Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America by Sharon Block
In Colonial Complexions, Sharon Block "traces the power of bodily description in the creation of early American racial ideologies" (9). Through the careful reading and analysis of physical descriptors in more than four thousand advertisements for runaway servants, slaves, and other missing persons from "more than two dozen newspapers published in eight colonies" (146), Block makes clear that "the expected divisions of black, red, and white . . . did not yet hold the purchase in eighteenth-century America that they would in later centuries" (9). Instead, colonists constructed "racialized meanings" (135) out of physical descriptions, which ultimately "made race into a physical reality" (136). By discussing colonists' descriptions of age, height, and health, as well as hair color, eye color, heritage, and behavior, Block illuminates the different ways that they understood African-descended laborers in relation to European-descended laborers. Moreover, she argues that colonists "translated physical differences into rationales for disciplining and controlling bodies" (9), which not only reified their power but also provided justification for the enslavement of African-descended people.
Scholars have long studied various dimensions of the history of enslaved runaways. John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, to name only two, have examined running away as an act of both resistance and agency. From the early twentieth century, scholars investigated the runaway advertisements in their own right.1 Recent scholars examining advertisements have deemphasized the language they contained and instead have turned their focus to broader economic issues such as newspaper publishers' reliance on runaway advertisements to keep their papers in business or the connections between the commodification of escaped laborers and the rise of paper money. In so doing, these scholars have deemphasized the text of advertisements. Block, however, asks us to again think seriously about the language that colonists used to describe not only enslaved runaways but also [End Page 567] servants and other missing persons, and how those words "marked intersecting racial and gender differences" (7).2
Throughout Colonial Complexions, Block isolates specific terms and phrases and investigates their frequency of use, to whom they were applied, and the ways in which comments on a runaway's complexion, heritage, and affect created and reinforced difference. She begins by placing the study of human complexion within the framework of humoral medicine, which remained dominant into the eighteenth century. According to Block, "humoral medicine offered a means to interpret individual health, character, and behavior through various aspects of physical appearance, including complexion in particular" (10). As she shows, "complexion was not the equivalent of skin color" (3), and though colonists did sometimes use it to identify the color of a runaway's skin, it also functioned as a way to evaluate physical and emotional health and the inner workings of the body.
As Block demonstrates, however, colonists applied their "humorally influenced understandings of complexion" (70) most often to runaways of European descent. The "red" (70) or "ruddy" (75) look of a European-descended runaway, for example, was less a comment on a servant's skin color and more an assessment of their health, as were terms such as "pale" (73) or "fresh" (71). Advertisements for enslaved runaways, by contrast, rarely if ever used these terms and instead both "focused largely on dark-to-light linear variation" (70) and "evaluated external, not internal, workings of African-descended bodies" (74). Colonists' descriptions of complexion—whether as comments on skin color or humoral health—individualized European-descended runaways but grouped African-descended people within "an imagined racial standard" (83).
Block also illustrates time and again that advertisers did not have to depict enslaved runaways in racialized terms in order to separate them from European-descended runaways. For example, in chapter 2, Block analyzes the term "lusty" and argues that though European-descended runaways were more likely to be identified as such, colonists sometimes applied the term to enslaved women as well. When it was used in advertisements announcing the escape of the former, masters "employed [it] to more explicitly convey health, strength, and vigor" (47), whereas in association with the latter, "it was repeatedly accompanied by an additional focus on sexuality, breeding, and reproduction" (48). To be sure, not every term or phrase used by advertisers to recover missing laborers was applied to both servants and the enslaved, but Block reveals how colonists actively engaged in race making through subtle yet significant contextual distinctions. [End Page 568]
Through the deployment of certain descriptors that might seem similar—or even insignificant—at first glance, masters worked to commodify and dehumanize enslaved laborers. And Block elucidates how advertisements of enslaved runaways were less likely to include specific ages and were more likely to refer to the enslaved as either young or old, an index of interest in an enslaved laborer's "long-term labor capability" (40) and a master's "comparatively lower interest in the precise age of his chattel" (38). Masters also described the origins or heritages of runaways differently. European-descended escapees, according to Block, often had "specific geographic narratives" (87) included in their descriptions, whereas terms such as "country-born" or "new Negro" only reinforced an enslaved laborer's "temporal relationship to slavery" (88). Throughout the book, Block also identifies differences in the ways colonists portrayed African-descended and European-descended women. "Boldness" was a "gender[ed]" (113) term more often associated with European-descended women than African-descended women. And enslaved women, whom colonists used the least number of words to describe, "were much less likely than men to have their racial status supplemented with mention of a particular place of origin" (89).
Block's discussion further reinforces not only the need to fully understand the eighteenth-century meanings of the words employed by colonists to characterize escaped laborers but also the possibility that some terms might provide insight into the "internal world[s]" (111) of, at the very least, European-descended runaways. In chapter 5 Block calls for a reconsideration of the phrase "down look" (113), arguing that the label, most often applied to European-descended runaways, has been misinterpreted. Historians, Block asserts, have understood it to mean only "a literal looking down" (113) when, in fact, it might also suggest "a reflection of internal emotions and character" (114). Block's point here is well taken. A reassessment provides scholars "the opportunity to recognize that laborers' lives and expressions were more than a monolithic reaction to fear of mastery" (114). An expansion of our interpretation therefore makes sense, especially because, in newspapers such as the Virginia Gazette, advertisers sometimes described the look as being accompanied by a frown or provided an explanation as to when in particular this down look arose.3
Block has done the hard work of identifying and analyzing bodily and behavioral descriptions that clearly demonstrate how colonists, by ascribing [End Page 569] certain behaviors and characteristics to only some unfree laborers, contributed to race making throughout eighteenth-century British America. She has also provided opportunities for future inquiry. What more can we learn about "the creation of early American racial ideologies" (9) by studying runaway advertisements within a specific colony or region that might be missed by analyzing eight colonies as part of the same whole? Might advertisers in colonies dependent upon enslaved labor have used different words—or used the same descriptors with different frequencies—for African- and European-descended runaways than advertisers who lived in regions that relied on a more varied labor force? Does Block's conclusion that in comparison to European-descended servants enslaved laborers were less often given a specific age and more regularly labeled as old or young in comparison to European-descended servants hold true if we focus on so-called slave societies and exclude so-called societies with slaves?
Colonial Complexions is a fine model of what can be done with digitized sources. Block performed this research not by traveling to different archives but by using both free and subscription-based databases. Though Block "remain[s] a stalwart advocate for the importance of archival study" (149), this book is a testament to the growing importance of digital resources. She also demonstrates the continued utility in meticulously examining the language used by newspaper publishers and colonists alike in announcing the escape of enslaved and temporarily bound laborers. Whether making public the escape of an enslaved person or a servant, advertisements, at first glance, appear to convey similar information using similar language. But Block's findings encourage us to read more deeply into the terms colonists used to describe laborers to better understand the subtle ways in which they worked to divide unfree laborers along racial lines. Block's study has much to offer not only scholars of race, slavery, unfreedom, and power in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world but also those interested in incorporating digital sources into their work or undertaking wholly digitally based projects. [End Page 570]
1. John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (Oxford, 1999). See also Simon Middleton, "Runaways, Rewards, and the Social History of Money," Early American Studies 15, no. 3 (Summer 2017): 617–47, esp. 618–19. Here Middleton presents a brief historiography of scholars who have studied runaway advertisements, starting with Carter G. Woodson in 1916. Middleton also refers to Lorenzo J. Greene, Daniel E. Meaders, Lathan A. Windley, Richard Wojtowicz, and Billy G. Smith.
2. David Waldstreicher, "Reading the Runaways: Self-Fashioning, Print Culture, and Confidence in Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 56, no. 2 (April 1999): 243–72; Middleton, Early American Studies 15: 617–47.
3. See for example Thomas Wilson's advertisement for Samuel Hoggart, "Whereas complaint is this Day made to me," [Williamsburg] Virginia Gazette (VG), Feb. 28, 1751, ; William Trebell's advertisement for Robert Hobday and James Patterson, "Run away from Williamsburg," VG, Nov. 4, 1763, ; Samuel Daniel's advertisement for John Royston, "An apprentice lad named John Royston," VG, Mar. 8, 1770, ; William Flemming's advertisement for Richard Walsh, "Run Away from the subscriber,"