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  • Blurring the Lines of Race and Freedom: Mulattoes and Mixed Bloods in English Colonial Americaby A. B. Wilkinson
  • Daniel Livesay
Blurring the Lines of Race and Freedom: Mulattoes and Mixed Bloods in English Colonial America. By A. B. W ilkinson. John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 342 pages. Cloth, paper, ebook.

Twenty-five years ago, Gary B. Nash implored historians to uncover the "hidden history" of individuals with mixed ancestries in British North America. 1That he chose to call these stories hidden, and not simply untold, was important. Many White Americans worked aggressively during Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and after to assert not only that the concept of race was a biological fact but that it had always neatly divided groups of people. This claim flew in the face of a reality in which sexual violence against non-White women, along with matches of various degrees of consent, comingled the heritages of Native American, African, and European peoples from the very beginning of colonial history. The one-drop rule of Blackness, as both a cultural belief and a legal category, encapsulated the lie behind this illusion: a claim of firm distinction imposed to conceal a tacit recognition of transgression and extreme blurriness.

Barely more than a year after Nash's invocation, the stakes of this hidden history were laid bare with the publication of Annette Gordon-Reed's pathbreaking book on Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. 2That this book shocked and elicited disbelief among many in the public is itself astounding: there should have been nothing surprising about the story of a plantation owner's sexual relationship with an enslaved woman. Scholars of Latin America and the Caribbean have long reflected on the regularity of such experiences and the children born by them, and those studying the Anglophone Atlantic have also insisted for decades that the British had not differed radically from the Spanish and French in their sexual activities, even if recovering such accounts was, and still is, a struggle. 3But the fantasy of a fully segregated American history has been a difficult public narrative to abandon. And the efforts of officials and individuals in the past to erase those stories has posed a significant challenge for scholars of British North America to overcome. [End Page 385]

A. B. Wilkinson's new book rises to that challenge and delivers what Nash, and so many others, have long awaited. Despite its broad subtitle, Blurring the Lines of Race and Freedom: Mulattoes and Mixed Bloods in English Colonial Americais principally a study of individuals of ethno-racial mixture in the colonies that would eventually form the United States. It is the first substantial and extended analysis that chronicles not only the legal limitations on this cohort, but also many of the personal stories of those within it. As such, it is an invaluable contribution to the literature on race, slavery, and American colonization.

Wilkinson begins his investigation in the early seventeenth-century Chesapeake and ends with enslaved Virginians escaping to join Lord Dunmore's regiment in 1775. Maryland and Virginia provide the epicenter of his analysis, as these colonies were home to the largest populations of mixed descent in British America. They were also the most aggressive in policing interracial relationships and the children born from them, and both grew more antagonistic up to the mid-eighteenth century. As Wilkinson progresses through time, he also compares the situations of those living in the Chesapeake to those in the colonies to the north and south. Northern Whites, he finds, felt less threatened by their colonies' smaller populations of color and therefore imposed fewer restrictions; southern Whites—with the eventual exception of those in North Carolina—needed to court the loyalties of mixed-race people as a bulwark against Black majorities, even as they clamped down firmly on both groups. Altogether, he argues that despite one-drop statutes, colonial British America was much like its Caribbean neighbors in recognizing a complex matrix of social categorization, favoring policies of racial hypodescent in which increased European heritage bestowed greater social privilege.

A stunningly impressive list of individual...