In Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780–1860, Joanne Pope Melish explores the way that racial attitudes became hardened in early national and antebellum New England with the passage of free womb laws and the subsequent obfuscation of the region’s prior relationship with slavery. Melish notes that implicit in early anti-slavery thought was the notion that by removing slavery, people of color would be removed from their midst as well. Attempts to minimize the significance of slavery in New England “further ‘racialized’ both black and white identity in New England. Having largely disconnected people of color from their historical experience of oppressive enslavement in the New England states, whites could insist that the only way to account for the often impoverished condition of free people of color there was their innate inferiority” (3). Melish argues that the character of both slavery and emancipation in the North resulted in the development of belief in “race” as an innate characteristic, fixed in the bodies of individuals. Melish places New Englanders’ experience with gradual emancipation at the center of the story of the development of their ideas of race, their negative view of the capacities of people of color, and their antagonism of free blacks.
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