Segment from Fit to Print?

The Tale of the White Negro

Nathan talks with University of Utah historian, Bruce Dain, about curious news stories about African-Americans spontaneously turning white, or so-called White Negroes. They also discuss how those stories were actually stand-ins for racial fears in American society in the late 18th century.


Astek by Ketsa

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

NATHAN: Ed, Joanne, while the penny press was a new kind of newspaper, it didn’t invent fake news. Joanne, I think one of your founding father plays played a starring role, perhaps?

JOANNE: Yes, one of my founding father pals, Benjamin Franklin. In the period just before they were going to be negotiating the treaty with Britain to end the American Revolution, Franklin wanted to influence the negotiations.

So he actually made up a fake supplement to a real newspaper. He made it look very real. And in it, he created this story about how these Native Americans, who were allied with the British, had created a sort of gift to give to the king that included sacks of scalps of American colonists.

And it wasn’t even just like grown people scalps. It was women’s scalps and children’s scalps and infant scalps. And so Franklin, basically, just wanted the British to feel really guilty for what they and their Native American allies had done, the atrocities that they’d committed during the war.

NATHAN: Ugh. Hold on. Bags of scalps?

JOANNE: Bags of scalps– eight bags of scalps, even. You know, Franklin thought big. And he was hoping, for that very reason– you just did what I’m sure he wanted the British to do, which was go, ooh, my gosh, really? That happened in America? And maybe the peace negotiations would be more favorable towards America.

ED: Did that work?

JOANNE: Well, who knows.

ED: We are a separate nation, so I guess it worked.

JOANNE: It’s true. Well, and what did work, though, was that that story got reprinted. It got printed in London newspapers. It got printed throughout the colonies or, actually, now states. So I mean, if his point was partly to influence public opinion, I suppose you could say, yeah, he did. Because that story spread all over the place.

ED: That could even be the definition of fake news. People believe it enough to spread it around.

NATHAN: Yeah. I guess you could say that there are many different stripes of fake news, right? I mean one didn’t have to necessarily want to deceive someone for it to have a kind of fake news effect. Take for example these headlines, from the late 18th century. Historian Bruce Dain reads us a sampling.

BRUCE DAIN: Let me find a really good one. Account of a person born a negro or a very dark mulatto, who, afterwards, became white. Another instance of a Negro turning white. Let’s see, another Ethiopian turning to a white man.

NATHAN: OK, what in the world are they talking about?

BRUCE DAIN: They’re talking about this craze, right after the Revolution, in the 1780s and especially the 1790s, for so-called white Negroes.

ED: Things were weird back then in the revolution, Joanne.

JOANNE: Well, they were. But I mean I spend my time back there, I still want to hear what the heck he’s talking about.

NATHAN: Now, I asked Dain why Americans, back then, would snap up stories about African-Americans turning white.

BRUCE DAIN: These were seen as foretelling that the race problem in America would go away of its own accord. People are worried about the slavery issue. Let’s say there was emancipation. Well, you have a group of people, who are– if you’re white, you have a group of people who look different than you.

And that difference is a mark of having been a slave. And the fear– and this is most famously said by Thomas Jefferson in his only published book– the end result of emancipation in America, without black people having to leave, because they look different and remember what the difference has meant, will be race war.

So this is a big preoccupation. If all black people will just whiten up, this will all just take care of itself.

NATHAN: OK, they couldn’t have possibly had anybody who they could document as having turned white at this time.

BRUCE DAIN: Actually, there was. There was a man, named Henry Moss, who was probably from Maryland, who had probably been born a slave. And at some point, when he was a child, he reported that his skin started turning white in big blotches. And by the time he became an adult, his hair and his face were almost completely white, even though he had very negroid features, and he had white blotches across his body.

NATHAN: Negroid being the term of the day?

BRUCE DAIN: Yes. And he knew that people were interested in this and were talking about these issues. And he figured he could make a buck out of it. He got himself to Philadelphia and got in contact with Charles Caldwell, who was a doctor, who was well-known, and who was the protege of the founding father Benjamin Rush, who was a very famous physician.

And they set him up in an inn outside of Philadelphia. And a lot of the founders and well-known people came out and looked at him. And they paid a nickel, to examine him with his clothes on, and a quarter to examine him naked.

NATHAN: So you’re actually telling me that there is not only one or two or several headlines about black people turning white, but that there is an entrepreneurial person, possibly a slave, who has a skin condition– presumably what we would call today as vitiligo, which causes one to lose their melanin– he’s actually using this opportunity to travel to Philadelphia and make a buck off of this?

BRUCE DAIN: Yes, make such a buck that he seems to have been able to purchase his own freedom, that of his wife, and even buy a small farm in Virginia.

NATHAN: Right next to Thomas Jefferson, presumably, right?

BRUCE DAIN: Actually, I don’t think it was that far from Charlottesville. I think was a bit north.

NATHAN: So we have to imagine that Henry Moss and any number of observers of the time would have known that the mass of black people were not going to miraculously become white. And yet this was being printed. It was being sold. I mean is this a variation of what we might call fake news?

BRUCE DAIN: I’d call it a variation of fantasy news, maybe desperate fantasy news. And I think most Americans probably do know that– look, certainly within 10 or 20 years, by 1820, when you don’t have 200,000 Henry Moss’ running around, the writing is on the wall.

NATHAN: Right. Right, right, right, absolutely. And yet, I mean again, this is still a moment where there is great anxiety about the presence of not necessarily white Negroes but certainly free Negroes, right? I mean this is something where the American readership, who might be picking up a newspaper, you know, The Republic or maybe even the penny press of the antebellum period, where they would be very concerned about news pertaining to people of African descent. Is that fair to say?

BRUCE DAIN: Yes. And it’s free people of African descent. I mean I think, really, if you want to have one theme for the race problem– if you want to call it that– in American history, it’s a problem of emancipation, freedom, and citizenship, what happens after slavery.

So the presence of these growing free black communities– and the one in Philadelphia is big and getting bigger. And they’re pretty thriving by the 1820s. These free black communities, those scare people. People are worried about what will happen after, about black assertion, black citizenship. And my god, sex between black men and white women, things like that.

NATHAN: So if you think about the process of writing a story about Henry Moss, is it fair to say that the authors are intending to kind of fool or deceive their readership? That there’s something about it that might be considered a bit dishonest in the way we would think about fake news today?

BRUCE DAIN: No. I think we can psychoanalyze them as kidding themselves. But did the people who wrote about him as maybe an instance of what could happen in the future believe it? Yeah, I think that they did.

NATHAN: Right. I mean this is actually, perhaps, a deeper question, where the intentionality might not matter so much as the social impact.

BRUCE DAIN: That’s exactly how historians have seen it. They’ve looked at what kind of a psyche, what kind of a view, an attitude towards race does this reveal? Why were people interested in it? I think that’s probably the more interesting way to look at it. That’s why I mean, it’s fantasy news. It’s taking a real instance and spinning a lot of wish fulfillment out of it, which, really, even then, the people involved should have known better.

NATHAN: I think it’s pretty safe to say that, when people look back 25 or 50 years from now, and they’re analyzing the 2016 presidential campaign, they might be less concerned with individual bloggers and their intentions and more interested in the ways in which the term “fake news” has become part of more general parlance, conversation, the social impact of the category.

I mean is there anything about the contemporary moment that you’re able to understand a bit more sharply having studied, what you call, fantasy news? Or what kinds of parallels do you see between our current moment and what you’re describing from the world of Henry Moss?

BRUCE DAIN: I think back then, Henry Moss, not many people said he did not exist. It’s not like, were there were 11,000 Muslims cheering in Jersey City? Well, is that a fact or not? We can say it’s a fake fact, therefore, fake news. Henry Moss existed. Most of these statements, people thought there was some reality to them. It’s what the facts meant that everybody fought like crazy about.

NATHAN: Well, that really is my question. I mean is there any sense that you have about what the social meaning of a Henry Moss story might have held?

BRUCE DAIN: What’s the social meaning? I think the social meaning is it shows the intense pressure to imagine America as this great environment, combined with this notion that equality is really only possible, in a nasty and difficult and corrupt world, if people feel and seem more or less the same, that they have enough in common, in a familial and lineal kind of way.

We’re all from the same place. We all think more or less the same things, believe the same things. We all live more or less the same way. There is this assumption, you have to have that. You have to have that type of viable country that will last.

NATHAN: Right. Thomas Jefferson actually, famously wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever,” unquote. And thinking about something as heavy as that, one might find a great deal of relief in reading what seems to be a pretty harmless story about a black man turning white.

BRUCE DAIN: Yeah. And they’re aware of the hypocrisy. You know Johnson, the British writer, said, before the revolution and during it, why do the loudest yelps for liberty come from the drivers of Negroes?

People understand that. Jefferson, himself, even thinks, well, look, the reason why there’ll be this race war, and God will be on black side, is we have done far worse to African-Americans than the British did to us. British mistreatment and metaphorical slavery created American patriotism and the revolution.

What did real slavery, based on a visible difference, do in black people’s minds? We’ve created an enemy nation in our midst. And they implacably wish to destroy us.

And of course, the really hilarious thing is, if you read anybody, even the most radical 19th century black writers, some of whom do call for a slave rebellion, they all offer the promise, you treat us equally, and it’ll all be fine. So that’s really a white– this revenge thing is a white fantasy. And that’s the fantasy news.

If I were to say the fake news of the 19th century, the 18th century, regarding these issues, is this intense fear of this incredible and horrible apocalyptic conflict if black people are given any more freedom or power or political rights. And that’s the fake news. Because if you actually look, what anybody, virtually anyone who’s African-American actually does, when they’re given any of that, it doesn’t confirm that fantasy at all.

NATHAN: Right. Bruce Dain is a professor of History at the University of Utah and author of The Hideous Monster of the Mind, American Race Theory in the Early Republic. Thanks again, Bruce.

BRUCE DAIN: You’re very welcome.