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Same-Sex Desire and the American Slave Narrative

Fredrick Douglass, 1855

Frontis portrait of Frederick Douglass from his autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom. Part I. Life as a Slave. Part II. Life as a Freeman.; New York: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1855

To shed light on same-sex experiences of American slaves, author Charles Clifton suggests re-reading narratives written by former slaves. For instance, in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, former slave Equiano discloses that, on his passage from Africa, a white co-voyager named Queen “messed with me on board” and “became very attached to me, [saying that] he and I never should part.”[1] Equiano “grew very fond of” another white companion. On many nights they laid “in each other's bosoms.”[2]

About his fellow slaves, Frederick Douglass writes in My Bondage and My Freedom, “No band of brothers could have been more loving.”[3] He leaves un-detailed his “long and intimate, though by no means friendly, relation” with a former slave master.[4] And he alludes to the “out-of-the-way places . . . where slavery . . . can, and does, develop all its malign and shocking characteristics . . . without apprehension or fear of exposure.”[5]

Clifton observes “in these passages a familiarity with same-sex relations on the part of the authors.”[6] He remarks that there are many “unchartered areas of research” within “the realm of slave sexuality.”[7] An unbiased “attempt to read…what was not overtly articulated” may unearth relationships that “are not necessarily heterosexual.”[8]

Sources

1. Charles Clifton, “Rereading Voices from the Past: Images of Homo-Eroticism in the Slave Narrative,” in The Greatest Taboo: Homosexuality in Black Communities, ed. Delroy Constantine-Simms (Los Angeles: Alyson, 2000), 347.

2. Clifton, 346-347.

3. Clifton, 347.

4. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom. Part I. Life as a Slave. Part II. Life as a Freeman. (New York: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1855), 421.

5. Douglass, 62.

6. Clifton, 349.

7. Clifton, 358.

8. Clifton, 344, 358.