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Complexion of Empire in Natchez: Race and Slavery in the Mississippi Borderlands – Q&A with Dr. Christian Pinnen

Could you give us a short overview of Complexion of Empire in Natchez: Race and Slavery in the Mississippi Borderlands

Complexion of Empire investigates slavery and race in the borderlands of the lower Mississippi Valley. The book essentially sketches out the first century of sustained European and African contact in the region. I specifically focus on the liminal periods when the Natchez district transitioned from one empire to the next. During the eighteenth century, France, Great Britain, Spain, and the United States all claimed the region, and they all tried to manage the enslaved labor force through laws that guaranteed white colonizers power over African laborers. However, Native Americans, local administrators, colonizers, and Atlantic Africans all negotiated the viabilities of these laws and subsequently established varying definitions of blackness and whiteness. It was fascinating to follow enslaved people through the British, Spanish, and American period, for example, and see how they changed their tactics to wrest concessions of freedom from courts and to thwart the enslavers attempts to limit these same freedoms. Enslaved and free Atlantic Africans gained freedom for themselves and their families, utilized new laws and the Catholic church, relationships to white settlers, and whatever else might work to assert their humanity in the face of a growing slave society in the region. This allowed me to compare four legal systems working in the same region and show how people contested various ideas of complexion in changing societies. Rather than confronting a tightly defined concept of complexions, the Atlantic Africans faced a system of racial ideas that had not yet solidified and were able to win concessions—in some small ways—from the enslavers.

What led you to be interested in this area of research?

As a native German, I was always fascinated by the United States from a young age. Therefore I chose to attend university in the interdisciplinary North American Studies Program at the University of Bonn, Germany. There I began to focus on the early American Republic as a period of interest, specifically the apparent dichotomy of the language of the founders and the realities of slavery. When I decided to spend a year abroad in the United States at the University of Southern Mississippi, I continued that pursuit and it grew into a master thesis, and then a dissertation. As I expanded my understanding of race and slavery, I began to realize that there was the potential to investigate the lower Mississippi Valley through a town that regularly receives attention for its antebellum years, but not its colonial history. In particular, I wanted to see if I could recover some of the histories of the enslaved and their participation in the formative years of what would become the crown jewel of King Cotton’s empire after Mississippi’s statehood in 1817. I was drawn to the stories of the enslaved because they remain, on the surface, such a juxtaposition to the history of the US, but in truth, are fundamentally important to the history of the country. While they do not easily or comfortably fit into the narrative of American exceptionalism, and their stories and history now are very much part of the current culture wars, the lives of the enslaved and marginalized always drew my attention and I wanted to understand their history and understand their legacy.

Natchez/the Lower Mississippi is the main focus of your book. Were there other Southern cities/regions in consideration for your analysis or was the focus on Natchez always the plan? 

I honestly settled relatively early on Natchez. The other cities in the region are all essential, and New Orleans in particular has seen an explosion of award-winning scholarship recently, but to me the story of Natchez—and colonial Mississippi—was just missing a very important chapter.[1] Especially when it comes to centering black voices and stories in the place that is still largely known for the opulent wealth of the fabulously wealthy white nabobs. I am still hoping that a future project will allow me to explore the entire region through a lens of the enslaved as drivers of change and progress in the region, however. The lower Mississippi Valley is just such a fascinating region, particular before Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama became states. The predominantly Caribbean connection through New Orleans had a massive influence on the region. The European and African people that arrived on the Gulf Coast also engaged such a complex Native population and varying ideas of captivity in the context of a growing capitalist global economy, that I think we need more work on the colonial period of the region focusing specifically on the non-white actors along the river.

You note the use of legal records amongst your source material – could you expand on what types of legal documents you looked at for the book/how they were useful? 

I originally did not focus on the legal records as much as I hoped to engage with sources like diaries and plantation records of enslavers, travelogues etc. However, I quickly realized that these sources were not nearly as numerous as they are for the antebellum period. Then I discovered a severely underutilized collection of records in the Adams County, MS courthouse that includes a large section of the Spanish court records. So I changed my approach and found it, in the end, more fruitful than I had hoped. I began to focus on the way that Atlantic Africans approached the courts and the way that their legal actions were being treated by the courts. I tried to make sense of these actions by linking the legal machinations of Natchez to other Caribbean municipalities and New Orleans and attempted to see how the enslaved and free people of African descent engaged courts in Natchez. The court records then allowed me to piece together enough micro-biographies of enslaved people to discern patterns in the ways they approached administrators, courts, and their enslavers. While these court documents only give us some information, they are the only sources I could find that offer any information on the enslaved, ranging from birthplace, name, age, and nationality to their faith, godparents, family structures and pursuits of freedom. I hope that my readers will find the collection of their stories as fascinating as I did.   

What are you working on now? 

Right now I am finishing the research for a project for the National Park Service in Natchez with my co-author Max Grivno. We are writing a site report of the Forks of the Road Slave Market that will help guide the historical interpretation of the site when it becomes officially part of the National Park in Natchez. We will start writing soon, but the pandemic has made research a lot more challenging, as for everyone else. I am still excited about the project, because people commonly refer to Forks of the Road as the second largest slave market next to New Orleans, but there has been no specific study on it. We are hoping our work will be a building block for future research and for an adequate way to inform visitors about the haunting history of the place.

[1] Jessica Marie Johnson, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World, 1st edition, Early American Studies (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020); Cécile Vidal, Caribbean New Orleans: Empire, Race, and the Making of a Slave Society (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019); Sophie White, Voices of the Enslaved: Love, Labor, and Longing in French Louisiana (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

Christian Pinnen is an associate professor of history at Mississippi College. His new book Complexion of Empire in Natchez: Race and Slavery in the Mississippi Borderlands is out now with UGA Press. His website is: