American chattel slavery was a system of ownership of Black persons forever, and whose children and children’s children are automatically enslaved. Chattel slaves were treated as complete property, to be bought and sold on a whim. As a result, white slave owners/masters had absolute control over Black bodies.
The right to enjoy the enslaved sprang from this authority and dominance. This “A&D” is the foundation that establishes slavery as a total institution, which enables any white male to wield power over the Black body.
According to Black’s Law Dictionary, the word enjoy is “to have, possess, and use with satisfaction; to occupy or have the benefit of.” Now, let’s take this a step further. In comparison to enjoy, the definition of enjoyment strikes a similar tone but incorporates pleasure. According to Black’s, enjoyment is “the exercise of a right; the possession and fruition of a right, privilege or incorporeal hereditament. Comfort, consolation, contentment, ease, happiness, pleasure, and satisfaction. Such includes the beneficial use, interest, and purpose to which property may be put, and implies the right to profits and income there-from.”
Saidiya Hartman, the renowned academic, writer, and recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, calls the enslaved, “the property of enjoyment.” Hartman writes, “From the vantage point of the everyday relations of slavery, enjoyment, broadly speaking, defined the parameters of racial relations, since in practice all Whites were allowed a great degree of latitude in regard to uses of the enslaved.” The nexus between enjoyment and chattel slavery that Hartman points out speaks to the precarious and uncertain social status of the enslaved male–and his susceptibility to punishment and desire.
Last year, historian Thomas A. Foster published Rethinking Rufus, the first book-length study of sexual violence against enslaved Black men. Part of the book description states, “Foster’s sustained examination of how black men were sexually violated by both white men and white women makes an important contribution to our understanding of masculinity, sexuality, the lived experience of enslaved men, and the general power dynamics fostered by the institution of slavery. Rethinking Rufus illuminates how the conditions of slavery gave rise to a variety of forms of sexual assault and exploitation that affected all members of the community.”
Another piece of legislation, passed fifteen years before chattel slavery was abolished, cemented that right of enjoyment even more so. Passed on September 18, 1850, by Congress, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was that statute. Part of the Compromise of 1850, it mandated that slaves be returned to their owners–even if they were in a free state. The act also required that the federal government find, return, and try escaped slaves. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 extended the reach of white Southern male enjoyment, but also nationalized the vulnerability of the Black body to the pleasure and possession of all white men.