Exploring Same Sex Relationships during Slavery in John R. Gordon’s ‘Drapetomania’

There were many challenges to writing an epic love story between two enslaved black men set in America just before the Civil War; in attempting to realize a tale that would explore same-sex love in ways rewarding to the modern reader, yet feel authentic and true to the mindsets of the period.

Given that (homo)sexuality as an identity is a psychological construct that was only brought into being in the late nineteenth century, I had to consider how Cyrus and Abednego, my protagonists, would conceive themselves as desiring and loving human beings, and explore the extent to which they might understand that locus of desire, that seemingly singular experience, as an essence, as the core of some nascent identity that might connect them with similarly desiring others.

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This seemed to me conceivable, given that race too is a construction but is in many respects experienced as an essence, and in Drapetomania comes to the fore in a sequence where runaway Cyrus is obliged to seek the help of white coach-driver James Rose to escape slave-catchers. Is there a possibility of communal feeling between them? — and more pragmatically, is trust possible on Cyrus’ side?

In terms of psychohistory, I was also interested in orienting understandings of same-sex love between black men around — in exploring mindsets both before and after — the Christianity imposed on the enslaved by their enslavers.

While Christianity could be and oftentimes was repurposed by the enslaved to model possibilities for liberation — perhaps above all as Israelites resisting pharaonic captivity — it never liberated unconventional sexual self-expression: if anything, the reverse. In Drapetomania, Cyrus in his thinking harks back to a pre-Christian African animist world-view that is capable of incorporating same-sex love as shamanic, even prophetic — and at the least as something for which there could be a social space — while the more ‘sophisticated’ house-servant Abednego embodies the modern, proto-urban secular man, who views faith-derived personal strictures as quaintly irrelevant to a life well-lived.

Also, both men deploy the Bible tale of the love between David and Jonathon as a shield and a justification in debates with a fellow slave preacher who seeks to make trouble for them.

My view of pre-Christian West African cultures was informed by reading various academic works: Neville Hoad’s African Intimacies; Roscoe & Murray’s Boy-Wives and Female Husbands, Marc Epprecht’s Hungochani and others. Of course levels of acceptance and possibility varied greatly between societies and across time, but what was clear was that there had been same-gender-loving Africans who had lived and loved, had social acceptance and performed understood social roles, and that this had been attacked by Christian missionaries, colonists and slavers as ‘immoral’.

I was particularly intrigued by the concept that sex between men could be ‘powerful magic’, and incorporated a trace memory of this understanding in the climax of my novel, where the love between Cyrus and Abednego is understood by the other rebels as a good augur for their uprising against white tyranny.

Researching same-sex intimacy in pre-Civil War America was challenging. Legal bans on black people acquiring literacy; poverty of time and resources; reluctance to archive illegal activities — all meant that black people recorded little, and naturally would resist recording what was taboo about their own personal conduct — as indeed would white people, in the main. As a recent exhibition on LGBT history at the Tate Britain showed, very little was set down by ordinary or working people in the first place in terms of same-sex love; and what was recorded even by the privileged would often be destroyed by reputation-shielding families, or simply get lost over time. So: little is there.

The one academic book on the subject, The Delectable Negro, by gay African-American scholar Vincent Woodard (revised on his decease by Dwight McBride et al), shows the lack of primary texts — a handful of court-cases; some very tangential mentions in published slave narratives. I came across conspiracy theory websites promoting the idea of the routine mass rape of male slaves (‘buck breaking’) that offered no evidence whatsoever, and then argued that this lack of evidence was a sort of proof of events ‘too shocking to speak of’ — basically attempts to justify black homophobia as different from other homophobias, and deserving of especial exemption from censure due to a greater rootedness in (racialized) victimhood.

This is not to deny that, inevitably, every sort of abuse of the enslaved of either sex by the slavers will undoubtedly have happened somewhere at some point. However, even abolitionist texts keen to highlight every white Southern slavery-supported vice (routine rape of women; selling own children into slavery; voyeuristic degradation of women and men in slave auctions; depriving the enslaved of respected marital status; occasional records of predation by white women upon black men) lack even a hint of decrying ‘unnatural vice’ as an abolitionist tactic. (By contrast: the abolitionist British MP J. S. Buckingham wrote of ‘unnatural’ transvestite revelers at a ball in his 1833 Journeys in the Southern Slave States, one of my research touchstones, demonstrating that the topic was — obliquely — mentionable.)

What is of course lost in all this is love, and I wanted to write about love and its liberating possibilities. Casting an eye over the world and its history, it’s evident that there have been same-sex lovers across the millennia, in all and every culture, and so I sought to write a Narrative that must surely have been true, but could never have been written at the time, and show same-sex love as aligned with the revolutionary and liberatory. Cyrus and Abednego are ultimately liberated as lovers by enjoining the battle for Black freedom that is the novel’s climax, from which to turn away would be a defeat, as, as the work progressed, I found myself unable to see their love — their personal flight to freedom — as a triumph if they willingly left others in chains.

For myself, there was a liberation in writing about deep and intimate love between two men who by the novel’s end I think — hope — embody a notion of joyous love in liberatory struggle to free all those who are oppressed.

Drapetomania by John R Gordon is available in good independent bookstores, and globally on Amazon — USA here; UK here. It is the winner of the 2019 Ferro-Grumley Award for best LGBTQ fiction, and was shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award for best gay novel.

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