Addie and Rebecca: Defining the Undefinable

In the chapter “No Kisses is Like Youres,” Karen Hansen explores the relationship between Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus through an epistolary format. I am going to explore Hansen’s hesitancy to make a definite determination on the nature of the relationship, and how this hesitancy ties into her calls to action at the end of the piece that center around a more in-depth scholarship dealing with the complexities of nineteenth-century women’s sexualities, specifically in the African American community. On page 199, Hansen evaluation of the relationship includes the considers several possibilities. She makes it clear that she does not want to try to force twenty-first century contexts or terms onto the relationship between Addie and Rebecca. Hansen states, “In agreement with others studying nineteenth-century sexuality, I find it inappropriate to label the relationship as lesbian. This term was not part of mid-nineteenth century parlance and not part of the culture’s consciousness” (199). Hansen’s awareness to the label shows not merely the disparity modern vocabulary and the vocabulary of the time, but also, the differing conceptualizations of female sexuality of the time. While the term “lesbian” existed at the time, it is possible that the women were unaware of it in their tight-knit, enclosed community; or perhaps, they chose not to define their relationship as this. It is possible to see Addie’s impassioned letters to Rebecca as a struggle to describe the depth of what she feels toward Rebecca, or a choice to not fully define the relationship in a way that is to be understood by society. Upon considering the former possibility, it is evident in Addie’s words that she has romantic feelings toward Rebecca: “You are the first girl that I ever love so and you are the last one… if you was a man, what would things come to?” (Hansen 187). However, the idea of a romantic monogamous female/female relationship is out of reach in the letters, not because of a limited imagination, intellect, or passion, but because sexuality is shaped by the era. Hansen’s ideas are similar to the ideas Jonathan Katz posits in the chapter “’Homosexual’ and ‘Heterosexual’: Questioning the Terms.” Hansen posits three theories, which on the whole, do not subscribe to the rigid binaries of either homosexual or heterosexual. At the end of her piece, Katz declares his goal, which is similar to Hansen’s; he aims to “empower a pragmatic, strategic conceptual advance, allowing us to ask new questions” (179). Hansen draws on Katz’s ideas that it is necessary to reject the strict, modern binaries of homosexual and heterosexual, and instead asserts the need to gain a deeper understanding on nineteenth-century sexuality in order to more completely understand the nature of Addie and Rebecca’s relationship.

3 thoughts on “Addie and Rebecca: Defining the Undefinable”

  1. I really admire how you suspended your judgement and instead questioned why Hansen would define their relationship as she did. I found it frustrating that she described their relationship was a “friendship”. The way you determined this label to be a product of the era Addie and Rebecca lived in really put the letters into perspective for me. Their relationship seemed romantic and loving, but remembering historical context is, of course, crucial. I also appreciate that you mentioned the fluidity that we now know exists in the LGBTQ+ community.

  2. hi:)
    I really enjoyed reading your analysis, especially your overarching question surrounding Hansen’s hesitation as I also pondered her reasoning while I read. Attempting to think of Addie and Rebecca’s relationship within the terms of their era is very difficult especially in comparison to the queer relationships of today. This borderline shocking display of homosexuality went along with “Writhing Bedfellows”- erotic and casual letters send between two members of the same sex. The idea that queer people were able to have any type of romantic relationship, and were unafraid to communicate, during the 19th century was honestly mindblowing.

  3. I really liked how you considered Hansen’s hesitation to put modern labels on Addie and Rebecca’s relationship. As you point out, there is complexities when defining female relationships/ friendships in the 19th century, specifically in the Africa American community. This reminded me of the reading we have to do for this week, “Scientific Racism and the Emergence of the Homosexual Body” by Siobhan Somerville. That article looks at how race and sexuality existed in the United States, and how most of the examples we have of same sex relationships are from white people. I wonder if the fact that there aren’t many recorded examples of black female relationships makes it harder to classify relationships like Addie and Rebecca’s.

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