Thomas Foster, Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019) xi, 174 pp. $29.00.
In Joseph Lavallée’s novel, The Negro Equalled By Few Europeans, an enslaved African man named Itanoko describes being raped by a white slaver named Urban. The white man was “struck with my comeliness,” Itanoko says, which “made him violate, what is most sacred among men.’” According to Thomas Foster’s Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved, Itanoko’s fictional account, a product of legal coercion and legal violence, reflected a common reality. White men routinely forced enslaved men to cater to sadistic fantasies and humiliations around the plantation: it was, perhaps, as much part of the apparatus of the slave system as sexual violence against enslaved women.
Does such a history surprise you? There’s a reason for that. The popular image of the American slave has changed dramatically over the past century, but most scholars have shied away from the dangerous territory of male sexuality. Unsurprisingly, what we have left are stereotypes. There is the carefree “Sambo,” happy in his lot; the sexually rapacious stud; and more recently, the ideal husband and father. While all of these ideas gained traction in popular culture, they were promoted, and in some cases originated, in historical scholarship.
Because historians themselves have shied away from these truths, the sexuality of black men and accurate representations of the intimate violations that were integral to the plantation system still matters. Perhaps the most obvious example of historians shaping a popular, but false, narrative is the notion that the masculinity of enslaved men was permanently destroyed by centuries of bondage. In the 1950s, white liberal scholars likened this damage to that suffered by those who had emerged, half-alive and traumatized, from Nazi death camps. Others stressed the emotional suffering and endless labor that made up daily life on the plantation, suffering so intense as to create trauma for ensuing generations.
Scholars seemed unwilling or unable to put black men themselves at the center of their own historical experience, instead adjusting their vision to make sense of new political movements. The onset of the modern civil rights movement in the United States ushered in yet another view of how bondage shaped African American masculinity: it made men resilient. Focused on the obvious agency and public resolve demonstrated by thousands of black Southerners during and after enslavement, this new school of thought emphasized the capacity of African American people to renew themselves and their communities.
Not surprisingly, this novel emphasis on emotional strength and intact families anchored by devoted black fathers also responded to shifts in the political winds: the controversy over the welfare state, urban poverty, and the anger among activists caused by the leaking of the so-called Moynihan Report on the plight of African American families in 1965. A young assistant secretary of labor in the Johnson administration, Daniel Patrick Moynihan refuted the idea of the damaged slave, but substituted the damaged African American family, describing it as a “tangle of pathology.”
The focus on African American men was not on what they suffered—unemployment, police violence, and unequal access to education—but on their putative absence. Abandoned by fathers and sustained by overbearing mothers, Moynihan argued, such families played a significant role in reproducing poverty by failing to instill proper paternal values in sons. A new generation of black power activists who had staked out-group pride as key to their revolution was outraged. Scholars, this time a growing cohort of black scholars, responded. And this time, gender and sexuality were part of the equation. Second-wave feminists such as Deborah Gray White, Thavolia Glymph, Stephanie Camp, and Stephanie Jones-Rogers responded to this poverty of ideas with meticulous scholarship about the ways that African American men and women had shaped their own history.
Prominent in all of these studies is the ubiquity of sexual violence in the lives of enslaved women. But the next logical line of inquiry—to compare what women suffered from the sexual violation of enslaved men—never arrived, and in some ways, this topic feels as far off the intellectual grid today as it ever was. Yet the idea has always lurked just off stage. Behind the Green Door, one of the first feature-length pornographic films released in 1972, showed white women commanding an insatiable black “buck” to perform his erotic magic. The 1975 soft-core porn film, Mandingo, also featured a highly sexualized, muscled, and bare-backed black slaves being forced into a sexual relationship with a white female. Yes, it was a pornographic fantasy. But the question remained: what would have prevented the sexual exploitation of black men by white women or white men?
Relegating these questions to pornographic fantasy was in part a function of how unspeakable male rape has been until quite recently, but it was also a function of how badly distorted conversations about black masculinity have been. Interracial heterosexuality became less controversial in the 1970s, but simultaneously, black homoeroticism and the penetration of black men by other (white) men became more intellectually dangerous and disruptive to the effort to recuperate black manhood. If a few commentators proffered the pseudo-anthropological vision of African male bonding or sexual rites of passage, black power cultural nationalism too often drew tight boundaries around African American sexuality. And no wonder, since many sexual accounts rely on recirculating old, racist storylines. The vast majority of the pulp or pornographic fiction that I have researched features hypersexual black men with huge genitals and curious, innocent, and sensitive white bottoms, who gasp with pleasure over and over again as they are dominated.
This difficult and often frustrating terrain is why Foster’s slim volume, Rethinking Rufus, which documents same-sex relations between white and black men in the years before the American Civil War, is so unusual. A senior historian of early American masculinity and sexuality, Foster grounds his study in a social system that depended on both the sexual coercion of all enslaved people to make productive families and the constant involvement of whites in the intimate sphere of their so-called property. Drawing on oral histories and shards of slave narratives, Foster illustrates the operations of a violent system of bodily regulation in which white men routinely sought relations with enslaved women as a rite of passage, and in the same breath, might also reach for the body of a similarly defenseless, often unattached, enslaved male.
This form of violent coercion also inevitably became a source of sexual scandal, and not just for the white men who prowled the slave quarters. White women were also accused of dominating, satisfying themselves with, and in effect raping black men. Accusations of white female impropriety could ruin a woman’s reputation within her family, at the very least; more seriously, gossip and innuendo were used to undermine a woman’s legal standing or sully her carefully guarded reputation beyond the family estate.
The plantation system was a place of overlapping homosocial spheres where queer relations were easily concealed and ran parallel to the heterosexual norms that reproduced the plantation economy. Decades ago, Martin Duberman found evidence of white “writhing bedfellows” in the antebellum South that hinted at but never confirmed a parallel world of black and interracial same-sex relations. But Foster has found evidence of white men—young and old, wealthy and middling—asserting sexual control over black male servants and slaves as a matter of course. Almost a rite of passage, it meant that white men could command obedience in the field, in the slave family, and in the boudoir from any male chattel under his control.
More precisely, sexual violence pervaded and enforced other forms of control. Curiously, however, Foster—not unlike many other scholars of plantation sexuality—seems to reject the idea that such relationships could also be voluntary or negotiated. Note the premise of the subtitle, “Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men.” In this way, Foster refuses to contemplate fully the notion that black men had agency: that some surely consented to various sexual relations, desired homosexual connections within and outside the quarters, and even sought out such connections after emancipation, either with other black men with whom they toiled and quartered or with white men who shared their desires.
Indeed, Foster returns to a notion about enslavement not as hegemonic, but rather as a total system structured by violence. For example, he writes: “Although we have no documentation for sexual assault during the Middle Passage, the conditions were certainly there. Ships were both sexually charged and physically abusive spaces.” In some ways, this is a breathtaking observation, full of possibility. And yet my image of the slave ship is one of terrible horror, fear, and pain—and shocking mortality rates. Why should we speculate here, without evidence, about desire and sexual violation in such a space?
Our knowledge about sexuality in American slavery has always been based on fragmented evidence and presumptions about the possibilities for cruelty and control. It speaks to Foster’s skill as a historical researcher that the final chapters of Rethinking Rufus offer up rare and evocative materials that demonstrate the extent of sexual violation within chattel slavery. But the overall interpretation—which does not rethink the nature of male sexual agency or document the extent and limits of the master’s control over bodies he owned—still feels thin and speculative. Furthermore, it returns black male homoeroticism to the most fractious and semi-pornographic contexts. Foster’s details about sadistic punishments and physical harm were sometimes distasteful, difficult to read, and seemed almost extraneous to the arguments of the book.
Who therefore will be moved by this scholarly intervention? What will it change? Rethinking Rufus does not contain enough new documentation to influence most scholars of slavery or of black masculinity. I would also be surprised as well as if this book travels outside of academic circles to become a community text of a sort that inspires queer readers of color or calls needed attention to sexual violence against black men.
At a moment in which violence against black men by white men is motivating massive protests and demands for change, these questions are not just historical. Even the image of the scantily clad male slave on the cover of Rethinking Rufus suggests some combination of desire and domination that harkens back to the racialized sensationalism of the past. Although anxieties about how black masculinity is expressed may feel less political now than in the 1960s, this sort of vivid writing and generative speculation plays into ideas about African American men that make them obvious targets for white violence of all kinds. Not one to defer to respectability politics or essentialist nationalism, my instincts here are to acknowledge Foster’s commitment to broaching a sensitive subject, but also to criticize his refusal both to address broad historical questions about sexual agency on the plantation or give us representations of black homosexuality in more precise, nuanced terms.
Rethinking Rufus offers us a serious start on a necessary topic. But Foster’s book is by no means the final word on the sexual vulnerabilities of enslaved black men, nor does he ever give us a critical take on white-defined tropes of black masculinity, much less an escape route away from them. Who will take us forward, unafraid and unapologetically, into a fuller, deeper exploration of the violent regulation and heretofore rarely mentioned homoerotic dimensions of racial slavery? Will the movements for reform currently putting demonstrators into the streets create demands for intellectual reform, as those of past generations did? It remains to be seen.
Kevin J. Mumford is a professor of history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.