By Brooks Clark
The president of the Seattle chapter of the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, made headlines recently when it was revealed she had been born to white parents. Ultimately she lost her job.
In her defense, Rachel Dolezal claimed she had started identifying as black at an early age. She graduated from historically black Howard University, was married to a black man, and taught Africana studies at Eastern Washington University. Dolezal’s argument—that her racial identity is genuine, although not based on biology or ancestry—raised a lot of eyebrows.
Today we tend to think of race as a fixed, internal, and inherited biophysical category. But in the eighteenth century, race was commonly perceived as an exterior bodily trait, incrementally produced by environmental factors and subject to change.
English Professor Katy Chiles first noticed this view of “transformable race” as she read works by enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley and other eighteenth-century Americans. Intrigued, Chiles then delved into the writings of natural historians from that period and found evidence of this predominant scientific view.
For example, French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, believed in monogenesis—the concept that all races have a single origin. Since he also believed humans had been around for only 6,000 years, he concluded skin color could change in a generation.
“For Buffon, Africa is hot, so the skin is darker,” Chiles recounts. “The northern climes are less hot, so the skin color is lighter.” Under the school of thought known as environmentalism, bodies were continuously changing and identities were shaped by one’s potential to transform from one race to another.
“Natural historians thought individuals could ‘improve’ themselves and become more white, or ‘degenerate’ and become more Native American or ‘Negro,’ but the transformation was considered to be real, and not only at a superficial level,” Chiles adds.
When she tried to find a book of criticism on how these views informed early American literature, she couldn’t locate one. That’s when Chiles realized she needed to write the book.
“To understand Wheatley, we have to look at her works in the context of the world she lived in,” Chiles says. In her book Transformable Race: Surprising Metamorphoses in the Literature of Early America, Chiles explores how early concepts of race inform the figurative language in the literature of the period.
On Becoming Colored
Chiles argues that the notion of “becoming colored” through environmental factors in early America forces us to rethink previous interpretations of works by Wheatley and Samson Occom.
A member of the Mohegan nation in southeastern Connecticut, Occom converted to Christianity during the Great Awakening and is recognized as one of the first Native Americans to publish works in English.
“Occom believed not only in transformable race but also in a communal equality among all peoples,” Chiles says.
“I am a poor Indian. I can’t help that God made me so; I did not make my self so,” wrote Occom, in contrast to a nativist philosophy purporting Native Americans, whites, and Africans were created separately.
“By that way of thinking, held by many indigenous nations,” Chiles says, “Native Americans should not take up white ways because Native American ways were more pleasing to the Great Spirit.”
On the other hand, Wheatley “views the process of ‘becoming colored’ as part of God’s plan to vary the progeny of a single creation,” Chiles explains. Only when blackness is used to justify slavery, for example, does it become a problem.
On Becoming Indian
Chiles also cites several literary instances of someone transforming into being a Native American—not just “passing” as one.
In Letters from an American Farmer, J. Hector Saint John de Crèvecoeur described the ways Americans are changed by the new world and interactions with Native Americans.
John Marrant wrote of his experiences as a free black man captured by Cherokees in A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, A Black. “He learned their language and his habits were changed,” Chiles says. “He transformed so much into a Cherokee that it rendered him unrecognizable to most of his family once he returned home.”
In the Gothic mystery Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker, Charles Brockden Brown—often called America’s first novelist—described a character whose interactions with Native Americans on the Pennsylvania frontier included the rescue of a white girl from a native tribe.
“All three of these texts,” Chiles says, “reflect the natural historical idea that race was a condition one managed to sustain rather than a fixed or immutable bodily fact.”
Addressing the late eighteenth century on its own terms—not ours—shows race is a construction and an idea with a history. Compared to more recent definitions of race as biological and unchangeable—often used to justify slavery, imperialism, and segregation—the earlier ideas seem almost benign. “Understanding that history will bring us and our students closer to understanding race in our own world and alleviate some of the horrendous affects of it,” Chiles says.