Early American Manliness: A Question of Power, Not Sex

Thomas A. Foster teaches history at DePaul University, Chicago. He is editor of New Men: Manliness in Early America and a writer for the History News Service.

Four young men have accused the leader of one of the largest churches in the country of sexual abuse. The accusations have sent shock waves through the media and the twenty-five thousand souls who belong to New Birth Baptist Church near Atlanta. Some commentators have condemned Bishop Eddie Long’s virulently anti-gay theology and political activism and have called for a black church that is more welcoming and inclusive of gays and lesbians. Others have urged ministers to lead more stringent lives and to adhere to anti-gay interpretations of the Bible.

But the conversations about homophobia in the black church or about Bishop Long’s hypocrisy confuse the issue at hand. This is not the story of a closeted gay man who simply needed sexual release. As scholars for generations have shown, sexual abuse—in all its forms—is about power, not sex. And this is true regardless of race. There is a long history, as well as current practice, of black men being sexually abused. Yet the issue is virtually ignored in the news media and in most histories.

Occasionally, the sexual assault of a black man does become news. In 1997 when Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant living in Brooklyn, was sodomized with a broken broom handle by police officers, the nation paused in horror but then moved on, ignoring or even finding humor in the occurrences of sexual assault that occur daily behind bars. The sexual assault of incarcerated men, disproportionately African American, is more often a source of jokes than a mainstream concern about brutality and violation of human rights. And, sadly, it is more likely to be mentioned on a sitcom than on the nightly news.

We also hear little in the media about the widespread sexual assault of black men and boys in recent conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Darfur region of the Sudan.

There is a long history of sexual abuse and exploitation of black men in this country as well, but it has largely gone untold. Stories of sexual assault against black men under slavery have not been fully explored by historians, although they have been passed down in oral histories and traditions.

Scholars of the sexual abuse of enslaved women have highlighted the violent rapes, exploitative relationships and concubinage that took place between enslaved women and masters. Far less research has focused on black men as sexual victims. The emasculation they suffered under slavery, it has often been said, was the denial of patriarchal authority and control of dependents, wives and children. But enslaved men were also forced to reproduce with enslaved women, and in many other ways, too, they had little control over their bodies and intimacies.

Nineteenth-century accounts from court records and former slaves reveal that white women also took advantage of their positions of power over slaves and at times abused that power to gain sexual access to black men and to assert their authority. Such a history has remained largely hidden, buried under the enduring stereotypes of white women as passive and vulnerable and black men as hypersexual and powerful.

The abuse of black men, of course, did not end with slavery. Perhaps the Bishop Long scandal will create an opportunity for more young black men to tell their own stories as victims of childhood sexual abuse—something rarely discussed in mainstream media and too often swept under the rug by the black community.

I applaud calls for reducing homophobia in America, whether in the black church or in American society at large. Sadly, homophobia is still rampant in our country. We’ve looked the other way while our children are tormented for exhibiting behaviors and mannerisms associated with being gay. We have made it difficult for patriotic gays and lesbians to serve in the military. We’ve asked thousands of our citizens to accept less than equality in marriage, in adoption rights, in access to federal protection from housing and employment discrimination.

But let’s not view the Bishop Long case as a story of a closeted gay man. The important characters in this sad story are the young men, not Bishop Long. When some commentators looked at the Catholic Church abuse scandals and concluded that if only priests could marry, the abuse would never have happened, they failed to see that sexual abuse was about power not sexual release. Let’s not repeat the same mistakes with this story.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public’s understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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