2023 PROSE Award in European History
“An invaluable historical example of the creation of a scientific conception of race that is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.”
“Reveals how prestigious natural scientists once sought physical explanations, in vain, for a social identity that continues to carry enormous significance to this day.”
—Nell Irvin Painter, author of The History of White People
“A fascinating, if disturbing, window onto the origins of racism.”
“To read [these essays] is to witness European intellectuals, in the age of the Atlantic slave trade, struggling, one after another, to justify atrocity.”
—Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States
In 1739 Bordeaux’s Royal Academy of Sciences announced a contest for the best essay on the sources of “blackness.” What is the physical cause of blackness and African hair, and what is the cause of Black degeneration, the contest announcement asked. Sixteen essays, written in French and Latin, were ultimately dispatched from all over Europe. Documented on each page are European ideas about who is Black and why. Looming behind these essays is the fact that some four million Africans had been kidnapped and shipped across the Atlantic by the time the contest was announced.
The essays themselves represent a broad range of opinions, which nonetheless circulate around a common theme: the search for a scientific understanding of the new concept of race. More important, they provide an indispensable record of the Enlightenment-era thinking that normalized the sale and enslavement of Black human beings.
These never previously published documents survived the centuries tucked away in Bordeaux’s municipal library. Translated into English and accompanied by a detailed introduction and headnotes written by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Andrew Curran, each essay included in this volume lays bare the origins of anti-Black racism and colorism in the West.
An invaluable historical example of the creation of a scientific conception of race that is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
Curran and Gates have done admirable work…There is an elegant preface [and] a thorough contextual introduction…As soon as one starts to read the essays collected in this book, one cannot avoid the impression that one has entered an alien intellectual world. It seems more medieval than modern.
A book worth reading and contemplating to understand the genesis of our current racial and indeed racist society, with its intersectional forms of minoritization, exclusion, exploitation, and violence…Reading this book does more than reveal ‘the master’s tools.’ Thankfully, it offers us a chance to come together in shared knowledge and, if we so choose, in a shared mission: to break the chains of an abominable history and continue paving the way to a better future.
The sixteen essays submitted for the essay prize remained, untouched, in the Bordeaux archives. They have now been recovered, translated, contextualized and published with a thoughtful and informative introduction by Henry Louis Gates and Andrew Curran, who discuss the city, the academy and ways of reading the range of bizarre explanations offered for black skin and hair…Putting together the Bordeaux texts, Gates and Curran argue, helps us to understand the emergence of the concept of race.
A fascinating look into the eighteenth-century invention of the concept of race.
Insightful and instructive…The nineteen essays edited by Gates and Curran remind us that eighteenth-century Europeans extracted multiple messages from nature, which has no voice of its own. The legacy of the Enlightenment includes ‘scientific’ arguments about inferiority based on differences in race, sex, and more, as well as unfulfilled aspirations for equality and humanity.
The roots of the false science behind race and the spread of virulent racism run in parallel. The essays collected in Who’s Black and Why? show that race is a hierarchical form of classification…[The book] has enhanced my appreciation for the tragic absurdity of racial hierarchies.
An important collection of documents on scientific racism.
Eye-opening…A fascinating, if disturbing, window onto the origins of racism.
In 1741 the Royal Academy of Bordeaux (a city of slave-trading wealth) sought the essence of human Blackness: in the climate, in the blood, in the bile, in the semen, in Divine Providence and the curse of Ham, in the size of the pores, or in ‘tubes’ in the skin. Now, after some 300 years of frustrating searches, definitive answers still elude us. Who’s Black and Why? reveals how prestigious natural scientists once sought physical explanations, in vain, for a social identity that continues to carry enormous significance to this day.
The eighteenth-century essays published for the first time in Who’s Black and Why? contain a world of ideas—theories, inventions, and fantasies—about what blackness is, and what it means. To read them is to witness European intellectuals, in the age of the Atlantic slave trade, struggling, one after another, to justify atrocity.
An indispensable book for anyone who is interested in the origins of racism. In this essential volume, Gates and Curran reveal how science itself played a major role in the construction of race during the eighteenth century.
There is nothing inevitable about modern understandings of race. Gates and Curran have given us unprecedented access to forgotten eighteenth-century conversations that established a moral and intellectual basis for enslaving Black people. This extraordinary book reveals how Europeans learned to think about groups of people as profoundly different from each other simply based on their ancestry. It also provides an important lesson for those who study human variation in our own time. To what extent are we vulnerable to the same intellectual traps?
The essays translated—and brilliantly contextualized—in this book provide a window into how European thinkers in the eighteenth century struggled with the legacy of religious ideas about human difference as they began to shape a new scientific understanding of race. They give us a fascinating insight into the early stages of the Enlightenment, reminding us that, whatever we owe to this period, we live now in a radically different intellectual world.
In Who’s Black and Why? Henry Louis Gates and Andrew Curran do the work of archival historians, and to a very available end: making us understand—through documents at times appalling, at times appallingly comic—a subject all too often hived off to abstractions, that is, how we construct a racial group, and how we come to treat as truths what we know to be inventions. An invaluable historical study, with all too many applications today.
Who’s Black and Why? is essential reading for all who want to undo and repair the harm caused by the entanglement of notions of racial difference and the injustices such differences have been used to sustain.
- 2023, Winner of the PROSE Awards
- 320 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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