Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina (Review)

Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina (Review)

William and Mary Quarterly
Volume LX, Number 1 (January 2003)
Reviews of Books

Richard Godbeer, Professor of History
University of Miami

Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina. By Kirsten Fischer. (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002. Pp. xiv, 265.)

Kirsten Fischer’s compelling new book explores the interplay between sexual relations and racial attitudes in colonial North Carolina. In common with other recent scholars, Fischer sees evolving conceptions of race, sex, gender, and social status as closely intertwined in the early South. Unlike those who argue for a shift in emphasis from gender or class to race, Fischer stresses instead “the continual contestation, reassertion, and reconfiguration” of these categories as “assumptions of gender, race, and class difference propped each other up in the developing social hierarchy” (p. 5). Fischer identifies a gradual movement away from somewhat fluid notions of race toward an ideology in which racial difference figured as permanent and inherent. Sexual regulation played a crucial role in official attempts to affirm and police racial boundaries in southern society. This in turn “made race seem as corporeal as sex” and so “bolstered the notion that race was a physical fact” (pp. 10-11).

In colonial society, the establishment of slavery and racial subordination required careful regulation of European as well as African residents and especially of white women. Legislation that prohibited marriage between servants, outlawed interracial sex, and prescribed lengthy apprenticeships for the mixed-race children of white women made marriage and sex integral to the imposition of racial as well as class and gender ideologies. Yet sexual unions in North Carolina embodied the contestedness of racial relations in the early South: as “men and women made personal choices based on many contingencies, of which racial or ethnic identity was only one” (p. 7), they often challenged emerging proscriptive codes. The widespread incidence of unauthorized unions bespoke the resilience of alternative popular codes and the willingness of ordinary colonists, women and men, to ignore or self-consciously resist official norms….

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