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American Evolving Map

American Evolving Racial Identity

Ironically, non-Europeans in the Americas were compelled or influenced by their relationships with the colonists to adopt similar paradigms. Soon after colonization began, native peoples were referring to themselves as “Indians,” even as tribal, village, and clan identities remained preeminent. This was in part because Europeans used this term and in part because Native Americans felt the need for a collective term to distinguish themselves from the newcomers. After more than a century of seeing how Europeans saw themselves as “white” and more alike than different, Native Americans began to see themselves as red American Indians, with the same ancestry and essential characteristics. Southeastern tribes also had traditions of symbolic meanings for colors, including red and white, which made those terms metaphors for a host of cultural meanings that paralleled modern notions of race. At about the same time, a radical and powerful pan-Native American movement developed among Eastern Woodland tribes, whose prophets often described separate creation stories for native peoples, whites, and blacks, and sought to unite all tribes into a single community to resist the colonial invasion. Africans and their descendants in North American were similarly compelled by the circumstances of slavery to subsume tribal, religious, and national divisions, although some distinctions persisted. Initially, most bound Africans were brought from the West Indies or South America, and some were born in European colonies.

As British American slave societies developed after 1680, the balance of new slaves shifted to those brought from West and Central Africa. Between 1690 and 1740, the sudden and heavy importation of Africans into the Chesapeake created social conflicts between native-born slaves and new arrivals, particularly since Creole women often refused to marry African men. After 1740, the importation of slaves rapidly declined, plantation sizes increased, and communities developed as slave demographics became more balanced. Slaves and their descendants forged a new and unique African American identity, encompassing shared or particularly appropriate aspects of tribal cultures, even as distinct experiences of enslavement and subordination created two distinct black communities (and cultures) in the Chesapeake and coastal Carolina. Anglo-American preferences for lighter skin also may have been partially accepted by African descendants. Scattered evidence indicates that some mulattos considered themselves superior to those with darker skins, a propensity that became clearer in the nineteenth century.

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