How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses

How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses

How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses

How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses


For at least two centuries, argues Mark Smith, white southerners used all of their senses--not just their eyes--to construct racial difference and define race. His provocative analysis, extending from the colonial period to the mid-twentieth century, shows how whites of all classes used the artificial binary of "black" and "white" to justify slavery and erect the political, legal, and social structure of segregation.

Based on painstaking research, How Race Is Made is a highly original, always frank, and often disturbing book. After enslaved Africans were initially brought to America, the offspring of black and white sexual relationships (consensual and forced) complicated the purely visual sense of racial typing. As mixed-race people became more and more common and as antebellum race-based slavery and then postbellum racial segregation became central to southern society, white southerners asserted that they could rely on their other senses--touch, smell, sound, and taste--to identify who was "white" and who was not. Sensory racial stereotypes were invented and irrational, but at every turn, Smith shows, these constructions of race, immune to logic, signified difference and perpetuated inequality.

Smith argues that the history of southern race relations and the construction of racial difference on which that history is built cannot be understood fully on the basis of sight alone. In order to come to terms with the South's past and present, Smith says, we must explore the sensory dynamics underpinning the deeply emotional construction of race. How Race Is Made takes a bold step toward that understanding.


Several years ago I had a chance conversation in a loud church hall at a small wedding on one of those implausibly hot southern summer evenings. I had not been there long when I bumped into Frank. Frank knows my wife from high school, and we see him occasionally when mutual friends marry or get engaged. Slim, white, and tall, he patted me on the back and asked how I was doing. Frank is in his thirties, smart, southern, with a robust sense of humor. I like him. He asked about my “new book.” I smiled, suspecting I was about to learn something. My wife's friends are a constant source of information about the South, always willing to share stories, ribald and refined, with her strange husband—an Englishman who studies southern history, no less.

I told him that I was working on an ambitious history of slavery and segregation. I did not elaborate, said nothing about my work on senses and race, on how southern whites and blacks thought they saw, heard, smelled, touched, and tasted one another.

“I've a story for you,” Frank offered. He lingered. “Now it isn't polite.”

I stepped in closer, listening hard, trying to parry the noise of the wedding band. Frank always had good stories.

“My grandmother, real southern,” he said, accent thick with Carolina purl. I nodded.

“Well, one day, years ago, probably in the twenties, she left her house on some errands. She returned, walked in, and discovered her house had been broken into.” He paused.

“Know what she said?” He knew how to tell a story—as I said, a southerner. I shook my head.

“I smell nigger.”

The historical record confirmed what I had just heard above the hubbub: white southerners believed they did not need their eyes alone to authenticate racial identity, presumed inferiority, and, in this instance, criminality. By this point in my research I had read enough letters, journals, and newspaper accounts to know that what Frank had just told . . .

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