Shades of Difference: Mythologies of Skin Color in Early Modern England

By Sujata Iyengar | Go to book overview

Introduction

This book argues that we can only understand the early modern relationships among “race,” embodiment, and skin color in their multiple contexts—historical, geographical, and literary. But unlike work that tries to find a specific historical or disciplinary point for the emergence of race as a color-coded classification, mine insists that the terms race and racialism cannot and should not be treated as pure or hermetic categories. Instead, I wish to maintain conversations among early modern culture texts, between historical and material contexts, and between various early modern ways of figuring difference (bodily, cultural, and social). I resist the imposition of a straightforward historical trajectory “toward” racialism or “toward” color-prejudice. In particular, I suggest that literary affiliations (the compulsion of narrative, the longing of lyric, the agendas of masque, and the escape of romance) entangle with variable concepts of skin color and emergent racial distinctions.

Moving through the early modern curriculum or paideia—from the learned professions of religion, medicine, and law to popular and practical sources of knowledge about the world such as rogue literature and travel narrative—I distinguish the early modern characteristics, interests, and intentions of cultural fields that engage skin color and human differences, and examine their significance for conventional literary genres, ranging from sixteenth-century epyllion to seventeenth-century lyric and Restoration prose romance. Each of these early modern discourses inherits and produces its own assumptions and language about skin color—and these early modern representations of racial difference, I maintain, at once create and interrogate the assumptions about race, skin color, and gender that we live with today. While these mythologies fail to translate in any simple way to our own structures of feeling, this book aims to make the strangeness of early modern racialized discourse familiar, without losing its distinctiveness.

Take, for example, early modern travel narrative (perhaps the sharpest pressure point for competing beliefs about human divisions and variation), which gives us richly conflicting uses of the word race. The ambiguous marginal note, “The Negroes race their skinnes,” beside

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Shades of Difference: Mythologies of Skin Color in Early Modern England
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Abbreviations ix
  • Introduction 1
  • I - Ethiopian Histories 17
  • Chapter 1 - Pictures of Andromeda Naked 19
  • Chapter 2 - Thirteen- Ways of Looking at a Black Bride 44
  • Chapter 3 - Masquing Race 80
  • II - Whiteness Visible 101
  • Chapter 4 - Heroic Blushing 103
  • Chapter 5 - Blackface and Blushface 123
  • Chapter 6 - Whiteness as Sexual Difference 140
  • III - Travail Narratives 171
  • Chapter 7 - Artificial Negroes 173
  • Chapter 8 - Suntanned Slaves 200
  • Chapter 9 - Experiments of Colors 220
  • Afterword- Nancy Burson’s Human Race Machine 241
  • Notes 245
  • Bibliography 269
  • Index 299
  • Acknowledgments 309
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