Friday, March 4, 2011

Nation vs. Race

Apess's "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man" is a religious essay about what Apess called color prejudice and what we call racism today. This may just be a matter of semantics, but I noticed that Apess never uses the word "race" in this essay. I don't know very much about the origins of the word "race," but according to this website, the word originated around 1500. Therefore, the word "race" was used in American writings in the 19th century, but it does not appear once in this essay.

Instead, Apess uses the word "nation" quite a bit, especially in the final paragraph on page 1054. He indirectly says that whites, not Indians, can be charged with "robbing a nation almost of their whole continent, and murder their women and children" and with robbing "another nation to till their grounds and welter out their days under the lash with hunger and fatigue under the scorching rays of a burning sun" (1055). The footnote makes clear that the second quote references "the 'nation' of Africa, many of whose people were brought to the United States as slaves."

Why does Apess refer to Indians and Africans as nations instead of as races? How does this relate back to Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities," and the idea that nations are socially constructed? Sociologists also argue that race is a social construct. Do you agree? Also, when I first read this essay, I thought that Apess's main argument is that people of color are equal to whites and should be regarded as such. However, in this paragraph, he says "Assemble all nations together in your imagination ... Now suppose these skins were put together, and each skin had its national crimes written upon it—which skin do you think would have the greatest?" (1054). Here, and in the quotations above, it seems to me that Apess is implying that other races are morally superior to whites. What do you make of this?


  1. I think you make an interesting observation Sam, I hadn't noticed that Apess doesn't use the word "race." I can imagine that if he did this intentionally there are several possible reasons. I think one reason to consider is that "race" itself is a pretty clinical word, whereas "nation" has a more emotion connotation. Apess tries to take an emotional approach in his piece, so the word "nation" points the reader more in the direction he desires.

    Also, I think it's significant that Apess plays around with the word "skin" and the colors of it. I think overall he is trying to really wake up and shock the white man into seeing that the biggest difference between the white man and the colored people is their skin. In the grand scheme of things that skin does not provide much separation between the people, and Apess wants the whites to see that. Their skin which protects their bodies from the outside world is also protecting them from a more difficult existence in America, and yet the difference is so slight. He wants to show how simply being born into a different skin could make all the difference. So to answer your question, no I don't think Apess is trying to imply that other races are morally superior to whites necessarily. I think it's more about making as dramatic (but as honest) of a display as possible to get the desired effect: for the white man to see America more clearly.

  2. I agree that these are very interesting--and important!--questions, Sam.

    To add another wrinkle, can the word nation be a bit homogenizing? In other words, does that term flatten out the different demographics of the groups included in the construct of a particular nation? In an American context, these questions recall the melting pot metaphor, right? The idea that we all kind of blend together.

  3. I definitely agree that the word nation was used strategically. "Nation" in America signifies a group of different people from different places. By using "nation" Apess is is including indians and blacks into the melting pot of American culture. The word "race" on the other hand signifies a separate entity of culture. It suggests something foreign and different in a threatening context. Look at the word itself, "race" can represent a competition much like it was a competition between races in the early stages of America's development.