Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Why antiracists misunderstand Hugh Davis "defiling his body in lying with a Negro" in 1630—or the New York Times gets it wrong again

I thought What if the Court in the Loving Case Had Declared Race a False Idea? - The New York Times makes an interesting argument, but Brent Staples bolsters it with a common shallow assumption. I read this:
(In 1630, for example, a man named Hugh Davis was publicly whipped for “defiling his body in lying with a Negro.”)

Colonial-era court records are filled with crimes related to interracial sex and fierce debates about the legal status of children born of interracial unions.
My first thought was that sounded wrong because poor whites and blacks were treated very similarly before Bacon's Rebellion in the 1670s. My second thought was "Why do they think 'Negro' means a woman? The term sounds wrong for the time."

So I went googling and found a surprising number of places interpreting this incident as the Times does. But then I found Abusing Hugh Davis - Determining the Crime in a 17th Century Morality Case (pdf) by historian Alan Scot Willis, who argues convincingly,
...it was different from the usual cases of adultery and fornication because it was, instead, a case of sodomy. Additionally, I argue that such a claim in not mere “conjecture.” We may never be able to establish definitively whether Hugh Davis committed fornication or sodomy, but we can demonstrate that it is more probable he committed sodomy.
Willis compares the case to similar ones that unambiguously involved heterosexual people of different races and notes that the treatment of those couples was very different. He also notes,
The Jamestown Court accused Davis of “lying with a negro” whereas they commonly used the words “Negress” or “Negro wench” in other cases specifying that the unnamed Africans in those cases were, indeed, female. Winthrop Jordan, in White Over Black, explained “the term "negro woman‟ was in very common use.” This led Jordan to speculate that Davis‟ partner “may not have been female.” Richard Godbeer ruminated on that problem in a footnote in his Sexual Revolution in Early America, noting that the “passage refers not to a "negro woman‟ or a "negro wench‟ or "a negress‟ but a "negro‟ suggesting that Davis may have had sexual contact with a male African.”
Humans tend to see what they expect to find. People who wanted to find racism failed to see homophobia.

If you object that sodomy was punished by death then, the answer is "Not in all cases." Willis covers that. His paper is fairly short and well worth reading if history, race, and gender interest you. It includes fascinating incidents like this:
...in 1629 Virginia dealt with what must have been a truly perplexing case of sexual identity. The Court demanded that Thomas Hall declare himself to be either male or female, but Hall maintained he was both. The Court, in disagreement with Hall‟s master, came to the rather ambiguous determination that Hall must present himself as both male 6 female; He was ordered to wear men's clothing but also an apron and to have his hair coiffed as a woman's. Yet it reached the decision only after two bodily inspections had resulted in contradictory findings.