Making Race in British Colonial North America

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Communications/Media Studies, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2018-11-08 20:53Z by Steven

Making Race in British Colonial North America

Black Perspectives

Elise A. Mitchell, Ph.D. Candidate in Atlantic World History and Caribbean and Latin American History
Department of History
New York University

Uncle Sam challenging the interference of John Bull, the personification of Great Britain, in the Civil War, 1861 (Photo: Library of Congress).

When confronted with three eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements seeking a missing man from Connecticut named Ishmael Mux of “a white Complexion,” a missing Pennsylvanian named John Daily who had a “black Complexion, bushy Hair,” and a man who went missing on his way to North Carolina named Andrew Vaughan with a “red” complexion, most readers would presume that their complexions, “white,” “black,” and “red,” indicated their race. However, as Sharon Block shows in her latest book, Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America, to eighteenth-century readers:

White, black, and red complexion did not automatically parallel European, African, and Native American heritages, respectively. In fact, Ishmael was described as mulatto; John as Irish; and Andrew was listed as an infantryman in the British 40th regiment, was born in Philadelphia, with no nationality or ethnicity specified. Skin and hair appearance were features related to, but not constitutive of, ethnic or national background (60-61).

This is but one of many examples Sharon Block uses to illustrate how the relationships between bodily descriptions, ethnicities, and racial meaning are not transhistorical, but developed through contextually specific discourses that have changed over time (83). Block, a digital humanist and historian of race, gender, rape, sexuality, and the body, examined thirty-nine British North American colonial newspapers published between 1750 and 1775 and analyzed over 4000 advertisements for missing enslaved and free people. Her ambitious study of these advertisements reveals how British North American colonists constructed race through quotidian discourses. Colonial Complexions is a crucial contribution to the history of race and a noteworthy model for digital age historical methodology…

Read the entire review here.

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Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America

Posted in Books, Communications/Media Studies, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, United States on 2018-11-08 19:55Z by Steven

Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America

University of Pennsylvania Press
232 pages
17 illus.
6 x 9
Cloth ISBN: 9780812250060

Sharon Block, Professor of History
University of California, Irvine

In Colonial Complexions, historian Sharon Block examines how Anglo-Americans built racial ideologies out of descriptions of physical appearance. By analyzing more than 4,000 advertisements for fugitive servants and slaves in colonial newspapers alongside scores of transatlantic sources, she reveals how colonists transformed observable characteristics into racist reality. Building on her expertise in digital humanities, Block repurposes these well-known historical sources to newly highlight how daily language called race and identity into being before the rise of scientific racism.

In the eighteenth century, a multitude of characteristics beyond skin color factored into racial assumptions, and complexion did not have a stable or singular meaning. Colonists justified a race-based slave labor system not by opposing black and white but by accumulating differences in the bodies they described: racism was made real by marking variation from a norm on some bodies, and variation as the norm on others. Such subtle systemizations of racism naturalized enslavement into bodily description, erased Native American heritage, and privileged life history as a crucial marker of free status only for people of European-based identities.

Colonial Complexions suggests alternative possibilities to modern formulations of racial identities and offers a precise historical analysis of the beliefs behind evolving notions of race-based differences in North American history.

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