The Place of Miscegenation Laws within Historical Scholarship about Slavery 2

Allen Mendenhall

Miscegenation laws, also known as anti-miscegenation laws, increasingly have attracted the attention of scholars of slavery over the last half-century.  Scholarship on slavery first achieved eminence with the publication of such texts as Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Frank Tannenbaum’s Slave and Citizen (1946), Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution (1956), Stanley Elkins’s Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959), and Leon F. Litwack’s North of Slavery (1961).  When Winthrop D. Jordan published his landmark study White Over Black in 1968, miscegenation statutes during the era of American slavery were just beginning to fall within historians’ critical purview.  The Loving v. Virginia case, initiated in 1959 and resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, no doubt played an important role in activating scholarship on this issue, especially in light of the Civil Rights movement that called attention to various areas of understudied black history. 

In Loving, the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s miscegenation statutes forbidding marriage between whites and non-whites and ruled that the racial classifications of the statutes restricted the freedom to marry and therefore violated the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  In the wake of Loving, scholarship on miscegenation laws gained traction, although miscegenation laws during the era of American slavery have yet to receive extensive critical treatment.  Several articles and essays have considered miscegenation laws and interracial sex during the era of American slavery, but only a few book-length analyses are devoted to these issues, and of these analyses, most deal with interracial sex and miscegenation laws in the nineteenth-century antebellum period, or from the period of Reconstruction up through the twentieth-century.  This historiographical essay explores interracial sex and miscegenation laws in the corpus of historical writing about slavery.  It does so by contextualizing interracial sex and miscegenation laws within broader trends in the study of slavery.  Placing various historical texts in conversation with one another, this essay speculates about how and why, over time, historians treated interracial sex and miscegenation laws differently and with varying degrees of detail.  By no means exhaustive, this essay merely seeks to point out one area of slavery studies that stands for notice, interrogation, and reconsideration.  The colonies did not always have miscegenation laws; indeed, miscegenation laws did not spring up in America until the late seventeenth-century, and they remained in effect in various times and regions until just forty-four years ago.  The longevity and severity of these laws make them worthy our continued attention, for to understand miscegenation laws is to understand more fully the logic and formal expression of racism. More…

Truth and Loneliness Reply

Robert Penn Warren, as a writer viewed the world through two lenses: one was the lens of the perceptive — the wanderer in time who encounters phenomena and tends to make conclusions about their significance.   The other was the lens of the stationary — the constant.   Thus, RPW tended to gravitate towards hisorical narrative as a means of developing his characters.  The following two poems exemplify RPW’s lens of the world:


Truth is what you cannot tell.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Truth is for the grave                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Truth is only the flowing shadow cast                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           By the wind-tossed elm                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               When sun is bright and grass well groomed.

Truth is the downy feather                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           You blow from your lips to shine in sunlight

Truth is the trick that history,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Over and over again, plays on us.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Its shape is unclear in shadow or brightness,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             And its utterance the whisper we strive to catch,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Or the scream of a locomotive desperately                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Blowing for the tragic crossing. Truth                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Is the curse laid upon us in the garden.

Truth is the serpent’s joke,

And is the sun-stung dust-devil that swirls                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                On the lee side of God when he drowses.

Truth is the long soliloquy                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Of the dead all their long night.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Truth is what would be told by the dead                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  If they could hold a conversation                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 With the living and thus fulfill obligation to us.

Their accumulated wisdom must be immense.

The serpent’s joke that man can know truth.  In the end we just tell narratives — stories of our perceptions.  And perhaps the Dead might correct us if they could — oh how wise they would be.   How history taunts us, tempting us that we might be immortal, or at least our presence immortal.

Timeless, Twinned

Angelic, lonely, autochthuonous, one white                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Cloud lolls, unmoving, on an azure which                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Is called the sky, and in gold drench of light,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             No leaf , However gold, may stir, nor a single blade twitch,

Though autumn-honed, of the cattail by the pond.  No voice                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Speaks, since here no voice knows                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               The language in which a tongue might now rejoice.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  So silence, a transparent flood, thus overflows.

In it, I drown, and from my depth my gaze                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Yearns, faithful, toward that cloud’s integrity,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           As though I’ve now forgotten all other nights and days,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Anxiety born of the future’s snare, or the nag of history.

What if, to my back, thin-shirted, brown grasses yet bring                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  The heat of the summer, or beyond the perimeter northward, wind,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Snow-bellied lurks? I stare at the cloud, white, motionless.  I cling.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    To our single existence, timeless twinned.

Poems by Robert Penn Warren, published in The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren (Ed. John Burt).