Caliban could have also been African. Like Indians, Africans were also captured during the 16th century and taken to England; although they were intended to be translators rather than exhibits, the English population gawked at them as they had done at the captive Natives. Already during this time, a racist ideology had developed within England wherein blackness was associated with dirt and sin, and whiteness with sacred purity. The English once again accused Africans of being devil-worshipers possessed by uncontrolled sexual desire.
Here, Takaki points out another way in which the idea of whiteness was constructed in contrast to a demonized Other: in this case, black people. There is also a specific commonality between the demonization of black and Native peoples, which rests in accusations of sexual deviance. In reality, this was the product of the hatred and fear of sex that existed in European Christian society.
When The Tempest debuted in London, there was as yet no plan to bring Africans to the Virginia colony. However, in 1619, a Dutch man sold English settlers in America twenty black men who had probably been captured as prisoners of war in Africa. The formerly enslaved abolitionist Olaudah Equiano wrote an account of the absolute horror of being captured from his Igbo homeland and brought to America on a slave ship. Yet although the first Africans brought to America were “sold,” they were likely indentured servants rather than slaves.
Crucially, Takaki reminds his readership that the system of slavery that came to exist in the US did not just pop up out of nowhere. Rather, it had to be gradually built into the horrifying, dehumanizing system it eventually was.
For many years, there remained fairly few Africans in Virginia, even as huge numbers of captive Africans were being brought to the Caribbean. Gripped by racism, English colonizers were likely hesitant for there to be too large a population of Africans in their settlement. Instead, they brought white indentured servants from England, Germany, and Ireland to work on the tobacco plantations. Many of these were convicts, while others had been tricked or kidnapped. In America, black and white workers were illegible to each other, and “mutual feelings of fear and hostility undoubtedly existed.” However, they were united by their oppression.
Racism is a flexible force; it can have two completely opposing effects depending on the context in which it occurs. In the early years of the nation’s history, racism actually prohibited settlers from importing in very many Africans, because they were concerned about spoiling the supposed purity of the population. Later, however, racism became the justification for importing millions of enslaved people and keeping them in a position of unbearable subjugation.
Sometimes white and black workers ran away together, while others engaged in sexual liaisons. If this was discovered, both parties were punished. Over time, black workers found themselves with fewer and fewer rights. They lost the right to bear arms, and soon the first black workers were assigned enslaved status. They began to be sold as property, required to work not for a set period of time but for the rest of their lives. By the 1650s, about 70% of black people in Virginia had slave status. During this time, most planters still preferred using white indentured servants to meet their need for labor. However, the number of these workers coming to Virginia eventually began to decrease, and at this point there was a drastic increase in the rise of Africans brought to America.
Again, a historical event as awful as slavery does not just occur overnight. If it did, it may face more opposition from people who would be rightly shocked and horrified by it. However, when processes develop slowly—including genocide and systems of enslavement—people gradually grow accustomed to it. At the same time, the intensity of anti-blackness among the Virginia settler population was so high that perhaps they would have accepted any amount of black suffering from the beginning.
The Tempest depicts an “interracial class revolt” in which the white jester and butler conspire with Caliban to overthrow Prospero. The jester and butler at first think of Caliban as a “monster,” but eventually agree to work alongside him once they realize what they could gain from it. In the end, however, Prospero thwarts their plot.
The notion of interracial class struggle and resistance is a crucial element of A Different Mirror. Takaki continually asserts how powerful ethnic groups could be if they chose to work together against their oppressors.
White indentured servants hoped to become landowners after their servitude ended; America thus represented an opportunity for them to become more wealthy and respected. However, these plans were thwarted by planters whose wealth, status, and power had already vastly increased due to the tobacco boom. These planters established themselves as elite, increased the terms of indentured servitude, and imposed harsher punishments for running away. Frustrated and angry, white workers began planning rebellions. In 1663, nine workers were convicted of conspiring to overthrow the Virginia government, and several were executed.
Here, Takaki provides an important reminder that poor white people were also oppressed in colonial Virginia, although the nature of their oppression was fundamentally different from that of black and Native people. The exploitation of white indentured servants shows that the promise of the US as a land of abundance, freedom, self-reinvention, and social mobility was a lie. Like England, Virginia was controlled by a wealthy elite.
Yet this did not quell the unrest. The landowning class were particularly fearful of the fact that the resentful white workers were armed. In 1676, a planter named Nathaniel Bacon led a rebellion, creating a militia that included many white workers and attacking Indians of the Susquehannah and Occaneechee tribes. Governor William Berkeley charged Bacon with treason, and Bacon marched his army of 500 to Jamestown. At this point, black workers also joined the army, burning Jamestown down. However, government forces managed to suppress the rebellion by tricking the workers into believing that they were being freed, only to then return them to their “masters.”
This passage highlights the complicated convergence of racism and interracial solidarity. The fact that black workers joined a rebellion that began with the slaughter of indigenous people highlights the sad fact that black people were capable of anti-Native violence (in the same way that Native people could be vehemently anti-black).
Yet even though the uprising had been quashed, the landowning elite remained nervous. The planters decided to seek a more permanent solution, involving mass importing enslaved Africans as the primary source of labor in the colony. By the end of the 17th century, enslaved people counted for almost half of the colony’s population. Every new African who arrived on America’s shore had enslaved status. The new labor system was a caste system, wherein white people were given total control over the enslaved Africans. There was also an expansion of what it meant to be black, known as the “one-drop rule.” Mixed-race children were automatically enslaved.
Here, the tragic fact emerges that the white American elite caused an unimaginable amount of suffering through slavery simply because they wanted to protect their own power. Indeed, they would rather institute the torture and genocide of black people as part of the nation than risk the possibility of ceding power to workers—regardless of their race.
Thomas Jefferson was himself an enslaver, and profiting from slave labor made him one of the richest men in Virginia. By 1822 there were 267 people enslaved on his property. Jefferson himself admitted to using cruel punishments on enslaved people. Paradoxically, he also claimed that slavery was “an immoral institution” that clashed with American values. He was tormented by guilt about being an enslaver and said that he planned to free the enslaved people he held captive once his debts were paid off, but this never happened. He also lamented the negative impact of slavery on white children, who were harmed by their proximity to such a cruel and perverse institution.
Thomas Jefferson’s concerns for white children might at first seem absurd, but of course white children were harmed by growing up in proximity to slavery. Witnessing (and being a direct or indirect participant in) such brutal dehumanization has a severely negative impact on a person. Of course, this does not mean that white children were the real victims of slavery. Rather, it reminds readers of what a horrifically toxic and destructive institution slavery was.
While Jefferson wanted slavery to eventually be abolished, he also believed that black people would have to be removed from America. Noting the difficulty of this task, he advised a gradual removal, which would include sending all enslaved children to Haiti (the first and only country in which enslaved people had rebelled, abolished slavery, and become an independent black nation). Jefferson was adamant that black people were intellectually inferior to white ones, and dismissed the writings of Phyllis Wheatley, a formerly enslaved African woman who criticized slavery as an evil hypocrisy.
Jefferson’s ideas about removing black people from the US illustrates how powerful anti-blackness was as a force structuring American society. Even those who theoretically favored ending slavery were afraid to do so because they did not want to live among a free black population.
The black mathematician Benjamin Banneker condemned Jefferson’s hypocrisy in a letter to him, accusing him of failing to enact the principles of the American Revolution. Jefferson’s diplomatic reply concealed the fact that he maintained that Banneker, like all black people, was simple-minded. He also supported the myth that black people were sexually aggressive and was particularly horrified by the idea of miscegenation. This was ironic, considering that Jefferson himself fathered several children by an enslaved woman named Sally Hemings. During Jefferson’s life, rumors and satire about his “relationship” with Hemings abounded in the press. Jefferson nonchalantly denied the charges.
Sexual abuse was a pervasive feature of slavery, and indeed of the racist society that persisted after slavery was abolished. Because enslaved black women were denigrated to the status of property, and because they had no legal rights, white men essentially had free reign to sexually assault black women at will. Indeed, it is difficult to overemphasize the role that sexual violence played in creating and upholding the system of slavery.
In 1784, shortly after the death of his wife, 41-year-old Jefferson went to Paris with his daughter. Three years later, his teenage daughter Polly joined him, accompanied by her enslaved servant, 15-year-old Sally. Sally was very light-skinned and white-passing, and was known to be extremely beautiful. According to Sally’s daughter, this was when Sally became Jefferson’s “concubine.” Because she was free in France, Sally did not want to return to America with Jefferson. However, she did go, and gave birth to five children by Jefferson (one of whom died in infancy). Today, DNA tests have confirmed that Jefferson was indeed the father of these children.
Throughout history (and in many cases still today), Sally Hemings is described as Jefferson’s “mistress” or even lover. Indeed, their relationship is romanticized as a love affair between two people whose passion overrode their societal separation. Although it’s impossible to know what Sally’s feelings were, Takaki points out that the power Jefferson held over her and the degradation of her position as an enslaved woman means that what occurred between them was, in reality, rape.
Jefferson’s belief that black people would have to be expelled from America following abolition rested in his fear that the formerly enslaved would seek revenge against their captors in a “race war.” Yet this was also part of his reason for wanting abolition in the first place. As long as slavery existed, the threat of violent rebellion was too great. At the same time, the institution of slavery was so widespread and embedded that it could not be easily undone.
This concluding passage summarizes the mess of entangled issues conjured by the endurance of slavery in the nineteenth century. Every option provoked anxiety in the minds of white people. Deep down, they knew that the damage of slavery would be impossible to do undo.