Richard H. King on Winthrop D. Jordan’s White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812 (1969)
We don’t generally link the historiography of race and slavery with intellectual history, but the connection is certainly there. Not only was there a slave experience (or set of experiences) in what became the United States, there were also pre-existing ideas about slavery and race. The single book that explored this collision between experience and ideas was Winthrop D. Jordan’s White Over Black (1968). A massively researched history of white attitudes toward race and slavery up to the early nineteenth century, Jordan’s book was invaluable in making sense of what I was reading on these matters while I was at grad school at the University of Virginia (1966-68). At the time, I was also reading Freud and Faulkner. For all their differences in approach and genre, both were obsessed with the role of memory in the (mal-)formation of the self, whether individual or collective. For them, like Joyce’s Stephen Daedelus, “history is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Jordan, then a young professor of history at Berkeley, systematically uncovered the historical depth to contemporary American racial realities. For him, historical and social oppression was closely related to long-standing, psychological repression.
Specifically, White Over Black hit the ground running by exploring the sexualisation of race and the racialization of sex in the first two centuries of the settlement of British North America. Of course, others had been there before. Social psychologist John Dollard in the 1930s, then later novelist Lillian Smith (not to mention Faulkner), historian Earle Thorpe, Jr. and writer Calvin Hernton, had explored the southern parts of this treacherous territory, but Jordan’s book mapped it in its entirety. Except for a brilliant chapter on Jefferson, Jordan shied away from engaging in long distance psychoanalyses. According to David Hollinger, Jordan had been an undergraduate major in social psychology, a fact that may help explain his emphasis upon the collective themes, motifs, images and ideas about race as they were found “at various levels of consciousness and unconsciousness”(viii) among whites. As “social mirrors” (40), Jordan contended, African Americans were the creations of unconscious white projections. Put another way, Jordan’s basic quest was to recreate the “social meaning of blackness” (513). First conceived of primarily as heathens, people of African descent eventually came to be perceived through the lenses of color, work and sexuality. Symbolically, libidinally and morally, the black body was central. Reading literary and philosophical texts (Othello and John Locke) as sensitively as he did scientific treatises, travel accounts and ships logs, Jordan’s book was written with passion and wit. Above all it rewarded the reader (or at least this reader) with the sense of following an argument/narrative that was fraught with meaning, not only for an understanding of the past but also for the present.
As analyses of Jordan’s book make clear, White Over Black focused on how race and racism had been constructed in North America. But a systematic ideology of racism, (as opposed to situational biases and unthinking prejudice), he insisted only came into clear focus in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. But paradoxically, just as this was happening, various cross-currents of thought were undermining the ideology of slavery. To make this point stick, Jordan daringly used Thomas Jefferson as a vehicle for generalizing about white thinking about black men and women. Jefferson’s “central dilemma”, wrote Jordan, was that he “hated slavery but thought Negroes inferior to white men” (429). Along with David Brion Davis’s work, Jordan’s fifty-two page demolition of Jefferson’s reputation was one from which the sage of Monticello has never fully recovered. Yet Jordan by no means suggested the inevitability of racism. The ideology of white supremacy and the defenses of slavery were not accepted without a certain struggle. The idea of natural rights posited the spiritual equality of human beings. The problem, however, was that shared humanity did not mean equality of capacities. Great Chain of Being reasoning made it possible to think of Africans as last among equals and closer to the apes. (See Notes on Virginia.) Second, and most startling as I remember the late 1960s, was Jordan’s emphasis on the religious provenance of the anti-slavery impulse and concern with equality. If there are white heroes in Jordan’s story, the Quakers—not the scientists, certainly not the Founding Fathers– probably stand at the top of the list. Finally, the development of an environmentalist, as opposed to essentialist, explanation for human behaviour allowed the people of that time to think about the contingency of inequality and difference. Finally, Jordan also emphasized the spiritual/psychological dislocation involved in settlement of the New World. From this perspective, white racism served a larger need for order and hierarchy. By 1812 when the book ends, the age of revolution had given way to one of retrenchment, with slavery again on the march, and fear of a slave rebellion a la San Domingue permeating white society, particularly in the slave states. Drawing upon both rank prejudice and scientific thought, most white Americans had come to believe that “the proper color of man was white” (424). From this it followed that the United States was, and should remain, a “white man’s country.” Biology underpinned political morality. Perhaps most importantly, Jordan’s point in White Over Black was that white racism was pervasive not only in the slave states but everywhere white Americans settled. In this he provided the historical evidence to back up Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 thesis that race was a “white man’s problem” in America.
Jordan’s book was not without its weaknesses. In quick succession, Jordan can sound too optimistic about the strength of anti-slavery opinion in the 1770s and 1780s, yet reverse himself and emphasize the way that the new republic was blanketed by white racism and a recently revived slavery after the first decade of the nineteenth century. That said, Jordan’s focus on the inseparability of race and slavery prevents White over Black from being an uncontextualized history of white American racial attitudes. He always tries to emphasize that those attitudes were inseparable from the development of chattel slavery and, also, from racial demographics. In this sense, Jordan had written a social history of ideas. There may also be something to the suggestion that the influence of White over Black waned remarkably quickly. During the 1970s the historiography of slavery and race focused particularly on the nineteenth century, particularly on the fate of the slave family (Genovese, Gutman) and the economic productivity of slavery in the cliometric work of Fogel and Engerman. Also, few historians, white or black, were very comfortable writing about the intersection of sexuality and race. Finally, the growing emphasis upon slave culture as a culture of resistance and of creativity meant that rebellious not libidinous slaves captured the imagination of most historians of the subject, while white fantasies were easy to dismiss as a causally trivial or an irrelevance.
From our vantage point (circa 2015), White Over Black was very much correct in its emphasis upon the modernity of white racism. The latter was no historical fossil, but an invention of Europeans in the New World. That the United States represented a break with Europe and offered new possibilities for those who came there was, in part, true. But the values it stood for were not simply universal equality and liberty, but also differential (racial) equality and a society that was half-slave and half free.
Richard H. King is professor emeritus at Nottingham University UK. His most recent book, Arendt and America (Chicago University Press) was published in October 2015.
Many thanks to David Hollinger, Cheryl Hudson, and Ted Ownby for responding to my questions about Winthrop Jordan’s life and career. Two excellent analysis of Jordan’s White Over Black are: James Campbell and James Oakes, “The Invention of Race: Rereading White Over Black,” American Retrospectives: Historians on Histories, ed. by Stanley I. Kutler (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1995), 282-293 and Laurence Shore, “The enduring Power of Racism: A Reconsideration of Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black,” History and Theory,44,2 (May 2005): 195-226.