ACT II:THE WILLIAM KENNEDY SMITH TRIAL:WHEREIN THE MASTER VISITS THE SLAVE QUARTERS
White men have said over and over—and we have believed it because it was repeated so often—that not only was there no such thing as a chaste Negro woman—but that a Negro woman could not be assaulted, that it was never against her will.
—Jessie Daniel Ames44
The historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has called the sexual access of white men to black women "a cornerstone of patriarchal power in the South." The rationale for the absence of laws protecting a black woman from rape was based in part on her status as property and on the economic purpose she served by replenishing the slave supply, but it was also justified by reference to the innate lasciviousness of black women.45 Hall notes the process by which Victorian views of the female as passionless replaced an older notion of women’s dangerous sexual power: "In the United States, the fear and fascination of female sexuality was projected onto black women; the passionless lady arose in symbiosis with the primitively sexual slave."46 In the Master Narrative, the aristocratic planter’s son who visited the slave quarters was merely sowing wild oats with an eager sexual partner.47
This story of interracial rape so central to our history is but one version of an even older story of sexuality and patriarchal hegemony. The noble’s sexual access to the serf’s daughter and the lord’s dalliance with the downstairs maid are also stories of the rape of powerless women by powerful men, justified by the portrayal of the victim as wanton and unchaste, without any wish, much less any right, to say no.48
This was the story that William Kennedy Smith’s defense attorneys relied upon so successfully. Smith is cast in the role of the gentlemen’s son. He is a clean-cut, upstanding young man from a prominent family. He enjoys a good party, but doesn’t every red-blooded wealthy white boy? He does not deny that he had sex with his victim, but he reminds us that she’s the tramp from the other side of the tracks. Doesn’t the young master get to try out his stuff on the lusty servant girl? The lawyers representing William Kennedy Smith painted his victim, Patricia Bowman, as promiscuous and sexually aggressive. She had worn a black dress and fancy undergarments and had canceled a date with another man when Kennedy Smith became available.49 In the context of the Master Narrative, Bowman becomes the slave girl. Her role in the black sexuality myth is no longer that of the presumptively chaste white woman who must be believed. By portraying her as sexually aggressive, the defense transforms her from the white woman on the pedestal to the fallen white woman, no better than the inherently unchaste black woman whose veracity is always to be questioned.50 Patricia Bowman, the gentleman’s victim, is even rendered invisible by CNN’s device of the face-obliterating dark spot.51 In the Master Narrative there is no such thing as rape in the slave quarters. It is never against her will.