Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

"To fix a perpetual brand": The social construction of race in Virginia, 1675-1750
by Epperson, Terrence W., Ph.D., Temple University, 1991, 399; 9120790
Abstract (Summary)

Toward the end of the seventeenth century a fundamental transformation occurred in the self-perceptions of planters in Virginia. While they continued to use the term "Negro" when referring to people of African descent, they began using the self-consciously racial term "white" rather than "Christian"--when characterizing themselves. This study examines the reification of racial categories in several realms of ideological discourse and social practice, including: literature, theology, philosophy, science, the Atlantic slave trade, plantation management, and law.

The particularly essentialist forms of racism which emerged during the study period were embedded in a series of contradictions. While Aristotelian doctrine provided an ideological rationale for enslavement, it did not originally deny the humanity of the enslaved. However, the practice of slavery within the emergent capitalistic context where all people are purportedly born free and equal created a contradiction which could be resolved only by dehumanizing the slave. Similarly, the baptism of slaves in the absence of any fundamental critique of slavery undermined the Negro/Christian dichotomy and created the need for a more explicitly racial set of oppositions.

Although avowedly anti-essentialist, John Locke's philosophy facilitated the reification of racial categories through the doctrine of nominal essence. Similarly, discussions by the Royal Society regarding skin color demonstrate the connections between colonial social practice and metropolitan scientific discourse. Within the empiricist paradigm "race" becomes embedded as a "fact" within a fact/value dichotomy and remains unquestioned even when the "value" of racism is opposed.

Within the Virginia plantation, racial difference was constructed through a wide range of disciplines, including: naming practices, food rationing, medical care, and architectural space. Colonial law abstracted relatively vague racial terms from the social context and endowed them with an instrumentality they did not formerly possess.

Impoverished Euro-Americans and enslaved African Americans were able to define a common class interest during Bacon's Rebellion (1676-7). Although the solidification of racial boundaries precluded a recurrence of such cooperation, subsequent insurrectionary attempts included alliances between Native American and African American slaves, between first-generation slaves from quite distinct regions of Africa, and between free and enslaved African Americans.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Patterson, Thomas C.
School: Temple University
School Location: United States -- Pennsylvania
Source: DAI-A 52/02, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Cultural anthropology, Black history, Minority & ethnic groups, Sociology, American history
Keywords: slavery
Publication Number: 9120790
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