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X I V E R A S I N G N A T U R E ' S S T A M P O F C O L O R OF ALL THE NEGRO'S PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTES, THE ONE WHICH had especially attracted the attention of Europeans was his color. As a scientific puzzle, the cause of the Negro's complexion was almost as poorly understood in 1800 as it had been two centuries earlier; yet there were some signs of better understanding during the early years of the nineteenth century. Blackness in men had always been more than a problem in science, however, and as a social problem in 1800 it had been transformed from what it had been a generation and even a dozen years earlier. Indeed during the last twenty years of the eighteenth century there were signs that the Negro's complexion was becoming for many Americans a more urgent, pressing difficulty. Their attempts to explain (in whatever manner) the Negro's blackness are revelatory of the interaction between specific ideas about Negroes and slavery, the assumptions of pre-genetic science, and cultural pressures operating within the nation which would have existed—perhaps less powerfully—if there had been no Africans in America. Particularly, the facts that the campaign against slavery ran into insurmountable obstacles and virtually collapsed, that a new nation was struggling into workable existence in a hostile international atmosphere, that religious and ethnic distinctions had somehow to be overridden or overlooked, and that Americans had so many good but weakening reasons to discover positive beneficence in their continental environment—all these acted to shape assessments of the Negro's color. i. NATURE'S BLACKBALL Of itself, the persistence of racial slavery in a land of liberty drew closer to the surface the social meaning of blackness in b»] Erasing Nature's Stamp of Color men. White Americans had been being brought (or driven) to realization that the relationship of master and slave was white to black. This realization was evident at different levels of selfawareness . One may be instanced by the indignant remark by a Virginia woman that "The People are all stird up over old John Bagwel whipping his black Wench nearly to death. Such a black hearted Rascal oughn't (be) allowed to have black People." Blackness was not meant to be governed by blackness. Another, more fully aware, level may be found in the schematic equation of two dichotomies. Just as slavery was the opposite of freedom: "In that conspicuous property of colour/' one observer wrote, "we and our slaves are not different, but opposite; our badges of distinction are black and white." When an antislavery speaker pleaded that people were wrong in thinking that "nature has black-balled these wretches out of society," he merely pointed up precisely what Nature had done in America.1 The notion that Nature had permanently blackballed any set of men from participation in America was not one with which many Americans could feel comfortable. It was a notion that seemed to question the unity of man and that at the same time was too easily extended from one set of men to another. For some white Americans , though, complete exclusion of Negroes seemed the only way out of the morass of slavery. Among these was Thomas Jefferson, for whom the "reality" of difference in color was so overwhelming that he refused to speculate on its cause and insisted only that Negroes had to be removed, physically, from America. This insistence formed an important strain in American thinking, as should become clear in the next chapter. For the time being, another line of thinking needs examination, one which attempted to solve the problem of exclusion by painting all the balls white. 2. THE EFFECTS OF CLIMATE AND CIVILIZATION To do so one had to get at the ancient problem of why men came in different colors. The most ambitious, persistent, and in some ways the most sensible attempts at explicating variations in man were by Samuel Stanhope Smith; certainly it would be unfair to characterize his Essay of 1787 and 1810 as merely a repaint job. i. Polly Davis to Thomas Davis, Broadfield, Spotsylvania Co., Va., Nov. 6, 1792, "Two Old Letters," Va. Mag. of Hist, and Biog., 12 (1904-05), 437; H. L., "Thoughts on the Termination of Slavery," Monthly Magazine, and American Review, 2 (1800), 82; "Speech of William Pinkney," Amer. Museum, 1798, 85. [5^3] W H I T E O V...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781469600765
Related ISBN
9780807834022
MARC Record
OCLC
861793501
Pages
696
Launched on MUSE
2016-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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