Title: White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812
Author: Winthrop Jordan
Categories: Intellectual History, Slavery, Racism, Whiteness
Place: American Colonies, Europe
Time Period: 1550-1812
Winthrop Jordan's White Over Black remains one of the classics in the field of colonial slavery. Jordan's major intervention is the decoupling of race and slavery. Jordan argues that early slavery in America prefigured a modern conception of race, as white Englishmen drew upon an older tradition of viewing Africans as distastefully different for many reasons (non-Christian, animality, sexuality) of which skin color was just one aspect. American slavery had its origins, at least in part, in economic considerations of a need for labor that did not rest on an explicitly racial foundation and, if anything, had a stronger religious component. Beginning in 1700, practices and institutions related to race, such as law, sex, and physicality began to crop up but had a much more hodgepodge quality to them instead of a systematic accounting of race (from 1700-1755). Included in this was a growing need to fit the natural world into a recognizable system or hierarchy (ex. The Great Chain of Being and Linnaean system of classification), which laid the foundations for a more rigorous racial classification scheme in later years.
The Revolutionary Era (1755-1783) serves as a fulcrum for Jordan, when a moment of opportunity arose for Americans to question slavery, but got subsumed after the Revolutionary years by a more conservative backlash. During the Revolution, antislavery voices began to articulate an environmentalist viewpoint that highlighted the essential sameness of humanity and that only material conditions were responsible for differences. However, in the Early Republic Americans struggled to build a sense of nationhood that increasingly came to be wrapped up in an identity of white men. Jordan points to a range of explanatory factors for this tragic backslide. First, the South witnessed the rise of a cotton economy in the 1790s. Second, the antislavery movement petered out with the abolition of the international slave trade in 1808. Third, the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s and Gabriel's Rebellion in 1800 sparked fears of slave insurrections. These were paired with the growing prominence of emancipated blacks that symbolized a potential loss of white control over blacks. All of these coalesced in a more modern conception of race as starkly differentiating black from white and necessitating more systematic means of control and exclusion.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Slavery not tied to race until mid-late 18th century
- Idea of race and slavery in an Atlantic context - older origins of Europe/Africa relations
- Slow intellectual move towards classifying race in a system of hierarchy (Linnaean, Great Chain of Being)
- Revolution as a moment of opportunity
- Conservative backlash after revolution based on forming imagined community of white men based on racial exclusion
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License