The Truth About White Masters, Black Mistresses and Touré

A conversation with Dolen Perkins-Valdez about "Wench," her recent historical novel about enslaved mistresses, the writer Touré's controversial comments about slaves sexing their way to freedom and what it all says about interracial relationships today.

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Several weeks ago, Gawker reported that while defending interracial marriages, the writer and commentator Touré let out a stream of bizarre tweets that praised raped slaves for seducing their white masters:

"Many, many, many of our great grandmothers were raped in slavery. But surely a few of them were loved and surely some ... were cunning and brilliant enough to use their bodies to gain liberation thus fooling massa ... Of course most were raped, we know that, but some were sharp enough to trade that good-good for status or liberation.

"They are absolutely not hos. They're sexually heroic. They're self-liberating by any means necessary."

Initially, Touré deleted the tweets and tried to blame his "cousin" for commandeering his Twitter account, but eventually he reportedly apologized. At the not-so-gentle urging of the blog, What About Our Daughters, MSNBC, which employs Touré as a part-time contributor, just released a statement distancing the network from his comments.

But was there any truth in his comments? A literary scholar and expert on slave narratives by training, Dolen Perkins-Valdez is in a unique position to be able to clear things up. She recently published Wench, an exhaustively researched fictional account of the true story of the enslaved black women who visited an Ohio resort with their white masters. (The resort grounds now have a historical marker on the campus of Central State University.) During a stop on her book tour, she spoke to The Root about the relationships between masters and their favored, enslaved mistresses. Their status? It's complicated.

The Root: What was your reaction to Toure's comments?

Dolen Perkins-Valdez: My initial reaction was 'here we go again with the stereotypes.' [During slavery] black women were portrayed as seducing men. The 'wenches' were so sexual that the white men couldn't resist them.

The use of the phrase "good-good" objectifies women in the same way that slavery objectified women. It reinforces the idea that women were just bodies to be used in any way. The last line in my book was, "She was more than eyes, ears, lips, and thigh. She was a heart. She was a mind." The sort of flip-ness of the comment was unfortunate. My feeling is we need to educate ourselves about what really happened.

TR: But Lizzie, one of the main characters, does love her master and specifically use sex to curry favors for her children and other slaves.

DPV: I think there was a lot of gray. Yes, surely women who were favored by the master used whatever little power they could gain from that favor. I think it is a little bit reckless to say that black women intentionally seduced masters. The power they gained was still so small. To call Lizzie a seductress, fooling Massa with her 'good-good' is not accurate. He seduced her when she was a 13-year-old orphan.

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