Black Marriage Unshackled

Tanisha C. Ford in The Feminist Wire:

BookBound in Wedlock is the first comprehensive history of African American marriage in the nineteenth century. Uncovering the experiences of African American spouses in plantation records, legal and court documents, and pension files, Tera W. Hunter reveals the myriad ways couples adopted, adapted, revised, and rejected white Christian ideas of marriage. Setting their own standards for conjugal relationships, enslaved husbands and wives were creative and, of necessity, practical in starting and supporting families under conditions of uncertainty and cruelty.

TWH: There is a long legacy of racial discrimination that originated during slavery, which hardened as slavery was codified in the law. The rigidity began during in the colonial era as it became increasingly imperative to define slavery as a permanent, inheritable condition, to lock in a self-reproducing workforce. Laws were passed that restricted the intimate relationships of free blacks and defined slaves’ status based on their mothers’ status (partus sequitur ventrem) to ensure that slave owners maintained control over the reproduction of the enslaved. Marriage rights normally granted free couples control over women’s sexuality and labor and parental rights over children. But in order to perpetuate the status of slaves as laboring bodies and further the expansion of capital fueling the global market, those rights had to be denied to slaves. The property rights of enslavers were given the greatest priority. But race, and not just slavery, established the basis for denigrating intimate bonds. African Americans, regardless of status—Northern or Southern, free or slave—faced harsh reprisals from racist ideas and practices that impinged on their intimate relationships. This was because of the growing bifurcation of freedom being associated with whiteness and blackness with servitude, especially during the antebellum decades.

TCF: The Civil War is such a critical turning point in the book, and you chronicle this history in important new ways.

TWH: Yes, the war provided the first context in which fugitive slaves could start to formalize their relationships and gain legal standing. Missionaries and Army officials began to marry slaves “under the flag”—under U.S. authority, to stabilize the growing fugitive population and to prepare them for citizenship. Hence, it was in the context of the war that African Americans were encouraged, and sometimes coerced, to create formal, monogamous, marriages with legal standing. African Americans always reinforced the importance of their families in their encounters with the outside agents. This became especially pronounced after black men were allowed to enlist in the Army. African Americans from the beginning of the war perceived the war to be, and treated it as, a war for their liberation. The federal government came to understand that in order to encourage more men to enlist, they had to offer them protection for their wives and children and the only way to do that was to free them, to give legal recognition to their marriages and all the privileges that accompanied those new rights.

More here.