A New History of Race?

StampedI am not a historian of race, but, as an American historian, I do teach a lot about the role that race has played in the history of the United States.  This week in my Pennsylvania History class we have been discussing the 1838 Pennsylvania Constitution and the framers’ decision to restrict voting rights to free white men.  The new constitution allowed Pennsylvanians to get up to speed with the universal (white) manhood suffrage that was pervading much of Jacksonian America, but it also represented a step backwards for free blacks.  The original 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution gave voting rights to all free men, including blacks.  The 1790 Constitution limited voting rights to taxpayers, but did not distinguish taxpayers based on race.

Studying these three Pennsylvania constitutions reminds us that history does not consistently bend toward progress.

I do my best to keep fresh on new books related to race in America.  The Author’s Corner helps.  So do my attempts at curating the history Internet in an attempt to keep this blog going.  I thus always appreciate historiographical posts like Eran Zelnik‘s piece at U.S. Intellectual History Blog: “Should we be talking about the new history of race?

Here is a taste:

Over the last several years there have been numerous discussions, panels, articles, and other commentary about the “new history of capitalism.” Books such as Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, Edward Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told, and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams have been on everyone’s radar as a fresh new historiographical tradition. While I have learned much from these books, one of the most unfortunate aspects of this so-called “new” history is that it views itself as new and novel rather than rooted in a long tradition of black radical thought. (Walter Johnson is less guilty of this than Beckert and Baptist). And for the most part we historians have embraced this historiography at face value as new.

Another historiographical tradition that has its roots in black radical thought has emergedover the last several decades much more quietly—perhaps because it refused to claim its novelty. Often grounding itself much more explicitly—and in my opinion thoughtfully—with this powerful intellectual tradition, the recent history of race as a social and cultural construction has changed the way we think about race. In hindsight it now seems to me that 2016 was the year in which the intellectual history of racial constructions reached new heights with three truly ground-breaking works of intellectual history: Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation by Nicholas Guyatt, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution by Robert Parkinson, and, of course, the National Book Award winner, the magisterial Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram Kendi.

Guyatt’s book provides a much-needed inquiry into the intellectual history that made the patently contradictory and heinous notion of “separate but equal” thinkable and compelling for Americans. It also offers historians a crucial template for assessing anti-black and anti-Indian racism within the same intellectual landscape. Parkinson’s book is an exhaustive account of how ideas about race galvanized the opposition to the British during the American Revolution. It is the best attempt so far to finally wrest the intellectual history of the American Revolution from the stranglehold of the republicanism/liberalism debates. Kendi’s book is quite a marvelous achievement of intellectual history that charts the history of anti-black racist ideas. Cutting through numerous Gordian Knots with impressive intellectual precision, I believe that it will replace Winthrop Jordan’s classic White Over Black as the seminal intellectual history of race in American historiography.

Read the rest here.

One thought on “A New History of Race?

  1. I’m currently reading “The Negro in Colonial New England”. Found my copy at a consignment store nearby, and paid $3.00 for it…my 1969 reprint sold for $3.45! I plan to share this with our bi-racial Granddaughters after I determine whether the William Pepperell identified as the 4th largest slave holder at one point in Massachusetts is indeed the very one for which our town was named!

    Joseph Eshleman MC Alumnus, 1966-68

    Sent from my iPad, Grampy E,

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