WITH JAMES O. HORTON
James O. Horton is Benjamin Banneker Professor of American
Studies and History at George Washington University and Director
of the Afro-American Communities Project of the National Museum
of American History at the Smithsonian Institution.
How would you characterize British colonization and the early
economy of North America?
The Europeans, I am talking Columbus, came to what they called
the New World as part of a capitalistic venture. Columbus was
not coming to explore really. He was coming to look for a shorter,
more profitable route for extracting the riches of the East. And
Jamestown was founded by a joint stockholding company. From the
very beginning, European colonization was very much a commercial,
As the British were
making their initial forays into North America, their expectations
were based on the example of the Spanish. The Spanish had made
unbelievable amounts of wealth from mining the gold and silver
in Latin America. That gold and silver made Spain the richest
country in the world. Seeing this, the English thought, we better
get in on this colonization movement, and they moved into British
North America - specifically the area we know today as Virginia.
there's just not much gold and silver in Virginia. Never has been.
And they quickly learned that they were not going to repeat the
experience of the Spanish. They were not going to become rich
by taking gold and silver out of their colonies. So they turned
to another valuable resource. And in Virginia that valuable resource
turned out to be tobacco.
Tobacco farming, producing tobacco
that was sold in Europe, turned out to be very valuable, very
profitable. But very labor intensive. There was always the need
to get more and more people to work in the tobacco fields of Virginia
and Maryland. They tried it with white indentured servants. And
that worked for a while. But they couldn't get enough white indentured
servants to come and work for long enough. And in 1619, when 20
or so Africans were brought to Jamestown, by a Dutch frigate,
and these Africans were purchased, they were used in the labor
system producing tobacco.
Now several things happened at this
time. First of all the first Africans were not necessarily treated
as slaves. They were not held for life, and their status did not
generally pass on to their ancestors, to their descendants. But
they were used in the production of tobacco, and increasingly,
more and more Africans were brought in to help produce tobacco.
By the time we get to 1700, Africans are used extensively in the
production of tobacco, in Virginia and Maryland, and rice is starting
to be grown in the early 18th century in South Carolina.
Why were Africans enslaved, rather than, for example, American
know, when the first British came to Virginia, they came expecting
to find a work force available to them. What had happened in Latin
America and the Caribbean is that the Spanish had exploited Indian
labor and decimated Indian population in terms of disease and
in terms of working these people to death. Indians died by the
tens of thousands in those places.
When the British landed in
Virginia they fully expected to find native peoples who they could
force to work for them. Whose labor they could exploit. But instead,
they found tribes that were more powerful than they had expected.
And they found that there weren't enough native peoples. A lot
of the native peoples died from diseases that the Europeans brought
But this brings up an interesting question. How difficult
do you suspect it is to enslave a person on their home ground
with allies immediately available?
In British North America,
Native Americans fought. And there were substantial numbers of
them, at least enough of them to put up a formidable resistance.
The fact is that the colonists could not find the numbers of Native
Americans to exploit and so they turned to other sources. They
turned to whites in Europe and lots of whites were imported as
indentured servants, to work in the fields.
But when they found
Africans, they found what they considered an endless labor supply.
People who could be readily identified and so when they ran away
they couldn't just melt into the population like Native Americans
could. People who had the skills that they needed. People who
knew how to grow tobacco, people who knew how to grow rice. They
found the ideal from their standpoint, the ideal labor source.
And so these were people who could provide the labor and who
could also provide the skill, and so they were used extensively
in rice growing in South Carolina and in tobacco growing in the
Chesapeake Bay area. And it really is on the basis of their work
and their skill that a colonial economy is being built, which
never matches the vast wealth that the Spanish were getting from
Latin America, but does provide an increasingly important foundation
for the English economy.
At some point late in the 18th century,
or the middle of that century, there was a conscious decision
that Africans would become the laborers of choice. And from that
point on what you find is a decrease in the number of white indentured
servants. Because African slave labor is proving more plentiful,
and more profitable.
How did racial ideas develop in early America?
There have always been differences between people,
and sometimes those differences were defined by religions, sometimes
ethnicity, sometimes family unit, sometimes national unit. But
increasingly as we get into the American historical context, as
we move into the 18th century, that difference starts to be defined
in racial terms.
This is not something that happens immediately,
it happens slowly over time. If you look in the 18th century there
are plenty of examples of blacks and whites who are lumped together
on the basis of where they stand in the society.
In the 18th
century, for example, there is this status, unfreedom - that is,
people who are not free. Now some of those people are slaves,
and some of those people are indentured servants. Now whites could
be indentured servants, and that was a state of unfreedom. It
was very different than slavery but it was certainly a state of
One of the things that I think we don't realize is
that upwards of 80 percent of Europeans - white Europeans - who
came to British North America came in a state of indentured servitude.
An indentured servant sells his or her labor - not person but
labor - for some specified period of time, generally seven years,
but that could vary, to someone who needs a laborer in the British
North American colonies. Then that person is held in the state
of indentured servitude for a period of time and works for his
or her master. At the end of your indenture, you were free.
was a very different institution but for the period of time that
the indentured servant was an indentured servant, that person
had very few rights. And that person was worked in a way that
provided advantage to his or her master. So there were many ways
in which the life of an indentured servant paralleled the life
of a slave.
Blacks could be indentured servants and they could
be slaves. But if you read the accounts of some of the colonial
elites in American society, they often will refer to those at
the bottom of society in ways that make it very clear that they
have lumped these people together. And in response, you often
find that blacks and whites, who are at the bottom of American
society in the state of unfreedom, often find that shared condition
of unfreedom to be a fine foundation for building alliances.
How did Africans and poor Europeans make common cause?
Americans don't recognize the extent to which interracial alliances
in American society - in protest movements and movements to bring
about better conditions for people at the bottom of the economic
scale - have a long history in American society.
We can go back
to 1676, for example, when in Virginia there was an uprising called
Bacon's Rebellion. It started out as a rebellion against Native
Americans but wound up as a rebellion against the colonial elites
of the Colony of Virginia. In fact, the capitol of Virginia was
burned and the governor was driven out of the colonial capitol.
This was an alliance of black slaves, white indentured servants,
and lower class whites - who were all protesting conditions that
inhibited their freedom and limited their opportunities.
was an alliance that really concerned the elites of Virginia society.
And in fact they were so concerned that after Bacon's Rebellion
was put down, a series of laws was passed which made it very clear
that there were different penalties in Virginia for whites and
blacks. Which provided different restrictions depending upon whether
you were white or black, and generally made it more difficult
for interracial alliances to be established.
This was done to
send a message to whites and blacks - that there are fewer and
fewer bases, fewer and fewer grounds upon which interracial relations
and interracial alliances can be formed. But throughout the 18th
century you find examples of blacks and whites who come together
in common concern and in common action.
In 1712 there was an
incident in New York that was termed The Slave Conspiracy - but
there were American Indians and white Americans who were executed
for participating in that conspiracy. All those pre-Revolutionary
mobs - the Stamp Act mob, certainly we know about the mob at the
Boston massacre in 1770 - all those so-called mobs were also interracial
coalitions because blacks and whites found themselves in very
similar economic positions and they joined together to protest
the ways in which they were being oppressed economically.
the standpoint of blacks and whites at the lower end of the colonial
scale, there was every reason to work together to protest laws
and measures that put them at an economic disadvantage and oppressed
Why was American slavery different?
important to realize that slavery is not an American invention.
Slavery is as old as recorded human society. In fact, we realize
that the English word "slave," comes from the word "Slav," and
it was applied to those people in eastern Europe who were bound
and brought to the Mediterranean where they grew sugar. The fact
is that slavery is a very old institution - there was slavery
in various parts of Europe, and in various parts of Africa.
the thing that makes American slavery so distinctive is it is
based on race. America's slavery is justified not, for example,
as West African slavery is justified - where people were captured
in battle and then held in a kind of captivity.
that for a second. Any of us could have lost that battle. Any
of us could have been held in captivity. Any of us could have
been a slave. But when you base slavery on the question of race,
then if one of us is black and one is white and slavery is linked
to blackness, then one of us could never have been a slave.
it is that kind of special category of human bondage that American
falls into which makes it so distinctive, and in some ways as
we look back in history, that is one of the things that has made
it so destructive in terms of relationships within American society.
What is the relationship between slavery and freedom?
society, you know, the biggest problem we face is not slavery
- slavery was abolished in 1865, more than 100 years ago. Instead,
we face the problem of the rationalization of slavery in a nation
built on freedom. In the 18th century, when we were trying to
say to the world that we believed that God gave people certain
rights that Man could not deprive them of - which is what it says
in The Declaration of Independence - we were trying to say to
the world that we were a new kind of country, the kind of country
and the kind of people that stand up for the rights of the individual.
Now when you are trying to make that kind of connection with the
world, and you are also, by the way, a nation in which slaves
provide the foundation of your economy, you've got to do some
pretty fancy footwork in order not to seem what you in fact are.
And the way you do that is to say, "Yeah, but you
know, there is something different about these people. This whole
business of inalienable rights is fine, but it only applies to
certain people." And so from that moment on - from the moment
when you start to recognize the necessity of trying to justify
slavery in the land of freedom - you start to build a case that
is specifically geared to tell the world that these people are
different. And theories of race are used to do that. So now you
don't have to feel at all like a hypocrite, because you are making
the case that these people are different: They don't have the
same rights. In fact, they can't handle those rights. In fact,
holding them in slavery is really doing them a favor.
build this notion over generations and then when slavery is over,
the notion still lingers. In some ways, it would have been better
if America had just looked the world in the eye and said, "Look,
we hold these people in slavery because we need their labor, and
we have got the power to do it." That would have been much better
because then when the power was gone when slavery was over, it
But what we said was, there is something different
about these people - and by doing that, it means that when slavery
is over, that rationalization for slavery remains. And it is that
rationalization which takes on new incarnations in the late 19th
and all through the 20th century. It is that rationalization which
we now recognize as what we call American racism.
How does this rationalization take a toll?
Thomas Jefferson is in many
ways a personification of America. He is a person with a lofty
ideals. He writes them down in the sacred document of American
society, The Declaration of Independence. Those are the magic
words of American society, wonderfully lofty aims and goals. But
like America, Jefferson does not live up to his principles. He
knows it. And he is bothered by it.
He lives in a kind of anxiety
actually between what he says and what he does. This is a person
committed to human freedom who holds over 200 human beings in
the state of slavery - and he knows that that is a massive contradiction.
is exactly the same way. I mean, we are a society based on principles
literally to die for, principles that are so wonderful it brings
tears to your eyes. But we are also a society that so often has
allowed itself not to live by those principles, to ignore those
principles. And we are conflicted by that.
We live in a kind
of heightened state of anxiety because we know we aren't what
we could be or what we say we are. Race is at the center of both
those dilemmas. That is the dilemma of Jefferson and the more
basic dilemma of United States of America.
That is also what
America has to face - that is the most destructive part of the
American experience, the fact that racism has come down to us.
And it continues to divide us, it continues to makes it difficult
for us to be the kind of nation that we really want to be, and
we ought to be. And that racism came into existence to justify
an institution which should never have been a part of America's
How were racial identities influenced by conditions in America?
If you had interviewed the first slave to get off
the first slave ship in Jamestown, there was no way that that
person would have said to you, "I am from Africa." He would have
identified instead a nation, an ethnic group, a familial group,
or a political group. He would have had something far more specific
to say about his identity. It is only over a period of time that
these people from a variety of backgrounds face a common oppression,
find themselves in a common situation, and start to identify themselves
first as Africans, but then as African Americans.
So this process
of becoming African American is an evolutionary process and it
is determined in large degree by things that are happening in
America. Just as becoming white is a process determined by conditions
in America, becoming black or becoming African American is a result
of a process, which is determined by conditions in American society.
How did race develop after the Constitution?
race starts to become a much more important concept for dividing
Americans during the time and immediately after the time of the
establishment of the American Constitution.
sets up this status of citizen. Now the concept of citizen is
established and increasingly the citizen becomes a white person.
Citizenship is increasingly race based. By the time we get to
Jacksonian America - this is the America that we generally identify
as the rise of the common man - by this time, it is the common
At this time, African Americans - many of whom have
been voting in New York and in New Jersey and in Pennsylvania
before this period - are actually losing the right to vote in
these places or at least having that right to vote severely restricted.
At the exact same time, property requirements - which early on
limited the right of white people to vote if they didn't have
a certain amount of property - are being abolished.
So the irony
is that as America is becoming more democratic for white males,
it is also becoming increasingly race based, so that citizenship
and the right to exercise the rights of a citizen, is becoming
more and more determined by color. By the time we get to Jackson,
who speaks out in a kind of populist way - speaking for the little
guy, speaking out against privilege - his little guy, his citizen,
is increasingly a white male citizen. By the time of Jacksonian
America, race has become one of the most important dividers that
exist in America.
How does race become a major dividing line in the south?
Race becomes a major defining feature of southern
society at a time when slave holding is the central underpinning
of the southern economy. But only 25 percent of white southerners
Here is a question: How do you get the other 75
percent of non-slave holding whites to support the institution
of slavery? Well, one of the things you do is you make race -
you make whiteness - the central feature and what you say is,
although I am rich and you are poor, the thing we have in common,
the thing that binds us together, the major feature of your life
ought to be the fact that we are both white. So that you have
more in common with a rich white person, you poor white person,
than you do with a poor black person.
And this is the way the
south was held together in the pre-Civil War period, and it is
the way the south has held together in the post-Civil War period.
So that after slavery has ended - in fact, after slavery ends,
it becomes even more important, because now there is a real possibility
of free black people who are becoming independent farmers, some
of them, to be joined with poor white farmers. In fact, by the
end of the 19th century, there is this movement called the Populist
Movement - which is a movement of poor farmers, black and white
- against privilege, against economic oppression. This sends shock
waves through the aristocratic society in the south. I mean, can
you imagine if poor whites and poor blacks joined together around
the fact that they are all being oppressed by the wealth and power
of the southern region? And there is a major effort among these
rich white southerners and business people who are doing great
business, making great profit, by dealing with the southern society.
It makes it incumbent upon them to emphasize the importance
of race and so all through the late 19th century, all through
the beginning of the 20th century, there is this constant message
hammered at poor white people. You may be poor, you may have miserable
lives right now, but the thing that is most important, the thing
we want you to focus on is the fact that you are white. And that
gives you opportunities for the future. It means that your children
and your children's children might have opportunities.
if you can do this, if you can keep people at the bottom of society
dividing because you define some as black and others as white,
and you convince them that that divide is the central feature
of their lives, then you in the upper regions of the economy can
do quite well. And that is precisely what did happen in most of
the 20th century south.
What does it mean to say that race is a social construction?
Race changes almost daily. Think about
the late part of the 19th century, the early part of the 20th
century when Jim Crow laws, basic segregation laws were being
put on the books, when it was a crime to sit if you were black
in a place other than in the back of the bus. You couldn't drink
from water fountains unless that water fountain was marked "For
colored." When these things were written into law, the law had
to go about the business of defining rights.
And here is where
it really gets interesting. You got some places, for example,
Virginia - Virginia law defined a black person as a person with
one sixteenth African ancestry. Now Florida defined a black person
as a person with one eighth African ancestry. And Alabama said.
"You are black if you got any black ancestry, or any African ancestry
at all." But you know what this means? You can walk across a state
line and literally, legally, change race.
Now what does race
mean under those circumstances? You give me the power, I can make
you any race I want you to be, because it is a social, political
construction. It is not a matter of biology.
of how ridiculous it is, the defining of race is tremendously
important - economically, politically, legally in American society.
Because once your race is defined, for most of the 20th century,
it defines your opportunities. More than almost anything else
it defines your life chances.
Race is tremendously important in American society, although
let me say again - it is not a matter of biology. It is a matter
of social, political, legal construction.
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