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"I Was Ashamed to be Seen to Look at Them": Black Characters in the Remaking of Transatlantic Whiteness

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Abstract:

Often in studies of the early modern Atlantic, racial ideology is positioned as belated justification for the rise of slave labor in the Americas or the result of Linnaeus' paradigm-shaping biological classifications. Yet the epochal shifts posited by the orthodox Marxist account of the former and the narrow intellectual history of the latter account neither for white intraracial contestation nor, consequently, for the shifting alliances but remarkable durability of white hegemony. To undertake this intraracial analysis in the era of the early US republic, I ply the crucial eighteenth-century term of character. For white spectators, character encompassed both the reputation for a free nature they hoped to accumulate and the alphabets, actors, and Africans they employed to attain this reputation. Sitting at the crossroads of social imagination and material life, character helps us see the materials out of which narrative is made and the reality narratives give us to see.
As a case study, I analyze Abigail Adams� accounts of her time abroad as an American spectator and target of the British press. Touring Europe in the mid-1780s with her husband John�the fledgling United States� first ambassador to England�Mrs. Adams had to manage how she watched�and was seen to watch�opera in France and and Othello in London. Patriotic audiences at home and Tory enemies in England considered her apparel and demeanor a measure of the American nation. As feminist historians have noted, the images of women as drudges or ravenous consumers propelled the discourse of empire in the Anglophone world. To shore up her own reputation and thus save those of her husband and country, Adams had to compose a proper white American femininity. I argue that her letters home served the purpose in hiding her excited, watching body, substituting for it a collection of judgments having the force of proverbs. In attending very closely to Adams� physical and political exposure and to the means by which she sought to transform them into protected authority, I ask: Did the terror of constraining characterizations prompt whites to perform their mastery of other, black characters in pursuit of public confirmation of their independence? If so, were African figures imported into a game already defined by Europeans� relations to characters--reputations, alphanumeric marks, and actors? Along with helping us see the interdependence of subnational, national, and transnational identities and projects, this essay will also urge a reconsideration of the origins of racial hierarchy.

Key words:
character, whiteness, blackness, race, gender, authority, authorship, literacy, hegemony, habitus, early US republic, British Atlantic
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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http://www.theasa.net


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MLA Citation:

Grier, Miles. ""I Was Ashamed to be Seen to Look at Them": Black Characters in the Remaking of Transatlantic Whiteness" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico, <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p243829_index.html>

APA Citation:

Grier, M. P. ""I Was Ashamed to be Seen to Look at Them": Black Characters in the Remaking of Transatlantic Whiteness" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p243829_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: Often in studies of the early modern Atlantic, racial ideology is positioned as belated justification for the rise of slave labor in the Americas or the result of Linnaeus' paradigm-shaping biological classifications. Yet the epochal shifts posited by the orthodox Marxist account of the former and the narrow intellectual history of the latter account neither for white intraracial contestation nor, consequently, for the shifting alliances but remarkable durability of white hegemony. To undertake this intraracial analysis in the era of the early US republic, I ply the crucial eighteenth-century term of character. For white spectators, character encompassed both the reputation for a free nature they hoped to accumulate and the alphabets, actors, and Africans they employed to attain this reputation. Sitting at the crossroads of social imagination and material life, character helps us see the materials out of which narrative is made and the reality narratives give us to see.
As a case study, I analyze Abigail Adams� accounts of her time abroad as an American spectator and target of the British press. Touring Europe in the mid-1780s with her husband John�the fledgling United States� first ambassador to England�Mrs. Adams had to manage how she watched�and was seen to watch�opera in France and and Othello in London. Patriotic audiences at home and Tory enemies in England considered her apparel and demeanor a measure of the American nation. As feminist historians have noted, the images of women as drudges or ravenous consumers propelled the discourse of empire in the Anglophone world. To shore up her own reputation and thus save those of her husband and country, Adams had to compose a proper white American femininity. I argue that her letters home served the purpose in hiding her excited, watching body, substituting for it a collection of judgments having the force of proverbs. In attending very closely to Adams� physical and political exposure and to the means by which she sought to transform them into protected authority, I ask: Did the terror of constraining characterizations prompt whites to perform their mastery of other, black characters in pursuit of public confirmation of their independence? If so, were African figures imported into a game already defined by Europeans� relations to characters--reputations, alphanumeric marks, and actors? Along with helping us see the interdependence of subnational, national, and transnational identities and projects, this essay will also urge a reconsideration of the origins of racial hierarchy.

Key words:
character, whiteness, blackness, race, gender, authority, authorship, literacy, hegemony, habitus, early US republic, British Atlantic


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