Becoming Free, Becoming Black: Race, Freedom, and Law in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana

Posted in Books, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Law, Louisiana, Monographs, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2019-07-22 23:50Z by Steven

Becoming Free, Becoming Black: Race, Freedom, and Law in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana

Cambridge University Press
January 2020
320 pages
17 b/w illus. 6 maps 2 tables
228 x 152 mm
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1108480642

Alejandro de la Fuente, Robert Woods Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics; Professor of African and African American Studies
Harvard University

Ariela J. Gross, John B. and Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law and History
University of Southern California


  • Examines the development of the legal regimes of slavery and race in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana from the sixteenth century to the dawn of the Civil War
  • Demonstrates that the law of freedom, not slavery, determined the way race developed over time
  • Draws on a variety of primary sources, including local court records, original trial records of freedom suits, legislative case, and petition

How did Africans become ‘blacks’ in the Americas? Becoming Free, Becoming Black tells the story of enslaved and free people of color who used the law to claim freedom and citizenship for themselves and their loved ones. Their communities challenged slaveholders’ efforts to make blackness synonymous with slavery. Looking closely at three slave societies—Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana—Alejandro de la Fuente and Ariela J. Gross demonstrate that the law of freedom—not slavery—established the meaning of blackness in law. Contests over freedom determined whether and how it was possible to move from slave to free status, and whether claims to citizenship would be tied to racial identity. Laws regulating the lives and institutions of free people of color created the boundaries between black and white, the rights reserved to white people, and the degradations imposed only on black people.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • 1. ‘A Negro and by consequence an alien’: local regulations and the making of race, 1500s–1700s
  • 2. The ‘inconvenience” of black freedom: manumission, 1500s–1700s
  • 3. ‘The natural right of all mankind’: claiming freedom in the age of revolution, 1760s–1830
  • 4. ‘Rules … for their expulsion’: foreclosing freedom, 1830s–1860
  • 5. ‘Not of the same blood’: policing racial boundaries, 1830s–1860
  • Conclusion: ‘Home-born citizens: the significance of free people of color.
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Just because more people are marrying across color lines today doesn’t mean race or racism are things of the past.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2015-11-28 00:02Z by Steven

“Many people portray the history of race in the United States as the rise of the “one drop of blood” rule. We have made too much of this. It was not the one-drop rule that kept the edifice of Jim Crow so strong. Racism could work through many different rules about ancestry, and it did. It could work even with a great deal of racial mixture. Just because more people are marrying across color lines today doesn’t mean race or racism are things of the past.”—Ariela J. Gross

Gilien Silsby, “Renowned Legal Historian Discusses Race in America,” Gould School of Law News (University of Southern California), October 29, 2015.

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Renowned Legal Historian Discusses Race in America

Posted in Articles, History, Law, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2015-11-27 19:03Z by Steven

Renowned Legal Historian Discusses Race in America

Gould School of Law News
University of Southern California

Gilien Silsby, Director of Media Relations

13th Amendment Ratified 150 Years Ago

A monumental moment in the history of the United States will be celebrated in December when the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery at the close of the Civil War, turns 150 years old. But despite the passage of time, the U.S. continues to struggle with racial inequality. USC Gould School of Law professor Ariela J. Gross has spent years unearthing the legal history of race, which she details in her book, What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America (Harvard University Press, 2008).

In her book, Gross recounts stories of racial identity trials in American courts, from the early republic well into the 20th century. The racial identity trials – court cases that determined a person’s “race” as well as their rights and privileges – help explain the history of race and racism in America.

The 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude, followed by two amendments guaranteeing equal protection of the laws and the right to vote to all American citizens, were far-reaching and revolutionary changes to the Constitution,” said Gross. “Yet in some ways the Reconstruction of the United States is still, as Eric Foner called it, an ‘unfinished revolution.’ We have yet to fulfill the promise of the Reconstruction Amendments that we will eliminate the badges of slavery and treat all citizens fairly and equally before the law.”

It’s been 150 years since the 13th Amendment was ratified. Has society moved beyond the concept of race and racist ideology?

AG: Today, race and racism are still with us. If it were true that racism in the past was based only on a now-discredited biological understanding of race – on blood – it would have been relatively easy to eradicate racism with colorblind policies. But despite the hard-won victories of 20th century civil rights struggles – and even the milestone of an African American presidential candidate – racism has survived, in part because its bases are shifting and mobile. For so long as many still believe that differing life chances do and should correlate with one’s performance of identity, one’s ability to achieve citizenship through “blood,” or one’s cultural practices, racism will persist.

What is race, anyway?

AG: We tend to believe race is a fact of nature, a property of blood, that we know it when we see it. But race is a powerful ideology that came into being and changed forms at particular historical moments as the product of social, economic and psychological conditions. Fundamental to race is a hierarchy of power, and this story is about determining racial identity for particular purposes: enslaving some people to free others; taking land from some to give to others; robbing people of their dignity to give others a sense of supremacy…

Read the entire interview here.

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The Evolution of Mixed-Race Historiography and Theory: Inaugural Sawyer Seminar

Posted in History, Live Events, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2013-01-15 15:47Z by Steven

The Evolution of Mixed-Race Historiography and Theory: Inaugural Sawyer Seminar

University of Southern California, Univeristy Park Campus
Doheny Memorial Library (DML)
East Asian Seminar Room (110C)
Friday, 2013-01-18, 14:00-17:00 PST (Local Time)

Presented by the Center for Japanese Religions and Culture’s “Critical Mixed-Race Studies: A Transpacific Approach” Andrew W. Mellon Foundation John E. Sawyer Seminars Series at the University of Southern California.

How has the study of mixed race been historicized and theorized in Western academia? Has our understanding of mixed race changed in the 21st century, or is our public discourse still bound by past ideology, experience, and debate? Does theorizing mixed race bind or liberate us from the ideological pitfalls of racialist thinking?

Conference Convenors:

Duncan Williams, Associate Professor of Religion
University of Southern California

Brian C. Bernards, Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures
University of Southern California

Velina Hasu Houston, Associate Dean for Faculty Recognition and Development, Director of Dramatic Writing and Professor
University of Southern California


Ariela Gross, John B. and Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law and History
University of Southern California

Paul Spickard, Professor of History
University of California, Santa Barbara

Falguni Sheth, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Political Theory
Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts

For more information, click here.

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The “Common Sense” of Race

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Law, Media Archive, United States on 2011-09-25 20:30Z by Steven

The “Common Sense” of Race

Southern California Law Review
Volume 83, Number 3 (March 2010)
pages 441-452

Neil Gotanda, Professor of Law
Western State University College of Law, Fullerton California

In What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America, Ariela J. Gross provides a compelling and nuanced account of race in America. Through her examination of “racial trials”—litigation in which racial identification plays a crucial role—Gross ties together the personal, social, and political dimensions of racial identity and classification. This discussion provides an important new perspective on the study of race in this country.

Earlier studies of racial classification have focused on the meanings of statutory racial categories. Gross, however, centers her analysis on the formation and reaffirmation of racial categories as a primarily social process. Gross draws from numerous racial trials—spanning slavery in the antebellum South to modern-day Mexican Americans grappling with “whiteness”—in order to survey the origins and history of “black” and “white” as categories in American life.

Read the entire essay here.

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Race, Blood, and What the Alligator Knows: A Review of What Blood Won’t Tell

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Law, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2011-09-23 04:06Z by Steven

Race, Blood, and What the Alligator Knows: A Review of What Blood Won’t Tell

Southern California Law Review
Volume 83, Number 3 (March 2010)
pages 425-440

Jason A. Gillmer, Associate Professor of Law
Texas Wesleyan School of Law

From the opening pages of Ariela J. Gross’s What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America, it is clear that the reader is about to embark on something special. The story begins in a Louisiana courthouse in 1857, with an enslaved woman named Alexina Morrison claiming that she is white. For her contemporaries, the assertion no doubt carried troubling implications. James White, the man who insisted Morrison was black, had papers to prove that he paid good money for her and that she was his property. But her “blue eyes and flaxen hair” told a different story, and her recent appearances at public balls in Jefferson Parish had convinced a number of residents that her graceful mannerisms and affectations were those of a white woman rather than slave. The courtroom was soon bombarded with a dizzying array of evidence for such a simple question—was she white or was she black?—with men eventually stripping her to the waist to examine her body for the tiniest signs of her true identity. Three trials later, the community still had not resolved the issue. But more importantly, from Gross‘s view, this case provides an unparalleled opportunity to examine the complex and constantly shifting ground of race and its import for this nation‘s history…

Read the entire essay here.

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Are you white enough?

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Book/Video Reviews, Law, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States on 2011-09-05 21:01Z by Steven

Are you white enough?

Laura Miller, Senior Writer

From Jim Crow laws to workplace discrimination, the history of race and the American courtroom is incendiary.

Come January, Barack Obama will be sworn in as either the first black president of the United States or the 44th white one, or both, or neither, depending on how you interpret his race. Race is such a monumental force in American culture and politics that the idea that it has to be interpreted may strike many people as bizarre. Of course Obama is black, some might argue, judging by his appearance, or by his self-identification as an African-American or even by his marriage and important relationships with other African-Americans. Yet more than one commentator has complained that he isn’t “black enough,” by which they may mean that his complexion isn’t dark enough, or that he was raised by whites, or that his African father provided him with no heritage in North American slavery, or that he doesn’t sufficiently align himself with the policies of a certain portion of African-American political leadership.

The problem with race as Americans understand it is that it doesn’t really exist. It is a brutal fact of life for millions of citizens, and an inescapable problem for the rest, but it is also, as Ariela J. Gross writes in her densely researched “What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America,” a “moving target,” whose definition and meaning is always in flux. Many of us can avoid encountering this strange truth in the imprecise realms of cultural and social life, but when it comes to the law, imprecision just doesn’t cut it. Gross’ book, a history of cases in which people have challenged their official racial designation, eloquently demonstrates just how difficult it can be to say what race—mine, yours, anybody’s—actually consists of…

Read the entire article here.

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“Race” Trials

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2010-12-12 22:53Z by Steven

Trials contesting racial identity illustrate the ways that racial categories have come into being over the course of U.S. history.  Through them we can observe the changing meaning of race throughout our history, and the changes and continuities in racism itself, from the roots in a slave society up through the twentieth century.  Drawing lines between “races” determined not only who could be free but also who could be capable of citizenship.  Thus the trials of racial identity became trials about the attributes of citizenship for the men and women who were their subjects.

Gross, Ariela J. 2008. What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America. page 7. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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Reading between the (Blood) Lines

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Law, Media Archive, Native Americans/First Nation, United States on 2010-07-02 14:38Z by Steven

Reading between the (Blood) Lines

Southern California Law Review
Volume 83, Number 3 (2010)
pages 473-494

Rose Cuison Villazor, Professor of Law
Hofstra University School of Law

Legal scholars and historians have depicted the rule of hypodescent—that “one drop” of African blood categorized one as Black—as one of the powerful ways that law and society deployed to construct racial identities and deny equal citizenship. Ariela J. Gross’s new book, “What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America,” boldly complicates the dominant narrative about hypodescent rules in legal scholarship. On the one hand, “What Blood Won’t Tell” argues that the legal and social construction of race was far more complex, flexible and subject to manipulation than the scholarship regarding the rules about blood distinctions has suggested. On the other hand, “What Blood Won’t Tell” highlights circumstances, both historically and in recent memory, of the ways in which blood distinctions played crucial roles in shaping the identity of people of color, including indigenous peoples. Importantly, “What Blood Won’t Tell” also examines how blood quantum rules relate to contemporary efforts to reassert indigenous peoples’ sovereignty and claims to lands.

This Review highlights the important contributions of “What Blood Won’t Tell” to our understanding of the racial experience of indigenous peoples and the contemporary methods used to remedy the present-day effects of indigenous peoples’ colonial experience. “What Blood Won’t Tell” advances a more robust account of the racialization of people of color through rules about blood differences in at least three ways. First, it places the colonial experience of indigenous peoples within the larger historical contexts of racial subordination and efforts to promote White domination and privilege. Second, it underscores the federal government’s ongoing responsibility to counteract the long-standing effects of its past misdeeds by addressing indigenous peoples’ unresolved claims to lands that have been stolen from them. Third, it allows us to take a careful look at the relationship between blood quantum rules and the right of indigenous peoples to exercise self-determination. Taken together, these three perspectives reveal the immense challenges inherent to remedying the long-term effects of the racialization and colonization of indigenous peoples.

Read the entire article here.

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Real Americans [Book Review]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Law, Media Archive, Native Americans/First Nation, United States on 2010-06-03 01:57Z by Steven

Real Americans [Book Review]

The Virginia Quarterly Review
Spring 2009
pages 206-210

Oscar Villalon

What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America, by Ariela J. Gross. Harvard University Press, October 2008.

As a child, there were the Americans, and then there was us.

Americans weren’t that plentiful in my grandmother’s neighborhood. The next-door neighbor to the right, he was an American. He was an older man, and he had a big grey dog chained up in his backyard. On New Year’s Eve, two of his sons got into an argument, so one of them went into a room and came back with a pistol and shot his brother dead, right there in the hallway. My grandmother’s other neighbors, two doors down, used to shoot off guns all the time too. They weren’t Americans. My uncle was roller-skating up and down the street once, when a car pulled up in front of the neighbor’s home. Just as my uncle skated by the car, the rear window lowered, and a shotgun slid out. He screamed. The window sucked back the shotgun and the car tore off. The guys in the car weren’t American, either…

Much wrangling—legal and intellectual—has gone into delineating which Americans are really Americans and which are not fully Americans: black, Indian, Latino, or Asian. How that was reckoned in our country’s history is at the heart of Ariela J. Gross’s book, What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America. A professor of law and history at the University of Southern California, Gross examines various court transcripts and federal rulings, stretching back to the years just before the Civil War and going well into the twentieth century, to make sense of how Americans—white Americans—decided whether a person (or an entire group of people) was just like them and so should be afforded all the rights guaranteed under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Gross supplies a specific accounting of the contortions into which communities and the courts tangled themselves while trying to figure out who was really white or black, or something else. And she looks at the consequences of this thinking, how it divided a nation into black, “non-white” (Native Americans and immigrant groups that didn’t come from Europe), and white—the people my grandmother and so many others refer to as, simply, Americans.

The necessity for classification, Gross writes, stems from “the peculiar institution.” In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, slavery had to be justified by the ideal that one group of people was intrinsically suited to be chattel and another group of people was meant to wield the whip. Slavery depended on a lot of people buying into “a powerful ideology,” the notion of race. “Fundamental to race is a hierarchy of power . . . a human Chain of Being, with white at the top and black at the bottom.” For the institution to survive, a slave’s “blackness”—those qualities identifying him as being descended from the tribe of Ham—had to be indisputable. The trouble was, if a slave didn’t have, say, dark brown skin and kinky hair, it sometimes wasn’t clear how to categorize him. This uncertainty would prove to be a persistent problem, which, Gross shows, isn’t surprising. The need to separate people was working against an unacknowledged truth about the roots of the country. Namely, there was never a time when people of different skin colors and cultures didn’t mix with each other, whether by their own volition or against their will.

Colonial America, Gross writes, was a rather mixed society. Not only were there communities of African Americans, some of whom were never slaves, but there were robust Indian nations, too, throughout the Eastern seaboard. And into these nations African Americans were often welcomed, as were some European Americans. Some were free blacks, some were former slaves; they took Indian spouses, had children, and conformed to their adopted culture. Some Indian groups, such as the Five Civilized Nations, held black slaves. They even fought on the side of the Confederacy. There was, of course, some integration between slave and master in these groups, just as there was in the white antebellum South. In early America, with each wave of births, and with the country’s ever-expanding territorial domain (meaning new towns were constantly forming where people showed up with little or no documentation of their past), the only way to know for sure if somebody was black or white was to find out whether or not he or she had a master.

This was especially the case in the South, but even there, presumably irrefutable proof wasn’t enough. Take the case of Alexina Morrison, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Louisiana woman who claimed she was not a born slave but rather a kidnapped white woman. Gross offers her case as an exemplar of how the first racial-identity trials worked: they were decided at the local level, settled by juries of white men who were ultimately more interested in how the plaintiff acted rather than how she appeared. Though Morrison “was undoubtedly a slave, and almost certainly had some African ancestry,” and despite the testimony of doctors that she was biologically black, and despite an examination of her body in court, where parts of her were poked and prodded for the “hidden marks of race,” Morrison was granted her freedom because, to use a sociological term, she “performed” white. Performing as a white woman, Gross writes, meant displaying unimpeachable moral virtue and chasteness. That, and already being accepted as white by the local community, took precedence, not only in Morrison’s case, but in so many others. Gross cites how “[d]espite the visual power of exhibition, not all candidates for whiteness were paraded before the jury, and even when they were, jurors were given many reasons not to believe their own eyes. Only 20 of 68 case records from the 19th Century South referred explicitly to inspections.” What’s more, “[o]nly 2 of 20 relied solely on physical appearance, and only one case relied on physical appearance plus a single type of evidence,” such as the plaintiff not having the “hollow arches” of a biologically white woman. In another case, Hudgins v. Wright, the plaintiff, Hannah, won her freedom by convincing the court she was Indian and not black. She claimed that her mother, a slave, was Indian. Her “red complexion” and straight hair, as well as what was described as a noble character, were proof she couldn’t possibly be black. The court’s ruling confirmed, Gross writes, that “Indians were by default citizens of a free nation; Africans were by default members of an enslaved race.”…

Read the entire review here.

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