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Exploring the social creation of race in the colonial South
Editors note: The following is the first in a three-part series examining the social creation of race in the United States. The series was originally written as part of a history course at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. It is adapted here in recognition of Black History Month to remind readers of the roots of racism and the ongoing struggle of civil rights.
Even before the nation was founded in 1776, there existed in the early colonies a people divided along racial lines. What it meant to be white and what it meant to be black was known to all who resided within the colonies.
The color of ones skin had a tremendous impact on the social, economic and political standing of each individual. If you were white, you were likely to own land; if you were black, you were likely to be owned by men who owned land. Additionally, if you were black, you were subject to particular laws that restricted your freedoms and limited your economic stability.
People who were white, in particular white men, considered themselves superior to other races. There is no biological proof that being white means one is superior to someone who is black, but it was the overriding social belief of the time. Legal, social and political distinctions between black and white led to the social stratification of individuals along racial lines in the early colonies.
The belief in white superiority in the early 1600s in Virginia was a result of slavery in the colonial South and was a purely social construction mitigated by white elites in an attempt to keep the slave economy alive and well in the colonies. It was also a result of the elite white males fear within the patriarchal society that blacks might one day challenge the white mans role as patriarch.
The arrival of early settlers
When early settlers first arrived in America in the 17th century, they brought with them a divine belief that governed their economy and their society. As Kathleen M. Brown discusses in her book, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches & Anxious Patriarchs, Orderly households were…the fundamental building blocks of a divinely sanctioned social order, providing political and social stability through their model of patriarchal authority.
Finding vast amounts of land available for cultivation and learning from Native Americans of a new crop called tobacco, white male property owners in Virginia and other colonies quickly turned to patriarchy and an indentured servant labor force as the quickest way to get rich.
White males determined that the cheapest and most efficient labor was available through this form of social order where good wives helped out with certain chores around the houseincluding making cheese and other dairy itemsand indentured servants helped in the fields. In the process, the white landowners had a cheap form of labor while at the same time turned a profit off their land.
As both Brown and Martha Hodes, in her book White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South, explain, in the very early 1600s there were some black individuals living as free people in the colonies. Yet, as time went by, blacks saw their rights disintegrate. As Brown explains, the following three legal decisions helped limit the rights of indentured servants and shape the establishment of race in the colonial South:
First, county courts narrowed the range of their prosecutions of sexual misdemeanors to focus on bastardy, punishing it with fines and whippings and abandoning ecclesiastical-style punishments such as penance. Second, reflecting the growing sophistication of justices and the decline of womens influence over public spaces like courtrooms, the county courts also began to enforce more rigorous standards for proof of wrongdoing, giving less credence to hearsay evidence and the common frame. … Third, in the context of these changes in legal practice, the colonial legislature refined its definition of whiteness to exclude individuals of African and Indian descent from Anglo-Virginian constructions of marriage and legitimacy.
All of this was done in an attempt to give white males a monopoly over patriarchy and allow them to continue to have a cheap form of labor by denigrating indentured servants and people of color.
Patriarchy and indentured servants
The early colonial period was a society that depended heavily on patriarchy and indentured servants. Indentured servants, in some ways, could be considered the early slaves, although many of them were not subject to the same amount of abuse and treachery that black slaves later faced.
Indentured servants were poor white or black individuals, paid for by white property owners to work on the property owners land for a period of seven years. In the first 20 to 30 years, indentured servants struggled to live through their seven-year terms as many succumbed to the diseases of the New World. Masters had total control over indentured servants during their time of servitude, but maintaining control over the sexuality of white servantsnamely white female servantsbecame difficult over time. This led to laws regarding sexual promiscuity and courtroom power in the 1660s.
As Brown writes: Owing to their growing numbers and their potential to undermine the fragile authority of masters, white servant women became the central focus of the colonys efforts to regulate sexuality… . Their sexual activity became even more significant after Bacons Rebellion, as planters increasingly sought to accentuate racial differences among their laborers.
Thus, there came a point where being a black indentured servant and being a white indentured servant were no longer equal, signaling the first sign of racial division in early colonial America. Eventually, indentured servants became a thing of the past and black indentured servants, or slaves, became the predominant labor force.
Legislating slavery and patriarchy
After laws were passed in the 1650s and 1660s, being a slave went from someone being owned by a master to a black someone being owned by a master. In the process, being a slave came to be equated with being black, and being a patriarch came to be equated with being white.
According to Brown, despite these new laws, there were instances where blacks did achieve positions that could be considered patriarchal. For example, there was Edward Nickens, a free African-American homeowner in the 1720s, who was relatively economically sound and had a family resembling a patriarchy. As Brown contemplates in her book: … would men such as Edward Nickens have been recognized as patriarchs by their contemporaries, white and black? Although patriarchal status may have been more difficult for free black men to achieve after 1730, once established as property owners free men did wield a measure of authority… .
Yet, laws and social mores continued to tighten the belt of restriction on people of color, making their lives more and more difficult.
As Brown expressed: With their access to white women sanctioned by law and protected from the dual threat of white female sexual autonomy and black male encroachments, moreover, white men could rest easy knowing that their authority over male slaves had been confirmed legally. By 1691, patriarchal authority had officially become a privilege of race as well as of sex.
And thus, the barrier of race was born in early America with whites claiming sole authority over patriarchal power in the colonies.
Elite white males attempted to maintain control over the sexuality of white females for a number of reasons, most notably that if they became pregnant by a black individual, their child would not be considered black. Thus, the child would not be a slave because he or she is not considered black.
This law created tremendous difficulty in determining the race of individuals and led to controversy regarding grandchildren and other descendants of white mothers in the decad
es that followed. The crucial thing was that anyone born of a black mother was considered black, and thus a slave. All slaves were inheritable under law. Thus, the cheapest way many white slave owners could increase their work force was to impregnate their black servants or slaves. So elite white males did not wish to enforce any laws forbidding white men from having children with black females, or even white females for that matter. So, in the end, the only person with completely free sexuality was the elite white male.
In the 1660s and the decades that followed, more and more laws were put in the books that limited the freedoms and rights of black slaves. As Brown explains: To preserve the integrity of racial boundaries, lawmakers were compelled to account for exceptions, creating new legal categories for unusual individuals. Subsuming an extremely heterogeneous population of African-Americans, Anglo-Indians, and Afro-Indians under the rubrics free Negro and free mulatto, lawmakers created a concept of whiteness that was viable so long as it remained exclusive.
Elite whites feared that free African-Americans would side with enslaved African-Americans rather than free whites. Thus, in the late 1600s and early 1700s, lawmakers worked to create incentives to get free African-Americans to work against enslaved African-Americans.
For example, when Negro Will cooperated with the General Assembly in leaking information of a slave revolt in James City, Isle of Wight, and Surry counties, he was rewarded with freedom. In addition to such incentives, a 1705 bill also granted free people of color protection from illegal enslavement.
The right to vote restricted to whites
In 1723, the General Assembly moved to make the right to vote dependent on race. Under the law, all free Negroes, mulattos (those born of mixed race) and Indians were restricted from voting. As described by Brown, the Lords Commissioners legal council Richard West did not agree with this revocation of the right to vote based on race: I cannot see why one freeman should be used worse than another merely upon account of his Complexion. As Brown concluded, Wests articulation of this objection revealed the degree to which Virginias planters had departed from English tradition to embrace race, rather than class, as the mainspring of social control.
There was no law that stated people of a lower class could not vote, rather that simply people of certain races could not vote. Thus, as Brown suggests, this is clearly an example of how society was divided strictly along racial lines by the beginning of the 18th century.
Race main dividing block of young nation
The elite white mans attempts to maintain control over patriarchal power in the colonial South ultimately led to the social construction of race through the institution of slavery. The terms whiteness and blackness had developed strong but significantly different meanings by the end of the 17th century, and would serve as a main dividing block of the nation in the centuries that followed. To be white meant to be a free man, and to be black meant to be a slave, with little freedom and few rights.
Between 1650 and 1870, all African-Americans, including free African-Americans, saw their rights restricted more and more by law. By 1723, they didnt even have the right to vote. All of this was done in the name of maintaining a cheap form of labor and ensuring the whiteness of patriarchal control in the colonial South. In the process, the social construction of racial boundaries was born in early America.
From the Feb. 7-13, 2007, issue