Today’s post is part of our series marking the 75th anniversary of the Omohundro Institute by exploring the OI books that have had an impact on a scholar’s life.
By Michael S. Hindus
Winthrop D. Jordan’s White Over Black was published on March 8, 1968. Over the course of the next six weeks, both the world and my life changed. I quickly devoured the book (at over 600 pages!) for my senior seminar on slavery at Columbia University. I was already determined to seek a Ph.D. in American History and assumed I would stay within the comfortable confines of the Ivy League. White Over Black was an eye-opener. I had not realized that writing history could be so far-reaching, so incredibly original, so interdisciplinary, and so elegant.
Less than a month later, Martin Luther King was assassinated, bringing America’s troubled history of racism to the fore once more. Many American cities burned. The rioting in Harlem, adjacent to Columbia, was quelled in part by a heroic walk by Mayor John Lindsay. Two weeks later, protests at Columbia over building a private gymnasium in a public park in West Harlem, among other things, led to a week-long occupation of five buildings, culminating in a bloody police bust and over 700 arrests.
After reading White Over Black I was determined to go to Berkeley and study with its author. I knew nothing about Berkeley, other than it had recently been named the top graduate school in the United States by the American Council on Education. With the blessing of Columbia’s Richard Hofstadter, who had given the Jefferson Lectures at Berkeley the previous year, I accepted Berkeley’s fellowship offer. Having never been west of my hometown of Buffalo, New York, I did not even know where Berkeley was! One of my friends told me, “you’ll really enjoy San Francisco,” to which I replied, “Is Berkeley near San Francisco?” In August, 1968, I packed my car and drove across the country to Berkeley.
The magisterial scope of White Over Black is evident in its sub-title: “American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812” (although Jordan would tell us that if he had to do it over, he would term it “White American Attitudes Toward the Negro”). Imagine the “chutzpah” (a word the patrician Jordan probably never used) to begin an American intellectual history a half century before Jamestown! But in fact, Jordan shows through a dazzling variety of sources how the English were predisposed to regard skin color as an important differentiator (and black as inferior) long before significant contact with black Africa and before the convenient economics of a slave labor system based on race presented itself. This intellectual history, quoting Shakespeare among many others, provided the backdrop through which the English who settled the colonies reflexively denigrated people of African descent. They were already armed with the cultural basis for doing so. But “black” does not exist in a vacuum. Jordan also introduces us to “white” and whiteness. Attuned to historical demography, he discusses the effect of racial population imbalances on white fears of black sexuality and rebellion. In fact, the only map in the book shows the percentage of African Americans in each area of the United States in 1790.
White Over Black tackled the most important issue in American history and influenced generations of scholars. The chapter on Thomas Jefferson may be remembered most for its careful, understated analysis of the demographic evidence for Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, but its discussion of Jefferson’s attitudes toward race is equally important for a more balanced and nuanced view of one of the most important early Americans. Jordan was not the first to have studied Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia or the evidence for the fatherhood of Ms. Hemings’ children, but he was the first to explore the contradictions between these two sides of Jefferson. In so doing, Jordan masterfully takes us through the contradictions of the man who hated slavery, thought blacks inferior, and simultaneously maintained a long-term sexual relationship with his slave.
As a teacher, Jordan inspired students to think large and to think outside the box, decades before that tired term was in vogue. For example, he asked us to imagine how American history would be different if the east coast and west coast were reversed. The implications for geography were enormous – harbors, ports, and rivers on the inverted west coast and only a few safe harbors and one major river on the inverted east coast. Although it would be decades before I would appreciate the importance of Spanish colonial and native history in the Southwest, Jordan was trying to get us to think beyond the inevitability of British settlement. He encouraged his students to use other disciplines similar to the ones he employed in the book, especially psychology, natural science, law, and demography. My first major article was in historical demography, encouraged by Jordan. My dissertation and books were on legal history, including the law of slavery.
My own research at Berkeley involved comparing the legal systems (and especially the criminal justice systems) of a slave state (South Carolina) and a northern industrializing state (Massachusetts) from the Revolution to the Civil War. While Massachusetts was obsessed with identifying and incarcerating a criminal class, which it increasingly began to associate with its immigrant and small free black population, South Carolina believed that its criminal class was already safely controlled on the plantation as slaves. While Massachusetts was an early adopter of the penitentiary, South Carolina was the only state in the US without a prison.
My research led me to legal history, then to a fellowship in legal history at Harvard Law School, and then to a law degree. Deciding to try legal practice, I largely abandoned history for nearly forty years. But since 2017 I have been teaching a seminar on American legal history to Columbia undergraduates and am again reminded of the influence that White Over Black and its author had on my life. My students study the law of slavery, the virtual re-enslavement of freed slaves in the South after the Civil War through the convict lease and penal servitude systems, and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, which, as Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy opined, “falls into the ugly abyss of racism.”
As the sub-title indicates, White Over Black ends in 1812. This is a curious date to end an intellectual history. Certainly nothing changed specifically in 1812, and the eponymous war had little if anything to do with race. But the book had to end somewhere and by 1812 white attitudes toward blacks had become so set in stone that the passage of two centuries, sadly, would do little to upend them.
Rereading White Over Black fifty years later is a revelation. Let’s not quibble about language of the 1960s or whether every aspect of diversity was appropriately addressed. White Over Black still rings true and must still be read by anyone trying to understand what Gunnar Myrdal termed “an American dilemma” long before White Over Black was published. One of the most celebrated books of its time, White Over Black won nearly every major award, including the Bancroft Prize, the Francis Parkman Prize, and the National Book Award. But its lasting importance is in its understanding of origins of racist attitudes toward blacks in America and their persistence and pernicious legacy.
Michael Stephen Hindus is the author of Prison and Plantation: Crime, Justice, and Authority in Massachusetts and South Carolina, 1767-1878 (UNC Press, 1980). He practiced law for nearly forty years and is currently a Visiting Lecturer in History and American Studies at Columbia University.