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Zanita E. Fenton

excerpted from: Zanita E. Fenton, An Essay on Slavery's Hidden Legacy: Social Hysteria and Structural Condonation of Incest , 55 Howard Law Journal 319 (Winter 2012)


In 1830, the Governor of Virginia granted clemency to Peggy, the slave and biological daughter of John Francis, for murdering her slave owner. Peggy killed John Francis to end his abuse of her and his threats of rape. Remarkably, the request for clemency was made by one-hundred (white) men of the county outraged by the repeated attempts of John Francis to have sexual relations with Peggy.

Most revealing was that, even though at least two social/sexual taboos were in serious danger of transgression, no one made an effort to rebuke the conduct of John Francis or to protect Peggy prior to his death. One may wonder whether these men perceived the greater offense as against the established taboos or against what those taboos protected: the white patriarchal order (and those symbolizing it). Indeed, the sequence of events demonstrates the strength of those social/sexual taboos, yet reveals an unstated imperative to protect the actual heir to power. Both the taboos and the apparent refusal to enforce them against those intended to hold power were central to maintaining the social structure.

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 liasons could also occur, with impunity, with his reflection in white. The commonsense 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, 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.

The core issues underlying a discussion of the connection between incest and miscegenation are misogyny and racism. In Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, Ashley Montagu discusses the parallel between antifeminism and race prejudice:

In connection with the modern form of race prejudice it is of interest to recall that almost every one of the arguments used by the racists to prove the inferiority of one or another so-called race was not so long ago used by the antifeminists to prove the inferiority of the female as compared with the male.

Other prominent authors, such as Simone Beauvoir in The Second Sex and Gunnar Myrdal in An American Dilemma, have noted the similarities between the problems of race and gender. Myrdal observed that the myths perpetuating the inferior status of race and gender were almost identical; the similarity was not accidental, but originated in the paternalistic order of society. Correspondingly, the parallels between the taboos of incest and of miscegenation were at one time so close, that during the antebellum period they were, on occasion, understood as identical.

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. Part I 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. Part II discusses the prevailing family and its role in maintaining both patriarch and the racial social order. Part III identifies the parallels between the mythologies associated with incest and with miscegenation. It further discusses psychology as it affects an individual victim and situation. Part III closes 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 relevance.

. Professor of Law, University of Miami School of Law.