Categorization for Commodification: Racial Control in Colonial America

Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran (Wikimedia Commons)

There is difficulty in formalizing the lines of the African American category: who falls within its brackets and whose history is centered. This debate is the product of ill decisions throughout American history, wherein white people have been given the power to determine the racial categorization of people of color. It is a byproduct of the way that the institution of race developed to maximize control over people of color, using the redefinition of racial groups throughout American history as a tool. As such, difficulty in understanding the nuances of the category and to whom it applies, is not a new phenomenon. The question instead has emerged from the fact that the category itself has constantly evolved, many times in an effort for white people in power to maintain control. Such practices have extended as early back as the 17th century, to the introduction of African slaves into British North America. As said systems of race further developed, those existing in the middle of identities established by white colonizers (especially free people of color) were forced to assimilate into the categories that lacked substantive nuance and descriptors. This rigidity and failure to recognize nuance led to the loss of unique cultures and communities which had developed from African admixed populations in the Americas since 1619.

In 1619, the first twenty African slaves were brought to Virginia, under a system that resembled indentured servitude. In this period, though intended to operate as a charter colony, Virginia’s system of agriculture and government lacked stability and prosperity.1 After the proprietors failed to turn the colony into a lucrative venture, the English crown seized control of Virginia in 1624. Under royal control, the agricultural state of Virginia began to flourish, with a rise in exports and demand for tobacco.2 By the end of the 1600s, the agricultural status of Virginia had solidified.

This economic transition, however, led to a broader societal shift, both in how the economy was organized and maintained and for the people who lived under the system. Those primarily affected were those of African descent, who saw their roles in the labor force and their relationships to the rest of the community shift drastically. The rise in economic prosperity coincided with a rising cost to maintain indentured servants, which produced a need for reduced cost for labor. The solution the planter class turned to was an increase in the number slaves imported to the colony. The shift from a system in which slavery provided a supplementary labor force to one in which slavery was the primary mode of economic life generated pressure to make firm distinctions among those who were slaves and those who were free. Formation of distinction would emerge in the form of race categorization and intensified attempts to distinguish those of African descent in the Americas as “others” in relation to white people. Legislation including the Virginia Codes, a set of laws defining who was and was not a slave, was passed throughout the late 17th and early 18th century in an attempt to codify these distinctions.

Yet, as these systems emerged, there remained an inability to reconcile the existing identities the early colonial period had created — specifically, the existence of free people of color, who were of mixed ancestry. This population, derivative of interracial unions before the outlawing of miscegenation, presented two dilemmas to the distinctions of class and race being built within the colony. First, their mere existence called into question the stark racial hierarchy that was necessary to sustain the emerging capitalist system.3 Second, they benefited from some level of economic privilege not bestowed on other people of color in the period, as the racial fluidity which existed during the family’s development allowed for participation within the white-dominated economy.4 Families formed out of admixture were able to acquire wealth via the avenues of land acquisition and through apprenticeships and trades.

In an effort to accommodate said “anomalies” to the system, racial terminology in the early period heavily focused on separating admixed populations from those viewed to be of homogenous ancestry. Society adopted the term “mulatto,” to refer to all individuals of both European and African descent. The result was the othering of those who fell under this group umbrella from other members of the African diaspora. Classification as “mulatto” carried with it a connotation — not quite Black and not quite white. Members of the group were seen as in-between both groups of people, which carried impact not just racially but upon the economic and social hierarchy as well.

This othering resulted in the formation of community by individuals who fit this description. As society failed to recognize them as completely white and bestow upon them equal status, and as identifying with those defined as Black would further limit accessibility, individuals within the mixed-race group formed community, to create the most advantageous circumstance possible. Here they individually established their own culture, economic strategy, and overall group identity, which acquired a definition beyond just the “in-between.” Groups such as the Melungeon of Appalachia or the Brass Ankles, within the Carolinas, can trace their lineage to formed communities.5

Yet as racial categorization began to solidify as a system in itself, recognition of those of mixed ancestry as distinct from those of predominately African ancestry began to disappear. As the 18th century dawned, distinctions between people of color who were mixed and those who were not began to fade away. This was the result of political concerns, as people of color with access to economic power could partner with economically disadvantaged whites and resist the institution of slavery and affiliated injustices, as in Bacon’s Rebellion. The rising number of native-born slaves, many of whom were the product of involuntary miscegenation, could see the existence of free people who had status as an inspiring motivator. This further struck fear into the planter class. In order to limit this concern, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed laws to remove the advantages of these groups and to ensure that the community would not continue to gain power.

And so began the radical reshaping or failure to recognize the identity distinction between groups of people of color, because they all shared some broad connection to the African continent. Though the use of the term “mulatto” would continue in official government use until the 1940s, by the 20th century, little differentiation remained between communities. Fear of continued miscegenation posing a threat to white communities after the Civil War led to the rise in Jim Crow laws. The rigidity in race within Jim Crow legislation and the united efforts amongst all people of color to combat them led to a formation of a consolidated African American community.

Yet, consolidation does not erase hundreds of years of independent histories and individual cultures. Though useful in resistance efforts (in creating a combined communal force), it also contributes to a continued misunderstanding of African American history. It erases key elements concerning the Black connection to America, beyond just slavery. It buries communities and their cultures of the past that are integral to the formation of our community and understanding who we are. By eclipsing these communities and their individual identities, we continue to cede control of our histories and who we are to white individuals in power, using classifications and categories as a way to boaster their economic pursuits. It is only through fleshing out these complex histories and communities overlooked that we resist this current and historical practice.

  1. Guasco, Michael. “The Misguided Focus on 1619 as the Beginning of Slavery in the U.S. Damages Our Understanding of American History.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 13 Sept. 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/misguided-focus-1619-beginning-slavery-us-damages-our-understanding-american-history-180964873/.
  2. Merriam, George S. Negro and the Nation: A History of American Slavery and Enfranchisement. New York, Henry Holt & Co. Print.
  3. Beckvery, Sven, and Seth Rockman. “Introduction: Slavery’s Capitalism.” Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development, edited by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, University of Pennsylvania Press, PHILADELPHIA, 2016, pp. 1–28.
  4. Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: the First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. ACLS History E-Book Project, 2005.
  5. Schrift, Melissa. “Introduction: Race, Identity, and the Melungeon Legend.” Becoming Melungeon: Making an Ethnic Identity in the Appalachian South, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln; London, 2013, p. 8.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Shaquan McDowell

Shaquan McDowell is a student of history, graduating from Brandeis University in 2019, with a B.A. in Politics and History. Shaquan has served as Director of Research for the Waging Peace Project, Parliamentary Aide and researcher for Baroness Sal Brinton of the U.K. House of Lords, as well as appeared in the New York Times 1619 Project. His primary research focuses in on Free People of Color in the Antebellum South and their transition into a wider African American community, following the end of the Civil War. Shaquan has written for MTV News, Al Jazeera America, and served as director for the premiere production of Amanda Ehrmann’s “My Dearest Monster”.

Comments on “Categorization for Commodification: Racial Control in Colonial America

  • I would also suggest that in the early days there was great intermixing of white and Black labor, inter-marriage, escape together, etc. It was necessary to create a division between the two, break up their unity, and so the status of Black servants had to be more strongly differentiated from the white indentured servitude and Black enslavement codified.

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