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.

Block argues that the terms “black”; “white”; “red”; and “yellow” did not have static meanings that neatly corresponded to racial identities for 18th-century Anglo-colonists. Those terms evolved into markers of racial difference right alongside American constructions of race that would not become commonplace until the 19th century. Block challenges readers to understand how humoral theory influenced European colonists’ ideas about physical appearance and how the form of the missing person ad reflected and shaped the meanings of signifiers like age, height, and health for colonial subjects.

Block engages thirty-nine colonial newspapers from all over the across colonial America for her study, drawing from them both quantitative and qualitative data to support her arguments. From their pages, she gleans categories and descriptors used by 18th-century subjects to describe other 18th century subjects. “Through a range of descriptive choices,” she writes, “advertisers communicated the features they deemed significant for readers to know and revealed shared assumptions about bodily norms.”(5) Block remains very critical of her sources throughout and highlights both the form and the content of the ads she analyzes. She is well aware that the ads are part of an archive of mastery and makes sure to note this throughout. Block remains clear that the norms she excavates from these advertisements are norms for Anglo-colonizers and takes care to acknowledge African and Native American understandings of physiology. That the descriptors and signifiers she analyzes allow Anglo-colonists to flatten individual human experiences and bolster colonial systems of power is precisely her point.

To help readers better understand why and how colonists used the signifiers that appear in missing person ads, Block explains the dominant European physiological theory of bodily humors as the source of the early modern term complexion in Chapter 1, “Complicating Humors and Rethinking Complexion.” In the 18th century, complexion did not have its contemporary meaning: skin color or skin health. Instead, complexion was a way to mark and understand various humoral traits. It denoted, “. . . belonging, outlook and natural affinity.”(32) The fluid category of complexion allowed one to read the internal in the external without the assumption that either was fixed and unchangeable.

Block warns, “We make a mistake if we equate complexion to skin color to race in the transatlantic world of the pre-Revolutionary British colonies.”(33) Instead, she argues that complexion as a marker of humoral balance allowed colonists to comment on the health, strength, and behavioral characteristics of particular bodies. It was a flexible and mutable category. While race, in the context of US history, would become immutable by the “one drop rule” of later generations.

After carefully charting the importance of humoral theory to Anglo-colonial understandings of appearance, Block demonstrates how colonists applied their understanding of humors in their advertising practices. Chapter 2, “Shaping Bodies in Print: Labor and Health,” and Chapter 3, “Coloring Bodies: Naturalized Incompatibilities,” highlight which signifiers mattered most to advertisers and communicated the most information to readers in the period. She walks the reader through what adjectives for age and height signified about health and fitness for labor. She demonstrates how descriptions of color were divorced from their contemporary racialized meanings. The terms red, yellow, black, and white signified for temperament and did not neatly correspond to 19th-century racial taxonomies.

The ways that advertisers deployed descriptions of color, body shape and age naturalize difference and reinforced colonial hierarchies. Chapter 4, “Categorizing Bodies: Race, Place and the Pursuit of Freedom,” and Chapter 5, “Written by and on the Body: Racialization of Affects and Effects,” each trace the social and cultural process of making race out of physical characteristics meant to convey information about character, temperament, and behavior. Advertisers communicated both specifics about each runaway and cultural expectations for all African descended people by writing ads meant to describe their truant slaves and servants of African descent against an imagined prototypical negro and not against Europeans. They did the same for Europeans and Native Americans.

Like all good work, Colonial Complexions inspires additional questions and promising directions for new scholarship. Block is candid and upfront in her introduction about her project’s focus on Anglo-colonial cultural formations. She notes throughout her work that Native Americans,  Atlantic Creoles, and Africans had their own systems of knowledge and beliefs about the cultural significance of appearance. Given that their acts, and the acts of white servants, occasioned the need for the discursive project of runaway and missing person ads, it is fair to ask how they shaped the cultural history of race? As Block rightly notes, runaway ads are significant source base for African Americanist social historians. What traces of their lives in this archive lend to a reading of runaways’ self-making, racial formation, and cultural history?

Block presents a provocative look at the cultural history of race in colonial America with significant implications for scholars of race, slavery, and early America. She thoughtfully articulates a challenge to historians not to read contemporary racial categories in colonial sources. Instead, she argues that it is possible to excavate the meaning of the descriptive terms colonial masters and colonists used to understand and to order the world around them. Engaging the nuance of Anglo-colonial readings of appearance, understanding the fluidity of complexion as a signifier, and tracing the complicated process of delineating racialized archetypes over time fosters a better understanding of the dynamic reality of racial formation in the colonial period. Block’s work is a must-read addition to every Americanist’s bookshelf.

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