Excerpt from The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Hemingses of Monticello

An American Family

by Annette Gordon-Reed

The Hemingses of Monticello
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2008, 800 pages
    Sep 2009, 800 pages

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In the end the physical differences—skin color, facial features, and hair type—between Africans and English people in Virginia helped create and maintain a critical dividing line. What the Africans "did" became less important than what they "were" as signaled by their physical appearance. Even if Africans chose to adopt the mores of the English, they could never overcome the powerful view that the differences between the groups were elemental and largely insurmountable. As a result, the lowliest indentured white servants could be, and were, encouraged to identify with their white masters while distancing themselves from the blacks with whom they worked.

Some historians have seen early examples of cooperation between Africans and white indentured servants in the seventeenth century as evidence that racial prejudice was a creature of slavery and argue that the institution taught white colonists to look down upon black people. They also suggest that the colonists' willingness to allow some of the early Africans to be freemen while others were enslaved for life reveals a degree of flexibility in race relations, and that flexibility suggests racial attitudes had not been firmly set. Highlighting the variable experiences of the earliest blacks in Virginia is much less useful than keying in on the one constant in the lives of whites from Jamestown to Appomattox: they were never to be designated as chattel who passed their condition down to their children, and their children's children, in perpetuity. Significantly, this distinction between black and white was drawn well before Virginia became bound to slavery as the economic foundation of its society.

And why wouldn't it have been? The Virginia colonists did not exist in a vacuum. They were travelers in the Atlantic world of which slavery was so much a part. Who Africans were, and how they had been used in that world for centuries, was well known to them. Long before the English got involved, the Portuguese had enslaved Africans, as had the Spanish. Englishmen certainly heard tales of the Arabs' enslavement of Africans that began centuries before Europeans even thought of the notion. The ease and swiftness with which blacks were written out of the social compact indicates that notions of essential difference and inferiority took hold very early on in the Virginia experiment. As more Africans arrived and the commitment to the economic system of slavery grew deeper, the perceived differences between whites and blacks provided a workable excuse for widening the social gap between indentured white servants and blacks, until that gap became a yawning chasm.

Religion played a role in the process as well. The English colonists, of course, were Christians. Some Africans had converted to Christianity even before their arrival in the New World, but the overwhelming majority of them had not. They had their own religious traditions, and whether those traditions were animist or Islamic, those who adhered to them were, in the eyes of the English, "heathens." At first, this difference was offered to explain why Africans alone were eligible for chattel slavery. Christianity is an evangelical religion of faith, not blood, and carries in its very heart the expectation that multitudes will become Christian through the ritual of baptism. The question arose, "What happens when an African heathen becomes a Christian?" Shouldn't that wipe away the stain of slavery? Some masters who wanted to free their slaves thought so, and for a time their actions appeared to threaten—albeit in a minor way—the stability of the institution. The Church of England shut down that avenue of emancipation when it confirmed that baptism of a slave into the Christian faith did not require the emancipation of that slave, an understanding that Virginia codified in law. Christians could, in good conscience, hold other Christians in bondage.

Excerpted from The Hemingses of Monticello © Copyright 2008 by Annette Gordon-Reed. Reprinted with permission by W. W. Norton. All rights reserved.

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