The Life of Sally Hemings exhibit at Monticello is pictured on June 16, 2018 in Charlottesville, Va. (Photo by /For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Eze Amos—The Washington Post/Getty Images
By Arica L. Coleman
August 10, 2018

With Beyoncé’s appearance on the cover of the September issue of Vogue, the magazine highlights three facets of the superstar’s character for particular focus: “Her Life, Her Body, Her Heritage.” The words she shares are deeply personal, and that last component also offers a window into a complicated and misunderstood dynamic that affects all of American history. While opening up about her family’s long history of dysfunctional marital relationships, she hints at an antebellum relationship that defies that trend: “I researched my ancestry recently,” she stated, “and learned that I come from a slave owner who fell in love with and married a slave.”

She doesn’t elaborate on how she made the discovery or what is known about those individuals, but fans will know that Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is a native of Houston whose maternal and paternal forbears hailed from Louisiana and Alabama, respectively. Her characterization of her heritage stands out because those states, like others across the South, had stringent laws and penalties against interracial marriage. In fact, throughout the colonial and antebellum eras, interracial marriage would have been the exception — even though interracial sex was the rule.

Within the context of America’s slave society, such relations as that described by the star — and the larger system of cohabitation and concubinage, or involuntary monogamous sexual relations, in which they existed — have been the subject of much study by historians. After much debate, the consensus amongst scholars of American slavery is that sex within the master-slave relationship brings into question issues of power, agency and choice that problematize notions of love and romance even in cases where there appears to be mutual consent. As Joshua Rothman, in his book Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families Across the Color Line In Virginia, 1787-1861, observed about history’s most famous such relationship, that between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, “Whatever reciprocal caring there may have ever been between them, fundamentally their lives together would always be founded more on a deal and a wary trust than on romance.”

Indeed. In a 2013 article in the Journal of African American History entitled “What’s Love Got to Do With It: Concubinage and Enslaved Women and Girls in the Antebellum South,” historian Brenda E. Stevenson highlighted the complexity of interracial sexual liaisons in American slave society with regard to consent. Slaveowners propositioned enslaved girls in their early teens who at that age were “naïve, vulnerable, and certainly frightened.” Promises of material gain and freedom for the enslaved woman and her family were enticements often used to gain sexual loyalties. As Stevenson observed, “Some concubinage relationships obviously developed overtime and could mimic a marriage in some significant ways such as emotional attachment; financial support; better food, clothing, and furnishings; and sometimes freedom for the woman and her children.”

Annette Gordon-Reed noted in her book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family the unusual case of Mary Hemings, Sally’s oldest sister, whom Jefferson leased to local businessman Thomas Bell. Not long after Mary began working for Bell, the two developed a sexual relationship, which resulted in two children. Jefferson later, at her request, sold Mary and the children to Bell, though her four older children remained the property of Jefferson. She took Bell’s last name and remained with him until his death in 1800. “Bell and Hemings, who adopted the last name of her master/lover,” Gordon-Reed wrote, “lived as husband and wife for the rest of Bell’s life.”

In most cases, however, young girls were forced into concubinage, not marriage.

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That more common story is told by the historian Tiya Miles in her book The Ties that Bind: the Story of a Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom. Shoe Boots was a Cherokee warrior who had married, according to Cherokee custom, a young white female who was captured during an Indian raid in Kentucky in 1792. Also during this time Shoe Boots purchased a young enslaved girl named Doll in South Carolina; she was placed under the supervision of his white wife as a domestic servant. When his wife and children abandoned him after an arranged family visit to Kentucky in 1804, Shoe Boots took 16-year-old Doll as his concubine. In a letter he dictated to the Cherokee Council two decades later, Shoe Boots described what happened as “I debased myself and took one of my black women” in response to being upset at losing his white wife. One can only imagine the years of physical and psychological trauma Doll endured to console her master’s grief.

And, while much attention has focused on sexual relations between slaveowners and enslaved women, enslaved men could also be coerced or sexually exploited.

In her 1861 autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs told the chilling story of a male slave named Luke who was kept chained at his bedridden master’s bedside so that he would be constantly available to tend to his physical needs, which included sexual favors. In veiled language so as not to offend the sensibilities of 19th-century polite society, Jacobs reported that most days Luke was only allowed to wear a shirt so that he could be easily flogged if he committed an infraction such as resisting his master’s sexual advances. And in a 2011 Journal of the History of Sexuality article, the scholar Thomas Foster contended that enslaved black men regularly were sexually exploited by both white men and white women, which “took a variety of forms, including outright physical penetrative assault, forced reproduction, sexual coercion and manipulation, and psychic abuse.” In one example provided by Foster, a man named Lewis Bourne filed for divorce in 1824 due to his wife’s longtime sexual liaison and continued pursuit of a male slave named Edmond from their community. Foster contended that such pursuits “could enable white women to enact radical fantasies of domination over white men” while at the same time subjecting the black enslaved male to her control.

Foster also contended that such pursuits were not uncommon, as demonstrated by testimonies from The American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission established by the secretary of war in 1863, which took depositions from abolitionists and slaves regarding the realities of slave life. Such depositions included stories of sexual liaisons between enslaved men and their mistresses. Abolitionist Robert Hinton stated, “I have never found yet a bright looking colored man who has not told me of instances where he has been compelled, either by his mistress, or by white women of the same class, to have connection with them.” Foster further concurs with scholars who argue that rape can serve as a metaphor for both enslaved women and men as, “The vulnerability of all enslaved black persons to nearly every conceivable violation produced a collective ‘rape’ subjectivity.”

For certain, interracial sexual liaisons between the slave-owning class and the enslaved is a well-established reality of American history. But caution must be used when describing relationships that appear consensual using the language of love and romance. We cannot know what was in the hearts of Beyoncé’s ancestors, or any person who does not leave a record of their emotions, but we can know about the society in which they lived. Complex dynamics of power are at work when we talk about sex within slavery, and the enslaved negotiated those forces on a daily basis in order to survive.

Historians explain how the past informs the present

Arica L. Coleman is a scholar of U.S. history and the author of That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia and a former chair of the Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Histories at the Organization of American Historians.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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