- How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses
Spanning an ambitious chronology from contact and enslavement to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Mark M. Smith examines how white southerners made sense, literally, of a vicious racial ideology of immutable difference that was shot through with obvious contradictions and profound hypocrisy. Decrying what he sees as a tyranny of the visual in the current scholarship on race in the United States, Smith [End Page 503] argues that whites marshaled their senses of smell, hearing, taste, and touch to solidify a black–white racial binary in the context of visual uncertainties and a prevailing one-drop rule. These other senses became increasingly important over time, he contends, when whites were confronted with a growing population of seemingly white people who were legally and socially black. Smith also explores the various ways in which African Americans resisted these sensory stereotypes from the antebellum period to the dawn of the modern civil rights movement. This book is a provocative example of the growing field of sensory history of which its author is a leading proponent. It offers fresh insights for understanding historical experience and crafting multidimensional narratives and analytical frameworks as it also raises a host of important methodological and historiographical questions.
How Race Is Made focuses largely on how blackness smelled—pungent, loathsome, and intoxicating—in the noses of white southerners, with some consideration of their other senses and stereotypes. Of particular interest to Journal of the Early Republic readers will be Smith’s contention that these nonvisual sensory notions took shape in the eighteenth century and “lingered into the antebellum period, when they were used to anchor slaveholding southern paternalism” before sustaining the architecture and inconsistencies of Jim Crow segregation (12). This part of the book might also be the most frustrating for scholars of the Atlantic world and early America, for it moves briskly and impressionistically across three centuries, drawing evidence from travel narratives, economic reports, scientific papers, and Notes on the State of Virginia. In one of Smith’s more compelling examples, and one that pushes his argument beyond a racial binary, he discusses naturalist Mark Catesby’s assertion in 1754 that the “Indians of Carolina and Florida” were “naturally a very sweet People, their Bodies emitting nothing of that Rankness that is so remarkable in Negres [sic.]” (14). Indicative of the ways whites boasted about and authenticated their racial knowledge through interracial intimacies, Catesby claims that he knows this well because he has shared sleeping quarters with several Indians during his travels. Desire for contact and closeness was always equal to, and often simultaneous with, repulsion in framing racial hierarchy and attempting to legitimize slavery and then segregation, as long as it remained on white supremacist terms.
Smith goes on to argue that extravisual sensory history holds the key to understanding the violence, emotional extremity, and horror of southern white responses to abolition, Reconstruction, and integration, particularly [End Page 504] massive resistance to the implementation of Brown. He posits a distinction between sight and the more instinctual sensory perceptions of sound, smell, taste, and touch, arguing that “nonvisual senses often indexed viscera and emotion more than thought and reason,” and drawing a line between “race-thinking” and “gut-feeling” (2). With its suggestion that the nonvisual was somehow more deeply embodied or less culturally and socially mediated, this formulation rests uneasily with Smith’s overall argument concerning the construction and historical specificity of all of the senses.
This distinction also raises critical questions concerning Smith’s analytical choices and selection of sources. His careful attention to class differences and their effects among white and black populations is noteworthy, from his discussion of the fact that nonslaveholding and working-class whites were themselves deemed rough, loud, and odiferous by elites and that they in turn claimed to have their own heightened abilities to sense inferior blackness and enact their racial superiority, to his analysis of the complexities of black resistance, some of which was framed...