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  • Working DefinitionsRace, Ethnic Studies, and Early American Literature
  • Joanna Brooks (bio)

First, a few working definitions: race, as I understand it, is an effect of racism. The idea of race came into being as a means of organizing social relations in order to establish and maintain political and economic domination. Racial categories assume meaning over time through ongoing interplays of political, economic, cultural, and social forces. Likewise, through collective intellectual, political, cultural, and spiritual action, racialized groups can redetermine the meaning of the identities imposed on them.1

The best definition of racism I have encountered belongs to geographer Ruth Gilmore. Racism, she writes, is "the state-sanctioned and/or legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death, in distinct yet densely interconnected political geographies" (261). Gilmore's definition is pivotal in that it focuses not on how race is imagined or intended by white people but rather on how it is experienced by people of color. People of color experience racism as a set of political and economic conditions that compromise the quality or the longevity of their lives. The word "vulnerability" seems tome to convey quite powerfully the compound quotidian costs of survival under these political conditions.

I have also been influenced by the definition of whiteness propounded by Noel Ignatiev, John Garvey, and other scholars affiliated with the Race Traitor project. The first paragraph of their charter statement reads: "The white race is a historically constructed social formation. It consists of all those who partake of the privileges of white skin in this society. Its most wretched members share a status higher, in certain respects, than that of the most exalted persons excluded from it, in return for which they give their support to a system that degrades them" (9). In exchange for their complicity with a system that compromises the life chances of people of [End Page 313] color, "white" people gain privileged access to resources. "Whiteness" is experienced as a form of property, as social, political, economic, and cultural capital.2 Racialization into dominance degrades the humanity of so-called white people, while racialization into exploitation endangers the life chances of people of color. Consequently, race is never just a neutral social fact or an inert historical condition. Academic discussions of race are always embedded in and shaped by the broad array of historical forces and movements that give race its meanings. Thinking, talking, and writing about race in America means transacting in matters of life and death, confronting the human capacity for profound creativity and visionless abandonment. It is an enterprise I find both sobering and emancipatory.

The field of early American literary studies has shown a relatively belated interest in race. The eighteenth-century African American literature which started appearing in American literature anthologies in the early 1990s has been known to and valued by Black librarians like Arthur Schomburg and Dorothy Porter Wesley since the turn of the twentieth century and taught in historically Black colleges and universities since the 1930s. Historians like Winthrop Jordan and Gary Nash have been producing monumental studies of race in early America since the late 1960s. In the late 1970s and 1980s, African-Americanists like Frances Smith Foster, William Andrews, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., gave us groundbreaking studies of eighteenth-century African American literature. But not until 1992 did we have a book-length examination of race by an early American literature specialist: Dana Nelson's The Word in Black and White. Nelson and those who followed soon after her, including Priscilla Wald, Rafia Zafar, Bernd Peyer, Laura Murray, and Jared Gardner, deserve credit for bringing race, a central axis of American experience, into expanded discussion among early Americanists.3

Some pathfinding studies of race in early American literature have focused on representations or conceptualizations of race in literature written by and for white people, while others examined how people of color negotiated with Euro-American conventions and audiences. What I tried to do in American Lazarus: Religion and the Rise of African-American and Native American Literatures was to read early Black and Native writing on its own terms as a transcript of intellectual, cultural, political, and spiritual traditions and...


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