Critical Analysis: White Over Black Winthrop D. Jordan author of White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812, expresses two main arguments in explaining why Slavery became an institution. He also focuses attention on the initial discovery of Africans by English. How theories on why Africans had darker complexions and on the peculiarly savage behavior they exhibited. Through out the first two chapters Jordan supports his opinions, with both facts and assumptions. Jordan goes to great length in explaining how the English and early colonialist over centuries stripped the humanity from a people in order to enslave them and justify their actions in doing so.
His focus is heavily on attitudes and how those positions worked to create the slave society established in this country. The first chapter focuses on the first impressions between the people of different color also the reasons Africans had evolved or changed into what they now appeared to be. The section on causes of complexion was both fascinating and entertaining. Many of the theories were of the wall and far fetched. One such opinion of how Africans gained their complexion that the book gave includes an ancient Greek myth of Phaeton. This character drove a chariot into the heavens and thus altered in his appearance (p 11).
Though this Greek myth, probably not the truth of how Africans gained their color many did believe it probably had something to do with the sun. The theory of equatorial dwellers of Africa, this being the reason for the skin pigmentation, became illogical once Africans were compared to the Indians living in the hottest parts of the New World (p 14). Some believed that the African was merely dark because they had left their colder northern climate. Experiments quickly ruled this out as a possible answer (p 15). The most far-fetched and humorous theory came through the biblical illustration involving Noah. Many believed it the curse given upon Noah's son Ham for "looking upon his father's nakedness" (p 17).
Each of these contrasting views on color needed to be used in this book. For no better reason in that it showed from an initial point that the English viewed the color of the Africans as a plague. Instead of excepting that Africans may in fact be different, the English consistently made attempts to explain the differences. These theories contain vital information in understanding how Africans went from being viewed as similar, with only skin color as a difference, to a people forced into an existence of slavery.
Through out the entire time period of slavery, religion remained a high priority and a way in which to label different social groups. The lack or complete non-existence of religion among Africans led to them being viewed as somewhat inferior. Later in the second chapter Jordan talks about how during the slave era religion distinguished whites from blacks. Also how classification changed once Africans began to enter the Christian church. He himself viewed this type of labeling somewhat ridiculous, in that many of the Africans were baptized before the came to the New World.
Thus they in many circles would be identified as Christians. This important information helps show the reader how the justifications for slavery evolved. Jordan captures the utter and blatant hypocrisy that the colonies exuded with regards to the slave situation. Jordan also sees religious injustice within the treatment of Indians and Africans. The English made attempts to convert the Indians and had little desire or intention to do the same for Africans. This again shows to what lengths early Americans went in creating a subculture for the purpose of slavery.
Another of Jordan's sub topics in this book deals with the Savage behavior exhibited by Africans and viewed among the English explorers. The English were at sometimes appalled with the differences in morals, table manners, and most visible clothing. The English saw the scantly clad dress of Africans as another example of their savagery. Another testament to their savage way of life involving deviant behavior including "hideous tortures, cannibalism, rapacious warfare" leading Africans to be viewed as beasts (p 28).
The discovery of an animal now known, as the chimpanzee in the Negro's homeland did nothing to help the opinions of Africans held by Europeans. Further the disturbing resemblance possessed by the Chimpanzee, no tail and walks upright, caused speculation that the two separate species may in fact be related. Clearly Jordan must have understood the significance of this perspective. The comparison of Africans and Apes clearly degrades the Negro.
Once again causing a mindset among Europeans that the African was in some way a second class citizen. What the first chapter mentions in relation to the African specifically, the second does equally for the institution of slavery. Slavery in itself is not a new custom, however the African slave received far different treatment than that of other indentured servants. It was the custom in that era to serve out a debt, punishment for a crime, or passage to the North America as an indentured servant.
A period of time for which one served and after which freed. This was not the case among the Africans brought to the Americas. That distinction Jordan makes once again simply reiterates the view held by Caucasians of Africans. The acquisition of Africans for slavery resembled little, the customary ways one normally entered servitude. Through out history servants were acquired through debts or the survivors from a loosing side in a war.
Africans were in many times kidnapped and sold by other tribes who had no authority to do so. Another difference in the treatment of Africans as slaves is that not only did they serve a lifetime as property, but their offspring also became the property of their owner. This might just be the most offensive of all the discrepancies the African endured. Jordan did a wonderful job in this section of clearly displaying the facts and supporting his arguments. Laws dealing with the intermixing of races and separate treatment also created a second class or lower standing of the African. Jordan sites several laws and examples of whites involving themselves sexually with blacks being punished in different ways.
One such example includes that of a man and his black mistress who were forced stand clad in front of a congregation. Also free Africans did not receive the liberties others enjoyed, they were prohibited the right to bear arms. This inequality serves as a notice of how ingrained the degradation blacks have induced and to the lengths whites have gone to ensure they remain a lower or sub class. Through out the entire book Jordan makes assumptions and places sort of a personal view on this historical tragedy.
He supports the idea that there grew a distinct attitude forming and evolving repressing the African as a society. The most important thing which can be gathered from this book, the idea that the constant and gradual suppression of the African in the colonies and United States led to a mentality of superiority among Caucasians over those of color.