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Imagining Black America
By Michael Wayne
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2014 Michael Wayne
All rights reserved.
Birth of a Race
If "black" is a term devoid of biological meaning, then how are we to understand race? Scholars in recent decades have labeled it a "myth," a "fiction," an "invention," an "illusion," a "delusion," a "chimera," and, sardonically, a "four-letter word." Most commonly, though, they refer to it as a "social construct." Indeed, it has become almost obligatory for anyone writing on the history of American race relations to include a statement acknowledging that racial categories are shaped by social context, above all the distribution of power and privilege in society. Logically, then, we should expect racial classification to be unstable, subject to change over time as social conditions change. Too often, however, historians fall into the trap of treating races as if they are fixed—as if, in other words, they are, indeed, biological divisions of humanity. Consider the following passage from Eric Foner's acclaimed textbook Give Me Liberty! An American History: "In 1619, the first twenty blacks arrived in Virginia on a Dutch vessel." The perhaps not immediately obvious question we need to ask is: In what sense were the individuals Foner refers to "blacks"?
There are two surviving references to them in records from the period. John Smith commented in his Generall Historie of Virginia: "About the last of August came in a Dutch man of warre that sold us twenty Negars." And John Rolfe wrote to a friend: "About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr of the burden of a 160 tunnes arrived at Point-Comfort, the Commandors name Capt Jope, his Pilott for the West Indies one Mr Marmaduke an Englishmen. They met wth the Trier in the West Indyes, and determined to hold consort ship hitherward, but in their passage lost one the other. He brought not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes, wch the Governor and Cape Marchant bought for victualle (whereof he was in greate need as he pretended) at the best and easiest rate they could."
Leaving aside for a moment the question of what Smith and Rolfe meant by the term "Negro," let's address the issue of how the "20. and odd" individuals identified themselves. Thanks to some inspired sleuthing by the historian Engel Sluiter, we can now say something about the circumstances that brought them to Virginia. They were originally part of a consignment of slaves bound for Vera Cruz from Angola aboard the Portuguese ship São João Bautista. English pirates intercepted the vessel near the coast of Mexico and carried off most of its slave cargo. Later, likely by prior agreement, they met up with a man-of-war from the Netherlands and turned over an undetermined number of the hijacked slaves. It was this Dutch ship that finally transported the "20. and odd Negroes" to Virginia.
Additional detective work by John Thornton has provided us with further information: probably most if not all of the captives were victims of a major military campaign in 1618–19 mounted by the Portuguese against the Kingdom of Ndongo. The enslavement operation was actually carried out by the Imbangala, a fearsome "quasi-religious" African "cult." While it is ordinarily quite difficult to determine how men and women swept up in the slave trade identified themselves, Thornton is able, in this case, to offer informed speculation: "People in seventeenth century Ndongo had primary political loyalties connected to local territories, called xi in Kimbundu, which were ruled by the sobas. Within the area of the 1618–1619 campaigns, people in the royal districts considered themselves 'people of the court' (thus serving the king as a soba) ... and subjects of Ndongo, whereas those living farther away might have taken their loyalty to the soba as equally important as their loyalty to the king.... [Residents of the area] also had a larger and vaguer identity as those who spoke Kimbundu ... Kimbundu speakers [referred to themselves] as the 'Ambundu people.'"
In other words, the individuals who ended up in Virginia may have identified themselves with a ruler or a political unit or a geographical region or, given what Thornton has to say about language, a cultural or perhaps ethnic group. Common sense suggests that they also identified with their immediate or extended families. But there is no suggestion that they defined themselves by reference to the color of their skin, that they thought of themselves as "Negroes," as "blacks."
Of course, they still faced the trauma of the Middle Passage. They likely spent weeks, or perhaps months, together in a slave pen in Luanda. Afterward, there would have been extended time aboard the São João Bautista, first off the coast of Africa while the crew added to its stock of provisions, and finally during the transatlantic crossing. Then they fell into the hands of the pirates. No doubt their many trials caused them to wonder about the relevance of their traditional attachments. This might well have been a period when they began to ask whether skin color carried some significance they had not previously recognized. Still, the Imbangala, who subdued them, were physically much like themselves. And Portuguese captains customarily sought to reduce the likelihood of shipboard rebellion by privileging particular slaves. So there is little likelihood that the "20. and odd Negroes" would have suddenly concluded that skin color was the central determinant of identity. If Michael Gomez is correct, the principal result of the "shared experience in suffering" that slaves endured during the transatlantic crossing was the formation of close bonds between shipmates. But close bonds between shipmates do not equate to race consciousness. Some of the enslaved men who stepped on shore at Jamestown in 1619 may have been ancestors of blacks. But they were not blacks themselves. To impose an identity on them that they would have rejected is, at the very least, anachronistic.
Yes, race is a social construct. But as these last comments should make clear, it is something more than that as well. The process of race formation does not take place mechanistically. A given labor system, a given demography, does not automatically give rise to a particular set of racial beliefs. Human imagination plays a mediating role. Races have to be imagined into existence. And racial identity has to be imagined as well—and constantly reimagined, as circumstances change over time. After all, races too are "imagined communities," to borrow the term Benedict Anderson has so usefully applied to nations.
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No work has had more influence in shaping how historians understand the origins of American race consciousness than White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812, by Winthrop Jordan. It is, as many reviewers have proclaimed, a magisterial piece of scholarship. But the book, published in 1968, was a product of thinking about race that is now outdated. When he wrote it, Jordan believed that race was a real biological category. In an appendix entitled "Note on the Concept of Race," he observed, "Human groups which differ markedly in appearance also differ genetically. One of the most important recent breakthroughs has been the concept of race as a group of individuals sharing a common gene pool." He even referred to races as "incipient species," although he acknowledged that circumstances allowing human speciation to take place were unlikely ever to come into existence.
This understanding of race clearly influenced the way in which Jordan structured his famous work. While he was well aware that cultural factors significantly influenced how the English perceived the peoples they encountered on the coast of Africa, he chose to begin by looking at what he called "the most arresting characteristic" of the Africans, their skin color. He continued: "Long before they found that some men were black, Englishmen found in the idea of blackness a way of expressing some of their most ingrained values. No other color except white conveyed so much emotional impact. As described by the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of black before the sixteenth century included 'Deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul.... Having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death, deadly; baneful, disastrous, sinister.... Foul, iniquitous, atrocious, horrible, wicked.... Indicating disgrace, censure, liability to punishment, etc.'"
It was a provocative opening suggesting that when the first English colonists arrived in North America, they believed that personal attributes and human worth could be deduced from skin color. It helped spawn a massive literature dealing with the issue of whether the color associations drawn by the English represented a new direction in the history of Western thought. This has been a very fruitful line of inquiry, but the assumption Jordan made about the underlying biological reality of race has had unfortunate consequences for our understanding of black Americans as an imagined community. By representing race as something that was discovered rather than invented, he has given a significant measure of legitimacy to the view that the early colonists looked on all individuals with African ancestry as members of a fundamental, and distinct, division of humanity identifiable by skin color. There are, however, good reasons to think otherwise.
Consider, for example, the meaning that seventeenth-century colonists attached to "Negro." On the face of it, this term, borrowed from the Spanish, would seem to establish the primacy of color as the determinant of group identity. But as James Sweet has pointed out, on the Iberian Peninsula "Negro" connoted slave status as well as dark skin. Indeed, he notes, "the Portuguese utilized the term 'Negro' to imply slave status, regardless of skin color." It is true that English colonists on the Chesapeake limited "Negro" to Africans and the descendants of Africans. But for much of the seventeenth century they seem to have used it principally as a synonym for slaves. For example, a Virginia law from 1639 required "all persons except negroes to be provided with arms and amunition [sic]." The clear intent of the law was to ensure that every free man, Africans included, was prepared to defend the colony in the event of an Indian attack. It was only during the eighteenth century that the House of Burgesses barred all people of African ancestry from owning weapons. But most telling are two phrases that appeared regularly in the statutes of Maryland and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Virginia: "Negroes and other slaves" and "Negroes or other slaves." Here are two examples. In September 1664, the Assembly in Maryland passed "An Act Concerning Negroes & other Slaves." "Bee itt Enacted," the statute read, "that all Negroes or other slaues already within the Prouince And all Negroes and other slaues to bee hereafter imported into the Prouince shall serue Durante Vita." A Virginia law of 1692 entitled "An act for the more speedy prosecution of slaves committing Capitall Crimes" carried the following preamble: "Whereas a speedy prosecution of negroes and other slaves for capital offences is absolutely necessary ..."
Now, there were free people of African descent in the colonies at the time, as lawmakers were well aware. Some small number may have arrived as indentured servants, but the great majority were either slaves who had been granted or allowed to purchase their freedom, or children or grandchildren of former slaves. They did not operate under legal disabilities during most of the seventeenth century. Masters who freed slaves in their wills seem to have expected that they would become "regular members of the free community." And as a number of scholars have shown, skin color was apparently rarely a factor in court decisions.
Two centuries later, in the decades leading up to the Civil War, apologists for slavery in the South would argue that anyone with African ancestry was by nature suited for bondage. But in the seventeenth century, the phrase "Negroes and other slaves" did not signify that black skin was considered the outward expression of a servile nature. It was simply an acknowledgment that an overwhelming majority of slaves were, in fact, people of African descent. Almost certainly, when John Rolfe wrote to a friend that a Dutch captain had sold "20. and odd Negroes" in Jamestown, the main information he wanted to convey was that there were now slave laborers in the colony. Their physical appearance was intriguing no doubt, but not of primary interest. In the first decades of settlement in the Chesapeake, biology—or, to be more accurate, skin color—was not considered destiny.
* * *
Religion, on the other hand, was destiny. Or more properly in the case of the slaves, irreligion. What made Africans suitable for slavery in the minds of colonists was not their supposed inherent nature, but their heathenism. Africa was, as far as the English could see, a continent empty of religion, ignorant of God and His precepts. Logically, then, someone with black skin was very likely a heathen. And heathens were deserving of enslavement.
In the first decades of settlement, some slaves were able to gain freedom by demonstrating that they had been baptized. To protect their property interests, planters in Virginia in 1667, and Maryland in 1671, secured the passage of legislation stipulating that any slave who took instruction in Christianity and received the sacraments would remain a slave. Not all slaveowners were reassured, however. In 1704 and again in 1715, the Maryland Assembly felt compelled to pass laws reiterating the principle set down in 1671. "Many people," the statutes noted, "have neglected to baptize their Negroes or Suffer them to be baptized on a vain Apprehension that Negroes by receiving the Sacrament of Baptism are manumitted and sett free." Nor, for that matter, did slaves themselves believe that the question had necessarily been settled. As late as the 1690s, individual bondsmen were still bringing forward petitions requesting freedom on the grounds that they had been baptized. Furthermore, in the 1730s a rumor spread among slaves in a corner of Virginia that local authorities were ignoring orders from Parliament to free all Christians. This rumor led to "a widespread, narrowly averted revolt."
There is general agreement among historians that colonists found the presumed godlessness of Africans their most troubling characteristic. Winthrop Jordan himself stated that "for Englishmen settling in America, the specific religious difference [between Christian and heathen] was initially of greater importance than color." But Jordan and others have failed to appreciate the degree to which, as Colin Kidd has recently and very skillfully demonstrated, theological dictates undercut the development of race consciousness. Scripture was the ultimate authority. And Scripture taught that all human beings, no matter how divergent their bodily characteristics, traced their ancestry back to Noah. To suggest that the physical distinctions between Africans and English had some profound meaning, Kidd points out, "was to risk courting accusations of heresy."
During the first decades of settlement through the 1660s, the legislatures of Virginia and Maryland brought forward few statutes explicitly directed at individuals of African descent. Those they did enact reveal no notable antipathy or fear. Historians who believe that racism, or at least something approximating it, arrived in the colonies with the earliest settlers explain this apparent discrepancy by arguing that "Negroes" were too few to warrant the attention of the authorities. But an element of the population even less numerically significant provoked panic among Chesapeake legislators. These "vnreasonable and turbulent sort of people," the Virginia House of Burgesses declared in 1660, "do dayly gather together vnto them vnlaw'll Assemblies and congregations of people teaching and publishing, lies, miracles, false visions, prophecies and doctrines, which have influence vpon the comunities of men both ecclesiasticall and civil endeavouring and attemping thereby to destroy religion, lawes, comunities and all bonds of civil societie, leaving it arbitrarie to everie vaine and vitious person whether men shall be safe, lawes established, offenders punished, and Governours rule." The individuals referred to did not have dark skin, nor, indeed, did they differ whatsoever in physical appearance from the members of the House of Burgesses. On the contrary, the Quakers were English and self-proclaimed Christians. But they preached egalitarianism and questioned the authority of the Anglican hierarchy, and so, in the eyes of colonial lawmakers, they were "unreasonable" and "turbulent." The legislature introduced heavy fines for any ship's captain who transported members of the Society of Friends to Virginia and ordered Quakers already in the colony taken into custody and deported.
Excerpted from Imagining Black America by Michael Wayne. Copyright © 2014 Michael Wayne. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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