Story posted August 24, 2011
Bowdoin Assistant Professor of African American Studies Tess Chakkalakal looks to fiction to help shed light on the history of the "slave-marriage" in her newly published book, Novel Bondage: Slavery, Marriage, and Freedom in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Illinois Press, 2011).
Novel Bondage gives detail and context to an aspect of slave experience that was largely hidden from public view.
In a recent blog, Chakkalakal draws parallels between New York's Marriage Equality Act and the legalization of slave marriages following the Civil War. "Granting legal marriage to former slaves was the first step toward legal segregation rather than freedom ... keeping former slaves tied to one another and their slave pasts," she writes. Read more.
The book expertly mines canonical 19th century novels by black and white authors, including Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and William Wells Brown's Clotel; or, The President's Daughter, alongside archival materials, to show how these unconventional slave unions challenged the legal definition of marriage into the 19th century.
"Historians have long known that slave marriages existed," says Chakkalakal, "but it wasn't until the Emancipation, when the Freedman's Bureau required slaves to register their marriages in order to be fully free, that we get documents."
"Most of our knowledge of them comes from fiction, where slave-marriages are very clearly and poignantly represented—both during slavery and after the war. Many historians prefer not to read fiction as history, but I believe it offers the best historical source for this particular phenomenon."
"Slave-marriages, being outside the legal confines of marriage, produced a different way of thinking about marriage as a cultural/social institution," adds Chakkalakal. Once they became legalized, she argues, slave-marriages paradoxically became more confining as Jim Crow laws ensured that black marriages couldn't cross racial boundaries.
Novel Bondage is available at the Bowdoin Book Store.