Eric Sugimoto: A Question of Love, December 2012

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A Question of Love: Rebecca Primus and Addie Brown

The nature of love in America poses some interesting questions for historians because the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the use of strict gender roles in American culture, and these gender roles created identities revealed through the correspondence of friends, family members, and other kinship ties. Nineteenth century American social norms adhered to strict gender roles which socially placed people of the same gender in constant contact with each other. This created a society composed of homosocial ties and strong “romantic friendships”. However, the tone and wording of many of the letters between these romantic friends makes historians not help but to question the true nature of these relationships. Were they simply the Victorian outpouring of personal sentiment? Or do they reveal a latent culture of homosexual relationships within nineteenth century America? The correspondence between same-sex relationships during this time has us reinterpreting what the definition of love is, and how it can manifest itself between two people.

The letters between Rebecca Primus and Addie Brown reveal a lot about the role their culture played in allowing for the creation of an intimate and long lasting love, but the explicit sexual nature of their relationship foretells of a much stronger connection based on more than simply a “romantic friendship”. The dichotomy of homo and heterosexual did not exist in Rebecca and Addie’s time. These terms of sexual identity were not invented until the beginning of the twentieth century, and had no role in the creation of Rebecca and Addie’s relationship. In reality, the love between Rebecca and Addie can only be explained through the understanding of how the social construction of nineteenth century American culture helped to allow for the natural sexual identities of Rebecca and Addie to express themselves in a compassionate and erotic affair.

The love shared between Rebecca and Addie has been vital to historians because the compassion expressed in their correspondence will “fill a silence about free-born African-American women of the nineteenth century America.” It is unknown when Rebecca and Addie’s relationship began, but their surviving letters begin in 1859 after Addie attended a Hartford boarding house in which Rebecca lived and worked. The period after this saw the two sharing letters with each other as they attempt to live their lives in antebellum America, the Civil War, and during the Reconstruction of America. Their relationship would become a strong bond in which the two shared their love for each other in their letters and often expressed their emotions in kisses and other physical engagements, as Addie wrote, “o my Dear Friend how I did miss you last night I did not have any one to hug me and to kiss.” The forms of affection which Rebecca and Addie display towards each other reinforces the perception that the rhetoric used in the nineteenth century was in large part because of the social norms in America.

Many scholars, including Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Karen Hansen, have written about middle-class women and their relationships with each other during 19th century America. Hansen takes a measured approach, but believes that, “Rather than simply a romantic outpouring of sentiment, the passion between Addie and Rebecca… expressed a self-consciously sexual relationship.” Smith-Rosenberg believes that these “romantic friendships” arose out of the social structure of America and instead of seeing them as abnormal relations within genders, she believes, “a specifically female world did indeed develop, a world built around a generic and unself-conscious pattern of single-sex or homosocial networks.” I cannot help but agree with Rosenberg’s assessment of relationships produced by American culture, but the unique circumstances of Rebecca and Addie’s relationship begs further study and contemplation. These Historians are correct that nineteenth century relationships are both natural as well as culturally constructed. The decisions taken by Rebecca and Addie show how their experiences as well as their natural feelings played a part in determining who they are personally, and in their shared love.

A crucial similarity between the cultures Rebecca, Addie, and many other women grew up in was that they lived in communities which supported the romantic friendships between women as a natural experience in their presumably heterosexual lives. In middle class America, Rosenberg describes the lives of many women as, “Most eighteenth and nineteenth-century women lived within a world bounded by home, church, and the institution of visiting—that endless trooping of women to each others’ homes for social purposes.” Mothers took their daughters as apprentices teaching them about the proper skills and etiquette a woman would need in finding a suitable husband, and providing care for their family. Women used bonds like these to create the social networks which played a crucial role in their lives. The occasional sexual aspect to these relationships would also be shaped by their countless female contacts because as Jeffery Weeks describes, “sexuality only exists through its social forms and social organization…the forces that shape and mold the erotic possibilities of the body vary from society to society.” The unique form of sexuality which was created out of nineteenth century America was one in which the emotional and physical relationships women built with each other could be seen as a homosocial network of ties which accepted homosexual sex within a pretext of a larger heterosexual lifestyle. The ideologies of homo and heterosexuality did not exist as the common idea of sexuality at this time, but they were, “between women as part of a sexual continuum, with fluid boundaries between heterosexuality and homosexuality.” The strict gender isolation of the time created same-sex relationships which were not tied down to the literal definition of homosexual as a sexual identity. This is how a society which does not recognize homosexuality would allow for same-sex love to be produced. Women and men believed that they would have a heterosexual marriage, and even possibly love. But the reliance on same-sex relationships in American society meant that until marriage was a legitimate option for someone, most love affairs would be within the same gender.

If we are to accept the assessment of Rosenberg, Hansen, and Meeks on the theory of socially built identities then Rebecca and Addie’s relationship could easily be placed within this context of common interactions between women. However, Rebecca and Addie were both African American women living in a time in which discrimination and physical violence towards them and their community was a common, and sometimes accepted, occurrence. Within this framework we must try and understand a relationship which may mirror middle-class white women culture, but was often excluded from the type of interactions and rituals which developed the romantic friendships of this time. Another factor is the economic disparity between Rebecca and Addie. Rebecca was an educated, upper-class teacher while Addie was a lower-class woman of labor. Even within the cultural sphere of African American relations they would not have interacted in the same social circles to develop the kind of intimate bond which these historians describe. This would lead us to believe that the love between Rebecca and Addie was one which developed along a similar but separate line of social interactions.

The culture which Rebecca and Addie grew up can be found to reside on the fringe of the socioeconomic mainstream which creates differing social and gender roles than white women who have been previously studied. The town of Hartford which is the setting for their physical relationship shows a diverse African American community. The natural production of our genealogy produces a continuous line of kinship ties. The social and economic bonds shared through our kin eventually create the interacting bonds of culture. The institution of slavery purposefully removed the traditional blood ties between families, and forced many free and eventually freed African Americans to create new kinship ties based on friendship as well as love. The adoption of spiritual family members were created as Carol Stack explains, “within the idiom of kinship. Members of the community explain the behavior of those around them by allowing behavior to define the nature of the relationship.” Deeds took the place of blood in many African American kinship networks, and eventually a unique culture was produced. Rebecca and Addie became friends and eventually adopted each other as sisters as a letter from Addie expresses, “Think my Dearest Sister I am near the breathing the same air with your arm gently drawn around me my head reclining on your noble breast in perfect confidence and love.” They did not just rely on each other for economic and emotional stability; their love was a personal one which took on a lasting significance because of the nature of how kinship ties were made within their culture.

The unique culture and kinship ties which Rebecca and Addie shared also reflects how their culture impacted their heterosexual relations, and shows how their personal feelings may have lay outside the social norm. Addie’s lower-class status meant her separation from Rebecca gave her time to assess a heterosexual relationship with a man named Mr. Tines. The Primus family and the Hartford community would support the love which Rebecca and Addie had for each other, but their belief that Addie should become serious with Mr. Tines shows that the physical love she had for Rebecca would have to eventually end. However, as Addie reveals in her letters, “I dread Sunday to come. I got a letter from Mr. Tines… he said I must be sure to and come down to the boat Sunday. He says I must not worry to much best of friends must part how can I help it[?] no one feel as I about you and never will.” The “fluid” boundaries of sexual identity for Addie meant that her serious relationship with Rebecca could come into competition with that of a man she was considering to marry. The theory of the social construction of Addie’s sexuality meant that it would become natural for her to marry a man such as Mr. Tines, but her outpouring of contemplation between marrying and keeping Rebecca has forced historians like Hansen to not help but question just how much social influences created Addie’s sexual identity.

The natural construction of a person’s sexual identity is still something of a mystery to scientists and scholars alike. Although the strength of social influences in determining a person’s sexual identity is important, the emotional attachments cannot be understood solely through the social construction of a relationship. The essentialist or natural approach given by Rictor Norton would challenge the social constructionist approach because his theory believes that everyone has an inherent and unique sexual knowledge or identity, and through our experiences that identity is portrayed. When placed in the context of Rebecca and Addie’s relationship, the essentialist theory can take as much significance as the social constructionists view. Rebecca was fortunate to have a strong and large family from which she could obtain the education and principles which mirror those of many middle-class women. Addie, on the other hand, was an orphan whose low socioeconomic status resembled the common struggle of a single African American female. The formation of their relationship is critical because it was not formed through the traditional social interactions and expectations of most American women within a capitalist society. The practice of adopting friends as kin helped in forming the basis for a lasting love, but the uniqueness of their love transcended the culture in which they lived. Rebecca and Addie’s love grew out of a personal attachment which could be better understood by looking at the natural love these two women had for each other.

The explicit physical nature of their relationship and the wording they used in their letters shows they had a natural attraction which defied their social bonds. It also reveals an attraction which can only be explained by combining the natural and social construction of their sexual identities. Early in their relationship, Addie would write to Rebecca expressing her longing for her, “How I have wanted to see you if I only could have rested my head on your bosom for a moments give vent to my feeling I have been sad I am so full some time that I could take a knife and cut my heart out.” Although many female relationships would use the word bosom as an expression of their love for each other it would not necessarily mean an implicit sexual desire. Karen Hansen’s interpretation would reveal, “This action convinced me of the robust sexuality Addie and Rebecca shared.” The frequency of the word bosom and other physical interactions convinced Hansen that, “the practice may have been viewed as natural, pleasurable, and an appropriate means of expressing affection for or attraction to another woman.” Hansen’s analysis explains how a woman’s world built around the social connections of explicitly built gender roles could express the natural feelings of many young women. Through the social construction of their community and their relationship, Rebecca and Addie were able to express their natural sexuality with each other. This allowed for an intimate same-sex relationship which resembles a homosexual one. While at the same time, their relationship can be understood through the construct of a socially created relationship. This makes Rebecca and Addie’s love both natural and constructed.

Rebecca and Addie had a unique love which resembled and defied the social norms of nineteenth century American culture. Their love was built out of the social interactions and bonds of their unique African American community in Hartford, Connecticut, and was only strengthened when they were apart. Their sexual relations also reveal a deeper connection which could partially be explained by Rebecca and Addie’s natural feeling for each other. Only through understanding how the social interactions and natural identities of the two interacted with each other can we begin to figure out how strong same-sex relationships could be created during this time. It is not enough to say that the culture they lived in socially constructed their relationship, nor is it enough to say that their natural feelings towards each other completely sustained their love. Both Rebecca and Addie shared a close bond, but the pressures of separation and social influences eventually led both of them to heterosexual marriage. Although they would always remind each other of their love through their letters, they were as much spectators in their own lives as they were actors in it. Sometimes letting the social expectations decide their fate, as well as deciding their fates for themselves. We may never know what sparked such a strong and lasting love, but their correspondence does allow us to see how unique the feelings of love can be between two people.