Colonial Complexions
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Colonial Complexions
Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America

Sharon Block

232 pages | 6 x 9 | 17 illus.
Cloth 2018 | ISBN 9780812250060 | $45.00s | Outside the Americas £39.00
Ebook editions are available from selected online vendors
A volume in the series Early American Studies
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"In Colonial Complexions, historian Sharon Block offers a subtle and profound reading of the processes of race-making in colonial North America. Drawing on thousands of advertisements for the return of servant and enslaved laborers of African, European, and Native American descent, Block offers a careful and critical reading of how colonial slave and contract owners consolidated racial meaning on bodies through specific language, evaluation, and the naturalization of status over the eighteenth century. After reading this book, scholars will be compelled to deconstruct colonial terms of racial designation that have been uncritically reproduced and to change the way we think and write about race and racial meaning in the past and the effects of these terms in our present."—Marisa Fuentes, Rutgers University

"A powerful history of complexion and how it mobilized across race, labor, and hierarchy in colonial slavery. Colonial Complexions asks us to think carefully about the processes of race-making. Sharon Block's engagement with the history of the body and the meanings ascribed to color represents foundational work in the history of racial formation and power in early America."—Jennifer L. Morgan, New York University

"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 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.

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

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