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Scrubbing the Whitewash from New England History: Citizenship, Race and Gender in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Nantucket


This dissertation examines how racial ideologies have historically been entangled with discourses on citizenship and gender difference in the United States. In looking at the case study of the 18th- and 19th-century African American community on Nantucket, I ask how these ideologies of difference and inequality were experienced, reinterpreted, and defied by women and men in the past. Whereas New England has maintained a liberal and moralistic regional narrative since the early-19th century, this dissertation builds on scholarship which has increasingly complicated this narrative, documenting the historically entrenched racial divides in the region.

Historic African American community philosophies and social ideals are investigated through newspapers, pamphlets, and other records of the time. To address the household and individual scale, an archaeological investigation was undertaken at the homestead of a prominent 19th-century black family on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts. The Seneca Boston-Florence Higginbotham House was home to a prominent late-18th- and 19th-century African American-Native American family on the island. The materiality of the Boston home -- the artifacts, architecture, and landscape features -- are the basis for making interpretations of the lives of the individuals that once lived there.

African diaspora theory, black feminist thought, and theories of performativity form the basis for the interpretive framework of this dissertation. The process of community formation and mobilization is considered with regard both for the uniting potential of cultural background and the uniting potential of political and social goals. The diversity of the African diaspora is seen as both an asset and a challenge to the uniting of the community on Nantucket. Collective and individual identities were experienced in a variety of ways. Race, gender, age, social status, and other vectors of social cohesion all contributed to the experience of intersectional identities. The concept of performativity, which proposes that identities are temporarily stabilized during actions, is also part of the foundation on which identity is theorized in this dissertation. Everyday performance provided opportunities for experiences of embodied subjectivities, where subject positions are defined and reiterated through words, bodily movement, and material choices.

The historical analysis which contextualizes this research project focuses on the establishment and perpetuation of African American community ideals in the northeastern United States during the 19th century. Notions of citizenship and gender ideals were racialized and defined according to white standards. Women and men of African descent, as well as of other cultural backgrounds, were seen by dominant white culture as outside the bounds of citizenship by virtue of not being white and outside the bounds of womanhood/manhood by not being white women/men. Black communities, or communities of color, in the Northeast countered these hostile ideologies with a complex set of strategies for redefining, rejecting, or transforming dominant ideals of womanhood and manhood. Black gender ideologies represented the synthesis of several sets of cultural traditions, economic circumstances, and political goals. While these changed in important ways over the course of the 19th century, black gender ideals were consistently based on a normative notion of respectability while at the same time critiquing the race and gender ideologies of the society that defined respectability. In addition to this, people of color were increasingly defining a sense of collective identity based on these shared ideas of respectability and uplift and the ways that women and men achieved this in the home as well as in more public spaces.

This dissertation first examines how the Boston-Micah family of the late-18th and early-19th centuries contributed to the founding of the community of color on Nantucket island. African American, Native American, Cape Verdean, European, and people from other lines of descent were a part of this community and in the early-19th century they united around the identifier of "people of color." Seneca Boston and Thankful Micah were among the first of these people to strike out and settle on the southern edge of town. Through an analysis of their material worlds-- including ceramics, their house itself, and their plot of land-- it is suggested that they were actively negotiating dominant discourses on racial exclusion, citizenship, and gender which excluded people of color from the rights and privileges of full personhood.

The 19th-century occupants of the house contributed to the growth, florescence, and survival of the African American community through the boom of the whaling industry on the island, an economic depression, and the resurgence of the economy with the coming of the tourism industry in the late-19th century. Mary Boston Douglass, Eliza Berry, Lewis Berry, Phebe Groves Talbot Hogarth, Elizabeth Stevens, and Absalom Boston experienced the race and gender ideals of the black community in the northeast, and wider American society, in a variety of ways. An analysis of ceramics, personal adornment objects, and small finds is used to examine their experiences. This dissertation asserts that these individuals were aware of the ways that the embodiment of gender ideals contributed to community uplift, but nonetheless made choices about how they would interpret, disregard, or reshape these ideals to fit the realities of their everyday lives.

This dissertation stands at once as a critique of a regional narrative, a micro-history of a family, and an analysis of race and gender ideologies which were forged in the past but continue to be relevant in the present day. Racial inequality in northeastern United States has a long history that has been in many ways obscured by popular imagination. Reexamining these regional histories continues to be an important project in the deconstruction of naturalized racial stereotypes and tracing the ways these stereotypes were interwoven with struggles for civil rights, gender, and racial equality.

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