Encountering Childhoods in Vast Early America

Encountering Childhoods in Vast Early America

Co-Edited by

Julia M. Gossard and Holly N.S. White

Coming Early 2024 with Routledge Press

In any given society and culture, adulthood represents the pinnacle of a human’s development. For instance, in Northern Africa, adults are commonly called “bāligh,” an Arabic word signaling that one has “reached maturity or puberty, and has full responsibility under Islamic law.”[1] No chronological age is assigned to this definition, instead choosing to associate it with the start of puberty and religious responsibility. Similarly, the Shoshone, a North American Indigenous group, use the term “nahnappeh” to describe a “grown-up” or someone that has become an adult.[2] Likewise, in French and in Dutch, the words “adulte” and “volwassene” respectively refer to a “grown-up” with no definitive ages attached to their meaning. In all of these languages and cultures, “adult” as a noun or adjective is understood as an endpoint of one’s intellectual and physical maturity. And yet, when a person in each of these societies actually becomes an adult and what stages of life they passed through to get there means drastically different things. 

These differences are nothing new. Between the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, the world saw an unprecedented rise in exploration, colonization, and forced migration across the Atlantic Ocean. Western European notions of childhood and youth traveled to colonies in North America, South America, and the Caribbean via age-based laws codified in similar ways to European states. But Europeans did not arrive in a land of blank slates; long before European explorers made their way to the West, Indigenous peoples had their own unique customs associated with childhood and adulthood. So too did the Africans they would eventually enslave and force across the Atlantic. With increased interactions between European settlers, Indigenous communities, and enslaved Africans, the laws, connotations, and practices of childhood and youth in each society were fundamentally transformed. Consequently, new ideas about age and life course developed across gendered, racial, ethnic, and regional lines. “Encountering Childhoods in Vast Early America” explores the answer to the question: what happened when these groups of people with different understandings of childhood and adulthood came into contact with one another? 

By including children and youth in the larger historical narrative, an overarching goal of “Encountering Childhoods” is to demonstrate the importance of children and youth as historical actors to the history of “Vast Early America.” As a methodological approach, this edited collection adopts Karin Wulf’s definition of “Vast Early America.” With chapters on North America, West Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, “Encountering Childhoods” “expand[s] the conceptual framework of what constitutes a pre- and early history of the American nation.”[3] 

This edited collection brings together scholars from wide regional backgrounds to consider the development of childhood and youth in Vast Early America. Each chapter draws from a scholar’s particular thematic research, serving as a case study. These chapters, written in an accessible manner for a largely undergraduate audience, discuss how age, childhood, youth, and life stages were understood on their own terms within individual societies and communities as well as what impact(s) interactions between European, Indigenous, and African groups had on shifting these categories and experiences of childhood overtime. 

[1] Abbas Amant and Frank Griffel, Shari’a: Islamic Law in the Contemporary Context (Stanford University Press, 2007) 100.

[2] Antoine Furetière, Le dictionnaire universel (The Hague: Arnout et Reinier Leers, 1694) III: s.v. “jeune”; s.v. “minorité”; s.v. “majorité” 

[3] Karin Wulf, “Vast Early America: Three Simple Words for a Complex Reality” in HUMANITIES, Winter 2019, Volume 40, Number 1.