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72 How Long Does Blood Last? Degeneration as Blanqueamiento in the Americas RUTH HILL For more than a decade, I have been convinced that folk knowledge, especially Spanish folk knowledge, about selectively breeding plants and brutes generated and structured the blanqueamiento, or whitening, equations for humans in the Americas that were to become systematized and well known during the long eighteenth century. I would ask you to keep in mind this Spanish proverb: “Raza de can, amor de cortesano y ropa de villano, no dura más que tres años” (Correas 433; A purebred race of dogs, a courtier ’s love, and a peasant’s clothes don’t last for more than three years).1 This old saw reveals a degeneration equation that would resurface in discussions of breeding white people and other animals—Spanish horses and Merino sheep were the envy of the world well into the nineteenth century—in the Old World and the New. The former US president Thomas Jefferson, in an 1815 letter to his friend the Bostonian Francis C. Gray, a Harvard-trained lawyer, cited a 1792 Virginia statute (originally passed in 1779) that defined the mulatto as a person with one-fourth or more of negro blood. Jefferson then offered Gray an algebra lesson on how black became white in Virginia: the first sexual union, of white with black, yielded the mulatto; the second union, of mulatto with white, produced the quadroon; and the third crossing, between quadroon and white or almost white, engendered the octoroon, who was legally white because he had less than one-fourth of black blood. It took three crossings for the descendants of a black ancestor in Virginia to clear their blood, or depart from their stock (generatio), approximating though not matching the Spanish maxim about canine degeneration. Jefferson’s algebra for whitening human animals was, he clarified, once removed from “natural history,” or animal husbandry, which demanded four crossings to arrive at purity, his example being the selective breeding of Spanish Merino rams with “country,” or Shenandoah, ewes (Jefferson). As noted above, Spanish proverbial wisdom held that a purebred canine race How Long Does Blood Last? 73 preserved itself through three crossings and was lost after four. After three seasons of being used to improve or create other races of dogs (rehazer las razas), a pureblood race experiences degeneratio: if one attempts a fourth crossing, the issue will wholly depart or deviate from its race, or generatio. Although the Spanish folk equation for dogs conveys a setback, it matches the number of crossings Jefferson attributed to animal husbandry. The former president’s juxtaposition of the two breeding equations (one for breeding whites and the other, more stringent, for breeding Merinos) implies that white men are analogous (not identical) to Spanish Merino rams, and black women analogous to country ewes, as he charts how it takes four crossings of Shenandoah and Merino to produce a purebred Merino. I say analogous because humans required fewer crossings to “clear” their origins, or blood. Referring to Jefferson’s definition and comparison, Werner Sollors concluded that all of this was an animal story, perhaps echoing Othello, about incest and hypodescent (the so-called one-drop rule) (114). A cognitive-anthropological approach, in contrast, situates Jefferson’s letter in a radically different landscape: the animal-plant-human continuum. The cognitive anthropologist Scott Atran has reconstructed the significance of folkbiology to both modern botany and zoology into the eighteenth century. Folk taxonomy of plants and brutes is rooted in appearance and a presupposed essence, or inside, that causes that appearance. Folkbiological essentialism (shared by Aristotle and his followers on both sides of the Atlantic) differs crucially from the assumptions about biological essentialism held by scholars of race. It is a constructionist essentialism, which allows for perceptible physical change over time and place, in plants, brutes, and humans alike (Atran, Cognitive Foundations).2 As Atran and Doug Medin explain, “Even when people do not have specific ideas about essences, they may nonetheless have a commitment to the idea that there is an underlying nature (i.e., they may have an ‘essence placeholder’)” (Native Mind 21; see also Medin and Ortony). Innate in humans or not, this folk thinking about brutes, plants, and humans was central to the development of the modern sciences.3 Thus, Jefferson’s comparison of white and black humans to Spanish Merino rams and country ewes was not in and of itself deviant, as Sollors claims: it was normative, if we adopt...


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