The Baptism of Early Virginia

The Baptism of Early Virginia September 20, 2012

Over at Religion in American History, our friends have posted a fascinating interview with Rebecca Goetz, author of the recently published The Baptism of Early Virginia (Johns Hopkins University Press).

A few highlights:

– On in importance of religion for understanding race in early American history: This was the early 2000s, so race, class, and gender were hot topics. In seminar everyone was talking about the obligatory “Foucault footnote” (my book doesn’t have one!). Kathleen Brown’s deeply influential book Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (1996) was only a few years old. But what bothered me about a lot of that literature was that religion was incidental….a mere cultural artifact that illustrated the influences of other analytical categories (e.g. race and gender) on the creation of race.

– On when “race” emerged as an important concept in American history: We as scholars also like to come up with broad explanations: race came about to justify slavery. Race came into existence because of those pesky Enlightenment philosophers who wanted to categorize everything. By the way, I don’t think that either of these two explanations are wrong. But we have gotten stuck having debates that vacillate between these two poles. It’s like having a conversation about the chicken and the egg: which came first? race or slavery? As I worked on this book those explanations and debates became less and less satisfying. It became clear to me that English people in the Chesapeake were observing, defining, and making meaning out of observed human differences pretty much from 1607 on. “Race” is the best word we have for describing this phenomenon.  

What I think now, in a nutshell: “race” is a adaptable category that has meant different thing to different people in different places at different times. The ways in which people choose to articulate race, and the ways in which they choose to resist it, are historically contingent. I think in general that Europeans reinvented race each generation to suit their needs for power and domination. That’s why I don’t think my explanation of an idea of race among Anglo-Virginians excludes the explanation of a scholar who sees the force of the Enlightenment behind late eighteenth-century articulations of race. “Race” is deeply, perversely fungible that way, which is why as a concept it has been so destructive.
Consider the above a small taste and preview. RiAH will continue the interview and discussion over the next two days.

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