Thursday, February 2, 2012

Physical and Mental Borders in U.S. History

This semester, most of my other classes are talking about borders, both the physical, geographical border of a nation-state, and the mental borders that occur between groups of different classes, races, abilities, etc... within a nation-state. This framework of thinking about borders in terms of a mental or social environment made a lot of sense for me with the Annette Gordon-Reed article. I think her interpretation of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson was particularly eye-opening, and controversial in that it attempted to break the commonly understood border between slave-owning white men and slave women, namely that any sexual interaction between the two groups must be rape.

Last week, I read a book called "The U.S.-Mexican Border into the 21st Century" by Paul Ganster and David E. Lorey, and while the book was pretty dry, and I wouldn't really recommend it again, it did provide an interesting conception of what a border is and can be. In discussing the U.S.-Mexico border, the two authors explored at some length the fluidity of even the physical border as new technology came along (i.e. railroads) that expanded the influence of the border region and the products/people that traveled across it. If the physical border, and the understanding of what the "border region" meant varied so widely, then the mental borders within U.S. and Mexican societies varied even more. In "This Land Was Mexican Once" by Linda Heidenreich, another book I've been reading for a different class, Heidenreich talks about the ways in which racial classifications changed and with that the understanding of where a person fits in society. Mestizo people in Alta California had the ability to buy their way into higher classes of society, through marriage, military office or capital. I think that this concept can be applied back to Sally Hemings and to other slave women, who may not have been in entirely non-consensual relationships, even with the no-consent rule. By becoming the wife, or life partner in some capacity, of a white, influential male, Hemings challenged the border both of what was expected at the time as well as what historians expect now of relationships between slave women and slave owners. I think this idea of borders, in both a physical and social sense, will continue to be important as we investigate Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles and their diverse histories.

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