U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Should we be talking about the new history of race?

Over the last several years there have been numerous discussions, panels, articles, and other commentary about the “new history of capitalism.” Books such as Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, Edward Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told, and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams have been on everyone’s radar as a fresh new historiographical tradition. While I have learned much from these books, one of the most unfortunate aspects of this so-called “new” history is that it views itself as new and novel rather than rooted in a long tradition of black radical thought. (Walter Johnson is less guilty of this than Beckert and Baptist). And for the most part we historians have embraced this historiography at face value as new.

Another historiographical tradition that has its roots in black radical thought has emerged over the last several decades much more quietly—perhaps because it refused to claim its novelty. Often grounding itself much more explicitly—and in my opinion thoughtfully—with this powerful intellectual tradition, the recent history of race as a social and cultural construction has changed the way we think about race. In hindsight it now seems to me that 2016 was the year in which the intellectual history of racial constructions reached new heights with three truly ground-breaking works of intellectual history: Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation by Nicholas Guyatt, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution by Robert Parkinson, and, of course, the National Book Award winner, the magisterial Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram Kendi.

Guyatt’s book provides a much-needed inquiry into the intellectual history that made the patently contradictory and heinous notion of “separate but equal” thinkable and compelling for Americans. It also offers historians a crucial template for assessing anti-black and anti-Indian racism within the same intellectual landscape. Parkinson’s book is an exhaustive account of how ideas about race galvanized the opposition to the British during the American Revolution. It is the best attempt so far to finally wrest the intellectual history of the American Revolution from the stranglehold of the republicanism/liberalism debates. Kendi’s book is quite a marvelous achievement of intellectual history that charts the history of anti-black racist ideas. Cutting through numerous Gordian Knots with impressive intellectual precision, I believe that it will replace Winthrop Jordan’s classic White Over Black as the seminal intellectual history of race in American historiography.

I thought therefore to provide our readers with something of a quick and tentative account of the trajectory of the more recent intellectual history of race over the past several decades. As a relative newcomer to the history of race and as someone who was not an historian through much of this period some of my impressions of the following account might require some amending. I hope that others will complement or correct my account in the comments section where ever they see fit, especially since much of my knowledge is grounded in the history of early America.

Before any clear historiographical tradition emerged there was The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W. E. B. Du Bois’ collection of essays, which in many ways set the contours for the study of race and of African American studies more broadly. Unfortunately it would take many decades for historians to come to grips with and acknowledge the importance of this work and other works by Du Bois. Another black scholar that American historians do not credit sufficiently is Franz Fanon, whose Black Skin, White Masks (1952) is a staple of studies of race and colonialism, yet too often goes unread by American historians. Perhaps the outlier to the following historiographical account is Nathan Huggins’ wonderful study Harlem Renaissance (1971), which was very much in dialogue with the work of Du Bois and Fanon, but this is more a case of the exception to the rule.

The historiography of race as written by professional historians of American history working in academic institutions begins in the 1960s. To many generations of historians the most significant intellectual discussion over race in America revolved over whether it was invented in America or brought here by Europeans. Two studies in particular shaped the debate. For Winthrop Jordan in White Over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (1968) Europeans brought latent ideas about race to America, where they developed these ideas more fully. By contrast, in American Slavery American Freedom (1975) Edmund Morgan stressed how blackness became associated with slavery as a semi-conscious decision in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

The body of more recent scholarship on race emerged as historians realized the extent to which race was a social construction that could only be understood when set in specific historical circumstances. While Morgan and Jordan certainly highlighted the historical context in which race developed in early America, they did not fully cast it as a contingent historical invention that had little to do with material reality—that race was real only in as much as people believed in it.  It is in this context that historians came into significant dialogue with broader studies of colonialism and paid tribute to the work of Du Bois, Fanon, and other radical black thinkers. In my mind at least, in American history the study that seemed to ignite what we might regard as a more “phenomenological” understanding of race was George Fredrickson’s White Supremacy: A Comparative Study of American and South African History (1981). By comparing notions of white supremacy in two different yet similar historical contexts, Fredrickson compelled historians to view race as a contingent construct of a particular historical moment.

As far as I can tell, however, the most important study to have launched the new history of race  in America was Barbara Fields’ influential essay “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America” (1990). Regarding race as an ideological construct that emerged as a complement to the advent of democracy in America, Fields issued both a scathing critique of American democracy and cast race as emerging out of the exigencies of a particular historical moment. Another study that had far-reaching influence and that invoked the legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois explicitly was David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (1991), which stressed that whiteness was as much of a social and historically contingent construct as blackness.

Several more studies during the 1990s introduced new themes into the history of race, including its intersections with gender and notions of race regarding Native peoples in America. Kathleen Brown’s study Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender and Power in Colonial Virginia (1996) offered an important corrective to Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom by incorporating gender into the analysis of race in colonial Virginia. Nancy Shoemaker’s important article “How the Indians got to be Red” (1997) cast redness, like whiteness and blackness, as an invented idea traceable to a specific time and place in America.

After the turn of the century several more studies have further expanded our understanding of race as a social construct in American history. Mae Ngai’s Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of America (2004) explored the construction of race as part of the history of Asian and Mexican migrations to the United States, especially with regard to the notion of “illegal aliens.” John Wood Sweet’s study Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730-1830 (2003), examined how ideas about race, both regarding Native peoples and African Americans, influenced the contours of the American body politic. Peter Silver’s book Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America (2008) explained how notions of whiteness were forged on the Pennsylvania frontier, as American colonists made war with the Natives of the region. And Nell Irvin Painter’s polemically put The History of White People (2010) offered readers a comprehensive history of ideas regarding whiteness.

I am sure I have left many important studies out of this quite telegraphic historiographical essay.  Please feel free to add anything and/or to correct any part of this narrative in the comments.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. As I have been reminded in re-reading Cedric Robinson–and in the conversations had at this past weekend’s AAIHS conference in Nashville–the history of race and the history of capitalism often work at an intersection that Robinson, following the sociologist Oliver Cox, called racial capitalism. More about that in my post tomorrow.

  2. In 2012, Rebecca Anne Goetz published an important book on the intersection of Christianity and the formation of race in colonial Virginia entitled, The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race. In the book she argues for the importance of Christian rituals being used to exclude first Native Americans and then African slaves from the privileges of being Christian such as being free. In my opinion, her book is must reading for those interested in the formation of racial ideologies.

    • Thanks Brian, it’s on my list I’m planning to read it soon, good to hear that you liked it.

  3. This Dissent review essay (Fall 2014) by Walter Johnson may be of interest. It covers two books: Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, by Barbara J. Fields and Karen E. Fields (Verso, 2012), and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, by David Brion Davis (Knopf, 2014). – TL

  4. Perhaps this is not as much the case for the history of early America, but I think that one of the driving forces for what you are very right to call a new history of race is the continuing interplay between the disciplines of history and American Studies. Roediger’s work sits very much, I think, at this nexus, as does a book like Nikhil Pal Singh’s Black Is a Country. What has been very productive there–and I think it is also visible in the works you mention–is not just the constructedness of race but of the nation-state, and the move away from the nation as a “natural” container for history. As you point out so well, Eran, the debate for so many years was so much about whether American racism was just a flaw in American exceptionalism or intrinsic to its fundamental character–if it was, in essence the American version of original sin.

    I think that with the transnational turn we are seeing more creative resolutions to that question; historians presume that neither the nation nor race are historical givens, that both are always being remade and refashioned, thus allowing for historical explanations that presume constant co-creation.

    • Also (though I hope this was implicit in the comment above)–this post was awesome!

      • Andy, agreed. I have library card privileges at the nearest university library; I’m going to see if they’ve got any of the three above in stock.

    • Thanks Andy! I agree, but would expand it beyond just American Studies, to other fields such as studies of colonialism more broadly and many more. It takes quite a while for developments to percolate into American historiography if they ever get there at all.

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