in Bodies complexioned
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In much Anglo-American scholarship, the mid-seventeenth century marks a gradual yet decisive turning point in how the English gauged bodily variation and the consequences of drawing social distinctions based upon it. Particularly in the context of New World colonies coming to depend on chattel slavery, the crux of ‘whites’ versus ‘blacks’ slowly took hold thereafter. Over the next century, continued dispossession of America’s first peoples would forge a third term, ‘reds’. Since this reduction of people to their skin-colour(s), racism has stalked Anglophone culture even if explanations of how and why pigmentation differs have changed. But we should be wary of assuming that evidence of populations – English, African, or American – first being identified using still familiar terms proves a kind of Ur-moment in the history of bodily prejudice and attendant inequality. Studies have claimed to trace the emergence of racism – after untold instances of the subjugation and enslavement of non-Europeans in the Anglo-Atlantic – on the basis that central cultural tenets prevented and then inhibited it. The humoral body was profoundly mutable and variations in its distinguishing features, including skin, were therefore transient. Equally, however, humans were believed all one, by courtesy of their descent from Adam and Eve.

Bodies complexioned

Human variation and racism in early modern English culture, c. 1600–1750


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