LOVETTSVILLE, Virginia -- Commercial DNA tests available to all of us are revealing something dark but fundamental about our nation’s past -- that slavery, for its other evils, was institutionalized rape, a legal means for white men in a repressed era to sexually exploit Black women.
A study published six years ago in “The American Journal of Human Genetics” showed that, in much of the South, about 10% of Americans who identify as whites have African DNA. It found, too, that more than 19% of the DNA of Black Americans can be traced to European males. This admixture occurred, according to the study, in the early 19th century, before slavery was extinguished.
At-home DNA tests are now surprising many whites with the news that they have some percentage of African DNA or have distant cousins who are Black. The same tests are also informing Blacks that they have European bloodlines.
History professor Fawn Brodie at the University of California, Los Angeles, sparked an intellectual firestorm in 1974 when she explored Thomas Jefferson’s illicit relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Prominent authorities on Jefferson at the time assailed her work as a collection of half-truths and misinterpretations.
However, DNA tests later showed that Jefferson fathered at least one of Hemings’ children, proving Brodie right. And the Thomas Jefferson Foundation now says it is “a settled historical matter” that America’s third president fathered Hemings’ children.
Sexual relations between an owner and a slave could never be consensual. It was always rape. And Jefferson never emancipated Hemings.
Sexual abuse is just one of the inevitable outcomes of empowering men with complete control over other human beings. Of course, purchasers and handlers of slaves were not screened to weed out rapists and pederasts. The law offered no relief to any of the victims.
Such abuse was apparently widespread. Edward Achorn, in his recent book, “Every Drop of Blood,” notes that Confederate diarist Mary Chestnut observed hat southern men “live all in one house with their wives & their concubines, & the Mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children.”
A Connecticut soldier with General William T. Sherman’s U.S. Army during its march through Georgia, as quoted in the 2008 book, “Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea,” wrote that when his regiment stopped outside a plantation, he “got into a conversation with a very pretty girl, thinking she was the daughter of a planter from the fact that she seemed so well educated. I made some inquiries about her parents when to my great surprise she told me that she was . . . both the slave and the daughter of the planter who was a minister.”
The soldier was no doubt as appalled as any of us is that slave owners would keep their own children in bondage. But to do otherwise would have required a slave owner to admit to miscegenation. Besides, progeny kept as slaves became assets on his ledger.
The names of these children are unlikely to be found in any white person’s genealogy. But thanks to in-home DNA tests, these “mulattoes” (as Chestnut called them) can now be identified as the likely forebears of many Black and white Americans.
Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles, sired six children by an enslaved woman. Hemings was one of them, which made her Jefferson’s sister-in-law. Jefferson, too, kept some of his own children as slaves.
Jefferson’s tangled domestic affairs were hardly atypical for a system that served the sexual convenience of white males. As a result, many Black Americans can trace their lineages to white slave owners or their male family members or employees, or even to the sailors who transported slaves kidnapped from Africa before Congress prohibited the transatlantic slave trade in 1808.
Whites raised on the “Gone with the Wind” version of American chattel slavery -- which portrayed slave owners as kindly and slaves as contented, loyal, supernumerary members of the master’s family -- may have a hard time accepting what DNA evidence is telling us.
None of us should be blamed for the offenses of our ancestors. But we do have a responsibility to call out slavery for what science is showing us it was.
Jack R. Stevens is a former senior assistant attorney general, special counsel, for the state of California.
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