Sharon Block, Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).
“In Colonial Complexions, historian Sharon Block examines how Anglo-Americans built racial ideologies out of descriptions of physical appearance. By analyzing more than 4,000 advertisements for fugitive servants and slaves in colonial newspapers alongside scores of trans-Atlantic sources, she reveals how colonists transformed observable characteristics into racist reality. Building on her expertise in digital humanities, Block re-repurposes these well-known historical sources to newly highlight how daily language called race and identity into being before the rise of scientific racism.
“In the eighteenth century, a multitude of characteristics beyond skin color factored into racial assumptions, and complexion did not have a stable or singular meaning. Colonists justified a race-based slave labor system not by opposing black and white but by accumulating differences in the bodies they described: racism was made real by marking variation from a norm on some bodies, and variation as the norm on others. Such subtle systemizations of racism naturalized enslavement into bodily description, erased Native American heritage, and privileged life history as a crucial marker of free status only for people of European-based identities.
“Colonial Complexions suggests alternative possibilities to modern formulations of racial identities and offers a precise historical analysis of the beliefs behind evolving notions of race-based differences in North American history.”