It is one of the most sordid and shocking chapters that has ripped through U.S.  history.

As a result, it’s hush-hush.  Unspoken.  Not talked about.

Sooty and soiled, it’s secreted way back in the dark corners of the closet of American history.

And the entrenched unwillingness to acknowledge it has resulted in a paucity of research.   This period of depravity is shrouded in (open) secrecy.  Wrapped up tight in taboo, it drips of stigma.

So, just what am I talking about?  The sexual exploitation and violence waged against enslaved Black males in America by white men.  And when you drill down and analyze it, the Black male bodies that have been devalued, defiled, and destroyed this year (George Floyd is one glaring example) are the offspring, the descendants of this horrendous and unconscionable violent abuse of Black male slaves.

This sexual exploitation and violence against enslaved Black males in America at the hands of white males was a tradition propagated, nurtured, and enjoyed—profanely and perversely so—when slavery was established in 1776.   This legal institution of human chattel enslavement existed until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

The rape of Black male slaves remains controversial, incendiary, and explosive due to its taboo and stigmatized nature.  It tends to “fly under the radar;”  a major reason for that is because historians and scholars have instead chosen to extensively document the widespread sexual exploitation and abuse of enslaved Black women.

A university course entitled, “Human Trafficking: Yesterday and Today/The Sexual Abuse of Black Male Slaves,” relates the following:  “The sexual violation of male slaves has been unexplored for several reasons.  One reason is those male victims of rape didn’t produce evidence of their assault in the form of children.

For the Enjoyment of It All

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.

Men Without Pants

Was Psychological Terrorism waged against the enslaved?

During the long, grinding, and grueling decades of American slavery, that was not once in question–or nowhere near hyperbole. The only real question remains is: Just how severely were the enslaved mentally tortured?

In her “Men without Pants: Masculinity and the Enslaved” article, Keri Leigh Merritt, a historian of the 19th-century American South, wrote that probably one of the white masters’ more inventively cruel strategies concerned the ways they sought to completely emasculate enslaved boys and men—by denying them the right to wear pants.

“By forcing young African American boys and men to wear dress-like shirts, the owners of flesh attempted to feminize and humiliate enslaved males daily,” Merritt stated. “According to scores of interviews with the formerly enslaved, denying black boys and young men the right to wear pants was a relatively widespread practice throughout the Deep South.”

And, here’s a twist. “This custom certainly becomes even more interesting when slaveholders’ beliefs about slave breeding and the virility of young ‘bucks’ is taken into consideration,” wrote Merritt. “Countless owners commented time and again in diaries and letters about the supposedly highly-sexualized nature of young black men, and the emasculation of the enslaved must have allowed slaveholders some type of psycho-sexual superiority complex. By feminizing African American men, slave owners likely reassured themselves that they were the most masculine men on the plantation, which could be demonstrated, of course, by the rape and sexual abuse of enslaved women and girls.”

On immense plantations, where the concentrated number of slaves required constant surveillance and discipline, it was the common practice to withhold pants. In “Men without Pants…,” Merritt wrote, “Richard Orford, enslaved as a young boy in Georgia, remembered, ‘The children wore a one-piece garment not unlike a slightly lengthened dress. This was kept in place by a string tied around their waists.’

“Another Georgian described it similarly, claiming, ‘The one little cotton shirt that was all children wore in summertime then weren’t worth talking about; they called it a shirt but it looked more like a long-tailed nightgown to me’.”

However, some plantation owners were…well, “charitable.” During the most frigid part of winter, boys wearing shirt-dresses were finally supplemented with pants. According to Merritt, freed slave Jefferson Franklin Henry stated, “’ In summer, boys wore just one piece and that looked like a long nightshirt. Winter clothes was jeans pants and homespun shirts’.”

The historian added, “One man raised on a Texas plantation said that all enslaved children wore ‘the straight-cup slip.  They gave the lil gals the slip dress and lil panties.  In wintertime they gave the boys the lil coat and pants and shoes, but no drawers or underwear’.”

Unfortunately, however, not every male slave was lucky enough to receive pants when the weather turned colder.  Some of the enslaved were not even allowed pants during the freezing winters.

Additionally, we mustn’t lose sight of a crucial component, the cornerstone of this particular strategy of psychological terrorism:  these clothes were devoid of gendered difference.  Both male and female slaves were dressed in the same way.

Perhaps the most psychologically damaging aspect of denying boys and young men pants, Merritt noted, was the age at which they were finally allowed to have trousers.  She wrote, “During the mid-nineteenth century, children matured very early, and boys were often drinking alcohol and becoming sexually active as young teenagers.  It seems that many slaveholders withheld the privilege of wearing pants well past the point that boys were acting like young men, courting girls, and trying to establish their masculine identity.  Stearlin Arnwine painfully remembered wearing ‘my first pants when I was fourteen years old, and they stung till I was miserable…it was what we called dog-hair cloth’.”

Even more demoralizing were incidences of young Black men forced to wear shirt-dresses until they were fully grown.  Merritt continued, “’ For the boys from five to fifteen years old, they would make long shirts out of this cloth’, one man remembered, and ‘No young fellow wore pants until he began to court’.

“Pricilla Gibson commented that ‘Little boys wore long-tail shirts, with no pants till they’re grown’.   Another man from South Carolina recalled that he ‘was a big boy grown when I get my first pants’.”

What were the long-term psychological effects and damage caused by this withholding of pants to these men?  Concluded Merritt, “No doubt the embarrassment and humiliation caused many of the enslaved untold worries over masculinity and identity.”

Buck Breaking

As you can glean from the previous section “For the Enjoyment of It All,” the Black male slave (as well as his female counterpart) was simply an animated tool, an instrument of/for the white male’s enjoyment and pleasure. “It was common for the slave to be subordinated sexually to the master—even men with enslaved men,” according to the Atlanta Black Star. “Often, the plantation owner would entertain his friends by forcing the enslaved Blacks to have orgies—multiple pairings having sex in front of them. And the white men often would participate in the debauchery.” Slave owners would take pleasure trips—going from plantation to plantation to engage in this activity.

The raping of Black male slaves was termed buck breaking, and it was an open secret during many of the slave trade years. In the piece, “5 Horrifying Ways Enslaved African Men Were Sexually Exploited and Abused By Their White Masters” for Face2Face Africa, writer Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson stated, “Shockingly, the raping of enslaved men was as prevalent as the raping of enslaved women…the issue of enslaved men being raped was not believable because many of the men that raped them were married or had several girlfriends.”

Most of the time, buck breaking involved white men raping Black male slaves in public display, to embarrass and emasculate them. With the increase of slave rebellions, this brand of torture became quite popular.

First, the enslaved were stripped naked, then flogged in front of a crowd. Afterward, these abused and thoroughly humiliated Black males were raped by white men—to serve as a stern warning to other slaves.

Another variation: after the Black male slave was whipped bloody in front of the entire slave congregation, the owner would cut down a tree. And with the help of the overseer, would then pummel the defiant “buck” into submission.

Once the slave was worn down, the master had the other enslaved men force the victim over the tree stump. There, he was completely stripped, with his buttocks fully exposed. And finally, the master removed the victim’s clothing and proceeded to savagely sodomize the Black slave in front of his wife, family, friends…and children.

“On several occasions, enslaved men with families were forced to have sex with each other or were raped in front of their sons,” added Johnson. “Many enslaved men who had gone through the process of buck breaking killed themselves afterward or ran away and never returned. For the white supremacists, buck breaking either on ships or plantations was a way of utterly embarrassing the men and showing dominance.”


The sexual exploitation and violence waged against enslaved Black males by white men is a perverted chapter in American history, of which there has been little transparency. Remember Roots? All those documentaries on slavery? Well, their writers and producers didn’t touch this brutal, vicious truth with a ten-foot pole. a

They provided a sanitized version of what occurred.

Knowing our complete history—warts and all—is crucial to having a full-bodied understanding and awareness of how it has impacted and shaped us through the generations.

And is continuing to do so.

This is why a truly open and honest conversation about slavery and systemic racism is so critical.

It’s long overdue.