Concepts and Terminology in Representations of the Atlantic Slave Trade

Concepts and Terminology in Representations of the Atlantic Slave Trade

Journal of Museum Ethnography
No. 6, MEG Conference “Museum Ethnography and Communities” (October 1994)
pages 7-21

Stephen Small, Associate Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies
University of California, Berkeley


Many scholars concur on how Black people were differentiated from white people during slavery in the United Stales. In brief, the United States operated a system of “racial caste” in which “a single drop of black blood” led to a man or woman being defined as Black (Williamson 1984). Dunn tells us that “In North America black blood was like original sin and stained a man and his heirs for ever” (Dunn 1972:254), while Foner argues that “almost everywhere in the United States even the smallest amount of Negro blood was enough to make a man a Negro and therefore a member of the subordinate caste” (Foner 1970:407). Yet, in the courts of South Carolina in 1835 Judge William Harper, faced with the case of a “white” man accused of having a Black ancestor, and thus simply “passing for white” made the following ruling:

We cannot say what admixture of negro blood will make a coloured person. The condition of the individual is not to be determined solely by distinct and visible mixture of negro blood, but by reputation, by his reception into society, and his having commonly exercised the privileges of a white man … it may be well and proper, that a man of worth, honesty, industry, and respectability, should have the rank of a white man, while a vagabond of the same degree of blood should be confined to the inferior caste. It is hardly necessary to say that a slave cannot be a white man (cited in Williamson 1984:18).

On a different matter, and in the genre of Reggae, the phenomenal musical form of the 1970s and 80s, one artist comments on the need to relate the facts of Atlantic slavery:

Me have fe remind you, about the rowing of the boat and the bodies that float, as they took we ‘cross the see, and put we in slavery; about the missionary dem, dem said dem a we friend, but dem rob we of we gold and wealth untold, and [told us about] the pie in ihe sky. after we die. Me say, me have fe remind you! (Mutabaruka 1987)

These two examples illustrate the kinds of problems that underlie attempts by museum ethnographers to represent their exhibits; the former illustrates the problem of identifying language which is both an accurate and correct reflection of the historical record, while not offensive; the latter, the sensitivity and emotions of Black people as they confront the atrocities committed against them historically…

Liverpool, “miscegenation” and the notion of “half-caste

Some of these problems have a particular resonance in Liverpool, the city with the nation’s longest-standing Black community, the vast majority of whom are indigenous and of mixed African and European origins (Fryer 1984; Small 1991b). This is a context in which, unlike anywhere in the Americas, most children of mixed African and European ancestry were born of a white mother and a Black father, each belonging to a group that lacks power (6). Moreover, this community has been the victim of insidious misrepresentations, both scholarly and popular, over the course of the century (Fletcher 1930; Liverpool Black Caucus 1986:42). So when the problems outlined above are reflected in discussions of the collective Black experience in the use of terms like “mixed-race”, “mulatto”, “mixed-breed”, “mixed-blood” and “half-caste”, there is bound to be a strong response. Again such phrases tend to be used uncritically, though they were introduced with specifically negative intentions.

Though these phrases share common meaning, the term “half-caste” has been most used in Liverpool (Law & Henfrey 1981; Rich 1984; Rich 1986). The phrase was common currency in the city and some whites still use it, even though Black people have made it clear that they consider it derogatory and degrading. The most offensive public use of the phrase occurred in the 1970s and 80s when Kenneth Oxford, Chief Constable of Merseyside Police, insisted on using the term publicly when numerous Black organisations had formally insisted that it was both “racist and degrading” (Liverpool Black Caucus 1986:42). “Half-caste” is a scurrilous term introduced by Europeans to demean and degrade the children of mixed African and European origins (Jordan 1962; Rich 1984). It originated with the idea that there are pure “races” and that the white “race” is superior; people of mixed origins were portrayed as biologically, psychologically and socially inferior (Reuter 1918). When we examine the historical record and scrutinize scientific knowledge of these assertions, we find conclusions which are remarkably different. As one scholar has recently pointed out:

“Mixed-race” is meaningless as a category, since all humans are of mixed ancestry: biologically speaking, one may only say that such children are the offspring of a union between two people located at widely divergent points on a scale of somatic “racial” characteristics (hair type, skin colour, etc.) (Wilson 1984:43).

The historical background to this confusion, and the contradictions that persist should we accept this language uncritically, are reflected in a record by the American Hip Hop group Public Enemy, which describes the “logic” of “racialised” classification during slavery in the Americas:

White mother, white father, white baby; Black mother. Black father, Black baby; white mother, Black father. Black baby; Black mother, white father. Black baby. (Public Enemy 1990).

A more detailed historical analysis is provided in the literature (Jordan 1962; Cohen & Green 1972; Berlin 1974; Root 1992). But of course, underlying the notion of “mixed-race” is the idea of “miscegenation” or “race-mixing”. This is a concept which continues to be used uncritically even in scholarship produced in the 1980s and 90s, as if it is a value-free descriptive term. An appreciation of its origins indicates its more dubious nature…

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