sexual exploitation of enslaved men. Foster notes that these stereotypes found in eighteenth-century visual art contributed to the eventual punishment and national disenfranchisement of Black men.

Rethinking Rufus also sheds light on how enslaved men viewed marriage and family as potential avenues for maintaining independence and autonomy. Foster notes that while the possibility of establishing a household and assuming the role as guardian of the family was severely limited for enslaved men, love affairs and the ability to choose one’s own partner served as a key component for developing models of manhood. Using court records and eighteenth-century newspapers, Foster documents how enslaved men understood the importance of choosing their own partners despite the likely possibility of separation and loss. Because enslaved men and women were frequently sold to different plantations across various regions, enslaved men and women who married and attempted to establish families remained vulnerable to the interference of enslavers through sales and punishments. Foster notes that they often negotiated independence by adhering to the will of masters and mistresses in order to be granted partial autonomy in their intimate lives. Foster’s analysis provides a glimpse into how enslaved men navigated the power dynamics of enslavement in hopes of maintaining autonomy while minimizing the possibility of sexual violence as a punishment.

The latter part of Rethinking Rufus examines the role of reproduction in slavery’s sexual economy, and how sexual violations of enslaved men affected interpersonal relationships between enslaved men and women. To this end, Foster argues that coerced reproduction was a type of sexual assault against Black men in addition to Black women. Using interviews and testimonies from formerly enslaved men, Foster highlights how those who were valued for their reproductive capabilities were often singled out from their communities, relocated to different regions, and forced to couple with multiple women. Men who were forced to procreate were also excused from preforming certain types of labor that enslavers feared could negatively affect their reproductive capabilities. Foster also considers how forms of sexual violence against enslaved men were enacted by both white women and men. Foster’s use of WPA interviews and slave narratives that center the perspectives of Black men illuminates how the separation of enslaved men from their communities for the purpose of reproduction often severed intracommunal relationships that resulted in psychological pain and generational trauma.

In sum, Rethinking Rufus illuminates new dimensions of how sexual violence operated during slavery by incorporating the perspectives of Black men. Rethinking Rufus sheds light on how sexual assault, exploitation, objectification, and coerced reproduction affected enslaved men and their communities. Foster’s gendered analysis of sexual violence opens up new avenues for further research on the interrelatedness between masculinity, reproduction, and slave labor. Rethinking Rufus is a great contribution to the fields of Early American History, Gender Studies, and African American Studies. Rethinking Rufus should be of interest to a wide range of scholars of African American history, the history of American slavery, and the history of sexuality.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Kevin C. Quin

Kevin C. Quin is a PhD student in Africana Studies at Cornell University. His research interests include African American Gay and Lesbian history, culture, and politics. Follow him on Twitter @kevincquin.

Comments on “Sexual Violence Against Enslaved Men

  • This is an insightful review. This book will surely fill a gap in the knowledge about what the brothers endured in the past, while offering additional avenues for research. A scholarly treatise on the devastating effects of the perpetration of sexual violence, sexual emasculation, and sexual exploitation specifically upon enslaved black men in America is much needed. It should be required reading for white politicians who continue to stand in the way of reparations for our people. One need only consider Donald Trump’s blatant penis envy of Barack Obama, and his relentless assaults upon the dignity of both African American men and women, to understand that the historic white male obsession and fear of the black man’s sexuality has traditionally upset them more than the possibility that a brother might rise up and go for the jugular. Keep up the drumbeats.

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  • I imagine there was also the rape of black men by white slaveholders. My guess is very little evidence of this exists, but one can easily imagine scenarios where a white slaveholder — perhaps one even married with children — would use an enslaved black man for sex just as they used the black women. I imagine based upon other contemporaneous accounts I’ve read there were also white slaveholder sadists who would prey upon the enslaved black men they held.

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