White Women, Black Men

In White Women, Black Men, Martha Hodes explores the sexual and romantic relationships between Black men and White women, and the cultural cost that came with their interactions during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. In the 2nd Chapter, Hodes investigates the costly and ambiguous marriages of White women and Black men through the marriage of a White female servant, Eleanor Butler, and an enslaved Black man, Charles. In the late 17th century, this coupling caused a lot of discomfort from the White male stakeholders because it questioned the stability of their “racial perfection.” Even though Eleanor Butler or Nell, was a servant and of a very low class, her proximity to Blackness lowered her class and the freedom of her children. The 3rd Chapter concerns the consensuality of sex between White women and Black men. Hodes analyzes this dynamic through the story of a poor White woman, Poly Lane, and an enslaved Black man, Jim. In 1825, Poly Lane accused Jim of raping her in the woods. While cases involving a White female survivor and a Black male assailant resulted in the death or brutality of the Black man, the case of Polly and Jim becomes so “difficult to understand” because of all the factors complicating this racial dynamic. Polly was a woman of a lower class who had less political power, and previously she had consensual sex with Jim prior. Also, her purity was called into question because she was pregnant with Jim’s child. This case exposed the limited social currency white women can have in a capitalistic society, especially when a White woman willingly interacts with Blackness.

The 7th Chapter expounds on the political violence that happened to Black men when they became “free.” Some of the violence happened at the hand of the Ku Klux Klan. The sexual interactions between Black men and White women reminded them of the current reality of their un-won war. These white men were “seeking revenge for the political power lost” (170) via Black bodies and their castration. This violence did not stop with Black people; White women were also victims of these crimes because of their connection to Blackness. The 8th chapter discusses the violence against Black men who were accused of the “unfavorable” interactions with White women, but it also retells the work of Black radicals during that time. Jessie C Duke, Ida B. Wells, and Alexander Manly advocated for Black men who were accused of rape by disavowing the “Black male rapist” trope and highlighting the claim that White women often consented to sexual relationships with Black men.

While reading these chapters it becomes so clear how White supremacy thrives on the purity of White women. Impoverished White women were living in a capitalist patriarchal society. There were many ways in which White women were oppressed. But they were imperative because their purity allows Black men to be seen as animals and Black women to be defeminized. White women are so fascinating in this piece because they somewhat encapsulate what White privilege is. White women can be made poor by the system, but they will always have a certain level of social currency or trust because they can decide the fate of the Black man base on their claims.