Imagining Gay Love Under Slavery

As a gay man who is aware that ‘being gay’ as an identity is a fairly recent idea, I’ve always been fascinated by the ways in which same-sex-loving people would have understood themselves in the past — particularly before Freud, Jung and Havelock Ellis came along, projecting their own complexes and neuroses onto those of us who prefer their own sex sexually and romantically.

Coming upon a photograph from the 1860s of two black soldiers in US Civil War uniforms — two young men gazing into each others’ eyes, who seem to be rather more than fond friends — set me wondering: if they were lovers, how did they understand that love, and their own identities in relation to it? While there wasn’t — couldn’t have been — a gay identity to step into, on the other hand, since same-sex sex was outlaw they must at the least have had an externally-constructed notion of it, and themselves, in relation to the larger society.

This thought was the genesis of my epic historical novel, Drapetomania, or the Narrative of Cyrus Tyler and Abednego Tyler, lovers, in which a house slave and a field hand fall in love, and when one is sold away, the other flees bondage to attempt his rescue. It took me ten years and reading thousands of pages of research to complete, and it does, I hope, what I think historical fiction should do: use imagination to fill gaps in the historical record — gaps that are, inevitably, particularly gaping when it comes to accounts of same-sex love, because of both external censorship and self-censorship.

Some people resist the idea that there could be a gay essence that is in some way claimable across time, sexual identity being, after all, a social construct. Yet our lives are full of constructs that function as — are lived as — essences. Race, for instance is self-evidently a construct, contrived by white colonials/imperialists to justify slavery and exploitation — yet the blues (for instance) evoke real shared experience — some essential quality of being — of blackness — beyond an external system of classification imposed by others. ‘Woman’ too is a construct but is not without essence, and I think the same is true of sexuality — there are essential connections between all same gender loving people that are not merely the product of being herded into the same pen by the heteropatriarchal majority.

For me the challenge of writing Drapetomania was to embed such reflections in mid-C19th thought processes: what was conceivable to enslaved African Americans? I knew the Bible would loom large in their minds, as a frame and a tool both of oppression and of liberation — on the one hand the destruction of Sodom; on the other the love between David and Jonathon — and Cyrus’ and Abednego’s affair is discussed in precisely those terms by a fellow slave who is a preacher.

I also wanted to harken back to pre-Christian West African belief systems, some of which allowed — validated — expressions of homosexuality. In Drapetomania, though he is generations away from his African forebears, field-hand Cyrus is emotionally closer to these belief systems, less drawn into the white Christian world than his house servant lover Abednego, and he draws power from this psychological proximity.

Fascinatingly, even today there remains in some African cultures a notion that men having sex with each other is ‘powerful magic’ — and so, precisely because they are understood to be lovers, in Drapetomania Cyrus and Abednego are affirmed as sources of good luck — as prophesying success — by their fellow slaves as they rise up and attempt to liberate themselves at the novel’s climax.

As far as same-sex love in slavery times goes, the historical record offers us little to go on — Dwight McBride’s The Delectable Negro: consumption and homoeroticism within US slave culture is one of very few works on the subject, and he has to dig deep into exceedingly scanty evidence. No ex-slave would have authored a narrative focused on same-sex love, and if they did no one would have published it, and so far no private account has come to light, nor is likely to.

We live in a time where, despite surging prejudice all around us, we are often told that lgbtq+ narratives are unnecessary and self-indulgent. I strongly feel the opposite: in a time where many gay men are being sucked into a vortex of lovelessness and loneliness so extreme that it leads to both a death of the spirit and literal suicide, we all the more desperately need narratives that assert connections across time and place, class and race, and demonstrate that same-sex love and desire can be subjects of serious literary endeavour, and are as worthy of being placed centre-stage, and as deep, as the much-mined, often frankly mined-out topic of heterosexual love and desire.

John R Gordon is an award-winning novelist, playwright and screenwriter. He worked on the groundbreaking TV series Noah’s Arc for which he was nominated for a NAACP Image Award. Drapetomania, or the Narrative of Cyrus Tyler and Abednego Tyler, lovers, his seventh novel, an epic tale of same-sex love in slavery times is out now from Team Angelica Publishing and available here and here.