Dominant historical narrative of the United States

Red White and Black — Book Review

In Red, White, and Black, Professor Gary B. Nash offers a revisionist account of intercultural relations in early America. Nash demonstrates that intercultural relations were not always marked by aggression and hostility, as is often suggested by the dominant historical narrative of the United States, which is highly Euro-centric. Through his examination and synthesis of the most recent scholarship regarding the experiences of Native-Americans and African-Americans in early America, much of which is based on first-person accounts given by Native Americans, African-Americans, and European settlers of the period, Nash shows that intercultural relations were often marked by a sense of mutual appreciation and the “live and let live” mentality of the frontier.

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Thesis: Through his expert command of the historical scholarship regarding early American history, Nash is able to place the more specialized recent scholarship regarding race relations in a wider historiographical context. Nash points out the instances where this recent race-relations scholarship clarifies or even contradicts the dominant historical narrative regarding race relations as well as the early American period, fashioning from it a new interpretation of race relations during the early American period which has sparked inquiry to the current day.

Professional Background

Nash is a highly regarded Professor of American history at the University of California Los Angeles. The University of California Los Angeles is one of the leading institutions for the study of history in the United States, particularly ethnic history and it is an innovator in the emerging multi-disciplinary field known as Critical Race Theory. As such, historical scholarship coming out of UCLA often takes a critical, even revisionist approach to areas of history that most historians would consider settled. There is a tradition of questioning many of the commonly held assumptions and notions which pervade the study of American history.

Nash specializes in the Revolutionary Period of American history, which gives him a very privileged perspective in the study of early American history as well as of interracial and intercultural relations. Nash is particularly noted for his, groundbreaking study of social history in particular American locales such as the city of Philadelphia during the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary periods. Thus, Nash has excellent qualifications to undertake a state-of-the-field review of historical scholarship regarding race relations during the early American period.

Analysis and Critique of Methodology

Nash relies primarily on secondary sources in order to support his thesis that race relations in early America started out relatively easy-going and unstructured before solidifying into the form that we are more familiar with. For example, Nash makes use of recent scholarship on the different attitudes held by European colonists from the seventeenth century to the eighteenth century to demonstrate that the European perception of Native-Americans and African-Americans was not, as the dominant narrative suggests, static and monolithic, nor was White society as a whole during this period. (Nash, 1975, p. 228). In the same spirit, Nash examines recent scholarship regarding the first meetings between the European settlers and Native American inhabitants on the Chesapeake, which is shallowly characterized as the steady subjugation of the despised natives by aggressive European settlers in the dominant narrative. (Nash, 1975, p. 46). Instead, Nash shows that up to three-quarters of the European settlers were themselves indentured servants, concerned more with escaping subjugation than perpetrating it. (Nash, 1975, p. 28). Nash’s command of the most influential scholarship regarding the period makes his comparison of the scholarship illuminating and his interpretation of the period very convincing.

The greatest shortcoming of Nash’s work is the lack of primary source analysis. Given the subject matter of Nash’s work, the perspectives of Native-Americans and African-Americans regarding intercultural relations, a treatment of primary sources, e.g. memoirs and other first-hand accounts pertaining to interactions with peoples of different races and cultures would have been valuable for illustrating Nash’s description of the period. It would also have been useful as for evaluating the conclusions that Nash draws as an historian.

The lack of primary sources used by Nash may be excused because of the scope of his inquiry. Nash wrote the book for a broad introductory course on American History given to undergraduates at UCLA. (Washburn, 1975, p. 400). First, Nash covers centuries of early American history, tracing the development of race relations from a relatively amorphous state to the state that we recognize today. As such, the use of secondary sources provides a much broader understanding of history than primary sources, which must be introduced and qualified according to the narrow period of history that they bear on.

The lack of primary sources may also be excused because of the intended purpose for the book. Nash is attempting to provide what is called a “state-of-the-field” study of the most recent and influential historical scholarship regarding race relations in early America. Nash’s background as an expert in the history of Revolutionary America in general makes him an excellent resource for evaluating the quality, value, and implications of historical scholarship regarding more specialized areas of early American history, represented here by race relations.

In this argument, Nash occupies a very favorable position as an historian attempting to offer a revisionist interpretation. As he is offering a completely new interpretation, there is not yet any scholarly response or opposition to his interpretation to deal with. The only counter-evidence that Nash must deal with is the dominant historical narrative that he works off of as the foundation for his study. In this instance, Nash only had to show that his interpretation did not contradict the established historical facts which undergird the dominant narrative.

Nash’s argument is convincing because it does not assert much that can be refuted by historians. That is, Nash is not offering assertions about historical fact, such as the date or time of an historical event or even whether an historical event took place. Rather, Nash is offering an interpretation of historical events, asserting that race relations in Early America was more relaxed and unstructured than commonly supposed. Because Nash’s thesis is only an interpretation, it is difficult to determine whether it is valid or not.

Though it is impossible to determine the ultimate validity of Nash’s interpretation, many readers will find Nash’s arguments sound and convincing because of his command of early American history. As an expert in the period, Nash is familiar with dominant narrative of the early American period, allowing him to spot those elements which recent race-relations scholarship clarifies, challenges, or contradicts the dominant historical narrative of the period. Thus, Nash is able to place the more recent and specialized pieces of historical scholarship into the areas for which they are relevant. Nash is able to point out which parts of the dominant historical narrative for are mistaken or outdated.

Although Nash is only offering an interpretation of the period, he is relying on the veracity of the secondary sources he uses in forming this interpretation. Thus, if the scholarship that Nash relies proves to be reliable or misleading, it could weaken his interpretation of the period. However, the secondary sources which Nash relies were all produced by respected scholars of American history from respected academic institutions. These sources will have gone through the rigorous process of academic peer-review required by most American academic institutions and scholarly publications.

Relationship With Current Scholarship on Race-Relations

Nash’s study of race relations in early America, although released in 1975, is in line with much of the more recent scholarship on race relations coming out now. In his book “White by law: the legal construction of race,” Haney-Lopez explores the development of racial categories in the United States. He determines that law actually defines racial categories, instead of just adopting existing racial categories, as would be expected. In the first four chapters, Lopez provides the background for his main argument, consisting of court opinions and existing racial laws.

Lopez’s main argument is that racial categories as valid units of measurement had to be legally constructed and were not germane to early American society. Through his examination of court opinions regarding race, Lopez shows how these legal opinions combine with other elements of the nation’s legal apparatus, e.g. law enforcement and immigration, to create new racial categories. Lopez is careful to point out that “…law is not a monolith. Rather, law encompasses a set of institutions, actors, and ideas that are independent…” (Lopez, 1996, p. 80).

Lopez argues that Law constructs racial definitions first through coercion, as through the example of segregation and miscegenation laws. (Lopez, 1996, p. 82). Second, law constructs racial definitions through ideology, as shown through immigration laws excluding Asians. (Lopez, 1996, p. 87-89). Lopez does a very good job of supporting his arguments by citing legal opinions and laws. His writing style is extremely dense, but that may be a result of the massive, chaotic legal apparatus which he is attempting to explain.

Like Nash’s interpretation, Lopez’s arguments here have important implications for the study of race relations because it casts doubt on basic, commonly held assumptions about our early American ancestors’ respective understandings of race. Lopez reinforces Nash’s suggestion that our understanding of race differ drastically from those of our ancestors. Lopez does so by questioning the very fidelity of the racial categories that we now take for granted. Thus, Nash’s interpretation of race relations during this period has proven to be a great impetus and primer for later scholars of race relations.


Nash’s study is useful for those studying race relations as well as those studying early American history. It is useful for students of race relations because it provides a valuable background into the early history and development of race relations as well as giving a masterly overview of the scholarship in this area. It is useful for students of early American history because it gives a much different view of sensibilities during this period, especially those regarding race, class, and culture.


Nash, Gary B. Red, White, and Black: the Peoples of Early America. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 1974. Print.

Washburn, Wilcomb E.. “Review: Red, White and Black: The Peoples of Early America by Gary B. Nash” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Aug., 1975), pp. 400-401. Print.

Haney-Lo-pez, Ian. White by law: the legal construction of race. New York: New York University Press, 1996. Print.

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