“I should have thought he was of Spanish origin” – complexions and passing as white (Johnson)

Walter Johnson, Soul By Soul, 156.

Some slaves, however, were “too white to keep.” […] So, too, Robert, who boarded the steamboat that carried him away from slavery and new Orleans as a white man. “I should have thought he was of Spanish origin,” remembered one of his fellow passengers, “he was a man of clear skin and dark complexion.” But more than the way Robert looked, the other passengers remembered the way he acted: “he was very genteely dressed and of a very genteel deportment”; “he had more the appearance of a gentleman than a plebeian”; and, almost every witness noted, “usually seated himself at the first table, high up, and near the ladies.” Robert, it turned out, had once been a waiter, and he used the skills he had learned as a slave, the gentility and sociable palate of the server, to make his way into the confines reserved for the served. […] Robert made it as far as Memphis before being arrested and sent to the slave market in New Orleans, where he very shortly died.


The specific historical sites where race was daily given shape (Johnson)

From Walter Johnson, Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, 136.

Historians have riddled that relation into various shapes. Some have argued that slavery was built out of race, that culturally based bias against “blackness” and a religiously determined desire to dominate “heathen” Africans underwrote the economic exploitation of the Atlantic slave trade and American slavery. Others have argued that slavery was first and foremost an economic system, that exploitation preceded racialization, and that racism–presumed inferiority–became important only when a system of social relations faced novel assertions of human equality. As the historian Barbara Jeanne Fields puts it, race was a particularly toxic “byproduct” of the southern mode of production in the “Age of Revolution.” Recently, it has been suggested that both of these descriptions of the relations between economic exploitation and racial domination might be sharpened by attention to everyday life, to the specific historical sites where race was daily given shape.[3]


  1. [3] Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes to the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968); Barbara Jeanne Fields, “Ideology and Race in American History,” in J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson, eds., Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 143-177; Barbara Jeanne Fields, “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America,” New Left Review, 181 (1990), 95-118, quotation on 109; Thomas C. Holt, “Marking Race: Race-making, and the Writing of History,” American Historical Review, 50 (1995), 1-20. My approach embarks from the premises outlined by Fields and Holt. I am also indebted to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., Race, Writing, and “Difference” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); David Theo Goldberg, ed., Anatomy of Racism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990); Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” Signs, 17 (1992), 251-274; Michael O’Malley, “Specie and Species: Race and the Money Question in the Nineteenth Century,” Nell Irvin Painter, “Response to Michael O’Malley,” American Historical Review, 99 (1994), 369-408; Colette Guillaumin, Racism, Sexism, Power, and Ideology (London: Routledge, 1995); and Mia Bay, The White Image in the Black Mind: African-American Ideas about White People, 1835-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).