Mourning the Creation of Racial Categories:
Part 1: The Categories Black and White
To introduce audiences to the way racial categories were formed in the United States, Part 1, The Categories Black and White, features a theatrical re-enactment of an excerpt from the book, The White Slave; or, Memoirs of a Fugitive, a Story of Slave Life in Virginia, by Richard Hildreth- first published in 1836. Hildreth was a historian who based the book on his observations and deep sympathies for enslaved peoples and complex relationships under which enslavement was experienced. This book was advertised with Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom as books that must be read together.
The illustration shows Archy and Thomas, two enslaved men—best friends—who were caught running together North to freedom by three self-proclaimed bounty hunters. The friends are held in a room with their hands and feet bound. Archy (right)—the child of a master and an enslaved woman—is very light-skinned, with no perceptible trace of African descent to his appearance. In the narrative, he tells readers that, “by the laws and customs of Virginia, it is not the father but the mother, whose rank and condition determine that of the child; and alas! my mother was a concubine, and a slave!” It does not matter that Archy’s father is free and a member of the White category. The laws separate Archy from his father, labeling him Black and enslaved in accordance with his mother’s condition. Archy’s friend, Thomas (left), has a much darker complexion than Archy, as well as a hair texture that advertises his African descent. After the little girl cuts them free, the two realize that they are at a turning point. Thomas, fully aware that his physical features broadcast his membership in the category Black, insists they must separate, as his presence will only increase Archy’s chances of getting caught.
“You are now,” Thomas says to Archy, “on the road to the North. You have good clothes, and as much learning as an overseer. You can readily pass for a freeman.” Archy wants to stay with Thomas, but thoughts of escaping enslavement flash in his mind “with a radiant and dazzling brightness.” At the same time, feelings of love and gratitude for Thomas push through. An emotional deliberation ends with Thomas refusing to go on and urging Archy to run on alone and to pass into the category White. “If you stay with me, and are taken,” says Thomas, “I shall never forgive you for it.” Archy, heartbroken but knowing Thomas is right, consents to their separation. Archy’s grief is evident as he reflects on the character of the man he leaves behind:
A nobler spirit never breathed--I was not worthy to call myself his friend…. I stood watching him as he walked rapidly away; and as I looked, I was ready to sink into the earth with shame and mortification. Once or twice, I was just starting to follow him; but selfish prudence prevailed, and I held back. I watched him till he was out of sight, and then resumed my journey. It was a base desertion, which not even the love of liberty could excuse.
This decision marks the moment Archy passes into the category White- an event that severs relationships with both his best friend and his own mother forever as well as his master and biological father. His father-son relationship has already been severely compromised and essentially severed by law.
Thomas and Archy’s experiences are not isolated, and they offer valuable insights about what it means to be Black and to be White in the United States. Today, we live with the legacy of a categorical system that assigns babies born to different race-classified parents to ONE racial category. Think how matter-of-factly we divide family members into distinct racial categories whenever we speak, for example, of White mothers who have Black sons or of Black grandparents who have White grandchildren. Moreover, we have been sensitized to look for physical indicators of African descent as THE evidence of membership in the category Black. In doing this, we fail to notice that the variety of shades and hair textures among those classified as Black is evidence of a history of systematic separation from those other- than-Black-classified family and ancestors. Activist Carlos Fernández argues that the separation of biologically related peoples into distinct racial categories “is at the heart of an unresolved American identity crisis, a dilemma that perpetuates ethnic and racial disunion and makes the resolution of the general race problem virtually impossible.” That separation is painfully evident as we look at a visual representation of the color line that divides White from Black-classified.
The MCRC Project hopes that witnessing vicariously the Archy and Thomas separation pique audiences interest in exploring other, more complex and terrifyingly-cruel, separations forced on people who would become Black and White, and in the process, support the institution of slavery and other economic arrangements that followed.