“Reading too much into things”: primary source analysis at the word level

Sometimes, in the face of long, complex sentences or really abstract arguments, even the most committed close reader can struggle to find a foothold. Lots of us use the “choose the most important word/phrase” exercise to get things going in such a situation, and I’m a big fan. But I also think we can use that approach more systematically and productively, especially in situations where our students resist historical analysis because the topic at hand seems “natural.”

I teach English colonialism in the Chesapeake using Kathleen Brown’s arguments about the role of gender ideals and labor demands in producing racial order. After talking through the interpretation itself in class, my students read two Virginia laws with which many of us are familiar: the 1662 law making slavery heritable through the mother, and the 1691 law banning miscegenation and setting punishments for women who had interracial children out of wedlock.1)I only assign the middle section of that second law, the paragraph beginning: “And for prevention…” My goal is to help students see how laws respond to and shape people’s behavior and ideas about social order.

This is mind-warping stuff for many undergraduates, as it unsettles many categories they see as fixed. The laws themselves are – as my students always remind me – terrible run-on sentences. But the biggest stumbling block is that students can’t stop using the contemporary categories that are so familiar to them – black and white – even as we’re trying to think about how those categories emerge.

I can push students to use the terms from the historical sources themselves, but often they don’t even realize the ways that they have “translated” the terms as they read; the particular close-reading assignment they complete helps them see this after the fact. But when I ask them why they substituted “white” where the 1662 document used “English,” they can get very frustrated, because to them, race just is. Even if the law says “English,” it means white, right?

But it doesn’t mean white, and that’s what we’re trying to grapple with.

Now that I’ve taught this pair of documents quite a few times, I’ve found a way to embrace the inevitable terminology slippages that accompany reading and discussing them.

I begin by asking students to take a minute and make a list of the categories in each law. How does the law divide the population up? When they’ve done this, we go around the room and put the two lists up on the board, and we end up with something like this.

1662: children, Englishman, negro, woman, slave, bond, free, mother, Christian, man

1691: English, white, women, negroes, mulattoes, Indians, bond, free, servant, bastard

As soon as we have the words up like this, students start noticing the differences.

Given that we have talked about religion and place of origin as impermanent justifications for enslavement, they note that Christian is there in one and gone thirty years later.

They notice white, and then someone points out that the actual phrasing of the document says “English or other white man or women.” Then I can ask whether they see any other new groupings or categorizations, and we note that this first group is set in opposition to “a negroe, mulatto, or Indian man or woman bond or free.” Inevitably someone will point out that the first line actually points to a more specific problematic pairing: “negroes, mulattoes, and Indians intermarrying with English, or other white women.”

Thinking about words and what they meant helps us think about what these laws were responding to and how they changed people’s lives. We can see why it matters to designate English, Christian, or white at one moment and not another. It becomes easier to push students to consider other common slippages: referring to all African/Afro-Virginians as “slave” by default, or conflating “slave” and “servant,” or being shocked at how mean it was to call a baby a “bastard!”

Coming early in the semester, this exercise also brings out into the open an interpretive issue that I know I’ll face sooner or later in every class: the question of how much words actually mean. For many students, close reading can feel like “reading too much into things.”

This exercise helps us consider how much words are just words, and how much they express and shape our beliefs and assumptions. If we assume that the words in these laws were chosen carefully, what does that tell us? If not, and the words just reflect what was in people’s heads, we have to grapple with the fact that “Christian” and “English” were in people’s heads in 1662, and “white” was in our heads reading it in 2017.

This sort of exercise, early on, can provide a clear, concrete way to introduce students to the useful idea of categories of analysis and practice, which can be especially important in a US I survey course. But more simply, it’s a great way to show the value of close reading, particularly when you’re asking students to question things that they see as natural and ahistorical.

References   [ + ]

1. I only assign the middle section of that second law, the paragraph beginning: “And for prevention…”

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