Recently, a colleague described to me a colloquium that he had just attended. The subject was a draft paper written by one of the participants; the topic was the reception of newly freed African Americans into society during Reconstruction. Slightly bewildered, he reported that the paper appeared to argue that granting former slaves the legal right to marry was actually a bad thing—a way for the dominant culture to force its hegemonic institutions on a subject population and to impose racist and gendered legal norms on previously private consensual relationships. In fact, he said, the writer seemed to claim that the varied, fluid, “egalitarian” and “communal” sexual relationships among slaves rendered slave society superior—at least in this regard—to nineteenth-century white society.

On closer inspection, it turns out that the writer intended to join the critique of “rights-based...

Introduce yourself to The New Criterion for the lowest price ever—and a receive an extra issue as thanks.
Popular Right Now