Pocahontas:

The Malleability of Race--
or the Monster Miscegenation?






"The Marriage of Pocahontas,"
by Henry Brueckner, 1855


The abject, Julia Kristeva tells us, is what

               "does not respect borders, positions, rules. The  in-
               between, the ambiguous, the composite...Imaginary uncan-
               niness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up 
               engulfing us" (Kristeva 4).

That is to say, the abject is that which one fears most, that which must be rejected--and ejected--whether from the body or the body politic.

In the ever-malleable narratives of Pocahontas that have evolved through the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries what has been highlighted is her potential as a figure of racial reconciliation. The story of the so-called Indian princess is cast as a missed opportunity. Rather than waging genocidal wars, the early colonists might have, through intermarriage, absorbed the native populations into the culture and, indeed, bloodlines of the European invaders.

What this fantasy hides, however, is the stubborn nature of the confrontation with the abject. Consider this excerpt from a letter, written in 1757, by the Rev. Peter Fontaine of Virginia:

               But here methinks I can hear you observe,
               What! Englishmen intermarry with Indians? But
               I can convince you that they [Englishmen] are
               guilty of much more heinous practices, more
               unjustifiable in the sight of God and man...for
               many base wretches among us take up with negro 
               women, by which means the country swarms with
               mulatto bastards, and these mulattoes, if but
               three generations removed from the black father
               or mother, may, by the indulgence of the laws of 
               this country, intermarry with the white people,
               and actually do every day so marry.  Now if 
               instead of this abominable practice which hath
               polluted the blood of many amongst us, we had 
               taken Indian wives in the first place, it would
               have made them some compensation for their lands.
               They are a free people, and the offspring would
               not be born in a state of slavery.  We should 
               become rightful heirs to the land, and should 
               not have smutted our blood, for the Indian
               children when born are as white as the Spanish
               or Portuguese.... (in Tilton 15)

Detail from "John Rolfe and Pocahontas,"
by J.W. Glass, early 1850s

The dynamic could not be clearer: the so-called Indian represents that which may be absorbed; the African, the abject matter which may not--or only at great peril. In obedience to this dynamic, "blackness" must be separated off not just from what is constructed as "white" but from what is constructed as "red" as well.

Indeed, the zeal with which Virginia bluebloods have hastened to lay claim to Pocahontas is only matched with the vehemence with which they have been prepared to deny any connection, blood or otherwise, between Native and African-Americans.

Unfortunately, the argument would have more merit if it happened to be true. Pedro Alonzo Niño, navigator of the Santa Maria, was the first African whom Europeans recorded as setting foot in the New World. African seamen, explorers, artisans, and, yes, slaves accompanied every major Spanish or Portuguese expedition to these shores. As early as 1526, Africans were reported as having revolted against their Spanish masters, fired the settlement (located near present-day Georgetown, SC), and settled among the native inhabitants (Harley 7-9).

Indeed, if the conspiracies of slaves and indentured servants culminating in the 1676 Bacon's Rebellion demonstrated to entrenched privilege the intolerable danger posed by an alliance poor whites and blacks, the lesson had long been learned with regard to African and Native Americans--and was to be underlined throughout the colonial and antebellum periods.

The revolting slaves who took part in Stono Rebellion of 1739, for example, stole arms and ammunition and murdered colonists to secure their attempted march from present-day Charleston, SC, to maroon communities Florida that enjoyed the protection of Native Americans (Harley 29). So numerous--and notorious--were the maroon settlements in that state that they sparked the First, Second, and Third Seminole wars and intensified support for Andrew Jackson's "Indian removal" policy (Katz Black 53-69).

The abundance of accounts such as the foregoing and the anguish of colonists such as the Rev. Fontaine point to an oft-overlooked reality. Hegemonic interests may have stressed the importance of separating the races because, in practice, it was proving impossible to prevent the so-called mingling of the races. Virginia's first anti-miscegenation law passed in 1662. Old Dominion lawmakers were still trying to legislate racial purity as late as 1925.

Detail from "The Death of Pocahontas,"
by Junius Brutus Stearn, 1850

For elites, Pocahontas--always a woman and usually an Indian--points not just to the slippage in the terms "white", "black", and "red" but also to how that slippage might be contained. Virginia elites were just one of many interest groups who used the figure of Pocahontas to negotiate concepts such as "purity" and "mongrelization" as well as to work out "acceptable" vs. "unacceptable" forms of "mongrelization".

However, the existence of a third term in a white supremacist hegemony--"red" in addition to "black" and "white"-- was ulitmately to prove too destabilizing to the entire edifice. White Americans--in contrast to white supremacist regimes in South Africa, the Caribbean, and South America--were unable to tolerate a "colored" buffer zone between the races. Haltingly at first, then ever more decisively, white supremacist America moved, in the Reconstruction period and the first quarter of this century, to "suture" the open wound at the heart of racial difference in the United States.


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