EXPLORE BEFORE 1787

400 BCE Ancient views of difference The ancient Greeks distinguish themselves from others according to culture and language, but not physical differences. The word for "barbarian" comes from the Greek "barbar," which means a person who stutters, is unintelligible, or does not speak Greek. Wealthy males from many regions of the world, including Africa, can shed their barbarian status and be accepted as Greek citizens if they adopt the language, customs and dress. Conversely, Greece, like Rome, is an "equal opportunity" society that enslaves people regardless of appearance.
1300s Origin of "slave" It is thought that the word "slave" derives from the word Slav: prisoners from Slavonic tribes of southeastern Europe captured by Germans and sold to Arabs during the Middle Ages. Throughout much of human history, societies enslave others, as a result of conquest, war or debt, but not because of physical characteristics or a belief in natural inferiority. In America, a unique set of historical circumstances leads to the enslavement of peoples who share a physical trait. Justification in terms of "race" comes later.

1616

Pocahontas marries John Rolfe When the English first arrive in America, neither the colonists nor Indians think of themselves or each other in terms of race. On the contrary, Protestant England's hated rival is Catholic Spain, while the Indians see themselves not as Indians, but different nations divided by language, custom and power. When the Powhatan princess Pocahontas marries colonist John Rolfe, the union causes a scandal in the British court, not because Rolfe has married an Indian, but because Pocahontas, a princess, has married a commoner. In 17th century England, status and social station are more important than physical differences.
1676 Social identities fluid In early colonial America, racial categories are fluid, and class distinctions trump physical difference. On Virginia plantations, European indentured servants and African slaves mix freely - they work, play, and make love together. In 1676, Bacon's Rebellion unites poor Africans and Europeans against Indians and wealthy planters. Although the rebellion is short-lived, the alliance alarms the colonial elite, who realize the labor system based on indentured servitude is unstable. Coincidentally, African slaves become more available at this time. Planters turn increasingly to African slavery for labor, while granting increased freedoms to Europeans.
1680 "white" appears in colonial laws Early colonial laws refer to "Christians" or "Englishmen" rather than "whites," reflecting the greater importance of religious or national differences. Around the time of Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, new laws begin to appear, separating Black slaves from European indentured servants. Slavery becomes permanent and heritable for "Negroes," and Black people are punished more harshly for crimes. Poor whites are given new rights and opportunities, including as overseers to police slaves. As the importance of slavery grows, "white" is used almost exclusively, not only in law but other social arenas, and slavery becomes associated increasingly with Blackness.
1705 Virginia slave codes passed As wealthy planters turn from indentured servitude towards slavery, they begin to write laws transforming African slaves into a permanent laboring class and dividing Blacks from whites. As skilled farmers, resistant to European diseases and unable to escape and hide among neighboring tribes, Africans are an ideal labor source. African Americans are punished more harshly for crimes and their rights (whether as slaves or freemen) are increasingly curtailed. Poor whites are given new entitlements and opportunities, including as overseers who police the slave population. Over time, poor whites identify more with wealthy whites and the degradation of slavery is identified more and more with Blackness.
1765 slaves lobby for freedom during revolution During the American Revolution, free and enslaved Africans are aware of the moral contradiction between slavery and the natural rights of man. Like their fellow patriots, African Americans are inspired to press for their own equality. In Charleston, South Carolina, they march through the streets carrying signs reading "Liberty, Liberty." One Massachusetts slave petition reads: "Every principle from which America has acted in the course of her unhappy difficulties with Great Britain pleads stronger than a thousand arguments in favor of your petitioners." Although their emancipation is not gained for another century, their cries are not unnoticed. In a letter to her husband, future president John Adams, Abigail Adams writes: "How is it we are denying people that which we are fighting for ourselves?"
1776 Birth of "Caucasian" Johann Blumenbach lays out the scientific template for race in On the Natural Varieties of Mankind. Blumenbach strongly opposes slavery and believes in the potential equality of all people. Nevertheless, he maps a hierarchical pyramid of five human types, placing "Caucasians" at the top because he believes a skull found in the Caucasus Mountains is the "most beautiful form of the skull, from which...the others diverge." This model is widely embraced, and Blumenbach inadvertently paves the way for scientific claims about white superiority.
1776 Freedom creates contradiction Wealthy planter and slaveholder Thomas Jefferson pens the Declaration of Independence establishing a radical new principle: human equality and the natural rights of man. Although this document lays the foundation for our American democracy, it also creates a moral contradiction - how can a nation built on freedom hold slaves? Previously, slavery has been unquestioned. It is only challenged on moral grounds when freedom and equality are introduced. Rather than abolish slavery, some founding fathers seek justification in the "nature" of slaves. Contempt for slaves begins to harden into an ideology of racial difference and white supremacy.
1781 Jefferson first suggests innate Black inferiority With Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson becomes the first prominent American to suggest innate Black inferiority: "I advance it therefore, as a suspicion only, that blacks ...are inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind." Writing after the American Revolution, he helps rationalize slavery in a nation otherwise dedicated to liberty and equality, calling on emerging science to provide proof. As historian Barbara Fields and others note, the idea of Black inferiority makes it possible to deny Africans the equal rights that others take for granted.

 


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