When South African comedian Trevor Noah takes over as host of “The Daily Show” on Monday night, he’ll probably introduce his new audience to his family biography. Born in Johannesburg to a black South African mother and a white Swiss German father in 1984, when apartheid was still firmly in place and interracial marriage was illegal, Noah made his parents’ struggles the subject of his widely acclaimed stand-up routine “Born a Crime.”
Their story represents an exception to one of apartheid’s harshest realities: White men sexually violated black women with impunity. But neither is it a romantic tale of racial transcendence. Noah has been frank about how his Xhosa mother paid the greater price for her relationship with a white man. Not only did she face social stigma and arrest, she was also left to raise Noah alone when his father exercised his white male privilege and left South Africa.
In my academic research, I grapple with stories like the one Noah tells, of interracial sexual relations that resist neat labels. They’re not uncommon. Yet when power dynamics are so profoundly unequal, there’s a strong incentive to deny the possibility of complexity or murkiness by falling back on binaries like rape or romance.
Take, for example, the recent controversy that erupted after the New York Times published an obituary for the iconic civil rights leader Julian Bond, in which Bond’s great-grandmother, Jane Bond, was called a “slave mistress.” We know that Jane Bond was enslaved, but as Shaun King and many other readers rightly pointed out, that very fact means she could not refuse a sexual relationship with the Kentucky farmer who owned her, a fact elided by the term “mistress.” The New York Times was right to apologize for suggesting otherwise.
But King’s assertion that Jane Bond — and by extension all enslaved women — can be understood only as rape victims leaves no space for wrestling with interracial sexual encounters that fell into the gray area between coercion and consent.
Consider the polarized views that many Americans have of the nearly four-decade-long relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his bondwoman, Sally Hemings. For some, it’s a love story; for others, a lifetime of sexual slavery. Yet the details of their relationship suggest a more complicated set of familial, financial and affective ties than either scenario allows.
The same could be said for Richard Mentor Johnson, vice president to Martin Van Buren, and his slave Julia Chinn. For two decades the couple lived openly as common-law husband and wife, jointly raising their daughters in a life of privilege. During Johnson’s long absences in Washington, Chinn presided over the affairs of his Kentucky estate. After she died in 1833, Johnson cast his eyes on one of Chinn’s enslaved nieces, who reportedly rebuffed his advances, leading him to sell her. Was Johnson a caring husband and father or a predatory and ruthless slave owner? Perhaps he was both.
Historians rightly worry that by portraying women like Hemings and Chinn as partners of the men who owned them, we risk obscuring the obscene degree to which enslaved women could not exercise control over their own sexuality. We also fear that apologists will tout such examples as proof that rape wasn’t endemic to slavery. Despite more than two decades of black feminist scholarship that has proved otherwise, the refrain “slavery wasn’t so bad after all” persists.
But women who were able to strategically confront the violent sexual economy of slavery were not lesser victims because of it. Their distinctive wounds merit our consideration too.
What did an enslaved woman feel when she acquiesced to her owner’s sexual demands in the hope that the loss of her dignity might someday gain her a measure of comfort and her children’s freedom, if not her own? What kind of trauma did famed abolitionist Harriet Jacobs experience as a young woman when she “gave” herself to an older white man of her choosing to stave off her owner’s sexual predations?
While the master-slave dynamic stands apart because of its gross inequality, we should take a similarly subtle approach to interracial relationships under Jim Crow in the United States, apartheid in South Africa and elsewhere.
Long before he became a prominent Dixiecrat, Strom Thurmond impregnated his family’s 16-year-old black maid, Carrie Butler, under circumstances that both he and Butler took to their graves. It’s difficult to fathom what consent could have looked like, but neither do the scant details of their encounter confirm coercion. He was a segregationist whose flawed but enduring relationship with his biracial daughter was more of an open secret than a well-kept one. No simple label can account for that.
Whether in the United States or in Noah’s South Africa, we need to find ways to communicate the unsettling history of interracial sex that aren’t so black and white.
Carina Ray is associate professor of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of “Crossing the Color Line: Race, Sex, and the Contested Politics of Colonialism in Ghana.”