Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History (review)

Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History (review)

Journal of Social History
Volume 33, Number 3, Spring 2000
pages 753-755
DOI: 10.1353/jsh.2000.0037

Joshua D. Rothman, Associate Professor of History
University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa

Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History. Edited by Martha Hodes (New York and London: New York University Press, 1999. xvi plus 542 pp.).

In his 1995 presidential address to the Organization of American Historians, reprinted as the opening essay of this important collection, Gary Nash called the attention of his audience to the “hidden history of mestizo America.” Lost amidst America’s long and frequently tragic experience with racial and ethnic classification and separation is a past significantly shaped by sexual intermixture, cultural boundary crossing, and lives lived and identities forged in tension with dominant ideologies. Looking backward with a sensitivity to this “hybridity,” Nash proposed, might hold a key for moving beyond racialism in our future, and for finding a politics that transcends biological determinism without sacrificing the value of difference.

The twenty-three other essays assembled here by Martha Hodes (eight of which have been previously published in whole or in part) collectively explore the possibilities such a reconceptualization of the past holds. The subtitle of the volume is a bit misleading, since nearly all of the pieces deal principally with the European colonial territories that now comprise the continental United States rather than with Mexico or Canada. Still, the breadth of human experience and historical subfields traversed by the authors is astonishing. Working from discussions of the intersection of race and sex, the essays yield insight to historical issues of gender, sexuality, marriage and the family, class, religion, slavery, violence, national and personal identity, politics and political activism, diplomacy, culture, economics and commercial exchange, law, and crime, just to name those themes most prominent and recurring.

The collection is divided into five parts and arranged chronologically. Generally, the essays within each part are logically juxtaposed. Moreover, the separate parts are connected smartly to one another, producing a discernible, if subtle and fractured, narrative that describes important ebbs and flows in the history of sex across racial and ethnic lines in America since the 1690s. The essays in part one examine various regions of colonial North America, and cumulatively investigate European, Native American, and African American societies and cultures encountering each other, sexually and otherwise, for the first time. The authors here describe an era characterized by domination and distrust, but also by uncertainty, intercultural negotiation, and mutual accommodation. The early emergence of racial antipathy and the construction of racial hierarchy-both inseparable  from sex and sexuality-are never far from the surface in the stories told by Jennifer Spear about French Louisiana, Graham Hodges about German Lutherans in New York, Daniel Mandell about New England, and Richard Godbeer about the eighteenth-century Southern backcountry.

Part two moves on to the early national and antebellum periods. Here, slavery takes center stage. Most of the essays in this section focus on interracial sexual activity between whites and blacks-particularly in the South-which was commonplace despite being legally and culturally taboo. In the words of Sharon Block, who compares and contrasts the sexual vulnerability of white servant and black enslaved women, sex across the color line under slavery frequently yielded coercive situations where “economic mastery created sexual mastery.” As Thomas E. Buckley, S.J., and Josephine Boyd Bradley and Kent Anderson Leslie demonstrate in fascinating case studies, however, familial connections between whites and blacks under slavery also enabled some people of African descent to carve out personal identities and establish economic positions that transcended both their color and their ancestry.

In her essay on antebellum New York City, Leslie Harris demonstrates how fears of “amalgamation” were central to political discourse about abolitionism, urban poverty, and immigration. As a number of essays in part three make evident, interracial sex had even more volatile political implications in the Reconstruction-era South. In his…

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