By Lori Basheda

The descriptions that American colonists used in newspaper ads for runaway slaves and servants carry a largely unrecognized chunk of the blame for racism in America today.

That is the backbone of University of California, Irvine history professor Sharon Block’s book, Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). 

“If we talk about Black Lives Matter, about the school to prison pipeline, it’s grounded in these kinds of ideas,” she says. “Colonial interpretations of bodies are stories that continue to haunt us.”

Block’s book project began a decade ago when she was living in Australia, directing the University of California Education Abroad Program and raising two young children.

Her well-received book Rape and Sexual Power in Early America had been published in 2006 and now she was interested in tackling the idea of physical appearance in a world before selfies and omnipresent photography.

“Who counts as beautiful, for instance? How do people talk about what other people look like?”

She polled half a dozen friends in Australia and back at home in the United States, asking them each to describe five people they saw that day.

Whereas her Australian friends talked about complexion in their descriptions, the first thing her American friends listed was the person’s race identification. They were black or white, Hispanic or Asian.

“I’m not saying Australians are better or less racist,” Block says, but the feedback got her thinking. What historical happenings might have led to these different modern practices?

“I wanted to figure out a way to look at the daily practice of the creation of race through physical appearance in a time period that has very few images of average people,” she says.

While many historians have scrutinized slavery as a 19th-century phenomenon relegated to the American South, Block chose to focus on the quarter century before the Revolutionary War, 1750-1775, when ideas about race and racism were becoming solidified: “before skin color became equivalent to race.”

Heading to American archives was impossible while living in Australia, and childcare responsibilities made it equally difficult to spend months on the East Coast after she returned to Irvine. Fortunately, the last decade has seen the rise of digitized historical sources and Block dove into them.

The 18th-century newspaper industry was robust and filled with ads that described runaway slaves and servants in hopes they could be identified by readers and returned to their masters.

Block collected 4,000 ads from dozens of newspapers published throughout the British colonies, from New England down to the Deep South. And then she began searching for patterns.

Other historians have mined runaway slave ads “to trace the social connections among enslaved people, the geography of slavery … the economic value ascribed to slaves,” but until now no one has comprehensively analyzed the language used in the ads describing the appearance of colonial fugitives. Block wanted to understand ways that African American, Native American, and European American missing persons were described in print.

“What I found is that the people writing the advertisements created race through these physical descriptions,” she says. “What they said someone looked like was about beliefs and wishes as much as any objective descriptions.”

These “daily racial scripts” were then widely disseminated throughout colonies “where they could both enforce and sustain particular ideologies of everyday racism.”

While Block’s book is on its face about 18th-century race-making, it is more than relevant today.

"Racism is part of the fabric of our lives in ways we don’t even realize,” she says.

She points to modern conflicts over race as a continuation of “the poisoned fruits of race-making in twenty-first century America.” She adds, “We still struggle with the heritage of viewing bodies through the lens of white supremacy.”

As an indication of the need for a modern reckoning, in the April 2018 issue of National Geographic, editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg apologized for decades of racist coverage, portraying “natives” overseas “as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché.”

Block hopes that her new book will afford a similar opportunity to empower readers to “rethink the ease with which we impose labels on people.” That interest in tying a deeply researched history to modern concerns is why Block begins her book with quotations from novelists Toni Morrison and Zadie Smith, and ends with quotations from Ta-Nehisi Coates and a group of indigenous women scholars.

This spring quarter, Block has taken the topic of the creation of race to Humanities Core, the UCI School of Humanities’ year-long integrated freshman program of lectures and discussions. Nearly 900 students, with majors across the university, get to hear her speak about sexuality and race in colonial America twice a week.

“Professor Block’s research illuminates nuances regarding race and its impact that I previously was unable to recognize. Due to her teaching, I more easily comprehend how race is a product of racism, not the other way around,” said Sarah Mack, a first-year criminology major who is taking Humanities Core with Block.

The common denominators in both of Block’s books are power and recovery of daily lives. Her book Rape and Sexual Power in Early America analyzes more than 900 accounts of sexual coercion from 1700 to 1820 in manuscript court records, personal writings, and print sources. In Colonial Complexions, she had to get special permission from her publisher to include an index long enough to list the hundreds and hundreds of names of the people whose bodies filled runaway advertisements.

“I’m interested in power relationships,” Block says. “And I’m really interested in documenting how power gets abused. How people illegitimately claim power over other peoples’ bodies.”

Block believes these historical power struggles are still very much part of contemporary society. If we better understand how categories like race and gender were produced historically by and for those holding power in a culture, we can work to rectify and challenge them today. “My biggest wish is that people rethink the belief that race is an observable reality, and see it as part of a societal power structure,” Block says.

Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America is now available.