The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From 1741, bizarre ideas about what made people Black

Restraints, like those used in the slave trade, are part of the collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Intellectuals in the 18th and 19th centuries often searched for “scientific” justifications for slavery. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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In 1739, members of Bordeaux’s Royal Academy of Sciences assembled to discuss the subject of their 1741 prize competition. Intrigued by an increasing number of Black Africans drifting through the fluvial city, and struggling to find a moral and intellectual basis for human enslavement, the members challenged contestants to explain the origin of “Blackness.” What followed was 16 submissions, grounded in racialist pseudoscience, speculating about what made people Black. Among the explanations: that Africans have darkened semen, thicker blood, God’s gift to live in certain climates, God’s curse because of sinfulness — the list goes on, but surely the bizarre notions are clear. One writer even proposed that a Black child would be produced if a White woman imagined or “saw an African or the color black during conception.” No one won the competition. Although the academy members didn’t know the cause of human Blackness themselves, they were confident that the right answers couldn’t be found in the submitted essays.

In their new book, “Who’s Black and Why?: A Hidden Chapter From the Eighteenth-Century Invention of Race,” Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Wesleyan professor Andrew S. Curran publish the 16 essays from this competition for the first time. Originally written in French and Latin, the translated essays give readers access to a buried segment of 18th-century ideas from European intellectuals grappling with human differences. By peering at this hidden history, Gates and Curran suggest, we can understand how a scientific notion of race was created and deployed in the modern era.

At first blush, it may seem like this hidden chapter was better off hidden. The editors themselves criticize the ideas in the essays as “nonsensical.” And it would be a stretch to say the conjectures in the revived texts contain new information about how European savants thought about Africans or the slave trade in the 18th century. The one contribution that appeared to resonate with influential European thinkers in the succeeding decades — the anatomist Pierre Barrère’s claim that black bile causes dark skin, which later received a book-length treatment — merely spurred fallacious anatomical reasons for a bile argument already put forward by ancient writers and repeated by other modern authors. Skipping over this veiled chapter, then, is unlikely to result in missing productive scientific advancements in a story about the origins of race-thinking.

It’s also doubtful that “Who’s Black and Why?” will help advance contemporary debates about Blackness that pop up in barbershops, college seminars or discussions on Twitter. You won’t, for instance, get an answer to whether O.J. Simpson transcended his Blackness when he announced, “I’m not Black, I’m O.J.” Nor is there an explanation as to whether African Americans are “Black” or “black.” Even more, there’s not much in the book to help us determine whether the “transracial” activist Rachel Dolezal is, or isn’t, Black (and in case you were thinking it, no: the argument about Blackness being caused by a White woman’s imagination doesn’t apply here). The reader who goes in looking for a worthwhile answer to the book’s title question will surely be disappointed.

Providing useful conceptions for present-day race talk, though, isn’t the goal here. Gates and Curran are dryly aware that what passes for valuable scientific explanations of racial difference are often attempts to justify atrocities toward vulnerable racial groups. In this spirit, they recognize as “insightful” the one contestant who claimed that anyone attempting to explain the cause of human Blackness ventured into a “land of conjecture.” Unlike the other writers, who confidently sketch out dubious ideas in the name of science, this essayist displays an unusual sense of humility when tackling the topic posed by the academy’s members before offering his own fanciful thoughts. “Since we are in the land of conjecture,” the writer asserts, “everyone can make of this topic what he wants.” Though the other contestants are not as candid, Gates and Curran set out to show that many were putting forth racialized hunches dressed as science.

What is remarkable about these essays, Gates and Curran suggest, is that they occurred at a moment when a new scientific orientation was encouraging the racialization of persons as a way to understand the physical differences among humans. The 1741 contest was the first time a scientific institution challenged Europe’s intellectuals to make up stories about the origins — and implicitly, the worth — of a group of people based on their appearance. As these savants began to free themselves from scriptural explanations, they pioneered a new wave of scientific racism.

“That these explanations were completely spurious,” Gates and Curran argue, “is not important.”

What’s important is that they reveal a moment when Enlightenment-era thinkers engaged in a scientific quest to explain Blackness while concealing the context of slavery — which, of course, sparked the interest in Black bodies to begin with. And this became the function of race: to provide a fixed hierarchy of human difference to justify improper moral and economic behavior. The participants in the competition seem to have thought that they were on to something clever, but the contemporary reader is likely to recognize the contributions as clumsy attempts to justify the enslavement of Black people.

Of course, there’s always a threat in bringing to light vicious ideas about human difference. Gates and Curran know this. But with their helpful introduction and concise openers at the beginning of each chapter, detailed timeline of the representation of race, and inclusion of three essays from another competition in which the academy was less covert about its intentions to justify the enslavement of Black people, the editors provide the right sort of context for the reader. Though the reader is unlikely to learn much about who’s Black (or why), the book offers an invaluable historical example of the creation of a scientific conception of race that is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Daniel Fryer is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Law School.

Who’s Black and Why?

A Hidden Chapter From the Eighteenth-Century Invention of Race

Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Andrew S. Curran

Belknap. 303 pp. $29.95

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