F20 Black Atlantic: Resources, Pedagogy, and Scholarship on the 18th Century Black Atlantic

Thinking about Blackness as a Legal Category in Black New England

Belinda Sutton's petition, as well as the entire unit this weel, makes me think of how Blackness operates as a legal categorization both literally and figuratively. 

Belinda's petition and Zipporah call into question legality and Blackness in New England. Belinda's petition was related to citizenship. The petition reminds me of the transition away from the term "free[d] slave" slave to terms like "formerly enslaved" or even the pushback against the term "slave" in general, since people are not "slaves," but they are put under the condition of slavery. However, inaccurate as that term may be to our ears in 2020 - it does reveal a truth about America's historical categorization of people by race. It's too simple to say "race was not a thing back then," but we do understand that America went through transitions of relying on religion, land ownership and other markers of identity in addition to race while it codified race into how we might understand it today. I would confidently posit that during this time period, as highlighted by Belinda and Zipporah, there was a clear effort to make "Black" tantamount to "slave," which free people combated. This is why I say that I'm viewing Blackness as a legal category that rests on "enslavability."

Belinda essentially asks "if I am not a slave, then what am I?" by writing herself into a constitutional gap regarding her fate, land ownership, and her place in the U.S.

Zipporah has a similar court case, as she was born during a particular time when Black people born in the U.S. did not follow the condition of the mother. Her story raises questions over how to treat free African-decended people who fall in this liminal space of citizenship. 

Moreover, her case also highlights how often we have to piece together Black people's stories from records. Because they didn't have the typical trappings that Americans might leave behind such as diaries, heirlooms, letters, and other personal items. Instead, many Black individuals seems to pieced together from legal records, plantation notes and second hand mentions. Possibly, we only know some people like Belinda, Zipporah, or Dredd Scott exist because of their court cases - making them even more a matter of legality.

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