Colonial Complexions

How did descriptions of individuals' appearance reinforce emergent categories of race? In Colonial Complexions, more than 4000 advertisements for runaway slaves and servants reveal how colonists transformed seemingly observable characteristics into racist reality.

Colonial Complexions
Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America

Sharon Block

2018 | 232 pages | Cloth $45.00
American History | African-American Studies/African Studies
View main book page

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Complicating Humors and Rethinking Complexion
Chapter 2. Shaping Bodies in Print: Labor and Health
Chapter 3. Coloring Bodies: Naturalized Incompatibilities
Chapter 4. Categorizing Bodies: Race, Place, and the Pursuit of Freedom
Chapter 5. Written by and on the Body: Racialization of Affects and Effects

1. Advertisements for Runaways: Sources and Methodology
2. Graphic Overview of Advertisements for Runaways
3. Newspapers with Advertisements for Runaways (1750-75)


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


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.

Almost a century later, Benjamin Franklin again tied identity to appearance. He described Africans as "black or tawny" and Native Americans (and Asians) as "wholly tawny," and he noted that most Europeans (Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, Swedes, and some Germans) were "of a swarthy Complexion," leaving only the English as "White People." Franklin's commentary suggests both the ways that racial scripts had developed since Josselyn identified people by facial features and how familiar racialized terms held historically specific meanings. Whiteness was not necessarily a synonym for European heritage in the eighteenth century, where humorally influenced interpretations of complexion continued to hold sway. Both men's descriptions point to the power of a writer's frames of reference and the ways that power relationships could be produced through descriptions of bodily features.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, skin color began to consistently be privileged as the sign of racial identity in literary, legal, and public arenas. Race science would be born out of these shifts, as skin color became the primary tool to mark slavery, freedom, and presumed innate racial qualities. But the linkages between bodies, race, and freedom were not inevitable. Historian Barbara Fields's explanation of race is still one of the most eloquent: "Race is not an element of human biology (like breathing oxygen or reproducing sexually); nor is it even an idea (like the speed of light or the value of *pi*) that can be plausibly imagined to live an eternal life of its own. Race is not an idea but an ideology."

To understand the arc of American racial ideologies, Colonial Complexions chronicles the quarter century (c. 1750-75) before skin color became increasingly equivalent to race. In this time period, missing persons advertisements were an established genre in colonial newspapers, regularly including categorizations of sex, race, and status; aspects of the runaways' appearance and behavior; details about items carried with them; and sometimes a discussion of past relationships that aimed to pinpoint where the person might be headed. The thousands of late colonial print descriptions of missing persons gathered from these advertisements reveal the kinds of daily racial scripts that naturalized writers' beliefs about race and gender, status and hierarchy, health and illness, labor capability and material reality. These newspaper descriptions of physical appearance were widely disseminated throughout colonies where they could both enforce and sustain particular ideologies of everyday racism. This book thus complicates understandings of eighteenth-century racism beyond a catch phrase of red, white, and black.

The title, Colonial Complexions, intentionally nods to my interrogation of eighteenth-century meanings of complexion and aims to remind readers that complexion was not the equivalent of skin color. Historians have productively traced the "racially ambiguous men and women [who] passed as free in the fluid, bustling, and multiracial world of the eighteenth[-] century mid-Atlantic," but how did colonists determine what "racially ambiguous" looked like? Because complexion could be interpreted as a sign of health, behavior, or emotions, it did not yet hold a predominant racial meaning. I build on literary scholar Roxann Wheeler's conclusion that black and white have become powerful "cover stories for a dense matrix of ideas as closely associated with cultural differences as with the body's surface." Representations of physical appearance gave daily meanings to racial ideologies that reflected historically specific social, economic, and cultural needs.

The chapters of Colonial Complexions range from the macro to the micro, from the quotidian to the noteworthy, and from the transatlantic to the local. Sources include scores of colonial and British publications as well as occasional private writings, but this study is based primarily on more than four thousand newspaper advertisements for runaway servants, slaves, and other missing persons issued between 1750 and 1775. Amassing large numbers of these brief advertisements has allowed me to analyze aggregate trends of print descriptions for laborers and other missing persons in early America. Appendix 1 offers an extended discussion of sources and methodology.

At the same time, the subjects who populate this book were far more than the sum of their body parts. I begin here with a story about one runaway's life as seen through print advertisements to offer context for the book's aggregated use of such sources. In the summer of 1769, a Virginia man named Barnaby escaped enslavement. Why he chose that moment to challenge his slavery remains unrecorded. Maybe his family situation had changed. Maybe he decided the unknown dangers of escape outweighed the known horrors of chattel slavery. Or perhaps Barnaby had sought freedom repeatedly, without leaving historical records, and his enslaver chose this occasion to advertise publicly for his return. We know about Barnaby's bid for freedom in 1769 because three weeks after his departure, Augustine Smith paid for an advertisement in the local newspaper to recover his self-liberated property Augustine described Barnaby to readers as a twenty-year-old "Mulatto boy" who "stutters a good deal when surprised." He ran another advertisement the following week, adding an eye-catching woodcut and modifying Barnaby's description to "a Mulatto fellow," who was "5 feet 5 inches high.".

It is not known whether the physical descriptions in these advertisements helped anyone capture Barnaby; perhaps Virginians who already knew Barnaby had located him near York, where it was rumored his brother David might be living. However it happened, Barnaby apparently returned to Augustine's Shooter's Hill plantation: two years later, Augustine advertised for the return of his again-fugitive slave. This time, he described Barnaby as "a dark Mulatto Man," who was about five feet two inches tall, "artful in his Answers," and "has an impediment in his Speech." Augustine added a description of Barnaby's clothing, evidently hoping that the man had not had time to replace his inexpensive coarse "suit of dark coloured Russia Drab."

Perhaps because Barnaby seemed determined to end his enslavement, Augustine Smith may have deemed his chattel to be more trouble than he was worth. Whereas he'd offered £5 for Barnaby's return in 1769, his 1771 advertisement offered only 20 shillings for anyone who found and jailed his property (Figure 1B). Perhaps the downturn in the Smith family fortunes, and not Barnaby's repeated self-liberations, led to Barnaby's subsequent sale. Barnaby was apparently no more willing to serve his new enslaver. In July 1772, Thomas Crauford placed an advertisement that sought Barnaby's return, describing him as "a Mulatto Fellow" who "stutters a good Deal in his Speech." Thomas modified other aspects of Barnaby's appearance: in three years Barnaby had aged from twenty to twenty-five years old and was now described as being "of a low stature" rather than a specific height. Thomas added a new description of Barnaby's clothing but noted, as did many other advertisements, "as he carried other Clothes with him it is probable he may change them."

Several months later, Thomas had not found Barnaby and offered readers some new details. While Barnaby was still described as twenty-five years old and of a "low" stature, he was now "well made" and his stuttering had been downgraded from "a good Deal" to "a little." Thomas also noted more about the circumstances of his departure: Barnaby had fled with his wife, a "young Mulatto Wench" named Belinda "who is short and very fat," and they were expected to head back to the Smith family's Middlesex plantation. Barnaby's final appearance in early American print occurred on December 31, 1772, when James Wortham, the Middlesex jailer, confirmed that Barnaby had, as predicted, traveled several days' walk northeast toward the Virginia coast. On that last day of 1772, James advertised that he had "a middle sized Mulatto Fellow" named Barnaby who said he had recently been sold from Augustine Smith to Thomas Crauford.

These advertisements for Barnaby's capture could be used to craft a variety of rich narratives about his life in early America. Historians have mined such ads to trace the social connections among enslaved people, the geography of slavery, or enslaved people's struggles for freedom. Other scholars have investigated the economic value ascribed to missing slaves or enslavers' public presentation of their mastery.

The variety of details used to describe Barnaby by at least three people over four years also reflects the degree to which appearance was very much in the eye and for the purposes of the beholder. Even when ostensibly written by the same owner, recollections could change and significance could shift. Besides Barnaby's name, only the imposed categorization of "Mulatto," signaling both slave status and adjudged heritage, appeared in every advertisement. Some advertisements focused on Barnaby's clothing, others on his character, some on his age, many on his height, and a few on his body shape. His sex was alternatively signaled by references to him as a man, boy, or fellow. Barnaby was of either low or medium stature, somewhere between five feet two and five feet five inches tall. He may have been dark complexioned and/or mulatto-like in appearance; he may have stuttered a little or a lot, or perhaps only when surprised. Barnaby's most distinguishing feature could have been his artfulness or his physical strength. Through the range of these descriptive choices, advertisers communicated the features that they deemed significant for readers to know and revealed shared assumptions about bodily norms.

Runaway advertisements like those describing Barnaby form the backbone of Colonial Complexions. Departing from the kinds of social histories often told from these documents, this book aggregates advertisements to create a cultural history of race in eighteenth-century British North America. Yet I offer Barnaby's story as a reminder: advertisements document the struggles and strategies of untold numbers of people whose place in the historic record has been otherwise erased. My focus on physical appearance as a commonplace tool of race-making means that extended life experiences rarely appear in this book. Instead, we see only glimpses of individuals who make up trends in eye color and hairstyle; in height and age; or in attire and character. Creating a narrative about the cultural meanings of racism is offered as a supplement to the many vital social histories that document life experiences through advertisements for runaways.

These advertisements for missing persons offer a unique opportunity to analyze the arena in which advertisement writers and newspaper readers communicated shared beliefs. Because the advertisements were not explicitly focused on explaining racial ideologies, they reveal the multiple intersecting constructions of physicality that writers relied on as reality. Aggregation is particularly useful for making visible the patterns that underlie individual stories. That Barnaby was identified as having a speech impediment is just a potentially interesting fact until it is juxtaposed with hundreds of commentaries on runaways' speech patterns. Quantification as a tool for cultural analysis allows me to identify how colonial advertisers created textual bodies out of their beliefs, desires, and worldviews. It allows us to show how advertisers wove their ideal and experiential visions of laborers into every aspect of their descriptive choices. Noting, for instance, details about some bodies and not others marked whose bodies were consistently commodified. Advertisements made individual appearances a matter of public concern, turning even basic identifying characteristics into reflections of implicit beliefs about the people they described.

We can see the ways that colonists implicitly marked intersecting racial and gender differences just through the quantity of words they chose to describe individuals. Advertisements provided information for an average of slightly more than six separate descriptive categories per person. European-descended runaways had about one-third more descriptive categories filled than did African-descended runaways. Most strikingly, advertisements for women identified as European descended contained almost 50 percent more information than those about women identified as African descended. This meant that African-descended women had, on average, the least amount of information provided about them. Such quantitative differences provide a starting point to analyze the constructed nature of descriptions of missing persons.

Bodily descriptions gave meaning to intersecting racial divisions by naturalizing dissimilarities. Advertisements were less a formalized recitation of categorical facts and more a mix of desires, beliefs, and impressions about the amount of information needed to identify individuals. In particular, representations of bodily coloration worked as a tool to homogenize people of African descent while individualizing those of European descent. Categorical terms such as "Negro," "Mulatto," and "Indian" were purposefully applied (or erased) to mark boundaries of slavery and freedom through descriptions of physical bodies. Colonists likely believed that they could identify a woman of European descent, a man of African descent, or any other heritage/gender combination by sight, in part because of the commonly shared language that they reproduced in newspapers across the colonies.

In a book on the development of racial ideologies, even the descriptive terms used to categorize individuals can be fraught. Scholars regularly have to decide how to utilize problematically racialized language when identifying people in colonial America. When possible, I use specific national or cultural terminologies: Algonquian or Angolan; Wampanoag or Welsh; Igbo or Irish. But this level of specificity is often not supported by the extant sources. Historians are left to decide how to best represent, yet not endorse, the colonial gaze. After much consideration, I decided to purposefully use the somewhat awkward phrases of "African descended," "European descended," and "Native American descended." Sometimes I use even more unwieldy phrases, such as: "a man identified as being of African descent" rather than "an African man"; "a woman described as being of multiple heritages" rather than "a mixed-race woman"; "a runaway noted to have been born in England" rather than "an English runaway." On occasion, I use in my own text the now-outdated terms that colonists used to classify individuals, such as "Negro" or mulatto," because those terms best represent the specific categorization I am discussing. While labeling an individual "Black" or "African American" is less jarring, it also risks ahistoricizing the racist ideologies this book aims to deconstruct.

Given that this book seeks to untangle how racial boundaries are institutionalized and made real through written language, these narrative disruptions mark that many of the terms we often use unquestioningly to categorize people—like "black," "white," and "red"—can inadvertently misrepresent material realities and historical contexts. My inelegant phrasings aim to serve as a gentle reminder that such categorizations were constructions of who someone was, not the reality of their own identity. Descriptions of a person's appearance reflected racial hierarchies that were cultural artifacts, not self-evident facts.

A second decision about terminology relates to the names I use for the thousands of individuals I mention. More than half of the historical actors in this book were enslaved people whose surnames do not exist in the public record. While I discuss the significance of names in Chapter 4, I did not want to reify it in my own discussions of free and enslaved people. Thus, after an initial introduction, I have chosen to use only the given name of runaways. The one-time use of surnames recalls but does not permanently reinforce that racialized naming convention. I have, however, retained the traditional practice of using surnames to refer to published authors and historical figures who were not the subjects of runaway advertisements.

These linguistic choices call attention to the ways that Americans' popular discourse still reflects the heritage of eighteenth-century racial formation. Unwinding the associations between racism and presumed physical reality only occurs when we reckon with the ways that race was made through centuries of daily assumptions and assertions. The expected divisions of black, red, and white—divisions that historians use regularly in our writings on the period—did not yet hold the purchase in eighteenth-century America that they would in later centuries. Long before such racial descriptors became common parlance, colonial Americans translated physical differences into rationales for disciplining and controlling bodies. Colonial Complexions traces the power of bodily description in the creation of early American racial ideologies.