- Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America by Sharon Block
In Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America, Sharon Block explores how Anglo-American colonists' print descriptions of missing servants and enslaved laborers shaped the development of eighteenth-century racial ideologies. Analyzing thousands of newspaper advertisements for the return of individuals of African, European, and Native American descent issued between 1750 and 1775, Block draws on digital history methods to construct a data-driven cultural history of race in early America. She shows how advertisement writers communicated to readers the physical characteristics of missing laborers they deemed significant, naturalizing enslavement for African-descended runaways, expunging the heritage of Native American fugitives, and privileging the individual life histories and features of people of European ancestry. Colonial newspaper advertisements for missing persons, Block argues, offer critical insight into "the multiple intersecting constructions of physicality that writers relied on as reality" (p. 7). As advertisers transformed their cultural beliefs and desires into textual portrayals of physical bodies, they homogenized runaways of non-European descent and applied categorical racial terms "to mark [the] boundaries of slavery and freedom" (p. 8).
Colonial Complexions is divided into five chapters, each dealing with one or more observable characteristic commonly featured in eighteenth-century North American newspaper advertisements for runaways. To contextualize the range of physical features highlighted by advertisers, and their deeper cultural meanings, [End Page 419] chapter 1 approaches the issue of complexion from a humoral perspective. Block demonstrates the influence of European humoral medicine on the emergence of Anglo-American racial taxonomies. Chapter 2 focuses on descriptions of labor capabilities and physical appearance, specifically height and age, showing how African-descended bodies were evaluated in relation to their labor potential, as determined by their owners. The naturalization of racial divisions based on fictive norms is the subject of chapter 3. Here, Block compellingly demonstrates that runaway advertisements "emphasized European-descended people's many forms of visual variety while primarily commenting on African-descended people's appearance in terms of its degree of variation from an imagined racial standard" (p. 83).
Chapter 4 assesses the assumptions underlying advertisers' imposition of standardized public identities on individuals of African and Native American descent. In contrast to European-descended people, whose self-identities and heritages were taken into account, "Native American and African heritages were geographically unmoored in an attempt to make bodies match a European-founded system of race-based enslavement" (p. 108). In chapter 5 Block focuses on the descriptive terms used by advertisers to mark African-descended bodies as products of enslavement, through the scars associated with branding and whipping, for example. The epilogue returns to the ongoing problem of naturalized racial constructs, emphasizing the dangerous—sometimes lethal—consequences arising from visual judgments of race in the present day.
One of Block's most significant contributions in Colonial Complexions is to complicate colonial American racial designations and their uncritical reproduction by scholars. The book's brevity, clarity, analysis of widely available digitized primary sources, and attached appendixes make it ideal for course adoption. Block demonstrates the many uses of a digital history methodology not only for practicing historians but also for undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom are increasingly engaged in digital humanities projects. At the same time, Block's quantitative approach, by aggregating the information contained in runaway advertisements into a single early American viewpoint, leaves some important questions unanswered. Regional variations and issues of demography and chronological change are not fully addressed, for instance, other than in graphs located in the appendix. Yet Block's findings offer points of departure for future research at the regional and micro levels and during other eras. By deploying digital methods to interrogate the processes of race-making in the eighteenth century, Colonial Complexions makes visible the cultural worldview underlying racial formulations and pushes scholarship in exciting new directions.