COLA Seminar Probes Shifting Identity of ‘Whiteness’ in America

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Religion, United States, Virginia on 2014-11-29 01:34Z by Steven

COLA Seminar Probes Shifting Identity of ‘Whiteness’ in America

University of Virginia
College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Anne Bromley, Associate
UVA Today

The category of “white” as the majority race against which other groups have been described in the United States might seem well-defined, but it has been anything but that throughout American history.

In the past decade, scholars digging into primary sources have found that at certain times, some ethnic groups that one might think of as being “white” today – including Irish or Scotch-Irish, Italian, Jewish and Polish – were not considered to be white like Anglo-Saxon whites at various times and places. These attitudes led to economic and social conditions often enforced by law.

In her first-year seminar, or COLA, “Whiteness: A Racial Category,” assistant professor of religious studies Jalane Schmidt aims to show how whiteness, not just blackness, has been a shifting category and has served to exclude or include certain ethnic groups or races over time and in different parts of the country. Legal and social conditions defining who was considered black or white also demonstrate that being white has not been a hard-and-fast identity…

…“Whiteness is the elephant in the room that needs to be examined,” Schmidt said. “We’re used to studying racism as the exclusion of ‘others.’ But we’re not used to framing racism as, in part, an anxious effort (legal, social, cultural, etc.) to protect and prop up the perennially unstable racial category known as whiteness.”…

…Instead of fighting injustices under which both groups suffered, the Irish chose to join the privileged category, and this happened with other ethnic groups, too, Schmidt said. Just as children who go to a different school when their families move have to learn what the social scene is like, new immigrants in America had to learn a new set of social codes eventually, she said, giving up Gaelic language and ceasing to mix with black people.

The class is also studying how the definition of “white” changed over time in Virginia. Thomas Jefferson defined “the American” as “Anglo Saxon” and had a low opinion of the Scotch-Irish settlers of Appalachia, whose proximity to Indians, he wrote, had allegedly rendered them “wild,” Schmidt said.

A recent guest speaker to the class, Cinder Stanton, former head historian at Monticello, talked about her research on slavery at Jefferson’s plantation home and on the progeny of Jefferson and the slave Sally Hemings, the topics of her book, “Those Who Labor for My Happiness.” The descendants who defined themselves as black knew about and embraced their heritage. Those who passed as white, however, such as Eston and Julia Hemings, left behind their mixed ancestry and changed their name; their white descendants didn’t know they were related to Jefferson and Hemings until they found out from Stanton during her fieldwork…

Read the entire article here.

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Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture

Posted in Anthologies, Books, History, Media Archive, Slavery, Social Science, United States, Virginia on 2009-11-19 02:19Z by Steven

Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture

University of Virginia Press
325 pages
6 x 9
ISBN: 0-8139-1919-3

Edited by

Jan Ellen Lewis
Rutgers University

Peter S. Onuf
University of Virginia

The publication of DNA test results showing that Thomas Jefferson was probably the father of one of his slave Sally Hemings‘s children has sparked a broad but often superficial debate. The editors of this volume have assembled some of the most distinguished American historians, including three Pulitzer Prize winners, and other experts on Jefferson, his times, race, and slavery. Their essays reflect the deeper questions the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson has raised about American history and national culture.

The DNA tests would not have been conducted had there not already been strong historical evidence for the possibility of a relationship. As historians from Winthrop D. Jordan to Annette Gordon-Reed have argued, much more is at stake in this liaison than the mere question of paternity: historians must ask themselves if they are prepared to accept the full implications of our complicated racial history, a history powerfully shaped by the institution of slavery and by sex across the color line.

How, for example, does it change our understanding of American history to place Thomas Jefferson in his social context as a plantation owner who fathered white and black families both? What happens when we shift our focus from Jefferson and his white family to Sally Hemings and her children? How do we understand interracial sexual relationships in the early republic and in our own time? Can a renewed exploration of the contradiction between Jefferson’s life as a slaveholder and his libertarian views yield a clearer understanding of the great political principles he articulated so eloquently and that Americans cherish? Are there moral or political lessons to be learned from the lives of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and the way that historians and the public have attempted to explain their liaison?

Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture promises an open-ended discussion on the living legacy of slavery and race relations in our national culture.


Annette Gordon-Reed, New York Law School
Rhys Isaac, College of William and Mary
Winthrop D. Jordan, University of Mississippi
Jan Ellen Lewis, Rutgers University, Newark
Philip D. Morgan, Institute of Early American History and Culture
Peter S. Onuf, University of Virginia
Jack N. Rakove, Stanford University
Joshua Rothman, University of Virginia
Werner Sollors, Harvard University
Lucia Stanton, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation
Dianne Swann-Wright, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation
Clarence Walker, University of California at Davis
Gordon S. Wood, Brown University

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