All this seems worlds away from where we are now, but despite its comparative remoteness, the colonial period in America, as experienced in both the North and the South, in very critical ways helped define who we are today. For one thing, it was during that period that the basic meanings of “whiteness” and “blackness” were in the process of being defined for the American population. However it has been expressed over the years, the association of whiteness with power and privilege, blackness with relative powerlessness and second-class status, began to take shape in this time and has been a persistent feature of life in America ever since. It has survived revolution, civil war, massive immigration, two world wars, the Cold War, and the tremendous social upheaval during the latter part of the twentieth century. Because we are still living with this, it is worthwhile for us to consider the world that greeted the matriarch of the Hemings family in the mid-1700s.
The Africans and the English
By the 1730s, the decade in which Elizabeth Hemings was born to an African mother and an English father, the institution that would define her life and those of her descendants for years to come was firmly in place. Virginia was a full-fledged slave society 116 years after a small number of Africans (“negars”) arrived at Jamestown, the English colony on the James River. It was during those years that white Virginians transformed their laws, culture, and economy to make slavery based upon race the very foundation of their way of life.
The transformation was hardly instantaneous. It took time—spanning the last seven decades of the 1600s—for the English colonists, or the leading lights of the colony, to define the terms of engagement between Africans and the English in that corner of the New World. What they settled upon foretold a life of pain and struggle for the Africans and their progeny over many generations, and prosperity (or at least the hope of it) for the English and their descendants.
Negative views about the color black existed within English culture long before Englishmen actually encountered people with “black” skin. Black was evil. Black was dirty. Although other evidence suggests that people of African origin were not universally reviled in England, the tendency to see black negatively was definitely a part of English culture. Naturally, its view of whiteness carried all the opposite meanings. Color, then, became an expression of a person’s essence.