This chapter examines the ways that researchers can use primary sources to study race and ethnicity. The term ‘race’ has been used in a number of ways since the sixteenth century, but by the eighteenth century it came to refer to a ‘category of human beings with physical characteristics transmitted by descent’. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scientists invested the term ‘race’ with biological meaning, which supported the efforts of Europeans to establish a hierarchy of racial groups. From the mid-twentieth century, scientists and social scientists challenged the definition of ‘race’ as a fixed category relating to physical characteristics, and ‘race’ is now understood as a category defined by social relations (Feagin, 1978, pp.4–7).
Social scientists define ‘ethnicity’ in a variety of ways, yet most focus on the perception of ‘common ancestry’. Ethnic groups are defined by themselves or others as distinguished by a common national origin, language, religion, or cultural characteristics (Feagin, 1978, pp.8–9). Although researchers now agree that racial and ethnic categories are social constructs (defined and given significance by society) rather than discrete biological groups, perceived and self-perceived racial and ethnic traits remain significant factors in the organisation of society and in the lived experiences of minorities.
Given that this topic is concerned with human experiences, it is possible to draw on a wide range of sources. Institutional sources such as censuses and immigration records not only provide demographic information, but also demonstrate how institutions shape and define racial and ethnic categories. Social and cultural historians use sources that illuminate the experiences of ordinary people, the societies they lived in, and the attitudes held by those societies. Useful sources for this research include newspapers, diaries, photographs, and oral histories. This chapter focuses on the history of race and ethnicity in the USA, and uses periodical and narrative sources to examine perceptions and self-perceptions of several racial and ethnic groups. Although this focus is specific, the approaches and source materials that are discussed should be useful to students studying other geographical locations and peoples.
The history of race and ethnicity encompasses a huge range of topics, time frames, and geographical locations. Historians concerned with this theme may focus on instances of genocide (the attempt to systematically eliminate a national, racial, ethnic, or religious group), such as the Holocaust in Nazi Germany; race-based slavery, such as that in the Atlantic World from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries; or legal systems of racial segregation, such as in the USA from the end of slavery to the 1960s, and in South Africa from the end of the Second World War to the 1990s. While many of the histories relating to racial and ethnic groups are filled with violence and inequality, the growth of social history (the study of ordinary people) in the 1960s and 1970s led to a greater focus on individual and group experiences, and particularly on forms of resistance to these inequalities. From organised resistance such as the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s to everyday acts of confrontation, the varied experiences of racial and ethnic groups are receiving greater attention from researchers.
Today, both the kinds of questions that historians ask about race and ethnicity and the methodologies that they use are as varied as the topic at hand. Yet the development of these histories has been shaped by long-running debates on what ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ mean, and by the status of racial and ethnic groups in the societies that produce historical research (Bulmer and Solomos, 1999). One of the most popular topics relating to race has been the history of slavery. Emerging after the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century – which took place at different times in different places – early histories of enslavement were few, and were largely celebratory narratives of the white abolitionists that had defeated what they regarded as a religiously immoral practice. Early histories of slavery rarely challenged the underlying belief that black people were racially and biologically inferior to whites, and often defended the practice of slavery.
By the mid-twentieth century, scientists and social scientists increasingly argued that ‘race’ was in fact a social rather than a biological category. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, some of these researchers contributed to the 1950 UNESCO Statement on Race, which sought to debunk popular biological ideas about race, and in particular to dispute the notion that mental capacity was linked to race. In this period, the historical study of racial experiences increased and became more critical, often examining the impact of ideological racism. On the topic of the slave trade, historians began to counter claims that slavery had been a benign institution, and racism within historical studies of the topic declined. From the 1950s to the 1980s, historians engaged in a debate over the emphasis on violence and exploitation in studies of the slave experience (Baptist and Camp, 2006, pp.1–3). On one side, historians argued that this focus was necessary to accurately represent the horrors of slavery, using sources such as statistics on slave transport and deaths, as well as photographs and oral accounts of the physical, mental, and sexual abuse endured by enslaved adults and children. On the other side, inspired by new approaches in social history and powerful movements in black politics and culture, historians argued that slaves should not be painted solely as victims. Instead, they sought to read sources ‘against the grain’, that is, against the source’s original intent, to argue that enslaved people should be recognised as complicated individuals that resisted the institution of slavery and sought to build meaningful lives both within and outside of its reach (Genovese, 1974).
In the 1980s and 1990s, the focus of historical research into slavery shifted again, influenced by a ‘cultural turn’ in the discipline that emphasised the importance of everyday experiences, notions of identity, and more abstract ideas such as meanings and emotions (Burke, 2008). Historians began to employ more diverse historical sources to examine slave music, hairstyles, and food, and attempted to access individual experiences by analysing personal accounts of enslavement such as those found in the WPA Slave Narratives of the 1930s. This diversification of methods and sources has also occurred in historical investigations of other racial and ethnic groups, and has led to a number of significant changes in the research and teaching of historical topics. Student protests about the lack of diversity in US college history courses led to new academic fields such as African-American Studies, and Indigenous or Aboriginal Studies departments have emerged throughout North America and Australasia. These interdisciplinary fields focus not only on the history of certain groups, but also their culture, literature, traditions, and religions.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, historians and sociologists attempted to delve deeper into the question of how racial categories emerge, and why they are invested with certain meanings. Historians pointed to the contradictions within both historical and present-day classifications and, for instance, questioned why ‘Hispanics’ are considered an ethnic group while ‘black’ is regarded as a racial category, why ‘Asian Americans’ who share few cultural or linguistic characteristics are placed in the same classification, and how the ‘white’ race emerged as the dominant class in certain cultures (Allen, 1994; Fields, 1982, pp.143–45). To answer these questions, historians have looked at legal and political documents such as censuses, discriminatory statutes, and the administrative records of colonial officials; records of colonial encounters such as travel narratives and maps; interpretations of religious documents; and the treatises of medical and natural scientists. Postcolonialists have also attempted to look at the cultural impact of these categorisations, using literary and artistic sources such as fiction and paintings to demonstrate the pervasiveness of stereotypes about people considered to be ‘Other’ (Said, 2003).
The central role played by colonial administrators in creating racial categories and determining minority experiences has also left a complicated legacy in the archives, which in turn has had an impact on historical research. In the context of Native American history, traditional sources such as government records, religious documents, and military reports were created by white Europeans, and thus reflect the biases and discriminatory motivations of the time. The types of sources that could generate a more accurate picture of the Native American experience – such as oral traditions, linguistic practices, and material culture – were not regarded by those who had the power to record them as significant, and therefore much of this history has been lost. Historians wishing to research Native American history therefore have to be creative when it comes to selecting and interpreting sources. By incorporating methods such as ethnohistory – which uses traditional documentary sources alongside archaeological materials, folklore, and language – historians may also be critical of the colonial archive, interrogating the ways in which it was created and organised. The difficulties in locating the Native American voice in American history has also led to conversations about who can and should tell these stories. Some indigenous communities argue that historical materials should be returned to their custody and not remain within inaccessible institutional archives, so that their histories can be self-presented rather than narrated for them by academic historians (O’Neal, 2015).
At present, historians are prepared to incorporate a wide range of documentary, oral, and visual sources into their work. For instance, visual materials, such as photographs, artistic works, film and news media, print advertising, and propaganda, offer another route into the sometimes hidden histories of racial minorities. With careful analysis, visual sources can indicate how racial stereotypes have become so pervasive, as well as how they have been countered, and the ways in which transplanted minorities have been able to perpetuate their culture and traditions in new locations through artistic expression (Farrington, 2005; Mitchell, 1994).
This section has introduced some of the key historical debates and sources used in research on race and ethnicity. Today, historians interested in this topic are concerned with how dominant societies have represented and ruled racial/ethnic groups, and how individuals have experienced and defined their racial/ethnic status. Looking increasingly at global comparative experiences, and how racial and ethnic categories intersect with gender, class, disability, and sexuality, historians are constantly searching for new sources and methods to understand the pervasive and omnipresent topic of race and ethnicity, and therefore this list should not be seen as exhaustive or limiting.
Selecting and interpreting sources
This section focuses on two common and accessible types of source that are used in work on race and ethnicity. It outlines the range of material available in each category, and how we can select and interpret these sources. As emphasised previously, these sources represent only a very small sample of the materials available to historians interested in the representation and experience of racial and ethnic groups. Depending on the particular research question that you are trying to answer, you may wish to use these sources in combination with others.
Periodicals: newspapers and magazines
Most societies produce some form of regularly (or periodically, hence the term ‘periodical’) published print media, frequently in the form of newspapers and magazines. While most obviously containing stories about local, national, and international current affairs, including politics, business, and popular trends, newspapers also have sections such as advertisements, letters to the editor, obituaries, and editorial features. Magazines are often less serious in nature, offering political satire and humour in the form of cartoons and editorials. Newspapers and magazines can be very useful for understanding the representation and rule of racial and ethnic groups, and their social experiences. In many ways, periodicals reflect the attitudes of the society within which they are published, while additionally having the power to influence and shape those attitudes. Therefore, even when their original intentions were to inform or amuse, they can reveal some of the ways in which racial and ethnic groups were represented and ruled (Dewey, 2007). Additionally, periodicals reveal both intentionally and unintentionally a wide variety of human activities and motivations, and can be carefully read to illuminate the experiences and actions of oppressed groups.
It is important from the outset to ask questions that evaluate the potential difficulties in using newspapers and magazines as primary sources. Either run as profit-making enterprises or funded by a national government, newspapers depend on various streams of revenue and support, which means that their content will be shaped by the interests of their owners, investors, and editors. Magazines are usually commercial in nature and operated for profit. It is important to ask what interests are involved in a particular publication, who the publication is aimed at (a local or national audience, middle or working class), whom the editorials and articles are written by, and what purpose individual articles or sections have. While these questions may seem difficult and suggest that periodicals are inherently ‘unreliable’, the interests and subjectivities that newspapers represent can be usefully incorporated into a critical analysis of a topic, or indeed be the subject of research. This is particularly true of research on race and ethnicity, as newspapers and magazines can show us how prejudiced ideas about certain groups shaped events and attitudes, and how periodicals themselves helped to transmit these ideas to the public. The ways in which periodicals represent the world helps frame our understanding of it.
It is in this way that newspapers and magazines can be used as a source to understand the process of ‘racial formation’. Recognising that ‘race’ is a social category and that racism is systemic (universal) in American society, sociologists Omi and Winant describe ‘racial formation’ as the process by which social, economic, and political forces ‘determine the content and importance of racial categories’ (Omi and Winant, 1986, pp.10–11). When newspapers contain prejudiced stories about black crime rates, or magazines feature disparaging cartoons of Irish immigrants, they are contributing to this process and helping to form and reinforce stereotypes about the characteristics held by certain racial and ethnic groups. Representations of race and ethnicity in print media produce meaning, and this meaning is circulated throughout society through the distribution and consumption of newspapers and magazines (Hall, 1997, p.1). Theories about reader reception and knowledge transmission can help us to think about the role of periodicals in shaping public attitudes towards racial and ethnic groups (Secord, 2004). Readers do not simply accept the ideas and attitudes that they consume without question, but instead work to interpret what they have read according to their own experiences. Articles in periodicals about the damaging effects of immigrant labour may therefore be more readily received by a reader struggling to find work than by a factory owner reliant on a cheap workforce.
While newspapers can help us to understand why racial and ethnic groups are represented in certain ways, they can also reveal something about the lived experience of these groups. For example, runaway slave advertisements show us how white slave-owners regarded their slaves as property, offering a certain cash reward for their return. Yet reading between the lines, we can also use these advertisements to gain a snapshot into the slave experience. The fact that the slaves were running away points to the violence that they endured, and descriptions of their defining features tells us something about their appearance, skills, and motivations. Beyond mainstream local and national newspapers, we can also examine newspapers produced by African Americans and immigrant groups. These documents can tell us what was important to these groups, how they advocated for civil rights using print media, and how they defined and represented themselves.
Although some newspapers and magazines – particularly smaller local ones – are only accessible in archives or on microfilm, many have now been digitised and are fully searchable online. The online 19th Century US Newspapers database contains 500 newspaper titles and popular magazines, such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. It is searchable by publication, location, keyword, date ranges, and feature. These advanced search features make it very easy to quickly locate specific topics of interest, such as Irish immigrants in New York between 1848 and 1860, and can be used to gain quantitative data such as the frequency of news reports on specific immigration policies. However, the ease with which we can perform these searches can make us overly reliant on periodicals, and it is important to use them in conjunction with other primary materials, such as Congressional reports on immigration legislation that will offer more accurate information on government policy. Keyword searches may also overlook relevant information, and it is important to have a broad knowledge of the topic beforehand to know the best search terms to use, which often requires you to get inside the mind of a nineteenth-century journalist. For example, when conducting a search on Chinese immigrants, you may yield larger results if you use terms such as ‘Chinese’, ‘John Chinaman’, or ‘coolie’. Bibliographies and indexes of African American and immigrant newspapers can be found in books or online, although not all of these are freely accessible, and immigrant newspapers are frequently written in different languages.
Narrative sources include diaries, (auto)biographies, and travel accounts, as well as more specific forms of text such as slave narratives or captivity tales. These sources can be very useful in giving us an insight into a particular individual, in terms of their experiences, emotions, opinions, and worldview. The peculiarity and subjectivity of such sources can make them difficult to use, and it is important that we don’t try to draw too many conclusions from an individual narrative, but use them in multiple and with other sources. If used carefully and critically, however, narrative sources can tell us a lot about the topic of race and ethnicity. We can use them to access the experiences of individuals, and to learn of the small, everyday acts of discrimination that they faced, or their attempts at resisting them. We can also use them to gain an insight into the minds of those in the dominant societies that exploited or excluded racial and ethnic minorities, so that we can begin to understand how ideas about racial and ethnic difference were learnt, enacted, or perhaps rejected.
Again, it is necessary to ask questions about these types of sources. We need to know who the author was and in what context they were writing, why they wrote the text, and the audience they were writing for. Understanding this background can help us to be critical of the content of the narrative, pointing to why certain features were included and why others were overlooked. For example, a diary that was never intended for publication may contain more personal or indeed more mundane material than an autobiography written by someone that has achieved a level of notoriety. It is also important to remember that published sources have most likely been shaped by a number of people other than the original author. Editors and publishers have specific aims and intentions, and translators are not always reliable interpreters. This can be the case with slave narratives in particular, as many ex-slaves would not have been in a position to write or publish their experiences without external guidance. Slave narratives published for the purpose of abolitionist propaganda may have been edited to meet the needs and expectations of those empathetic to the slave’s plight, and can therefore have recurring features such as Biblical imagery (Starling, 1988, pp.241–48). Online collections of slave narratives organised by subject can illuminate these common themes, and suggest possible topics for research.
If used critically, with careful sampling and proper contextualisation, narrative sources can offer a rich and fertile base of written and visual materials for the study of race and ethnicity. One way to build a convincing argument is to identify trends across a substantial sample. Online collections of early American travel narratives are often word searchable, and can be used to examine European encounters with different Native American nations, demonstrating the changing nature of their relationships over time, the language used by European travellers to describe their physical and intellectual features, and the unfamiliar cultural practices that travellers felt the need to record. These sources can show us how travel writing constructed images of the world beyond Europe (Pratt, 1992).
Personal sources such as diaries and autobiographies are best used with a conscious awareness of their particularities. A study of diaries and autobiographies written by black Americans in the segregated South would be most effective if using a large sample that included people of different backgrounds and from different regions, and with other sources that could provide further information about the time and place in which they were written. We need to be careful about the claims that we make using these sources, but they can be vital in filling in the gaps about historical subjects that we have very little information about from other, more traditional sources. Diaries and autobiographies by black women, for example, show us how these individuals sought to define themselves in a society that provided them with very few outlets to do so (Braxton, 1989).
This section is organised around two case studies, each of which focuses on a key research question on the topic of race and ethnicity. The case studies draw on sources from the two categories discussed above, and offer practical advice on how students can use and analyse these sources to develop their own research questions.
Representing racial and ethnic ‘others’
This case study considers how to use narrative sources and periodicals to develop arguments about the ways in which racial and ethnic groups have been represented in European and American society. To do this, it first discusses the 1709 travel narrative of British explorer John Lawson [A] and analyses his descriptions of Native Americans. It then examines an 1882 political cartoon from Puck magazine [B] on the subject of immigration to the USA.
The best place to start when looking at a travel narrative is the often very detailed title page [A]. We can see from Lawson’s title page that the content of his narrative will be descriptions of the natural history of Carolina, and the ‘Customs, Manners’ of ‘several nations of Indians’. We can also see that Lawson has a particular relationship with this region as he is named as the ‘Surveyor-General of North Carolina’, from which we can infer that he had not just travelled to America briefly, but had established a life there and was well acquainted with the area. The publication details inform us that the narrative was published in London, and was therefore intended for a British or European audience. Scrolling through the digitised edition of Lawson’s narrative we come to Lawson’s acknowledgements. He thanks several lords for their favours, and states that the document presents descriptions of ‘your own Country’ (p.ii). This informs us that Lawson’s travels were funded by the Lords Proprietors who owned the land, and therefore establishes the purpose of his narrative. Clues about who Lawson was and why he may have written his travel narrative give us a good base for further research, and contribute to our analysis of the source.
With some idea of the circumstances surrounding the narrative, we can apply specific research questions, which in this instance relate to Lawson’s representation of Native Americans. Using the contents page or the search function if digitised, we can quickly find relevant passages, such as ‘An Account of the Indians of North-Carolina’ (p.169). Reading Lawson’s account, we can find instances where he compares the Native Americans to Europeans. Lawson claims ‘They are no Inventors of any Arts or Trades worthy mention; the Reason of which I take to be, that are not possess’d with that Care and Thoughtfulness … as the Europeans are’ (p.172). Elsewhere he states, ‘they never work as the English do, taking care for no farther than is absolutely necessary to support Life’ (p.174). Having established how Lawson has represented Native Americans, we can start to develop arguments about why he may have depicted them in this way. It seems important that Lawson makes direct comparisons between Native Americans and Europeans, and that he implies that they were not as intelligent or hard-working as the English. Using the information that we have about Lawson, we can interpret this to mean that the travel narrative is being used to justify English ownership and exploitation of the land by suggesting that the Native Americans were not as capable or deserving as the European colonisers, and to encourage European readers to settle there.
As well as using this source to support claims about European representations of Native Americans, we can also use it to think about Lawson himself. In writing about and constructing an ‘Other’, the traveller is also creating a ‘Self’. Conducting more research on Lawson, we can begin to think about the ways in which his social circumstances influenced his descriptions of America, perhaps focusing on how his negative perceptions of Native Americans influenced his own self-image, or shaped his views on society more generally. Such arguments would be strengthened by using relevant secondary sources that both discuss the function of travel writing, and also tell us more about the historical context of both the traveller and the place to which they travelled. Another way to build an argument from your analysis of a travel narrative is to compare it with others, to see if there are similar literary conventions or modes of description that can point to trends in the genre. Alternatively, through careful analysis of the text it may be possible to uncover information about Native American cultural practices or their opinions of the European travellers. However, we must be aware that this evidence is being filtered through the eyes and opinions of the author, and that this type of source will never give us a full and balanced impression of Native American life.
In order to produce comprehensive and objective histories of racial/ethnic representation, it is important to incorporate a wide range of sources. Visual materials can be very revealing about the ways in which racial and ethnic groups have been represented, and allow us to incorporate a number of different methods alongside the interpretative frameworks we use for textual sources. This political cartoon [B] featured in an 1882 edition of the popular Puck magazine depicts a boarding house filled with immigrants and labourers from several countries. When analysing political cartoons, it can be helpful to begin by noting the most obvious visual features. Our eyes are immediately drawn to the two figures in the centre of the image who have been depicted in brighter, lighter colours, indicating that they are the most important features. The man on the left covers his ears as the man in front of him raises a finger and distorts his face aggressively. Other figures either sleep or cower from the aggressive man. Next, look to any text that accompanies the image, either as a caption or featured on particular elements in the cartoon. From the text in this image, we learn that we are looking at ‘Uncle Sam’s lodging house’ and that the man shouting is an ‘Irishman’. The other figures are immigrants and labourers, including the peacefully sleeping ‘German’ and the comically oversized ‘Negro’. The caption provides a voice to Uncle Sam, the other central figure, who states, ‘Look here, you, everybody else is quiet and peaceable, and you’re all the time a-kicking up a row!’ From this analysis, we can interpret that Uncle Sam is disturbed by the Irish immigrant, whose distorted facial features imply negative characteristics both in terms of his appearance and personality, while the other labourers are peaceful and unobjectionable. The bricks surrounding Uncle Sam, which the Irish man appears to have thrown, feature inscriptions such as ‘Irish independence’ and ‘The Chinese must go’, suggesting some of the Irish man’s grievances.
Once we have gleaned as much information from the cartoon as possible, we then need to attempt to explain and interpret its features. Using secondary literature that discusses similar source materials, we can learn to recognise common caricatures and tropes in cartoons of this era, such as the figure of Uncle Sam as a representation of the USA. Using other sources that explain the broader political context of the cartoon, we can understand its place within a period of increasing negativity towards immigrants, and we can understand the Irish man’s concerns about the political situation in his native Ireland and the issue of competing with Chinese labourers. As this cartoon features several racial and ethnic groups, it is useful for developing arguments about the comparative ways in which minority groups were represented in America, and their place within that nation’s racial and ethnic hierarchy. Looking closely at the physical features attributed to the various labourers, we can build arguments about racial stereotypes (Sacshman, Rushing, and Morris Jr., 2009). The Irish man’s skin tone appears darker than the English and German men and his face appears more ape-like than human, and the Chinese man’s braided hair marks him as particularly different.
We can use sources such as these to support claims about popular political sentiments and attitudes towards racial and ethnic groups. If we put this particular source in a broader context, we can see that the cartoon was published in the same edition as an editorial that argued that Irish immigrants would never assimilate to American life, and that Puck magazine demonstrated a trend of anti-Irish publications. To broaden this further, we can seek out similar sources to identify patterns across time and place, including changes of attitudes towards certain immigrant groups over time, and regional comparisons of the immigrants arriving on the East and West coasts. We can also use theories of reader reception to think about how periodicals shaped public attitudes, for example by publishing sensationalist stories that exploited their readers’ existing fears about racial minorities, therefore reinforcing and extending their race-based fears.
The slave experience
This case study considers how to use narrative sources and periodicals to develop arguments about the experiences of racial groups. To do this, it first examines the slave narrative of Olaudah Equiano, and then analyses runaway slave advertisements in newspapers.
The frontispiece of Equiano’s slave narrative [C] features a portrait of the author. Appearing refined and intelligent with a book in his hand, and dressed in the fashionable clothing of the era, the portrait immediately tells us how Equiano wished to represent himself to his readers. The writing below the portrait informs us that Equiano has two names – not uncommon for slaves who may have been renamed by their masters – and states that he is ‘the African’. We can interpret from the juxtaposition of this assertion of African heritage and a refined portrait that Equiano had pride in his heritage, and wished to demonstrate that former slaves had the capacity to achieve the traits of ‘civilisation’ that pro-slavery advocates denied existed in Africans. The title page reasserts Equiano’s African heritage and emphasises that the narrative was ‘written by himself’, again pointing to his intelligence. This version of the narrative was the sixth edition and had been enlarged, indicating that the text was both popular and went through a number of editing and publication processes. The inclusion of a Biblical passage here indicates the style of the slave narrative, as well as the intended audience.
Slave narratives like Equiano’s (the entirety of which is available online [C]) can tell us about a slave’s life in Africa, and their experiences in America or Europe. In some ways, we can see such a source as similar to a travel narrative, yet written from the perspective of the ‘Other’. There are therefore a number of ways that we can use slave narratives. We can use them to build research questions about life in Africa during the slave trade, African experiences of slavery and their perceptions of the Euro-Americans they encountered, and the peculiar experiences of those slaves lucky enough to escape and publish their life story. In a passage in the second chapter of Equiano’s narrative, we can gain an insight into the emotional experiences of slaves. Equiano describes how he believed that he had ‘gotten into a world of bad spirits’ as the crew of the slave ship appeared so different to anyone he had seen before, with their ‘complexions too differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke’ (p.46). Describing the violence he and others faced on the ship, Equiano recounts an instance where two slaves jumped into the sea, ‘preferring death to such a life of misery’ (p.53). Undertaking close readings of slave narratives can provide us with evidence that we may not be able to locate in other sources relating to slavery, and gives us an important counterpoint to sources written by Euro-Americans.
There are important things to bear in mind when reading a slave narrative. Although frequently described as having been written by the slave themselves, these texts involved a number of contributors and were often published with the intention of gaining support for the abolition of slavery. Even at the time, readers questioned the accuracy of the narratives, which suggests that we need to be careful when using slave narratives as historical sources. Yet these questions about reliability and intent can raise interesting lines of research. Examining a large sample of slave narratives can allow us to recognise certain conventions, such as the inclusion of a portrait and testimonials that proclaim the narrative’s truth. We can use slave narratives to research the role of religion in the fight for abolition, or the significance of the slave narrative in ending slavery. Understanding the common aspects of slave narratives allows us to recognise what is typical and what is not, and can indicate how reliable an individual narrative is.
It can be difficult to locate sources that tell us about the experiences of racial and ethnic groups, but sometimes it is possible to read sources ‘against the grain’ to gain this insight. Runaway slave advertisements were placed in newspapers by slave-owners, who hoped to locate their valuable human property by providing identifying information and frequently offering a cash reward. These advertisements can tell us a lot about how slave-owners viewed their slaves, but we can also use them to gain an insight into the slave experience. The very existence of these advertisements demonstrates that slaves sought to escape their masters, and were therefore attempting to resist and alter their situation. Carrying out searches that take time and place into account, we can build a picture of when and where this occurred most, which may indicate patterns of particularly violent slave-owners or particularly rebellious slaves. Using the advertisements in conjunction with the records of slave-owners, and with secondary sources that contextualise regional slave practices, will strengthen this line of argument. This quantitative style of research can be useful for making comparative arguments, or for creating data-driven histories that draw on statistical patterns. Comparing runaway slave advertisements with notices of slaves that had been found can also indicate the level of success in this form of resistance.
Alongside quantitative research, we can also do close readings of the advertisements to learn about the lives of slaves. One runaway slave advertisement [D] was placed in a North Carolina newspaper in 1839. The owner, Josiah Barrett, was offering a reward for the return of his female slave, Chaney. Alongside a physical description of Chaney, we also learn that she took her three children with her, and that she had recently been visited by another slave who may be able to assist her in fleeing to a Free State. This advertisement can give us a rare insight into the experience of female slaves, and the difficulties of maintaining family structures under slavery. Another advertisement [E] placed by Samuel Farmer in 1831 describes the runaway John. The description of John’s scar suggests that he has lived a dangerous or violent life. Farmer’s account of John as a ‘shrewd fellow’, who may alter his name to aid his escape, points to a savvy and quick-witted young man. By mentioning John’s free father, Farmer also suggests that John has contacts that can aid him in his escape. Gleaning this information from runaway slave advertisements allows us to recognise certain patterns and to build a picture of slave life. We could use this information to examine levels of slave literacy, record the types of injuries and illnesses that slaves suffered from, and to assess the relationship between the value of reward offered and any special skills that the slaves possessed. When researching the experiences of individuals, we need to be careful not to suggest that one individual’s experience is representative. Yet using such sources alongside others, and for clearly defined research questions, it is possible to build some convincing arguments about the lived experience of certain racial and ethnic groups.
The topic of race and ethnicity is central to many different histories, and therefore a wide variety of sources can be used to address research questions on this theme. Depending on what aspect of the topic you are interested in and what types of sources you select, you can gain a very varied picture of the role and significance of racial and ethnic categories. By approaching source analysis from a critical standpoint, and with a broad knowledge of historical debates and context, it is possible to build sophisticated arguments about race and ethnicity, and to make original contributions to a lively area of research. This chapter has provided just a brief overview of the source sets and methods relevant to this topic, and there are many more that can be explored. Sometimes, factors that may appear to limit a source’s reliability or usefulness can in fact make for an interesting line of research. It is important to remain open-minded when approaching primary sources, and to neither ignore nor be deterred by limitations to do with source availability or content. Using sources creatively can result in interesting and innovative research on the topic of race and ethnicity.
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