Empires and Belonging: Failed Racial Taxonomies and Failed “State-Ability” in 19th Century Borderlands in North America

Investigator: Prof. Dr. Rebecca Brückmann

Physical borders, social boundaries, and acts of transgression lie at the heart of the history of North American (and international) borderlands history. Borderlands are simultaneously a place and an epistemological method, examining the history and production of knowledge when distinct entities meet, interact, and contest each other, a space characterized by political, cultural, and social fluidity.
Borderlands History is also a history of race relations, nation state building, and the negotiation of social taxonomies, codifications, and belonging. This concerns questions of identity formation in relation to other social factors and groups, questions of inclusion and exclusion of and in collectivities, and questions of power relations. Space is socially constructed and, in turn, the social is also spatial, particularly in regard to movement and mobility. Late eighteenth and nineteenth century westward expansion on the North American continent created borderlands in multiple places and of different varieties and actors: the borderland of the frontier is “mixed” in itself and encounters are inherently reciprocal.
I am interested in the historical evolution of categorized understandings of race in U.S.-Mexican and U.S.-Canadian borderlands and the processes and failures to form hegemonic knowledge about these in-between, ambiguous (third) spaces and its racialized people(s). This project places a particular focus on the self-perceptions and counter-knowledges of mixed race people(s), in particular Genizaros, mestizos, and Métis, who were at times perceived as “failed citizens” of the United States. The project asks how their everyday practices subverted and sabotaged the formation of distinct racial codifications and spatial classifications in North America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.