Early US Literature

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Black of Skin or Black of Soul: Perceptions of Blackness by Colonial Puritans


In 1693, shorty after what is now referred to as the Salem Witch Trials, Cotton Mather published a book entitled The Wonders of the Invisible World. In it, Mather details the events of the Salem trials, providing court records and transcripts of the events that ultimately lead to nineteen executions. Mather makes a strong case to the people that they need to protect themselves from those who would seek to do them (and their communities) spiritual harm. He seeks to “countermine the whole plot of the Devil against New England, in every branch of it, as far as one of my Darkness can comprehend such a world of Darkness” (2). With this statement Mather makes it clear that the battle being fought is one of light versus dark.  Thus, the dichotomy was established between lightness and blackness. While, Mather may have been speaking of blackness of the soul, it’s clear from the early texts that the distrust and wariness was applied to blackness of skin as well.

In her captivity narrative, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Mary Rowlandson details her capture and life among the Indians. At one point during her captivity she describes the natives as “black creatures”, distancing her own, white, English-born community from the savage natives and othering them by simply lumping them into the black category (6). If not white, then black. The attribution of “black” to any enemy or savage is founds in several of captivity narratives. The enemy was always black

Rowlandson’s capture occurred in 1676 and twenty years later the colonists were still confronting their perception of blackness, but this time through the fog of witchcraft. Returning once again to Cotton Mather and his Wonders of the Invisible World, many of the people accused of participating in witchcraft, as detailed in sections I-V, were said to have been seen talking or interacting with a black man.

One of these women, Susanna Martin, vehemently denied the charge. In a transcript of her trial, someone eventually “cried out that there was a black man with her” (344). She is immediately asked “What is the black man whispering to you?” Her reply was to simply say the “none whispered to her” (344). This passage makes apparent that association with this other, black character is incendiary enough to be used as evidence of witchcraft and ultimately execution.

In 1700, Robert Calef published “More Wonders of the Invisible World” as a critique of Mather’s witch hunts. He includes in his work Mather’s account of “The Afflictions of Margaret Rule”. In this narrative, Mather references the appearance of a black man several times. First, he shares a story about a Christian Indian who was approached by a “Black Man, of a terrible aspect and more than humane dimensions, threatening bitterly to kill him if he would not promise to leave of preaching as he did” (Calef 2). This recollection once again places the black man in league with the devil, directly opposing the Christian faith. Later, while describing the preternatural behavior of Margaret Rule, Mather claims that “scores of miserable people were troubled by horrible appearances of a Black-Man, accompanied with spectres wearing these and those human shapes” (Calef 3).

While seemingly rigid and merciless during the Salem witch-hunt, Mather’s overall view of black slaves seems to be a bit more complicated. In “The Negro Christianized” he strongly argues for the salvation of black slaves and exhorts his followers to “teach [their] Negroes the Truths of the Glorious Gospel” (Mather 2). Mather’s writing indicates that he believed that God saw both the black man and the white man as equally worthy of grace and salvation. However, he makes it very clear that leaving a black slave to salvation is not the same as setting him free. He claims that there is a difference between being “the Lord’s free-man” and just a regular free man. Still, Mather’s apparent concern for the well being of the souls of black slaves is notable given just how complicated the perception of blackness was at the time.

Still, it’s difficult to assess the evolution of colonial perceptions of blackness, simply because there are as many perceptions as there are people. What is clear, however, is that, at least for a time, the Puritans were led to believe that blackness represented evil and stood in direct opposition to the good or Godly. It’s hard to imagine that this perception didn’t inform the Puritan’s opinions of the “black” (including natives) people amongst them and lead to a sort of indoctrinated racism where skin color was partnered with a certain morality.

Works Cited

Calef, Robert. More Wonders of the Invisible World. London: Golden Bible, Early English Books Online. 1700. Web. 22 July 2013.

Marrant, John. A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black. Dublin: Dugdale, 1790. Web. 22 July 2013.

Mather, Cotton. The Wonders of the Invisible World. Boston: Raven in the Poultry, Early English Books Online. 1693. Web. 22 July 2013.

The Negro Christianized. Boston: B. Green, 1706. Web. 23 July 2013

Rowlandson, Mary. The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. Cambridge: Samuel Green, Early English Books Online. 1682. Web. 21 July 2013.


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