Many of you may know her from her pioneering blog Historianess, which she began as a graduate student and where she chronicled the conception and birth of her dissertation which became "Amazing Mr. Book." Rebecca is Assistant Professor of History at Rice University, and with this new book completed, she is embarking on an exciting new project involving research in archives in the U.S., England, and Latin America: Indian Enslavement in the English Atlantic World, 1500-1700. I can't wait to see that project develop further. Without further adieu, then, Part I of our interview below. Parts 2 and 3 will follow Thursday and Friday. Oh, and you can follow Rebecca (and the adventures of Pepper and Elsa) on Twitter here, and like her book on Facebook here.
1) Rebecca, talk about the path that led you to this topic in the
first place, and to early American history more generally. Of all
the things you could have done/studied at Harvard, how did you end
up with this topic and approach? Who were your main influences in
grad. school, and how did they influence you?
When I went to college, I was going to be a double major in Spanish and Political Science. I came out the other end a double major in German and History. Go figure! I credit Jim Leamon, my undergraduate mentor, with convincing me that being a history major would be a good way to go. I just loved his class on colonial New England, and after I took that in the first semester of my sophomore year, I was a convert. I ended up writing a senior thesis on the Revolutionary War diary of a Massachusetts soldier named William Dorr. I was interested in why his diary was almost identical to several others. (The answer to your question is most likely pension fraud--getting a pension was difficult if you didn’t have direct evidence that you had participated in a particular campaign. This was especially true of Dorr’s campaign--Benedict Arnold’s March to Quebec in the winter of 1775-1776.) I had so much fun writing that thesis that I knew I wanted to keep doing history professionally.
I thought I would go to Harvard to study soldiers’ diaries. And my advisor, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, was a recognized expert on colonial diaries. But I got sidetracked in my second year of graduate school. I took Joyce Chaplin’s research seminar on race in early America. As I was selecting a topic, I happened upon William Waller Hening’s early nineteenth-century edition of Virginia’s colonial laws. Almost immediately I noticed that early Virginia lawmakers conflated what moderns would call religious and racial descriptors. So they used the words “English” and “Christian”, and later in the seventeenth century, “white,” interchangeably. They also conflated words like “black,” “tawny,” and “savage” with “pagan” or “heathen.” Though sometimes Hening introduced these categories in his marginal notes, it was pretty clear that he was picking up on seventeenth-century categories. And so I wondered: what did English people think they were doing when they used the words “English” and “Christian” interchangeably?
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. Yet Hening’s Statutes suggested to me that religion, in this case Christianity, was hardly incidental...it was fundamental. So I wrote a seminar paper about how Christianity created race in early Virginia. I remember finishing it and thinking to myself, “I’ve barely scratched the surface here.” and I went to see Joyce. I asked her if this would make a good dissertation, and she said yes, and the rest as they say is history.
When I started talking to people about my dissertation, I had an uphill battle convincing people that the topic was both justified and doable. One of the prime objections was there was no religion to speak of in early Virginia. Luckily Ed Bond had just come out with his Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony: Religion in Seventeenth-Century Virginia (2000) and I started referring people to that. (Bond’s book is really overlooked, I think. He makes a strong case for religion *mattering* in early Virginia and I think he does a great job showing how an Anglo-Virginian Anglican piety developed by the late seventeenth century.) I don’t have to spend as much time doing that anymore; I think scholars are pretty convinced that religion matters in the early Chesapeake, even if it matters in a different way than say. in New England. Others were sceptical that I would find sources. I have a fond memory of explaining to a senior scholar in my field that I would find evidence of the Christian construction of race in county court records. She looked puzzled and said, “Oh, you’ll never find anything like that.” But I thought, if Kathleen Brown found gender in the archives, I’ll find race and religion. And I did. I found more evidence than I was able to include in the manuscript!
2) You had a lot of fun using your blog for a collective poll/jam
session on possible titles for your book. Eventually you ended up
with "The Baptism of Early Virginia." How did that one come out on
top? What were some other possible titles you considered?
The seminar paper I finished was titled “Lurking Indians, Outlying Negroes, and Christian English.” Barfy! My friend and colleague Louis Hyman suggested that I call the dissertation “From Potential Christians to Hereditary Heathens.” He even coined the phrase “hereditary heathens.” So that was the dissertation and I was calling the manuscript that, but it was clear that that title wasn’t very marketable. My friend Manan Ahmed suggested a new title: “Creating a Christian Race in Virginia, 1550-1750.” I really liked that one. It was short, sweet, and an accurate indication of the book’s contents. And it abbreviated to CCR. Also awesome. But the press didn’t like that one. They wanted “The Baptism of Early Virginia.” I thought that option was pretty dreadful, which is why I did the poll. I was surprised that so many people liked it, and then I remembered, I’m an historian, not a marketing professional. So I lobbied hard for the subtitle, “How Christianity Created Race,” because I wanted to make sure a potential reader could tell from the title what the book is actually about. The title has really grown on me and people seem to like it, so....success?
3) Your book steps into one of the biggest debates over the last
couple of generations of scholarship in early America -- basically
the "timing and origins of American racism" debate, with some
arguing previously that ideology ruled over everything, and others
suggesting that racism emerged later largely as a product of the
evolution of slavery combined with the influence of Enlightenment
ideas of racial categorizations. Talk about your main contribution
to this debate, and how you came to your conclusion about placing
"race" as an idea much earlier in American history than is seen in
I think one of the main problems with the way this debate has been structured has been that many scholars want to have a rigid definition of race; that “race” is only one thing, and it is an ahistorical category. This is in part because we like to define our terms. It’s very easy to say, well, this is what race is, and then go digging for it in the past. 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. (This idea isn’t new: James Sweet wrote in the late 1990s about “racism before race” and Joyce Chaplin wrote about “racial idiom” about the same time. Both scholars think race was articulated early and often in the Spanish and English Atlantic worlds.) The questions that became more important to me were “how” and “why” English people articulated race.
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.