Sunday, November 26, 2006

Act Two - Journey

One of the prevailing myths of American slavery is the impermeability of the color line. Most Americans of all races believe that only Africans were slaves, only Europeans were masters, and any mixing between the two was rape pure and simple. The existence of New Orleans Creoles gives lie to this myth, of course. I suspect that 20th century Americans, especially blacks, have always felt uneasy about this because rather than hide in shame for sleeping with the enemy many Creoles proudly claim their mixed ancestry. Not too many tragic mulattos to be found here.

But travel further down the rabbit hole Alice, like I did, and you will find that reality is far more complex then that. Dig more into the history of the Spanish on our shores and you'll find that Africans and Europeans occupied each tier of society, albeit unequally. The
British colonies, too, had both European and African landowners and laborers during the 17th century. To understand how this is possible, one must first understand how the management system of slavery actually works. History and molecular anthropology PhD candidate Frank Sweet explains that:

Not only was it necessary to deter runaways by making examples of those caught, but it was also vital to deter revolts by keeping on hand a traditionally large buffer class of armed yeoman. The challenge faced by colonial rulers was that the buffer class had to be roughly as numerous as the colony's forced labor population, and the forced laborers themselves were its only possible source. Like it or not, every New World colony lacking sufficient yeoman had to transform at least half of its forced laborers into landed yeomen if it was to survive.

The Spanish, by taking the place of Latin America's indigenous aristocracies, implanted
their rule into pre-existing stratified societies so there was no need to recreate a yeoman class. In the Caribbean and North America, they simulated the French who intermixed with their African slaves to create a yeomen class of Creoles. In contrast, the British conquered lands that lacked indigenous empires so the Spanish tactic could not apply. And unlike the French, the British slave population initially consisted of more Europeans than Africans.

Unable to birth a biracial class of yeomen in time to control their erupting slave revolts, the British employed a race-based divide and conquer strategy that doomed African slaves to eternal servitude and graduated newly freed European indentured servants to yeomen class status. Reinforcement in the form of anti-miscegenation laws grew in severity until laws banning interracial marriage altogether were passed, and then spread from colony to colony in the British territories.

In 1705, Virginia passed history's first law defining blackness: a person with one or more great grandparents who were African - called an octoroon for having one eighth fraction of black blood. Taken together with the 1662 partus sequitur ventrum law that defined slave status through matrilineal de
scent, biracials still continued to be born, but at considerably slower rates of miscegenation. More importantly these two laws combined meant that, unlike the French and Spanish systems where color and class necessarily correlated, white or lighter colored skin only mattered if one were free.

- These series of posts are dedicated to the ‘finest woman in East Elmhurst’ of her day, my mother Kathlean Elizabeth Barnes. I am bold because she could not be.

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