The Baptism of Early Virginia: Interview with Rebecca Goetz, Part 2

Here is part two of our interview with Rebecca Goetz about her new book The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

4) One of the older classics in this field is Winthrop Jordan's
WHITE OVER BLACK. I recently re-read that, for the first time in a
good long while, and was amazed to see how much he anticipated more
contemporary discussions of issues such as "whiteness." What is your
view of Jordan's book? Did it influence you in any way? What are its
primary strengths and shortcomings?

White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American Hist)White over Black is a huge book, encyclopedic in its coverage, and prescient in the kinds of questions it asked. It loomed very large for me, especially as I was writing the dissertation proposal. One of its great strengths is that it covers a great deal of territory, both geographically and temporally. If Kenneth Stampp was the historian who taught us how to think about slavery historically, then I think Jordan fulfilled a similar function for scholars who are interested in articulations of race and white supremacy. My main issue with Jordan is his description of the English decision to adopt the wholesale enslavement of Africans as an “unthinking decision.” The English did that deliberately, with malice aforethought.

5) A HUGE takeaway point of your book is how religion was vital to
creating "race" as a category. If you will, explain briefly how you
go about casting that argument in your book, and perhaps one or two
of the most important pieces of evidence that influenced you in
coming to this conclusion.

I think if I had to boil the book down to one major question, it would be: how did Anglo-Virginians come to understand black and Christian to be irreconcilable terms? I wanted to discover and trace the process by which that happened. I had all of Hening’s Statutes, of course, but these laws were effectively divorced from their social context. They indicated a context but I needed another way to get at what real people were doing, and maybe what they were thinking as well. That’s where the court records came in. Seventeenth-century Virginia court records are wonderful and rich; the voices of actual people, and often people who were silenced in other contexts, come out. I found the voices of indentured servants, male and female, of poor planters, of slaves, and even occasionally of Indians, in addition to the voices of the Anglo-Virginian elite. So I had the material that would tell me what people did, and maybe what they thought, but would it help me show how Christianity created race? I wasn’t sure until I started digging into the microfilm at the LIbrary of Virginia (and learning that dreadful seventeenth-century court hand). Then I started to find court cases in which Christianity and race were both implicated, usually revolving around some aspect of Christian ritual or practice. Baptism stuck out in particular for me. Every time I turned around, someone in Virginia was suing for his freedom on the basis of his baptism. I found these cases to be enormously powerful, especially since the Virginia legislature passed a law in 1667 essentially saying that baptized slaves could not become free. And then I started to see the narrative arc of baptism, Christianity, slavery, and freedom over the long seventeenth century. And I started to see how race was embedded implicitly in the way elite Virginians talked about baptism and in the ways they talked about converting their enslaved property. And then I realized that the book was going to work.

Baptism was just one theme that suggested itself to me as I worked through the primary sources. As many people will already be aware, many seventeenth-century records had to do with sex and marriage. Religious and race were implicated in fornication as well, and again I began to flesh out the social context of Hening’s Statutes. I especially love the words of the young indentured servant Elizabeth Lang, who had had an illegitimate child with an Indian man named Oni Kitt in 1671/72. In court, the record said, she “humbly desireth that the Indian may not have the bringing up of my child, nor anything to do with it...a Pagan may not have my child.” Lang’s words are so powerful...”a Pagan.” Those were the kinds of documents that help me situate religion and race together.

I wanted to structure the book so that readers could clearly see the historical change I was describing. So the first two chapters gave context and defined the notion of “potential Christianity”--the English belief that Indians (and also perhaps Africans) could become Christian. The second chapter also showed how the idea of potential Christianity began to break down. The next three chapters show how the English defined “hereditary heathenism” over the course of the long seventeenth century. “Faith in the Blood” discusses sex, marriage, fornication, and the idea that Christianity was a heritable trait. “Baptism and the Birth of Race” looks at how the English used the ritual of baptism to create race. And “Becoming Christian, Becoming White” examines the definition of whiteness strongly linked with Christianity through the lens of personal and communal violence. In the last chapter I really struggled with what to say about the eighteenth century. In many ways, it was more of the same, but I wanted to say more about how planters abandoned the idea of that their enslaved property could not become Christian. The idea of hereditary heathenism lost some of its vigor, but race as an ideology remained strong, mostly because planters were able to take advantage of other ways and means of defining race. I also wanted, in that chapter, to say something meaningful about how enslaved Africans and native people resisted racial definition by the planter elite. That was a real struggle for me; the sources are so few and far between. I hope I managed to get that point across. Christianity, while a site for racial definition, was also a tool for resistance.

My favorite source has to be the story of Goody Hinman. In 1646 someone started the rumor that Sarah Hinman “had layen with an Indian.” The evidence was a long poem (a very bad one I might add) about a wild boar breaking a small pot: “The boare did strike it with his Tush [tusk]/but did not enter farr.” The wild boar is a metaphor for an Indian man, and the pot is a metaphor for an English woman. (The gendered aspects are really quite striking, aren’t they?) It’s a ridiculous story and an equally ridiculous poem, but the underlying scandal of a married English woman sleeping with an Indian man enveloped the entire county for several months. Goody Hinman herself refused to get out of bed, saying she was “barbarously Scandalized & defamed [her] sayeinge that she defyled her body with a pagan.” See? Great stuff.

6) You deal with white religious attitudes and laws about both
Africans (and Afro-Virginians) and Indians. How much did whites
categorize/subjugate both equally in their thinking? Were Africans
and Indians, in other words, both placed in a similar category of
racial inferiority, or were there differences in the categories
created by and employed by whites?

This is a really good question, and it gets to the heart of a major difference between the English imperial world and the Spanish and French New World empires. In New Spain and New France, there were many racial categories. I’m thinking now of the famous casta paintings from Spanish America, some of which details scores of different racial combinations to denote the offspring of Europeans and Indians, Africans and Indians, Europeans and Africans, etc. The catchall term for people of mixed heritage is “mestizo” in Spanish, “metis” in French, and “mulatto” in English. Though the English had a word for such people, they were far less interested in tracing out all these variations. By the eighteenth century in the English Atlantic, you were either black or white, and that was it. Of course initially there were legal differences between Tidewater Indians and enslaved Africans. Indians had a few privileges (including the right not to be enslaved). English charters also cautioned colonists to be kind and fair with native people, a level of politeness that Africans never received. But what the laws and the charters said, and what English people did, were two very different things. In practice, the English put Indians and Africans in quite similar racial categories, which is why by the early eighteenth century it is difficult to tell the difference between enslaved Indians and enslaved Africans on Virginia plantations.


Christopher said…
This is great. When I taught the survey last year, I spent a couple of days discussing the construction of race in colonial Virginia. I tried to include some discussion of religion, but didn't have the understanding to properly articulate its role in that process. It sounds like your book is exactly what I need to make sense of that. Thanks!
Rebecca said…
I'm really glad to hear that! I'd be happy to skype with your class if they read some of the book at some point.
Curtis J Evans said…
Thanks for these very helpful interviews. I've already asked UofC's Regenstein to order the book. I've always found quite fascinating and helpful Jordan's discussion of heathenism in his early section, "First Impressions." I wonder, Rebecca, if you extend or complicate his claim that heathenism was "an inherent characteristic of savage" persons and his later attempt (in the "souls of men" section) to tease out what it meant for the English to publicly raise doubts about whether Africans could in fact convert to Christianity (in part because of incipient derogatory assessments of mental capacity)? It seems to me this is quite crucial to any discussion of the English considering blacks as "hereditary heathens." Perhaps these issues are covered in your book and this is not the place to ask them, but I know of few books that explore these issues in the way that Jordan does and that's one of the reasons why I always revisit his arguments when I'm teaching my class on Christianity and Slavery in the US. This interview has certainly whetted my appetite to read your book!
Rebecca said…
Curtis, I guess you could say I complicate Jordan's formulation of this problem. I begin by saying that though the English recognized that Indians were not Christian, the English thought of Indians as "potential Christians." That is, they thought Indians could become Christians just like them. The transformation to hereditary heathenism--the idea that heathenism was innate--took awhile to implement. This is one of the weaknesses of Jordan's book: encyclopedic though it is, it only spends a few pages on the seventeenth century (about forty, I think). I hope that answers your question!
Rebecca said…
(Just got into my office this morning and had a look at White over Black. It's more like 90 pages on the seventeenth century, but I think the point still stands--Jordan was just more interested in the eighteenth century. Which is OK, but it allowed him to set up the "unthinking decision" that I find so unconvincing.)

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