Review: Sharon Block, Colonial Complexions

Sharon Block, Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

Colonial Complextions Cover

At the opening of Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America, Sharon Block poses two provocative 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?” (1) To answer these queries Block presents a cultural history race in Britain’s 18th century American colonies. She makes a careful study of the descriptors advertisers and editors used in missing colonial persons adds for runaway African descent and their European and Native American servants. Continue reading

Black Women Intellectuals and the Politics of Dislocation

In light of the recent tragic stories of family separation occurring on the Mexico-United States border, what instantly came to my mind was America’s history of dislocation through American slavery. From the United States’s conception, the place of the country’s Black population, enslaved and free, was centered in debates on who this country was ultimately built for. There were factions that saw slavery as antithetical to the founding principles of “freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” During the Revolutionary War, even British orators like Samuel Johnson, clearly saw this dichotomy. In his 1775 pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny: An Answer To The Resolutions And Address Of The American Congress, Johnson juxtaposed the colonist’s “Declaration of Rights,” and equivocated “If [s]lavery be thus fatally contagious, how is it that we hear the loudest yelps of for liberty among the drivers of negroes.”[1] Not all factions of the founding generation decidedly occupied one camp of pro-slavery or anti-slavery though. America’s first and third presidents denoted this friction. Washington and Jefferson’s stories denoted both held surface level anti-slavery positions, yet also owned hundreds of bondswomen and men; very similar to what Johnson characterized. This complication stemmed from the generation’s refusal to resolve the “slavery question” that plagued the new nation. Political compromises, like the counting of enslaved peoples as three-fifths a person, prolonged America’s reckoning, but only temporarily. However, a middle ground emerged by the early 19th century: colonization. Continue reading

“Trans-American Crossings” Conference Recap

Over the weekend, an international group of scholars met on the campus of Brown University to participate in a conference focused on various forms of enslaved migrations throughout the Americas from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. Sponsored by the Omohundro Institute and the John Carter Brown Library, the meeting represented the fifth in a series of conferences about the transatlantic slave trade that have been organized by the OI.

For anyone who couldn’t make it to Providence[1], the panels were live-tweeted and can be found #TransAmCrossings. While the tweets of my colleagues give a great sense of the flow of the conversations over the weekend, what follows here are some of my reflections on the broader questions and themes that drove intellectual exchanges during and after the panels. Continue reading

Do Objects Lie? A New Video for Teaching About Material Evidence

Is material culture as inherently untrustworthy? I was once at a conference roundtable where one attendee claimed that “Material culture is so elitist, just rich people’s stuff in museums.” Fortunately, a historical archaeologist in the room begged to differ, arguing that archaeology offered a rich record of people who did not necessarily leave written sources behind. When I recently required my students to analyze both a material and a textual source, they concluded that material sources were inherently more difficult to work with than their written counterparts. “Once I describe the object, there’s nothing left to say about it,” one student complained.

I’ve been hearing variations of this argument my entire academic life. As a scholar who both studies and teaches with material culture, I find this reasoning both fascinating and frustrating. Why do so many people, from scholars to students, consider material culture somehow a lesser form of evidence than the written word? Continue reading

Twitter Conferences: To Do or Not To Do?

Twitter YellIn August 2017, I virtually attended and presented at the Beyond 150: Telling Our Stories Twitter Conference ((#Beyond150CA). In collaboration with Unwritten Histories, Canada’s History Society, and the Wilson Institute, this event was the first Twitter conference to focus on Canadian history. This conference seemed like a great opportunity to present my work on “filles du roi” (daughters of the king) in seventeenth-century New France. But, the idea of presenting an entire conference paper in only 12-15 tweets was intimidating. Would I be able to get my points across in this format? Would I be able to delve into meaningful conversations with the “audience”? Would anyone be in the audience? Was I prepared to lay my research bare on the internet for anyone to find while it was still in a nascent state? Continue reading

A Survey of Assumptions

Screen Shot 2018-05-19 at 5.36.17 PMWith spring well underway, many of us are experiencing the satisfaction of marking the last grade on the final blue book of the semester, with an eye toward the approaching summer months and the freedom to work on our own research projects.[1] This makes it a foolhardy moment to entice Junto readers into thinking about teaching the survey, but it also presents an opportunity to reflect on our students and how their backgrounds should shape our approach in the classroom. Continue reading

Review: Craig Bruce Smith, American Honor

Craig Bruce Smith, American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

9781469638836In American Honor, Craig Bruce Smith places morals, virtue, and ethics at the center of the American Revolution. Smith argues that in the late-colonial period, understandings of honor transformed. Instead of something hereditable, honor became based on merit. That “ethical transformation” helped bring about the Revolution. Independence then allowed Americans to realize its potential. In a phrase, you might say the American Revolution was “made on honor, sold on merit.”[1] Continue reading

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