The Entwined Histories of Money and Race in America
From colonial history to the present, Americans have passionately, even violently, debated the nature and the character of money. They have painted it and sung songs about it, organized political parties around it, and imprinted it with the name of God—all the while wondering: is money a symbol of the value of human work and creativity, or a symbol of some natural, intrinsic value?
In Face Value, Michael O’Malley provides a deep history and a penetrating analysis of American thinking about money and the ways that this ambivalence unexpectedly intertwines with race. Like race, money is bound up in questions of identity and worth, each a kind of shorthand for the different values of two similar things. O’Malley illuminates how these two socially constructed hierarchies are deeply rooted in American anxieties about authenticity and difference.
In this compelling work of cultural history, O’Malley interprets a stunning array of historical sources to evaluate the comingling of ideas about monetary value and social distinctions. More than just a history, Face Value offers us a new way of thinking about the present culture of coded racism, gold fetishism, and economic uncertainty.
Chapter 1: This New Black Flesh Coin
Chapter 2: Banking on Slavery
Chapter 3: Rags, Blacking, and Paper Soldiers
Chapter 4: Gold Money and the Constitution of Man
Chapter 5: A Bank in Human Form
Epilogue: Words and Bonds
"Michael O’Malley’s witty, insightful Face Value traces the American quest for a stable source of value in a society that prized freedom.Through deft analysis of a wide range of sources, O'Malley shows that arguments over money and arguments over race have had much in common, and indeed, have often intersected in the United States in surprising and disturbing ways—even now. Most important is O’Malley’s contention that the monetary chaos of the nineteenth century, which has bewildered so many students of American history, turned whiteness into a crucial sign of individual worth."
“Face Value is a provocative, imaginative, and gracefully written work of cultural history, one that unearths hitherto unimagined connections between markets, money, and race. In the process, Michael O’Malley manages to show how currency, which historians and economists too often treat as timeless and neutral, has for centuries been entangled with the institution and legacy of American slavery.”