Race, Religion and Law in Colonial India: Trials of an Interracial Family by Chandra Mallampalli (review) [Epstein]

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, History, Law, Media Archive on 2014-09-30 20:42Z by Steven

Race, Religion and Law in Colonial India: Trials of an Interracial Family by Chandra Mallampalli (review) [Epstein]

Victorian Studies
Volume 56, Number 3, Spring 2014
pages 519-520
DOI: 10.1353/vic.2014.0064

James Epstein, Distinguished Professor of History
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee

Mallampalli, Chandra, Race, Religion and Law in Colonial India: Trials of an Interracial Family (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

The case of Abraham v. Abraham (1854–63) was extraordinary. It took nearly a decade to decide as it passed through the district civil court at Bellary in southern India, the appeals court at Madras, and finally the Privy Council’s Judicial Committee. The case repeatedly confounded legal categories based alternately on Hindu and English law and the fixed categories of Britain’s post-1857 colonial regime. In Race, Religion and Law in Colonial India, Chandra Mallampalli skillfully guides readers through the intricacies of the case, studying the social world inhabited by one family drawn into litigation and measuring the gap between their life-world and the protocols of the court. The period was one of imperial crisis and transition, as the British Crown assumed direct control over Indian territories following the 1857 Rebellion and authorities adopted a more cautious approach in governing Indian society. As the author writes, the more conservative turn of liberal governance “gave rise to an imperial multiculturalism, a policy of classifying colonial subjects according to race, religion, caste, or ethnicity,” while accentuating the difference between colonial subjects and colonizers (5).

Matthew Abraham was born into a Tamil-speaking family of “untouchables” (paraiyar community) who had converted to Catholicism. He subsequently converted to Protestantism and married Charlotte Fox, a Eurasian of Anglo-Portuguese descent. Matthew was part of the mobile group of camp followers who gravitated to the garrison town of Bellary. Access to the colonial culture centered on Bellary’s cantonment. The town’s thriving bazaar economy gave scope for Matthew’s enterprising talents and ambition; the locality’s social fluidity proved important to his self-fashioning. At the time of his marriage in 1820, he was working in the arsenal and selling military surplus items. Fairly soon he owned a distillery and most crucially was granted the East India Company contract to produce and supply liquor to the troops and local retailers—an irony, given his conversion to Evangelical Protestantism. The family prospered. Matthew assumed English customs and associated predominately with Europeans. He belonged to the class of doras, persons of local prominence, and was identified as an east Indian, a term usually reserved for those of mixed European and native blood. By a twist of fate, an oversight perhaps, the underlying complexities of this personal success story emerged in court records and now again in this fascinating book. Matthew died having left no will. His wife and his brother, Francis, who was involved in the family’s expanding business networks, fell out; they were unable to agree on a settlement or a legal heir, a necessary condition for their business dealings. From Matthew’s death in 1842 until Charlotte filed suit in 1854, the Abrahams “were a family in search of a law” (99). Once the case came to court, it produced a huge archive, with evidence taken from 271 witnesses and a series of conflicting verdicts.

In simplest terms, the case turned on whether Hindu or English law pertained. The Anglo-Indian system of civil or personal law mandated that Indians were governed according to their own laws whether Hindu or Muslim. As Mallampalli notes, a policy initially meant to promote religious tolerance also helped to create the fiction of coherent religious communities. The law seemed incapable of accommodating the intermingling of conditions and fluid identities that characterized the lives of the Abrahams. The legal agency of Charlotte and Francis depended on their ability to exploit the legal options open to them (in a sense, this is true of all legal proceedings). Hindu law worked to the advantage of male heirs. Charlotte and her legal councilors insisted that the family had been completely assimilated into the religion, customs, and lifestyle of Europeans and was therefore subject to English law with its emphasis on individual enterprise and ownership. Matthew’s brother was merely a business agent and subordinate family member. In contrast, Francis argued for continuity with Hindu tradition and his and Matthew’s undivided brotherhood, which would leave him as sole family heir. In this version, despite their Christian religion and European attitudes, the two brothers had been born into a class of persons who continued to observe the practice of Hindu…

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Notaries of Color in Colonial Panama: Limpieza de Sangre, Legislation, and Imperial Practices in the Administration of the Spanish Empire

Posted in Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Law, Media Archive on 2014-09-29 19:57Z by Steven

Notaries of Color in Colonial Panama: Limpieza de Sangre, Legislation, and Imperial Practices in the Administration of the Spanish Empire

The Americas
Volume 71, Number 1, July 2014
pages 37-69
DOI: 10.1353/tam.2014.0082

Silvia Espelt-Bombín
University of St Andrews, United Kingdom

On July 20, 1740, King Philip V of Spain was given paperwork regarding a dispute over the adjudication of a notarial office in Panama City and, as usual, he was expected to make a decision. The king also had in hand recommendations from the Cámara of the Consejo de Indias. The king would have handled the case in a relatively straightforward manner, but for one fact—the two notaries involved in the public bid were of African descent.

The notarial office (escribano público y del número) in question had been auctioned to Francisco Garcia y Robles, a white notary, for 1,525 pesos. A man named Jorge Geronimo Perez had also bid for it but lost, and was appealing the auction results on the grounds that the former owner of the notarial office had handed it over to him when the latter resigned. In addition, Perez argued, his long career in notarial service, including a time as assistant in the office of a notary, demonstrated his suitability for the post. To better assess his claim, the local authorities had required Perez to present documentation of his fiat (title of notary) and the dispensation of his defecto (defect), a document that stated he was of African descent—his grandmother was a mulata. However, Perez did not comply, and the case was forwarded to Spain. There, the Cámara and the king encountered a complication: the notary who had certified the auction was Joseph de Avellaneda, himself of African descent. To resolve the conflict, Philip issued a decree requesting that the two notaries of color present their fiats and dispensas de color o calidad (dispensations of color or calidad), both issued by the king, to the audiencia of Panama. If either refused to obey, he would be prevented from continuing to exercise his occupation. The decree also stated that the audiencia should not allow any mestizo or mulato to use the title of notary unless the king had provided him with an exemption for his defecto.

This case highlights the existence of a seemingly contradictory reality. Although official imperial legislation prohibited notary positions to people of African descent, the monarchs and the Consejo de Indias—and not so infrequently—granted them individual dispensas to work as notaries and to own notarial offices. The case before Philip V did not represent an isolated incident. I have identified 42 individuals of African descent who worked as notaries in Panama between the early seventeenth century and the 1810s, and frequently they owned notarial offices as well. These 42 cases demonstrate the existence of an imperial practice that started with the Habsburg monarchs and developed under the Bourbons. I argue that this practice needs to be understood within Spain’s policy of flexible legislation, which allowed for adaptations to maintain its empire. It evidences an accommodative approach on the part of metropolitan authorities to the changing social reality in the Spanish-American colonies. The practice would ultimately be made official with the late-eighteenth century gracias al sacar decrees.

In undertaking a quantitative and qualitative analysis of notaries of African descent in Panama over two centuries, this article engages with and contributes to four main lines of research in early-modern Latin American history: the role of notaries, the importance of limpieza de sangre and calidad in Spanish America, the workings of the administration of the Spanish territories, and the experience of free people of African descent. In my analysis, I question the predominant historiography that supports the notion that notaries were of Spanish descent, and maintains that African descendants were allowed to become notaries only through a combination of the crown’s economic need and a lack of interest in the occupation on the part of whites or Spaniards. I also question the suggestion that this permission was granted in significant numbers only in moments of crisis, or when there were difficulties in finding suitable candidates to occupy the posts, mostly from the early eighteenth century onward. The research I present here clearly establishes that people of color became notaries from the early seventeenth century. Even though greater public revenue might have been increasingly important in the late early-modern period, it…

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Preview: Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni questions race and identity in “One Drop of Love”

Posted in Articles, Arts, Autobiography, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Interviews, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2014-09-29 19:35Z by Steven

Preview: Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni questions race and identity in “One Drop of Love”

ArtsATL: Atlanta’s source for arts news and reviews
2014-09-21

Kelundra Smith


Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni

As an MFA candidate in the Television, Film and Theatre program at California State University, Los Angeles, Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni originally set out to make a documentary about identity and race, using her Jamaican and white ancestry as the core of the story, as her thesis project. But since her concentration was on performance, a professor advised her to do a theater piece to showcase her acting chops. So she took her footage and research and transformed the documentary into a multimedia one-woman show called One Drop of Love. She is performing that show in the Fox Theatre’s Egyptian Ballroom tonight at 7 p.m.

The title derives from the U.S. Census “one drop rule,” which states that a person who has at least one parent of African descent is automatically considered black. The daughter of a Jamaican father (Winston Barrington Cox) and white mother (Trudy Cox), DiGiovanni spent her early years in Washington, D.C., until her parents divorced and she moved to Cambridge with her mom and brother Winston. She spent much of her life questioning and aligning herself with a strong black identity, but falling in love with a European man caused her to ponder that choice more intensely.

The blue-eyed, blonde-haired actor, writer and producer married her husband, Diego, in July 2006, and her father did not attend the wedding. His absence from her nuptials caused them not to speak for seven years. But One Drop of Love needed an ending, just as her relationship with her father needed reconciliation. Here DiGiovanni talks about her ethnic identity, the role race has played in her family and a chance encounter with one of the show’s producers, actor Ben Affleck.

ArtsATL: How do you ethnically identify?

Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni: I am a culturally mixed woman searching for racial answers. That’s the best I can say, and I explore this in the show. I talk about how my ethnic identity has changed over the years, based on geography and relationships with my family. It is constantly changing. However, I got to the point politically where I had to educate myself about the way black people are treated in this country. As someone who may not look black or identify as black, I have a lot of privileges that people who don’t look like me — who aren’t light-skinned or have blue eyes — can’t take advantage of. Sometimes I think that calling myself black and aligning myself with that struggle does a disservice to people who are actively living that struggle, because they don’t have the same privileges…

…ArtsATL: In identifying as black, did that affect your relationship with your white mother?

DiGiovanni: Momma Trudy is a free spirit who loves everybody and cares deeply about justice and equality, and she was all for it. She encouraged my brother and me to attend historically black colleges. She encouraged us to identify as black. She was never hurt by my identity choices. She encouraged us to know her family, but she also shared stories about how her mother disinherited her after she married my father. She did us a great service, because she shared it all with us, including her understanding of justice and equality, especially knowing that my brother was going to move through life as an identifiable black man…

Read the entire interview here.

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Slumming and Black-and-tan Saloons: Racial Intermingling and the Challenging of Color Lines

Posted in Articles, History, United States on 2014-09-29 00:15Z by Steven

Slumming and Black-and-tan Saloons: Racial Intermingling and the Challenging of Color Lines

Researching Greenwich Village History
Companion site to Creating Digital History (NYU GA HIST.2033)
2011-11-04

Janice Liao

The mere mention of saloons immediately conjures images of people satisfying their carnal desires by imbibing large quantities of alcohol amongst a rowdy scene of drunkards. Similar images have been popularized through the slumming accounts of journalists such as Jacob Riis and undercover detectives. These stories delivered to a wide range of audiences first hand accounts and initial exposure to an underground world of debauchery and racial intermingling. As a result of journalistic slumming, the black-and-tan saloons became a site of exotic curiosity for distant onlookers to project their imagination, as well as fears. Although there are several accounts that speak of the violence, prostitution and racial intermingling that occur within and surrounding the black-and-tan saloons, the negative casting of these spaces overshadows the community functions saloons fulfilled for ethnic minorities and the working class.

Black-and-tan saloons, also called black-and-tan dives, is precisely what the name connotes – an intermixing of the African-Americans and Caucasians, as well as those of mixed heritage and Asian races. Regarded as a “low establishment,” the name was derived from a concert hall that featured “scantily clad African American women dancing for the entertainment of its mostly white customers.” The racially charged term “Black-and-tan” was used repeatedly in news mediums. Such is the case with Jacob Riis, a muckracker journalist and social documentary photographer who spoke of his encounters with black-and-tan saloons in the chapter “The Color Line in New York,” of his famous book How the Other Half Lives:

“The moral turpitude of Thompson Street has been notorious for years, and the mingling of the three elements does not seem to have wrought any change for the better. The border-land where the white and black races meet in common debauch, the aptly-named black-and-tan saloon, has never been debatable ground from a moral stand-point. It has always been the worst of the desperately bad. Than this commingling of the utterly depraved of both sexes, white and black, on such ground, there can be no greater abomination.”…

…These portraits aroused great panic amongst the whites and New York City municipal authorities and urban reformers. They believed that “the existence of black-and-tan saloons not only permitted racial intermixing, but actively promoted it.” In 1914, a letter from the general secretary of Committee of Fourteen, Frederick H. Whitin to Progressive reform photographer Lewis Hine, suggested that the black-and-tan saloons were “catering to not only to whites, as well as blacks, stimulating a mixing of the races.” Chad. H. Heap points to the sexual connotation imbued in the language. Latent in the interpretations of black-and-tan saloons are creations of racial binaries; white is emblematic of “purity” and black as “immoral.” Thus logic suggests racial intermixing would result in contamination of the white race. To take the metaphor further, Heap suggests that “tan” represents a hybrid of the races, an offspring produced from intermixing. Other racial characterizations of slummers and frequenters of black-and-tan saloons reflected negatively on these ethnically diverse establishments. For instance, black prostitutes were exoticized as being “Amazon-like” in physique and were often blamed for robberies reported by white men. Thus, black women were thought of as being wildly untamed in behavior and deemed as a social threat. Even more dangerous in the mind of reformers was how these saloons encouraged activity that blurred the line between civil activity and acts of indecency that could lead to moral corruption…

Read the entire article here.

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Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages

Posted in Books, Europe, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs on 2014-09-28 20:18Z by Steven

Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages

University Press of Florida
2014-09-02
192 pages
6×9
Cloth ISBN 13: 978-0-8130-6007-1

Lynn T. Ramey, Associate Professor of French
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee

Black Legacies looks at color-based prejudice in the medieval and modern texts in order to reveal key similarities. Bringing far-removed time periods into startling conversation, this book argues that certain attitudes and practices present in Europe’s Middle Ages were foundational in the western concept of race.

Using historical, literary, and artistic sources, Lynn Ramey show that twelfth- and thirteenth-century discourse was preoccupied with skin color and the coding of black as “evil” and white as “good.” Ramey demonstrates that fears of miscegenation show up in all medieval European societies.  She pinpoints these same ideas in the rhetoric of later centuries. Mapmakers and travel writers of the colonial era used medieval lore of “monstrous peoples” to question the humanity of indigenous New World populations, and how medieval arguments about humanness were employed to justify the slave trade. Ramey even analyzes how race is portrayed in films set in medieval Europe, revealing an enduring fascination with the Middle Ages as a touchstone for processing and coping with racial conflict in the West today.

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A Chosen Exile: History of Racial Passing in American Life

Posted in Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United States on 2014-09-26 15:52Z by Steven

A Chosen Exile: History of Racial Passing in American Life

Harvard University Press
October 2014
350 pages
5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
26 halftones
Hardcover ISBN: 9780674368101

Allyson Hobbs, Assistant Professor of History
Stanford University

Between the eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, countless African Americans passed as white, leaving behind families and friends, roots and community. It was, as Allyson Hobbs writes, a chosen exile, a separation from one racial identity and the leap into another. This revelatory history of passing explores the possibilities and challenges that racial indeterminacy presented to men and women living in a country obsessed with racial distinctions. It also tells a tale of loss.

As racial relations in America have evolved so has the significance of passing. To pass as white in the antebellum South was to escape the shackles of slavery. After emancipation, many African Americans came to regard passing as a form of betrayal, a selling of one’s birthright. When the initially hopeful period of Reconstruction proved short-lived, passing became an opportunity to defy Jim Crow and strike out on one’s own.

Although black Americans who adopted white identities reaped benefits of expanded opportunity and mobility, Hobbs helps us to recognize and understand the grief, loneliness, and isolation that accompanied—and often outweighed—these rewards. By the dawning of the civil rights era, more and more racially mixed Americans felt the loss of kin and community was too much to bear, that it was time to “pass out” and embrace a black identity. Although recent decades have witnessed an increasingly multiracial society and a growing acceptance of hybridity, the problem of race and identity remains at the center of public debate and emotionally fraught personal decisions.

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Contours of a People: Metis Family, Mobility, and History ed. by Nicole St-Onge, Carolyn Podruchny, and Brenda MacDougall (review) [Haggarty]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Canada, History, Media Archive, Native Americans/First Nation on 2014-09-26 15:31Z by Steven

Contours of a People: Metis Family, Mobility, and History ed. by Nicole St-Onge, Carolyn Podruchny, and Brenda MacDougall (review) [Haggarty]

The Canadian Historical Review
Volume 95, Number 3, September 2014
pages 463-465
DOI: 10.1353/can.2014.0057

Liam Haggarty
Mount Royal University, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

St-Onge, Nicole, Carolyn Podruchny, and Brenda Macdougall (eds.), Maria Campbell (fore.), Contours of a People: Metis Family, Mobility, and History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012).

Reflecting on the state of Metis scholarship in Canada, Maria Campbell writes, “It is crucial for us to research and document our own stories and to share and discuss them at a community level. To celebrate them is a part of our decolonizing” (xxv ). That lofty goal is shared by the editors of and contributors to this collection, which both celebrates the work of pioneers in the field, specifically Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer S.H. Brown, and charts new paths of study. Although firmly rooted in the Western scholarly tradition, it seeks to focus greater attention on family, mobility, and connectedness – themes that will resonate in Metis communities beyond the walls of academia.

In addition to Campbell’s thoughtful foreword, the collection consists of an introduction and fourteen chapters that encompass a wide range of geographies (from the Great Lakes to British Columbia, from Wisconsin to Creole communities in Alaska), timeframes (from the eighteenth century through to the present day), and topics and methodologies (including women’s history, legal history, biography, discourse analysis, and historical geography). By and large, these chapters address ongoing areas of research and familiar questions in the field pertaining to ethnogenesis, cultural distinctiveness, homelands, key events, regional diversity, politicization, and identity. In so doing, they add significantly to the breadth, depth, and texture of Metis historiography and fulfill the editors’ mandate: to trace the contours of Metis peoples and communities, what binds them together, what separates them from others, and what it means to be Metis in specific places, times, and contexts.

Some contributors simultaneously push the boundaries of conventional Metis historiography by adopting innovative approaches that challenge basic assumptions about Metis histories and the lenses through which Metis cultures are often viewed. Historians Nicole St-Onge and Carolyn Podruchny, for example, problematize simplistic interpretations of Metis ethnogenesis by investigating the significance and meaning of “material and emotional ties of kinship and loyalty” (63) to Metis culture and lifeways. Similarly, historical geographer Philip D. Wolfart challenges us to view Metis ethnogenesis and identity aspatially, as concepts bounded not by places visited or land used but by “a system of social obligation and fealty” (121) based on one’s social networks and relationships, while historical and cultural geographer Etienne Rivard asks us to consider the influence that “oral geographies” (144) have had on Metis constructions of identity and senses of place. In the book’s penultimate chapter, Native studies scholar Chris Anderson surveys the challenges associated with translating nuanced interpretations of Metis mobility, communities, and identity into the juridical arena of the Canadian legal system, arguing that although the courts acknowledge the importance of mobility to Metis culture, “older settlement-based understandings” continue to carry greater weight (412–13). Lastly, Native studies scholar Brenda Macdougall explores the concept of ambivalence not only in the formation of Metis identities but also as a trend in Metis historiography that potentially obscures complicated and multifaceted expressions of biculturality, thereby perpetuating simplistic binary understandings of individual and collective identities. By thus situating family, mobility, and connectedness at the centre of Metis culture, these chapters de-centre Euro-centric frameworks of analysis and ways of knowing, and privilege Metis perspectives on the past and present.

These nuanced and innovative analyses also raise important questions that remain underrepresented in Metis historiography. The collective identities informed by ideas of mobility, family, and historical consciousness, for example, are about exclusion as well as inclusion. Who, then, is being left out of Metis communities through ethnogenesis and identity making? To what extent do gender and class relations, as well as other markers of difference, intersect Metisness? How have Metis identities been instrumentalized to exclude as well as include certain individuals and groups? These questions may lie largely beyond the scope of the text but they are nonetheless important to the type of decolonized scholarship Campbell calls for. Understanding the contours of a people requires us to engage both external and internal relations of power.

As a whole, this collection represents a valuable addition to Metis and Aboriginal historiography, and it is a fitting tribute to Peterson, Brown, and other pioneers in the field. By surveying a broad geographic area and covering a wide range of topics…

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Making Race in the Courtroom: The Legal Construction of Three Races in Early New Orleans

Posted in Books, History, Law, Louisiana, Monographs, United States on 2014-09-22 17:53Z by Steven

Making Race in the Courtroom: The Legal Construction of Three Races in Early New Orleans

New York University Press
September 2014
272 pages
1 figure, 2 tables illustrations
Cloth ISBN: 9780814724316

Kenneth R. Aslakson, Associate Professor of History
Union College, Schenectady, New York

No American city’s history better illustrates both the possibilities for alternative racial models and the role of the law in shaping racial identity than New Orleans, Louisiana, which prior to the Civil War was home to America’s most privileged community of people of African descent. In the eyes of the law, New Orleans’s free people of color did not belong to the same race as enslaved Africans and African-Americans. While slaves were “negroes,” free people of color were gens de couleur libre, creoles of color, or simply creoles. New Orleans’s creoles of color remained legally and culturally distinct from “negroes” throughout most of the nineteenth century until state mandated segregation lumped together descendants of slaves with descendants of free people of color.

Much of the recent scholarship on New Orleans examines what race relations in the antebellum period looked as well as why antebellum Louisiana’s gens de couleur enjoyed rights and privileges denied to free blacks throughout most of the United States. This book, however, is less concerned with the what and why questions than with how people of color, acting within institutions of power, shaped those institutions in ways beyond their control. As its title suggests, Making Race in the Courtroom argues that race is best understood not as a category, but as a process. It seeks to demonstrate the role of free people of African-descent, interacting within the courts, in this process.

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GUEST COLUMN: Brazil’s solution on race relations differs from U.S.

Posted in Articles, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2014-09-19 21:36Z by Steven

GUEST COLUMN: Brazil’s solution on race relations differs from U.S.

The Tuscaloosa News
Tuscaloosa, Alabama
2014-09-13

Larry Clayton, Professor of History Emeritus
University of Alabama

I had a friend from the Dominican Republic who came to the University of Alabama and Stillman College on a joint Fulbright appointment years ago. He was a well-known and respected poet and writer in his own land and, after a few months, he remarked to me, “Larry, I didn’t realize I was a black until I came to this country!”

The question of race, such a painful and rancorous illness in American society, has not played out the same in other countries with similar historical backgrounds.

A few years ago, Carl Degler wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning study titled “Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States.” His theme was summarized in the phrase the “mulatto escape hatch.” Degler compared the role of race in the histories of Brazil and the U.S.

Degler was curious: Why was Brazil thought to be a “racial democracy” of sorts, while the United States was fighting its way out of segregation? Both countries had had large African slave populations — Brazil’s much larger than America’s — both had emancipated the slaves in the 19th century, both were functioning republics and both were colonized by European settlers. So, why such different racial trajectories?

The difference was the “mulatto escape hatch,” or the ability of people of mixed races in Brazil to rise up and integrate across Brazilian society without their color or background being held against them…

Read the entire article here.

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The Octoroon: A Tragic Mulatto Enslaved by 1 Drop

Posted in Arts, Europe, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Slavery on 2014-09-19 21:25Z by Steven

The Octoroon: A Tragic Mulatto Enslaved by 1 Drop

The Root
2014-09-09

Image of the Week: A sculpture addresses the ramifications for those who were mixed-race.


John Bell, The Octoroon, 1868. Marble, 159.6 cm high. Town Hall, Blackburn, U.K.

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Though it would hardly seem likely at first glance, this pallid image of slavery directly addresses the condition of black bondage. To all appearances, the young woman seen here represents a white captive. Except for her chains, she could pass for a conventional likeness of Venus, the classical goddess of love. As indicated by the inscription on the base of the statue, she is instead an octoroon—that is, an exceptionally light-skinned person of mixed race, technically defined as one-eighth black and the rest white.

The condition was reached by gradual degrees of miscegenation, or racial mixing, until the complexion of an individual often became indistinguishable from a person of “pure” white ancestry. In race-conscious societies, the prospect of racial mixture could threaten the precarious stability of the dominant order. The position of the octoroon along the edge of this fragile divide afforded some degree of maneuverability, often termed “passing.” Before the abolition of slavery, however, such light-skinned mulattoes faced the even more likely prospect of a life in bondage…

This demure, pensive vision of miscegenation and its dire consequences was made by the popular British sculptor John Bell. Through artfully constructed layers of sentimentality and aesthetic contrivance emerges one of the primary justifications for the enslavement of a whole group of human beings: the notion of one drop of black blood, the “drop sinister,” by which a light-skinned person could be consigned to a life of bondage…

Read the entire article here.

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