Fenton, “An Essay on Slavery’s Hidden Legacy”

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Zanita Fenton (Miami) has published An Essay on Slavery’s Hidden Legacy: Social Hysteria and Structural Condonation of Incest, 55 Howard L.J. 319 (2012).  Here is the abstract:

The history of slavery and its effects within the United States, especially the impact on the black family and individuals who are African American, have been studied and postulated since before slavery formally ended. What is less often discussed is the impact of slavery on white families and the individuals who comprise those families, or generally the American family within society at large. For both the commission of incest or miscegenation, the event(s) were publicly condemned while simultaneously ignored and hidden, and thereby condoned. Despite the imperative for racial purity, white men enjoyed a presumption of free access to slaves, as well as to freed women. Indeed, because acts of miscegenation were so common, as was their denial, they occurred in transparent obscurity. Further, this white, patriarchal, sexual prerogative was unfettered and all but unchallenged, even when such access resulted in an actual biological, incestuous coupling. Thus, the convergence of the taboos, miscegenated incest/incestuous miscegeny, prompted the hidden exhibition of incest, first for relations between family members of “opposite” races, but also for any correlate relations within a “same” race family. Indeed, acknowledgment or exposure of incest between relatives of so-called opposite race challenged both the social construction of race and therefore the basis for social stratifications. In the least, it calls into question any alleged biological distinction and rationales for this stratification. Unfortunately, it may also be that the social construct of difference may have made these kinds of relations psychologically palatable because the relation could not be considered familial.

Nonetheless, once there was silent condonation for the liaisons between a white father and his reflection in brown, it must have become more psychologically plausible that such liaisons could also occur, with impunity, with his reflection in white. The common sense progression within this power dynamic includes the unchallenged access of these same fathers to their white children.

Incest taboos have the purpose of permitting the development of children in safe environments, free of sexual exploitation. These taboos also make the interdependence of families within society necessary. The strength of the incest taboo may, alone, be enough to prompt the intensity of the silence surrounding the subject matter, even in the face of strong indicators of its prevalence and the associated problems with its occurrence. However, in the United States, the silence surrounding incest ought to be understood in tandem with the silence pertaining to interracial relations from the era of anti-miscegenation.

This Essay is a “thought” piece, relying on historical texts concerning society, politics, and the development of psychoanalytic conventions. The analysis offered in this Essay relies often on the absence of text and direct evidence as a means to elucidate the apparent, yet veiled problem of modern-day incest. It discusses the political considerations and legal thought regarding the connections between incest and miscegenation, primarily from the Ante-bellum South, which sustained the social order of the time. It goes on to discuss the prevailing family and its role in maintaining both patriarch and the racial social order. It then identifies the parallels between the mythologies associated with incest and with miscegenation. It further discusses psychology as it affects an individual victim and situation. It completes the discussion by addressing the possibility of community-based psychology and mass hysterics contributing to the denial of existing social transgressions. The Essay concludes by suggesting how the various constructs identified have modern-day relevance.

The full piece is available here.

-Bridget Crawford

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