Into Slavery: Racial Decisions in the Virginia Colony

By Joseph Boskin | Go to book overview
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The Gestalt

"...may not be above one English."

The decision to make one person free and the other a slave was not of a single moment but of many interactions joined together to form a pattern. The rulings leading up to the establishment of slavery as the condition for Africans and their descendants was the consequence of a process, a working out of problems which appeared at various times. Many of these problems caught people unawares. All along the way to the ultimate conclusion, options existed. As numbers grew and contacts increased, difficulties arose which the colonists felt required legal and institutional resolution. In decisions and rulings over a forty-year period, the English constantly narrowed the areas of interracial relations and thus widened the gap between themselves and Africans and Indians. As they focused upon who they were and projected about who they wanted to become, the colonists also scrutinized the role of the African, those representatives of diverse tribes whose experiences, values, and customs were totally alien to themselves but whose lives were inextricably entwined with their own. Uncertain in the beginning, but not without images and emotions regarding the African, the colonists eventually created a separate social space, a class whose visible features made possible an everlasting social distance.

Only rarely, at least in law, did those who directed the colony -- the governors, assemblymen, magistrates, men of old and newly established wealth -- make efforts to alter or reverse the situation or widen the social alternatives for blacks. Free blacks were brought or bought into the system, lived and worked with free white persons, but they were the exceptions. And once the institution was embedded into the social fabric, little attention was given to reduce even the grossest aspects of the system. The class space which came to separate the races at the end of the century reflected the social space which existed at the point of contact. Distanced by historical time and culture, the English and African conflicted in subtle ways and communicated on awkward terms. In a strange way the onus was upon the Africans for they had to accommodate to the superior host. Unlike the Indian, who could retain a structured culture and live apart from the English, the Africans were forced to become participants in the community, to become, in essence, like the English. On every level, the African had to learn English ways, habits, customs, attitudes, and the nuances of expression. As victims, they were in the unenviable position of having to assess and mirror their guardians.

It is difficult to tell how well they were able to adapt to English culture. Perhaps they were able to adopt English ways in such a finely tuned manner that the English were thoroughly frightened for their own identities. More


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Into Slavery: Racial Decisions in the Virginia Colony
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