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  • Black and White Manhattan: The History of Racial Formation in Colonial New York City
  • Kyle T. Bulthuis
Black and White Manhattan: The History of Racial Formation in Colonial New York City. By Thelma Wills Foote ( New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. x plus 334 pp.).

In Black and White Manhattan, Thelma Wills Foote uses race as a central organizing principle to re-explore the history of colonial New York City. Foote argues that past studies have examined the colony's ethnic and religious pluralism without reference to its race relations. This has resulted in an "apartheid narrative," which glosses over the real costs of the colonial project. Rather than accepting racial categories as fixed, Foote seeks to locate the historical process that first delineated such categories. According to Foote the logic of binary race relations, in which elites constructed whiteness as a way to unite disparate communities, shaped the colony from its inception. [End Page 204]

Foote's study begins with Dutch New Amsterdam, the port that would become New York City's Lower Manhattan. Colony-building fostered pluralism, for economic development demanded labor, regardless of subjects' legal status or ethno-religious identity. In sparsely-populated New Netherland officials focused their hostilities and racial disgust on nearby Indian tribes. Even so, chronic labor shortages also encouraged the Dutch to import African slaves. Slave populations remained high in New York throughout the colonial period, and blacks and whites regularly came into close contact with each other.

With English takeover of the colony, the new overlords confronted a diverse population with divided ethno-religious loyalties. In this context Foote finds the roots of antiblack racism. New York authorities authored a series of black codes that extended citizenship to nearly all whites while denying such to free blacks. Legal codes legitimized brutal punishments for, and absolute control over, black slaves. Central to Foote's argument are the official treatments of the 1711 slave insurrection and, especially, the 1741 conspiracy, the latter of which in Foote's judgment may not even have occurred. In both cases colonial governments punished black offenders with a severity that linked whites in common cause. Wracked by factionalism and facing strong opposition from large segments of the population, New York's leaders quelled white unrest by successfully creating fear over black uprisings, real or imagined.

Foote reveals the processes by which elites created common cultural bonds among white colonists. Officials promulgated a racial taxonomy that reclassified most whites in an Anglo-Saxon category. Colonial authorities also promoted Anglicization, using the English language and the Church of England's prestige to woo white non-English into identifying themselves as British subjects. In a different vein, some elites pursued catechizing the slaves in the fundamentals of Christianity, embracing a paternalist imperative to care for their property even as they exploited their labor.

Such efforts were never absolutely successful. Colonial officials kept a watchful eye on enslaved blacks and poor whites, but the size of the city and the free movement of strangers limited effectiveness. Blacks engaged in daily acts of resistance, ranging from petty theft to interracial fraternization to flight. In the American Revolution, British military officers turned colonial racialism on its head, offering loyalist blacks their freedom in an effort to destabilize the rebellion's social order. Blacks embraced revolt on their own terms, temporarily making British-occupied New York a place of opportunity for themselves. This uprising, however, was short-lived, for after the war white revolutionaries re-inscribed a racial order upon the new American nation. An epilogue traces the implications of binary race divisions into the present day.

Foote admirably commands a wide range of sources, primary and secondary. She takes pains to get theological and ecclesiastical distinctions correct.1 Such efforts pay dividends in New York, where religious and ethnic differences carried major political ramifications. Her sketch of the town's racial makeup in 1703 is an exemplary use of social history. Foote also incorporates recent archaeological findings of the Negro Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan, placing them in the context of new studies on African cultural patterns and survivals. This densely-written scholarship demands close attention.

The work does raise questions. Foote consistently...


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