Black and White Manhattan: The History of Racial Formation in Colonial New York City

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During the colonial era, the art of governing the city's diverse and factious population, Foote reveals,involved the subordination of confessional, linguistic, and social antagonisms to binary racial difference. Foote investigates everyday formations of race in slaveowning households, on the colonial city's streets, at its docks, taverns, and marketplaces, and in the adjacent farming districts.

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Eventhough the northern colonial port town afforded a space for black resistance, that setting did not, Foote argues, effectively undermine the city's institution of black slavery. This history of New York City demonstrates that the process of racial formation and the mechanisms of racial domination were central to the northern colonial experience and to the founding of the United States. Excerpt Present-day New York City is one of several command posts of the global economy, a vital relay point in the current capitalist world system in which digitalized telecommunications technologies enable the geographic dispersal of economic activity and, increasingly, the disarticulation of finance from material production.

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Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol. Bruce, Lenny The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. We use cookies to deliver a better user experience and to show you ads based on your interests. Foote's social history forms the backdrop for an argument about language, power, and race.

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Foote's study retrofits for an urban, ethnically polyglot island, Edmund Morgan's now classic formulation that white solidarity in colonial Virginia, despite glaring social tensions and economic inequalities, was sustained by the maintenance of an enslaved, racially stigmatized population of African and African-descended slaves. Foote ropes this analysis of anti-black racism tightly to a tale of capitalist-motivated colonization operated initially under the auspices of the Dutch West India Company but carried forward aggressively once the English seized the town.

Africans became essential to the securing of power in the midst of linguistic and religious diversity because whites needed the labor and, ultimately, they needed an internal enemy capable of helping Europeans to see themselves as white. Through intermarriage and cultural attrition, politically fractious New Yorkers developed just enough cohesion to survive their rivalries with each other and to convince themselves that their domination of black laborers was legitimized by race as well as being a matter of life-and-death for themselves and the colony.

For Foote, the point is not that this is a uniquely American phenomenon foreshadowing an American paradox, but that colonial domination within this imperial framework required the projection of racialized identities onto subjugated populations.

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White racial views were cemented further by the fact that European Protestant settlers managed to cross over into one another's churches, as time eroded barriers erected by language Dutch, French, and English , but that Africans, who had their own very different cosmologies, proved indifferent to attempts to catechize them. Foote's emphasis on the discourse of power is on particularly firm ground when she investigates white supervision and black resistance.

Foote offers insightful commentary on the never quite successful effort by white authorities to monitor the day-to-day activities of Manhattan's black inhabitants in the face of persistent black efforts to form social bonds and find social space free from white coercion. As she points out, New York City's slaves had to develop their culture and affinities in public, in streets, alleyways, dram shops, and marketplaces. There were no separate plantation slave quarters to return to at the end of each day that could serve as a hothouse for culture innovation and solidarity beyond the watchful eyes of the master class.

Gathering after the workday was done, black men sometimes formed brotherhoods p. Meanwhile, in Manhattan's marketplaces, blacks, though enslaved, hawked fruits and vegetables, often brought in to the cities by the slaves who worked in the adjacent countryside. White authorities repeatedly attempted to enforce laws limiting nighttime gatherings of blacks and, like masters throughout British North America, used newspaper advertisements to both describe and to lay claim to black bodies on the run.

Imperfect as a means of controlling the black population, such a discourse nonetheless reinforced ideas of inherent difference between those who ruled and those who were subjugated. Foote's interpretation of the alleged slave plot to seize the city in will trouble many historians. Deconstructing what she terms "the colonialist discourse of conspiracy," Foote examines the published trial journal as a literary composition designed to convince New Yorkers that a series of mysterious fires that afflicted the city in the spring of were perpetrated by an extensive network of Manhattan's black population determined to seize power.

In Foote's rendering, the trials and punishments demonstrate the desperate need of the ruling elites to secure a necessary measure of white solidarity in the midst of political, economic and military crises. This desperation allegedly led authorities to conjure up the specter of black-on-white mayhem and condemn thirty slaves to their deaths.


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  4. It is certainly true that the journal invites close textual analysis; clearly, its author, Daniel Horsmanden, wished to validate the existence of a conspiracy of slaves and nefarious whites. Whatever comfort he sought to offer his New Yorkers about the justice of their brutality toward those convicted, the record reveals that the trials were something quite different from an evenhanded attempt at uncovering truth. Biases in the evidence notwithstanding, serious scholars remain split on what to make of this complicated affair, with some emphatically concluding that a plot was in the works.

    Foote's analysis does not entertain the possibility that a real conspiracy of disaffected black slaves may have been underway. Foote's decision not to engage this possibility is particularly surprising because evidence within her own book indicates at least the plausibility of blacks planning an internal assault on the city. The motive and the means did exist. Earlier in the book, Foote details Manhattan's slave rebellion, which also involved arson. Moreover, her study provides evidence of the many ways that blacks defied white authority, at least covertly, throughout the colonial period.

    Moreover, the main body of the study ends with an excellent discussion of the many New York-area African Americans who cast off the yoke of their patriot masters during the American Revolution, in the process prompting at least some British authorities in occupied Manhattan to assist escaped slaves to secure freedom at the conclusion of the war.


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    Foote, despite her careful attention to the nuances of events and language, is not so much interested in presenting a narrative from the perspective of the historical actors as she is in offering us the satellite view. Such an approach, accompanied by theory-inflected language, reflects her intention to mount a post-colonial assault on American exceptionalism. This approach has drawbacks. To be sure, colonization was, in one sense, a "project"; yet the twists and turns of Manhattan's history, and the choices made by its diverse inhabitants, also had an unscripted quality that makes framing the story this way somewhat strained.

    Nonetheless, Foote does trace how Europeans from a variety of religious, national, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds consistently deployed law and language to define critical differences within Manhattan society in terms of race. Indeed, the African Americans during the Revolutionary era who cast their lot with the British seem to have intuited what Foote argues: "the enslavement of black Africans and the installation of the enslaver and the enslaved into relationally constituted subject-positions was not an [unthinking decision] … but a failure to think in any terms except reductive categories of black and white" p.



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