Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America

Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America

Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America

Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America


In Colonial Complexions, historian Sharon Block examines how Anglo-Americans built racial ideologies out of descriptions of physical appearance. By analyzing more than 4,000 advertisements for fugitive servants and slaves in colonial newspapers alongside scores of transatlantic sources, she reveals how colonists transformed observable characteristics into racist reality. Building on her expertise in digital humanities, Block repurposes these well-known historical sources to newly highlight how daily language called race and identity into being before the rise of scientific racism.

In the eighteenth century, a multitude of characteristics beyond skin color factored into racial assumptions, and complexion did not have a stable or singular meaning. Colonists justified a race-based slave labor system not by opposing black and white but by accumulating differences in the bodies they described: racism was made real by marking variation from a norm on some bodies, and variation as the norm on others. Such subtle systemizations of racism naturalized enslavement into bodily description, erased Native American heritage, and privileged life history as a crucial marker of free status only for people of European-based identities.

Colonial Complexions suggests alternative possibilities to modern formulations of racial identities and offers a precise historical analysis of the beliefs behind evolving notions of race-based differences in North American history.


Colonial Complexions grew out of two related questions: What were the meanings of black, white, and red in the colonial eighteenth century; and how did Anglo-American colonists describe people’s appearance? A desire to explain the intersections of colonial Anglo-American racial ideologies and physical appearance led me to question historians’ deployment of skin color categorizations as stable identities. No matter how natural visible racial divisions may seem to modern readers, they have not transcended history. Revisiting these anachronistic applications of modern racial taxonomies led me to colonial interpretations of bodies and persons that have been lost to us through the overriding violence of racism. By treating physical appearance as unremarkable or by employing classifications of white, black, and red as self-evident, scholars risk giving short shrift to the daily creation of constructed corporeality that lay the foundations of racism among early America.

We can see such shifting notions of race, complexion, and identity by comparing two pieces of early modern writing. Shortly after his return to England in 1671, John Josselyn published a travel narrative that described the Massachusetts, Mohegans, Narragansetts, Pequots, Pokanokets, and other Native Americans he had encountered in the lands that would be known as New England. Josselyn paralleled indigenous peoples’ appearances to those of Europeans with whom his English readers might be more familiar: “as the Austreans are known by their great lips, the Bavarians by their pokes under their chins, the Jews by their goggle eyes, so the Indians by their flat noses, yet are they not so much deprest as they are to the Southward.” Pronounced-mouthed Austrians, Bavarians with goiters, goggle-eyed Jews, and flat-but-not-too-flat-nosed Native Americans: these physical stereotypes likely do not resonate with most modern readers, because perceptions of physical appearance are historically and culturally bound.

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