Date of Award

2018

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

History

First Advisor

Stephanie McCurry

Abstract

This dissertation is about the tangled connections between slavery, sexual violence and incest in the nineteenth century United States. It argues that incest was a systemic element of the institution of slavery in the antebellum South, recognized as such by the slaveholders who engaged in and witnessed incestuous connections between slave owners and slaves, the enslaved women and freedwomen exposed to those abuses, abolitionist activists who decried slavery’s incest and the race scientists and lawmakers who likened “miscegenation” to incest. In ways that scholars have not yet recognized, incest was an integral part of the perverted dynamics of sex, race, commerce, and kinship that characterized slavery and the systems of race and kinship relations constructed in its aftermath. I develop this argument through a series of chapters that trace the evidence of incest in various domains of power: the plantation household, the domestic slave trade, antislavery literature, photography and visual culture, and the post-emancipation legal landscape. Together they show how the issue, long acknowledged in private, burst into public view during the Civil War. After emancipation, freedwomen seized on the revolutionary potential of Reconstruction to both expose the incestuous abuse of slaveholders and reimagine their relationships with law and American society. Ultimately, I argue that any understanding of the fraught racial landscape left in slavery’s wake must contend with the incestuous baggage of slavery.

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