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The Conceptualization of Race in Colonial Puerto Rico, 1800–1850

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Kathryn R. Dungy

With the growing interest in the history of peoples of African descent in the Americas, narratives addressing regions outside of the United States are becoming increasingly popular. The Conceptualization of Race in Colonial Puerto Rico, 1800–1850 illuminates the role people of African descent played in the building of a Spanish Caribbean society during the social upheaval of the early nineteenth century. This examination of cultural tensions created by changing regional and national definitions and the fluidity of identity within these structures will appeal to those interested in colonial race issues, Africans in the Americas, and gender and race stratification. Kathryn R. Dungy uses gender, color, and class differences as lenses to understand a colonial society that was regulated by social relationships within Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and the Americas. By examining slave and free status, color, gender, work, and immigration, she endeavors to stimulate current debate on issues of gender, color, nation, and empire, utilizing a unique population and culture in the Black Atlantic.
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Preface: Fusing the Races

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I began my studies of slave societies and free people of color in the Caribbean in an effort to better understand my own family history. My paternal ancestors were, variously, Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans, all of whom converged on Virginia shores in the late 1600s. My maternal ancestors, again a mixture of European, African and Native American peoples, forged a life of free status for themselves in the slave states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Both families share a history of mixed marriages, indentured servitude, migration, and generally working against the space that people of color were supposed to occupy, both during slavery and in its aftermath. I was looking for links to my seemingly unusual heritage of free people of color struggling against the historical tide. Was there a place where a free person of color could own property, land, and/or slaves, and not be an anomaly? Was there somewhere free people of color could live in an integrated community as social equals?

I never found a utopia. In fact, I found places where my relatives, had they ended up there, might actually have found a crueler trajectory in the social and cultural sphere. However, one location I found ← vii | viii → piqued my interest. Puerto Rico glimmered in the Caribbean Sea with an unusual history surrounding its free people of color. In fact, there was a point in the nineteenth century when the island’s population of free people of color actually outnumbered both the...

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