The Newberry Seminar in Early American History, co-sponsored by the University of Chicago, DePaul University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northern Illinois University, and Northwestern University present:
"Wages of Blackness: Domestic Constructions of Racial Identity in 1790's Philadelphia"
Thursday, April 25, 2002, 3:30-5:30 pm
Leading historians of "white nationalism" in the 1790s have tended to rely solely on published male-authored sources and have, thus, either explicitly or implicitly portrayed efforts to promote the claims of white citizenship as an exclusively public male endeavor. In addition, these scholars have emphasized the inconsistencies, contradictions, slippages, and instabilities that they see as inherent in the racialist rhetoric of the period. A shift of focus to private writings, particularly the correspondence that was produced during Philadelphia's 1793 yellow fever epidemic, reveals a much more solidified racialist discourse involving both white men and women as authors and as recipients of correspondence. By utilizing sources that emanated from the domestic sphere, this study makes two major claims. First, it demonstrates how whites highlighted the "blackness" of African Americans and then stigmatized it. White Philadelphians did so through their use of the descriptor "black" as a major marker of racial difference, by designating black bodies as physically distinct from white bodies, and by depicting African-American behavior as generally inferior to that of whites. Second, it documents a connection between white racialist thinking and the blurring of gender boundaries by attributing similar traits and behaviors to both white men and women. White women, therefore, were central to the process of creating a racially bifurcated civil society in the 1790's both as historic participants and as bearers of certain masculine characteristics that served to diminish gender differences at the same time that whites in general were emphasizing racial distinctions.
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Scholl Center for Family and Community History
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Chicago, IL 60610
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