Those who had to rely chiefly on their physical labor to amass property were
at a distinct disadvantage. By the end of the seventeenth century, the white
indentured servants who came to the colony hoped that, in a not too distant
future, they too could own enough land to do more than subsist. Their dreams,
however, were very seldom realized. That this economic and social system
eventually came most fully into its own on the backs of enslaved Africans adds
depravity to the overall picture of venality. Unless one is willing and able to
overlook extremely important details about the fundamental nature of this
society, the story of Virginia's origins does not lend itself to romanticizing.
This is probably why for most Americans the national narrative begins at
Plymouth Rock instead of Jamestown, even though the Virginia fortune seekers
arrived more than a decade before the Pilgrims.
All this seems worlds away from where we are now, but despite its comparative
remoteness, the colonial period in America, as experienced in both the North and
the South, in very critical ways helped define who we are today. For one thing,
it was during that period that the basic meanings of "whiteness" and "blackness"
were in the process of being defined for the American population. However it has
been expressed over the years, the association of whiteness with power and
privilege, blackness with relative powerlessness and second-class status, began
to take shape in this time and has been a persistent feature of life in America
ever since. It has survived Revolution, Civil War, massive immigration, two
world wars, the Cold War, and the tremendous social upheaval during the latter
part of the twentieth century. Because we are still living with this, it is
worthwhile for us to consider the world that greeted the matriarch of the
Hemings family in the mid-1700s.
The Africans and the English
By the 1730s, the decade in which Elizabeth Hemings was born to an African
mother and an English father, the institution that would define her life and
those of her descendants for years to come was firmly in place. Virginia was a
full-fledged slave society 116 years after a small number of Africans ("negars")
arrived at Jamestown, the English colony on the James River. It was during those
years that white Virginians transformed their laws, culture, and economy to make
slavery based upon race the very foundation of their way of life.
The transformation was hardly instantaneous. Slavery in Virginia did not
spring up overnight. It took timespanning the last seven decades of the
1600sfor the English colonists, or the leading lights of the colony, to define
the terms of engagement between Africans and the English in that corner of the
New World. What they settled upon foretold a life of pain and struggle for the
Africans and their progeny over many generations, and prosperity (or at least
the hope of it) for the English and their descendants. Scholars have long
debated the reason for this turn of events, why the Virginia colonists turned
away from the labor of white indentured servants and decided to enslave
Africans. Some have cited race and religion as the deciding factors, allowing
men who jealously guarded their liberty to obliterate the liberty of others who
were of a different color and different faiths. Other scholars suggest it was a
straightforward economic calculation. Still others assert that it was some
combination of these and other influences.
In the beginning, when the numbers of Africans were few, there was some
ambiguity about their status in Virginia. The scant evidence that exists on this
question suggests several alternative scenarios. While most Africans may have
been treated as slaves for life from the very start, others became free in the
years immediately following the arrival of the first group. Were these freed
slaves treated as indentured servants, or had they been seen as slaves but
emancipated for some reason by their ownersas happened occasionally all
throughout the time of slavery in America? We may never know for certain. As the
number of Africans increasedslowly at firsttheir labor was mixed with the
indentured labor of Englishmen, and a smaller number of Englishwomen. For a good
part of the seventeenth century, these two groups (along with a smaller number
of Native Americans) worked side by side. In the words of the historian Philip
D. Morgan, "they ate, smoked, ran away, stole, and made love together." But
Morgan also wisely cautions against seeing their situations as the same.
Enslaved Africans were distinguished from their white counterparts by the "sheer
nakedness of the exploitation to which they were subject."
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