Fall 2017 catalog cover

The Penn Press list for fall 2017 includes hardcover releases, first-time paperbacks, and ebook editions intended for scholars, students, and serious general readers worldwide. Click here to explore our forthcoming books, grouped by subject area.

Colonial Complexions
Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America

Sharon Block

248 pages | 6 x 9 | 17 illus.
Cloth Apr 2018 | ISBN 9780812250060 | Add to cart $45.00s | Outside N. America £37.00
Ebook Apr 2018 | ISBN 9780812294934 | Add to cart $45.00s | £29.50 | About
A volume in the series Early American Studies
View table of contents and excerpt

"Colonial Complexions is remarkable. Through an astonishing amount of research and the analysis of thousands of advertisements for missing persons in colonial newspapers, Sharon Block determines when and how 'race' acquired its meaning and basic equation with slavery. In this innovative way, she argues that race and slavery came to be intertwined through seemingly innocuous descriptions."—Elizabeth Reis, Macaulay Honors College, City University of New York
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 trans-Atlantic sources, she reveals how colonists transformed observable characteristics into racist reality. Building on her expertise in digital humanities, Block re-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.

Sharon Block is Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine.

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