My work focuses on a cluster of issues surrounding the history of slavery, race, and sexual violence in the nineteenth century United States. My dissertation pursues those issues through a particular focus on the tangled connections between race, slavery, and incest in the period spanning the Civil War and Emancipation. “American Incest: Kinship, Sex, and Commerce in Slavery and Reconstruction,” examines the link between incest and interracial sex in the antebellum and post-emancipation South. In it, I argue that incest, defined both literally and conceptually, was integral to the perverted dynamics of sex, property, and kinship that characterized slavery and the system of race relations constructed in its aftermath. What I term the “paternalism axis” goes a step beyond biological incest and takes seriously the coupling of slaveholders’ ideology of family and their practice of sexual assault. If a master viewed his slave as a member of his family, and understood his duty to her as akin to a paternal obligation to a child, then his subsequent rape of that slave/child was an incestuous act, even if there was no biological connection between them. At a fundamental level, any instance where paternalism and sex intersected was incestuous.
This unexplored connection between interracial sex and incest is crucial to understanding and explaining the spike in white anxiety about sex across racial categories and the rise of prohibitory anti-miscegenation laws in the American South in the immediate postbellum period. Drawing from a diverse source base that includes planter papers, legal cases, visual material, periodicals, and novels, I offer a conceptual and chronological framework that examines how incest manifested across different domains of power: law, kinship, commerce, literature, and visual culture. Ultimately, I contend that the post-emancipation obsession with codifying, policing, and violently enforcing racial separation ought to be understood as a reaction to the incestuous dynamics of slavery in the South.
B.F.A., Washington University in St. Louis
Nineteenth-century U.S., African American History, Slavery and Emancipation, Cultural History and Theory, Women and Gender