Assumed Identities: The Meanings of Race in the Atlantic World

Assumed Identities: The Meanings of Race in the Atlantic World

Assumed Identities: The Meanings of Race in the Atlantic World

Assumed Identities: The Meanings of Race in the Atlantic World

Synopsis

With the recent election of the nation's first African American president- an individual of blended Kenyan and American heritage who spent his formative years in Hawaii and Indonesia- the topic of transnational identity is reaching the forefront of the national consciousness in an unprecedented way. As our society becomes increasingly diverse and intermingled, it is increasingly imperative to understand how race and heritage impact our perceptions of and interactions with each other. Assumed Identities constitutes an important step in this direction.
However, "identity is a slippery concept," say the editors of this instructive volume. This is nowhere more true than in the melting pot of the early trans-Atlantic cultures formed in the colonial New World during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. As the studies in this volume show, during this period in the trans-Atlantic world individuals and groups fashioned their identities but also had identities ascribed to them by surrounding societies. The historians who have contributed to this volume investigate these processes of multiple identity formation, as well as contemporary understandings of them.
Originating in the 2007 Walter Prescott Webb Memorial Lectures presented at the University of Texas at Arlington, Assumed Identities: The Meanings of Race in the Atlantic World examines, among other topics, perceptions of racial identity in the Chesapeake community, in Brazil, and in Saint-Domingue (colonial-era Haiti). As the contributors demonstrate, the cultures in which these studies are sited helped define the subjects' self-perceptions and the ways others related to them.

Excerpt

Race and identity constitute an important dimension of political discourse throughout the world in the twenty-first century. Both concepts are closely affiliated with ethnicity. This should hardly be surprising. The process of globalization has dramatically intensified in the past few decades and increasingly more people are on the move. At the same time, the increase in national boundaries has accentuated national designations as well as the identities of individuals. Presently national identities are proliferating as new nation-states are created. These newly designated states represent convenient labels for groups that simultaneously may already have had one or more other identities. Some of these identities may be racially derived. Some identities are based on ethnicity. Some are merely geographical. Multiple identities assumed greater importance after the eighteenth century when language began to be more precisely defined. By then the number of nation-states was less but the problem of race and identity, as the contributors point out in this volume, became increasingly exacerbated.

It should not be surprising that problems of race and identity are extremely acute throughout the Americas. The American experience created a sharp break in the history of the modern world, bringing into the European consciousness a vast productive region with diverse peoples never before identified by anyone. This was noted emphatically by the Abbé Raynal when he began his influential multivolume history in the eighteenth century: “No event has been so interesting to mankind in general, and to the inhabitants of Europe in particular, as the discovery of the New World, and the passage to India by the Cape of Good Hope. It gave rise to a revolution in commerce, and in the power of nations; as well as in the manners, industry, and governments of the whole . . .

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