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Why Blacks Were Left Out

When it was published in 1968, Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black was at once praised as the definitive work on the history of American racism before 1812. The book clearly deserved its reception. Jordan uncovered much important source material and used it as the foundation for a subtle and broad new interpretation of the growth of anti-black attitudes in the United States. But some of his assumptions and conclusions might well have been the subject of sustained controversy. Any account of the origins of American racism, as Jordan himself would be the first to admit, necessarily involves evaluating data that are fragmentary and ambiguous. White Over Black was really too provocative a book to be treated as a scholarly monument, or, even worse, as an encyclopedia of early white prejudice and discrimination to be ransacked for fragments of insight and information. Instead it should have stimulated a vigorous debate on issues that are obviously of more than purely historical interest.

That such a debate has not really taken place may be partly owing to the intimidating effect of the great length and documentation of the original volume. Furthermore, Jordan’s complex and undogmatic approach to historical explanation, combined with his mastery of the qualified generalization and the tentative statement, made him an elusive target for those who might have been troubled by what he chose to emphasize. The new book, a very readable condensation of White Over Black, is therefore doubly welcome. Not only does it make Jordan’s important findings accessible to a larger public but it also serves to throw into sharper relief his main argument. It is now easier than before to see precisely what Jordan has been saying and to come to terms with it.

Jordan’s work can partly be seen as a powerful challenge to those historians who have suggested that racial prejudice in the colonial period developed very gradually in response to changing social and economic conditions and that for a time class was more important than race in determining what kinds of people could be economically exploited and socially subordinated. Jordan does not deny that prejudice intensified over time or that elements other than color consciousness were involved in the degradation of blacks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But he refuses to acknowledge, even as a possibility, that the changing class relations of colonial America were a crucial factor in the development of white supremacy as a way of life.

In his efforts to distinguish early attitudes toward blacks from the disparagement of other kinds of “inferiors,” Jordan goes back to the sixteenth century and unearths a number of quotations to demonstrate that Elizabethan Englishmen had an acute sense of the hideous color, barbarous customs, and hypersexuality of Africans. All the associations of the color black with evil and filth, he suggests, were projected on to the Negro race, and the myth of black lasciviousness and animality was powerfully summed up in the legend that African women sometimes had carnal connections with apes. From such material, Jordan infers that the early black image was part of a psychosexual complex, and he sees the first inklings of revulsion at miscegenation—the ultimate horror of the racist imagination—in some of Iago’s comments about Othello’s union with Desdemona. Since he finds that distaste for blacks and the fear of black sexuality antedated English slavery, Jordan can argue that they were a direct response to blacks as alien beings, not as people whose subjugation had to be rationalized.

Although some of the evidence is ambiguous (as in the obvious case of the racial implications of Othello), Jordan demonstrates fairly convincingly that protoracist notions about Africa and Africans were floating about as the British began to colonize. But he probably overestimates their importance for subsequent events. In this early stage of British exploration and expansion, there was a natural fascination with the strange and exotic human and animal forms being discovered in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Extravagant myths and stereotypes readily grew on the basis of rumors and sensationalist traveler’s accounts. But modern social psychologists have shown fairly conclusively that exotic images of geographically remote races and nationalities rarely survive sustained contact, and seldom foretell the ways in which people will behave toward each other.

When numbers of blacks actually arrived in Britain as domestic servants in the eighteenth century they seem to have encountered no strong prejudices; in fact there is evidence to suggest that they were assimilated into the lower class more readily than white servants from the Continent. As Jordan himself points out, the first blacks to arrive in the American colonies were thought of as “alien,” less because of their physical characteristics than because of their “heathen” culture. Jordan’s literary sources on attitudes toward blacks in the precolonization period would therefore seem to tell us relatively little about how whites would react to real contact with blacks.

On the much-debated question of the relationship between racial prejudice and the rise of slavery in the colonial South, Jordan comes to the apparently sensible conclusion that, in Virginia at least, slavery and prejudice “generated each other.” As “twin aspects of a general debasement of the Negro,” they “may have been equally cause and effect.” But why did the Negro have to be debased at all? Jordan clearly implies that this process was due more to racial and ethnic consciousness than to straightforward motives of exploitation. If blacks had not been perceived as different, both physically and culturally, they would not, he suggests, have been the victims of discrimination and enslavement.

One can look at the origins of slavery and caste differently by putting less emphasis on the nascent anti-black attitudes of the colonists and more on the needs of the British plantation colonies for labor. Contrary to the European pattern, land in these colonies was plentiful and cheap but manpower to work it was scarce and expensive, making some form of involuntary labor essential. Initially Virginia, Maryland, and Barbados all tried to make do mainly with white indentured servants. But in Maryland and Barbados there was a very rapid, perhaps immediate, recognition that imported blacks could be treated as chattel slaves. Only in Virginia is there evidence suggesting that acceptance of slavery may have been gradual. The ready recourse to slavery in the other English colonies may have resulted from the view that blacks were alien and somehow inferior, but it seems likely that in the minds of the first slaveholders self-interest was predominant.

Englishmen knew that blacks had been enslaved in the colonies of other European nations and that the blacks being offered to them, usually by Dutch slavers, were products of an international trade regarded as perfectly legal and proper by all European powers. If the laws of England did not specifically sanction slavery, neither did they forbid it. The status of villeinage survived in law, if not in practice, and was close enough to chattel slavery to provide a precedent if any was needed. Unlike white servants, who were protected from unlimited service by their contracts of indenture and by some concern for their welfare on the part of the British government, virtually all blacks who arrived in the colonies had no contracts and no government to protect them; hence they were vulnerable to enslavement. It remains something of a puzzle why labor-hungry Virginians would have been slow to take full advantage of this opportunity.

If the legal and physical vulnerability of Africans was more important than race prejudice in the origins of slavery, how can we account for the fact that captured Irish and Scottish rebels, also sent to the Southern colonies without contracts or indenture, were not held to lifetime service? The most likely answer is that custom, if not law, had already decreed that only Africans could be enslaved by the time these prisoners arrived. But we should not therefore jump to the conclusion that a fully developed racial caste system had emerged in Virginia by the middle decades of the seventeenth century. Although some blacks were slaves, others were in service for a fixed term, and a substantial number were free. And, whatever their status, they seem to have enjoyed many of the same legal rights as other inhabitants. The tobacco farms and plantations of the seventeenth century were worked by a mixed labor force of white servants, black servants, and black slaves, all of whom were subject to the same discipline.

In the circumstances, it is not surprising to find evidence of solidarity within the servile class. The records of the time show a high incidence of interracial resistance to harsh masters: unfree laborers of both races ran away together or collaborated in insurrections. There is also evidence that the ruling class, particularly during the turbulent 1660s and 1670s, was more afraid of a general uprising of the servile or landless poor than of any distinct threat presented by the black segment of that population. Only at the end of the century, when the supply of white servants dried up just as black slaves were becoming increasingly available at prices planters could afford, did anything like a true color line begin to develop. The gradual change in the labor force on the plantations—from mixed but predominantly white to almost exclusively black—and the accompanying rise of a white yeomanry composed largely of ex-servants can be seen as necessary preconditions for a flourishing Southern racism. Once racial distinctions could be made to correspond to social and economic divisions, it was easy and advantageous to set blacks apart as a totally different and inferior people.*

This new social structure was also the basis of a kind of pseudo-equality among whites, for the class division that remained between rich planters and subsistence farmers could be obscured by a sense that, unlike the blacks, whites all shared in the rights of free Englishmen and even, in most cases, the possession of property. What most sharply distinguished the emerging American social pattern from that of the mother country was, apart from slavery, the wide distribution of property holding (and the rights that went with it) made possible by the availability of cheap land. On this foundation of black subjugation and white opportunity a racially circumscribed democracy could gradually develop.

If Jordan overestimates the importance of early prejudice against the color and culture of the small number of blacks who trickled into the American colonies before the 1660s, and underestimates the extent to which class attitudes could inhibit the growth of racial consciousness, he may also be mistaken in treating the miscegenation complex as an independent cause rather than as deriving from the growing white determination to maintain social and economic dominance over blacks. He argues that beliefs about the hypersexuality of the Negro were linked in the minds of the colonists with their fears that civilized standards and Anglo-American folk identity would be lost in the wilds of the New World, thus creating a tremendous antipathy to the idea of miscegenation. This sexual taboo, with the guilt that accompanied its frequent violation, became, in and of itself, a major cause of other forms of discrimination against blacks. Jordan comes close to saying that the root of American prejudice is just what racists have always contended—the fear that a Negro will want to marry your daughter.

No one can deny that racial and sexual fears were entangled in the white psyche at an early stage of black-white relations in the United States and that powerful emotions could be generated by the idea of race mixture. But for the seventeenth century at least it is extremely difficult to separate concerns about interracial sex from traditional repugnance to the marriage of people of different social status or condition. Furthermore, early anxiety about the growth of the mulatto population was partly a conventional response to the familiar problem of bastardy among the poor. If the first miscegenation laws were ambiguous in their intent it was nevertheless true that by the early eighteenth century interracial marriage was formally prohibited in most of the American colonies. But significantly, neither then nor later did colonies or states try in any serious way to do what the South African government has recently attempted—ban miscegenation entirely by making all interracial sex, including fornication between white males and black females, a serious criminal offense.

The fact that no real efforts were made to deny white men ready access to black women raises a question whether interracial sex itself was the real issue or whether the sexual pattern that emerged derived from the desire of dominant white males to make the most of their sexual opportunities. The ability of white men to monopolize the women of their own race while also exploiting the bodies of black women can be viewed as part of the pursuit of power and privilege at the expense of blacks—and incidentally of white woman as well. If guilt and cultural malaise were associated with such activity in the eighteenth century, Jordan fails to provide us with much direct evidence of them. Privileged Englishmen of the same period commonly kept lower-class mistresses or took advantage of white servant girls without apparent qualms and almost as a matter of right.

I strongly suspect that Jordan is, to some extent at least, reading the sexual mores and anxieties of the nineteenth-century middle class back into an era when aristocratic privilege and sexual license went hand in hand. But of course it was black slave women and not lower-class white women who were the sexually exploited females of colonial America. In the nineteenth century, when there was more sexual repression and greater social equality among the white population, there was a heightened concern about miscegenation. Interracial sex was condemned not only as a moral and biological evil but, on the part of some opponents of the Southern slavocracy, as a remnant of aristocratic privilege incompatible with American democracy.

The close connection between the rise of democracy among whites and the almost total exclusion of blacks from the life of the community is one of the great tragic realities of American history. It is a limitation of Jordan’s work that he does not clearly perceive the beginnings of this process. He sees the rise of an ideology of natural rights and human equality in the revolutionary era as significant mainly because it led to a temporary and unsuccessful challenge to the racist social order that had emerged in colonial America. Only when the environmentalist philosophy of the Revolution was undermined, he maintains, was it possible to justify the continued oppression of blacks.

In broader historical perspective, the Declaration of Independence may have meant something more sinister for race relations. If we assume, as I think we can, that all but a few whites in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries wished to maintain racial dominance and at the same time conform to national principles, then the dictum that “all men are created equal” would tend to impel beneficiaries of white supremacy who were accused of inconsistency or inhumanity to adopt the simple and brutal device of defining blacks as subhuman. Once they did that, democracy and equality could logically be reserved only for those who were truly “men”—namely whites. This in fact is what happened during the nineteenth century.


The Moor Oppressed? May 16, 1974

  1. *

    My view of seventeenth and early-eighteenth-century developments has been influenced by two recent articles by historians of early America: Edmund S. Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox,” Journal of American History (June 1972), pp. 5-29; and T.H. Breen, “A Changing Labor Force and Race Relations in Virginia 1660-1710,” Journal of Social History (Fall 1973), pp. 3-18.

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