EXPLORE BEFORE 1787
||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.
||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.
|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
||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.
||"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.
||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.
||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?"
||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.
||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.
||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.