Friday, May 23, 2014

Kelly A. Ryan's "Regulating Passion"

Kelly A. Ryan is Associate Professor of History at Indiana University Southeast.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Regulating Passion: Sexuality and Patriarchal Rule in Massachusetts, 1700-1830, and reported the following:
Regulating Passion explores the relationship between sexuality and hierarchy during the colonial era through the early republic. Page 99 of the book takes the reader to the heart of the American Revolution, with Bostonians living under British occupation. White Bostonians chafed at the relationship British soldiers created with African Americans, whom white Bostonians believed should be loyal to them. To quell their own fears about the immorality of slavery and this new partnership, white Bostonians published sexualized indictments of the relationship between the British and African Americans that hinged on the beliefs that interracial sex was immoral and that African Americans were hypersexual.

Page 99 of Regulating Passion features a quote from “A Vaudevil,” a song published in 1776 that intended to reveal the betrayal of various groups during the occupation. “FanFan” an African American woman, says she enjoyed the blockade because of the opportunity to “get kiss’d by white man” and “eat good salt pork,” which was likely a nod to the price of her kiss. Citing sexual motivations, rather than political ones, was a means of discrediting the British/African American alliance that was truly fashioned out of economic and political imperatives. Whites continued to sexualize African Americans’ political activities after the war. At the end of page 99, we see white Americans claiming that a planned slave rebellion by African Americans in Montserrat intended to kill white men, “but the women would be spared for wives for the Negros.” Avoiding their own complicity in the horrors of slavery, white Americans fashioned narratives of sexual misconduct to alleviate their conscience and bolster their claims to superiority.

Page 99’s theme is indicative of larger trends in Regulating Passion, and I often reference these trends during my book talks. Sexual mores, crimes, and reputations are the major themes of the book. The criminalization and unsavory sexual reputations ascribed to white women, African Americans, Indians, and the poor, supported the patriarchal hierarchy. Individuals resisted these sexual characterizations and tried living according to their own standards, while others sought to shape more positive sexual reputations to earn a place in the public sphere. As individuals fought for inclusion, they often became agents of patriarchy by asserting they fit into the sexual mores created to empower wealthy white men. Ultimately, I hope the reader sees that sexuality was a powerful force in early America, and that it was a time as steeped in sexual intrigue as today.
Learn more about Regulating Passion at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue