Thursday, June 08, 2006

Survey II: Shacking

"Shacking." Today, we say, "Let's shack up," or last night we "shacked up." The connotation that this word carries has a lightness to it and an emphasis on physical sexuality without reference to commitment and marriage. The term does carry with it the concept of being in, for some period of time, the same abode.

But where does this word find it's roots? Here is my guess and the object of a new survey. I guess it comes from the world of 17th and 18th century American slavery.

bell hooks, in the book Salvation: Black People and Love (published in 2001 by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers), says, "Historically, all unions between black women and men were forged within a culture of white supremacy wherein all bonding which did not serve the interests of white people was deemed suspect and threatening. No group of black people knew better than the slaves that positive union between black women and men threatened white supremacist claims on black bodies. Free and enslaved black folks fought hard to privilege these relationships by rituals and ceremony, both illegal and legal, because they recognized that solidifying these bonds, gaining public recognition of their value, was crucial to the freedom struggle. Reading accounts of heterosexual black relationships during slavery reveals the extent to which the desire to create longstanding domestic partnerships, whether through marriage or shacking (living together without benefit of clergy), often served as the catalyst inspiring individuals to fiercely resist bondage and work for freedom. Importantly, remembering that white supremacist thinking is always challenged by loving unions between black makes and females sheds light on why there have been so many obstacles placed in the path of such unions."

This survey is requesting both comment and a search of literature that may make reference to this term and its origins. The obvious light this survey may shed on the struggle in contemporary heterosexual marriage within all racial communities, and perhaps even the debate on homosexual unions is part of what I'm seeking.

Offer examples from literature. Offer your thoughts on the term.


gbs said...

The OED lists the following definition, the second definition under the fourth entry for "shack" as a verb:

2. intr., Usu. with "up.": To obtain temporary accommodation, to shelter for the night; to lodge with (esp. as a sexual partner), to set up house with, to cohabit (with); hence, to have sexual intercourse with.

Of course, we already knew that. However, the first recorded use of the term in this way is in 1935 (again according to the OED) in Zora Neale Hurston's _Mules and Men_. She writes, "Ah..was doin' fine till Ah shacked up with a woman dat had a great big ole black cat." (I have no idea what the context is beyond the "shacking"; I haven't read it. Prof--come to our rescue!)

The second use is from a slang thesaurus in 1942, and dictionary also says that the term comes from specifically North American slang.

So it seems to mean that you're theory is right, considering the Hurston was the first to use it "literarily..." Also, it worked its way in pretty late, it seems to me; surely it was being used, like you say, by the beginning of the 19th century. I wonder if, with the compiling of the dictionary in the later 1800s, the word was never submitted because of its unsavory roots? (Both racist and sexually scandalous...)

brd said...

This is so helpful. I'll have to dig into this Hurston reference and see what it has to offer. I know this is a really dumb question, but since I'm not a scholar, I'll ask it, OED means????

gbs said...

Oh, sorry--Oxford English Dictionary. (I also just discovered a rather embarrasing grammar mistake in the first line of my last paragraph. "Your," is what I meant.)

brd said...

I'm trying to remember a scene from a book, maybe from Morrison's Beloved, when Sethe married. She (or whoever else it was for whatever else book it might have been) collected surreptiously from her mistress scraps of white hankies, etc., sewed them together to make a veil or wedding dress. Then afterward she took the pieces apart again and returned them to the "big house".

Anybody remember that scene? They didn't just want to move into the same shack.

brd said...

Following is a quote from Beloved by Toni Morrison. It is one of the scenes I was remembering. There is another in my mind, but I haven't quite located the specifics yet. I will have to keep rifling my brain files.

"When he asked her to be his wife, Sethe happily agreed and then was stuck not knowing the next step. There should be a ceremony, shouldn’t there? A preacher, some dancing, a party, a something. She and Mrs. Garner were the only women there, so she decided to ask her.

'Halle and me want to be married, Mrs. Garner.'

'So I heard.' She smiled. 'He talked to Mr. Garner about it. Are you already expecting?'

'No, ma’am.'

'Halle’s nice, Sethe. He’ll be good to you.'

'But I mean we want to get married.'

'You just said so. And I said all right.'

'Is there a wedding?'

Mrs. Garner put down her cooking spoon. Laughing a little, she touched Sethe on the head, saying, 'You are one sweet child. And then no more.

Sethe made a dress on the sly and Halle hung his hitching rope from a nail on the wall of her cabin."

Anne G G said...

I don't yet have anything to add on the origins of "shacking up," but I do want to say that I was having a very similar conversation yesterday (before I read this post) with a friend on the question of why legal gay marriage is such a threatening idea to many, as neither of us have found that the "threat to the American family" argument has any substance (That is, it's not a question of not having merit, but not having substance; what is being threatened precisely? From whence does this threat arise?). My friend suggested it must somehow link to money -- tax shelters and all that -- but I leaned more toward it being an issue of simple power. A monogamous gay couple might seem more threatening than gay promiscuity, in the same way that history shows whites more fearful of black marriage than of black promiscuity.

brd said...


That is such an important idea and concept, that we really must do a special Survey on the subject. I have a lot of unresolved thoughts on this subject swimming in my head.

For instance, why did James Dobson say, "We will look back 20, 30, 50 years from now and recall this as the day marriage ceased to have any real meaning in our country." Hey, what about the day when the divorce rate for evangelical couples passed the divorce rate for the total population. That seems like it might have been a fairly dark day for the "focused folk"? I would think that the "focusers" should be pleased that monogamy is being chosen over promiscuity. I guess they think monogamy is only good for some categories of people.

My husband feels like the "dark day" might have happened back when the institution known as the church, turned marriage over to the institution known as the state. Was that the day when "focused people" realized they could get a tax break out of it? What does the state have to do with marriage?

I must work on a new survey.