restricted access 24 The Invention of Race: Rereading White Over Black
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24 The Invention of Race: Rereading White Over Black JAMES CAMPBELL AND JAMES OAKES When Winthrop Jordan's White Over Black was published in 1968, big reviews came out right away, followed by big prizes. Everyone noticed; everyone raved. Yet for all its monumental proportions, the book cast a curiously slender historiographical shadow. Jordan's work did not become the centerpiece of a long and fruitful scholarly debate . It sits on our shelves, the proverbial book we read in graduate school. It was Jordan's singular misfortune to produce a history of racial attitudes at the same time that Americans were beginning to look beyond racism to the political and economic sources of social inequality. The "real" issue was class, not race. Reception of White Over Black was also influenced by the famous Handlin-Degler debate about the origins of slavery and racism in America. In a pathbreaking essay of 1950, Oscar and Mary Handlin argued that Africans in seventeenth-century Virginia were not initially singled out for enslavement, but were treated pretty much like English indentured servants. It was only under the pressures of the New World environment that Africans came eventually to be associated with the condition of slavery. And it was this association which led, over time, to the development of a historically specific ideology of black inferiority . Several years later Carl Degler challenged the Handlins' thesis. Citing evidence of European and very early American contempt for Africans, Degler argued that blacks were subjected to uniquely discriminatory treatment right from the start. Economics may have given rise to slavery and racism may have developed only later but prejudice against blacks was nevertheless crucial in the decision to enslave Africans. Indeed, he frequently suggested that prejudice has been so Widespread in human history as to be nearly universal. Unfortunately, the subtleties of the Handlin-Degler debate quickly gave way to a crude dichotomy that caricatured both positions and forever shaped the way White Over Black was read. By 1968 many readers approached Winthrop Jordan's book looking for a definitive answer to the question: Did slavery cause racism or did racism cause slavery? But Jordan had rejected these alternatives, offering an interpretation of the origins of racism that was distinct from the Handlins' and even more depressing than Degler's. Unlike either the Handlins or Degler, Jordan argued that white prejudice did not crystallize into racism in the seventeenth century but in the late eighteenth century, and not as a simple byproduct of slavery but in response to the specter of emancipation. Indeed, of White Over Black's nearly six hundred pages, five hundred cover the years after 1700. Jordan's 21 REVIEWS IN AMERICAN HISTORY 172 (March 1993). Copyright © 1993 by the Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted by permission. Copyrighted Material 146 James Campbell and James Oakes discussion of the American Revolution begins about halfway through the book which means that 50 percent of his text is devoted to the last half of the eighteenth century. Jordan's emphasis on the radical transformation of the late 1700s is only one of the ways that White Over Black resonates with more recent scholarship. Rereading the book a quarter century after publication, what stands out is not its obsolescence but its prescience. Historians are fascinated by the social and cultural "construction" of reality, the complex processes that produce the "common-sense" categories of everyday life. In this setting, White Over Black commands our attention as the definitive history of the long and agonizing process by which Americans invented the idea of race. As do today's "New Atlantic" historians, Jordan recognized that the American colonies were embedded in a wider economic and intellectual world, that events in London and Paris and Port-au-Prince reverberated through Boston and Charleston. Jordan understood that building an American nation involved "imagining" a community, and that this process entailed exclusion as well as inclusion. In surprising ways the quintessential book of the 1960s reads like a primer for the 1990s. The best way to appreciate this is by carefully reconstructing the book's complex argument ' beginning with the opening chapters on Elizabethan England and seventeenthcentury America. Notwithstanding Jordan's strong emphasis on the late eighteenth century , his first hundred pages deserve special attention. They are among the most tightly argued and establish several of Jordan's most persistent themes. Chapter 1, "First Impressions," examines the explosion of commentary that attended England's first sustained"face-to-face" encounter with sub-Saharan Africans in...