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.
TR: At one point Lizzie openly shares a bedroom in the main house with her Master Drayle, across the room from his wife, who tolerated it. Do you think he loved her?
TR: Right. The women seem to be regarded more as livestock or pets than human beings.
DPV: I think there is some step between human and animal that some slaves may have occupied for the slave owner. Particularly if you were mixed-race or mulatto, there was a sense you were improved upon through your white blood. I do think there is a step in between that some people occupied. You were better than some slaves in their eyes. And you were not white. I don't think that Drayle thinks of Lizzie as a slave. He treats her as a woman, not an animal. As he sees her as becoming more independent, he wants more control.
TR: On the other end of the spectrum, another character is the mistress of her half-brother, and Mawu, another character is publicly sodomized by her master after attempting an escape. That was the most difficult scene to read.
DPV: I wanted to show the range of experiences. Mawu, her master ties her up and raped her. I wanted to show how Lizzie's master seduces her and some people say that is a type of rape, too. She was 13 years old. In some ways it is more insidious because it makes the victim feel more complicit.
[Public rapes] definitely happened in the slave quarters in broad daylight. It happens in Toni Morrison's Beloved. The men on a chain gang are made to give oral sex to the prison guard. The way she writes it is very oblique. [In the rape scene in Wench] these two Northern women thought they were coming to see a beating and the master got carried away in the frenzy of the moment. But the master wasn't doing it for them, he was doing it for the other slaves as a warning.
TR: To me the strangest thing about Touré's tweet was that is seemed to come right after his defense of interracial relationships, which he is a part of. (He's married to a Lebanese woman.) Even all these years later, why are romantic relationships between the races still so loaded?
DPV: I think the fact that it is still such a painful history is why people are still emotional about interracial relationships. I don't know how my book illuminates that, but there is a connection there. There is an emotional weight to them in our country. This is not something that came out of nowhere. One of those reasons has to do with the history of slavery. It would be good if we talked about this so that we can put it away, and let it go. We don't talk about it as a country. My hope is that people read this book and put it away and let it rest.
Natalie Hopkinson is The Root's media and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.
Correction: The original version of this piece recalled a scene in Beloved where men gave oral sex to their overseer. In the book, the men were on a chain gang and gave oral sex to their prison guard. It has been corrected in this version.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.