In the wake of the 2015 Rachael Dolezal and 2020 Jessica Krug race scandals, in which these two white women deceitfully posed as Black women to advance their careers, “Who’s Black and why?” sounds like a quintessentially modern question. Likewise, the war of words among proponents of Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, Trans Lives Matter, and any number of other possible derivations—including the unarticulated but ubiquitously present White Lives Matter (most)—seems to be born of this millennium. Yet, as a new book coedited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Andrew S. Curran shows, these queries and concepts have a deep history that connects our current moment to a past centuries ago. This connection reveals the inhumane origins and the age-old racial politics of these hotly contested subjects.
Who’s Black and Why?: A Hidden Chapter from the Eighteenth-Century Invention of Race brings us back in time and across the Atlantic to the port city of Bordeaux in France, where a group of local would-be intellectuals were puzzling over racial difference: What separated their own tacitly normative whiteness from (what they viewed as) the anomaly of Blackness?
“What is the physical cause of the Negro’s color, the quality of [the Negro’s] hair, and the degeneration of both [Negro hair and skin]?” asked the Royal Academy of Science of Bordeaux in 1741. This question—a prompt employed by the academy as part of an essay contest—was followed three decades later, in 1772, by an even more heinous one: “What are the best ways of preserving Negroes from the diseases that afflict them during the crossing to the New World?”
To specialists in Atlantic slavery, it might come as little surprise that the Royal Academy of Science of Bordeaux held essay contests on two topics relating to the exploited peoples upon whose backs the tremendous wealth of the city and, more broadly, of European empires was erected. To the general public, in contrast, the prominence and centrality of pseudo-scientific debates about race taking place in one of France’s most venerated academies might appear a bit more shocking. In fact, the academy’s inquiries of 1741 and 1772 were “only the latest iteration of a two-thousand-year-old fascination with dark skin.” Nevertheless, argue Gates and Curran, the essay competitions represent a watershed in the history of ideas, science, and medicine: “Never before had the Bordeaux Academy, or any scientific academy for that matter, challenged Europe’s savants to explain the origins and, implicitly, the worth of a particular type of human being.”
It was no accident that such questions would have been asked then and there. Today, Bordeaux is a bustling city and tourist destination for history buffs (interested in visiting the homes of two of France’s greatest philosophers, Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne and Enlightenment philosophe Montesquieu). The region is also hailed by wine aficionados, who go there to experience firsthand Bordeaux’s production of fine wines. But in the 18th century, the city was known as an economic hub of a different and far more sinister industry: that of the slave trade and the circulation of goods that it fueled.
In Who’s Black and Why?, Gates and Curran convey that such questions regarding race have never arisen in a vacuum. The reason to ask who was Black can’t be divorced from who was asking and in what context: in this case, enslavers and those who profited from the business of chattel slavery. For Gates and Curran—and in my own opinion—these long-forgotten essays “constitute the rarest of treasures: a sui generis artifact in the history of ideas, a set of texts that, taken together, help us to understand the larger context in which the concept of [modern] race took shape.” In short, like a time machine, this book transports us back into a pivotal moment in the geneses of white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and scientific racism.
Located on the Garonne River, which offered direct access to the Atlantic, the port of Bordeaux had become by the 1740s nothing less than “the busiest and most important anchorage in France”: a pivotal point of the French triangular trade system that moved people, plantation products, and manufactured goods between the African continent, Europe, and European colonies in the Americas. Bordeaux’s shipowners, referred to as armateurs in period French, “organized roughly 500 expeditions to Africa, which resulted in the deportation of approximately 150,000 Africans to French plantations between 1672 and 1837—approximately 13 percent of the 1.2 million enslaved Africans who arrived in the French colonies alive.”
Meanwhile, this trade also brought into the city “an increasing number of sub-Saharan Africans, Caribbean-born Black people (often known popularly as nègres créoles in French), and a growing group of the offspring of Black and white parents,” referred to pejoratively as mulâtres (mulattos).1 The immense slave trade (and especially the city’s privileged relationship to colonial Haïti, then known as Saint-Domingue, France’s largest and most profitable colony in the Caribbean) enriched Bordeaux’s residents as well as the magnificent cityscape itself.
Slavery likewise enriched the city’s academy. While its forty members generally avoided direct (i.e., overt) involvement with the slave trade, many of them held deep financial interests in the colonial trade system powered by chattel slavery, and some were openly engaged in the triangular trade.
One such example is academy member Pierre-Paul Nairac (1732–1814), whose family business “had deported more than 8,000 African captives to the French colonies, above and beyond any other syndicate or individual in the city.” Others, like the “cash-poor aristocrat, academician, and military officer Antoine de Ricouart d’Hérouville (1713–1782) married into the family of a bourgeois sugarcane planter, effectively trading on his aristocratic pedigree for access to the sort of huge fortunes being made on the other side of the Atlantic.” Gates and Curran also discuss the proslavery writings of economist and academy member Jean-François Melon (1675–1738) as well as the somewhat paradoxical stance of Montesquieu, who posited patently racist views regarding African people but was also the “first Enlightenment thinker in the 1740s to condemn the institution of slavery on the basis of natural law.”
Moreover, a number of academy members held major roles in local government. They served in the regional supreme court called the parlement and thereby ruled on issues relating to Bordeaux’s trading practices, including slavery. “All of these peripheral [and in some cases direct] links to the Caribbean,” conclude Gates and Curran, “dovetailed with the academy’s larger ‘scientific’ interest in developing knowledge related to French colonies, generally, and, more specifically, to the enslaved people on those islands.”
The reason to ask who was Black can’t be divorced from who was asking and in what context: in this case, enslavers and those who profited from the business of chattel slavery.
Bringing to today’s public the 1741 and 1772 essay contests, the contexts in which they occurred, and their historical implications required several layers of collaborative preparation. Eleven of the 19 essays in the volume were originally written in French and eight were penned in Latin, “the two scholarly linguae francae of the day.” Gates and Curran gathered a team of experts to create excellent and accessible redacted translations for Who’s Black and Why? Each piece is preceded by a short introductory paragraph that offers information about the team’s editorial decisions, the language in which the essay was originally written, the 18th-century author, and his (all respondents were men) main approach, ideas, and arguments.
The book is divided into two parts. The first, which accounts for the vast majority of the work, focuses on the 1741 contest, regarding the physical origins of Blackness. It starts with a fascinating and useful historical introduction, followed by the 16 essays submitted to the competition. The second part mirrors this structure but centers on the 1772 competition, regarding how to preserve the health of the enslaved during the horrific Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas.2 Throughout, Gates and Curran bring to bear their considerable expertise to contextualize and interpret the historical place, time, and ideas that animated the Bordeaux Academy’s essay contest questions and submissions.
On the face of it, the first question is directly concerned with the physical cause and “degeneration” of the dark skin color and particular hair texture of “Negroes.” But “what really preoccupied these men were three larger (and unspoken) questions,” explain Gates and Curran: “Who is Black? And why?” and “What did being Black signify?”
I would add that the inverse of these questions was also a hidden preoccupation, though the answers were perhaps more predetermined: “Who is white? (We are.) And why? (Because we are French and European.) What does being white signify? (Superiority.)”
They point out that “lurking behind the framing of the academy’s competition were thus two metonyms: in addition to the fact that the color black was a metonym for Africans, Black Africans themselves were undoubtedly a metonym for slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.” If the essayists were beginning to cast their own whiteness as an invaluable, inalienable property, to paraphrase Cheryl Harris’s watershed article of 1993, they were simultaneously construing Black people as property in and of themselves. Yet, as the editors aptly observe, the question “centered solely on black bodies themselves, as if the reality of Africans’ enslavement in the Caribbean (not least in the city of Bordeaux) was not pertinent.”
Members of the Bordeaux Academy of Science thereby obfuscated the true political, economic, and racial stakes of the essay topic, sublimating it to the realm of the intellectual. Inquiring minds of today may wonder: Why would they do this? Why the smokescreen?
The answer, of course, is the financial and political entanglements as well as the race making discussed above. The academy’s members made abstract what—as all residents of the city and participants in the period’s slaving empires knew well—was all too real, extraordinarily profitable, and profoundly condemnable even by their own moral standards. Capitalism at the cost of humanity was a sin that they knew and pursued just as well as we do.
Contemporary reticence regarding the proposed subjects of the essays is most evident in the 1772 competition, which received only three submissions, whereas 16 were received in 1741. What is more, two of the three authors argued that this choice of topic—“enlightened” slaving practices—was as appalling as the institution of slavery itself. They recognized that the essay competitions were part of the intellectual justification and normalization of the enslavement of Africans. The competitions were the “master’s tools” in another form, the sublimated, structural form that Audre Lorde decried and deconstructed in her celebrated essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” published in 1984.
This history of race and racism, with its details and sources, should not be cloistered in the realm of academic knowledge and debate among experts.
Who’s Black and Why? invites the reader into the world of the Bordeaux academy’s essay competitions through Gates’s and Curran’s insightful and engaging analyses. The introduction of the book is incredibly rich and rewarding, albeit at times disturbing, and points to the necessity to go beyond treating texts as if they existed in historical or political isolation. The research into the debates of this academy indicates blind spots in the thinking of the 18th-century authors as well as the performative nature of texts, including what they are constructed to display and conceal.
There are some surprises in the approaches and worldviews of the men who penned the essays. Before launching into the texts themselves, Gates and Curran prepare readers by providing a helpful aid on “how to read the 1741 contest on Blackness.” Christianity is the philosophical bedrock of the essays, despite the Enlightenment era being remembered as an epoch in which thinkers boldly challenged Christian religious superstition, dogma, and abuses (which Voltaire referred to as l’infâme) and even championed a materialist vision of a godless world—a direct threat to the French monarchy, whose legitimacy derived from divine right. Yet in 1741, “for many of these essayists, the reason for participating in the competition probably had little to do with determining the source of black skin or hair; the real goal was putting forward a theory of human difference that was compatible with scriptural authority.” Among the essays, even the more “scientific” pieces maintain a biblical and God-respecting frame, often explicitly. Yet, in a way that some readers may find decidedly un-Christian, the essayists not only underscored the alleged inferiority of Black individuals but also wanted to prove that anti-Black, white supremacist notions of racial difference and hierarchy were ordained by God.
In terms of theo-scientific framing, most respondents were generally believers in monogenesis: the theory that all of humankind comes from a single origin created by God. Others, more provocatively (even at the time), expressed belief in the less popular theory of polygenesis, the notion that there were different species of human beings. The authors of essays 13 and 14, for example, refer to the existence of Black “Adams” or of multiple pre-Adamite races. Whether monogenetic or polygenetic in foundation, all of the essays are white supremacist and categorize Black people and their skin and hair as inferior, having “degenerated” in the case of the former or having descended from a lesser race in the latter. They also convey an essentially patriarchal and at times misogynistic ideology that mimics the scapegoating of Eve for the fall of man, here blaming the mother’s imagination for the (ostensibly degraded) “aberration” of Blackness.
There are two other predominant paradigms of analysis in the essays. Some of the authors took a bioclimatic approach, meaning that they generally subscribed to the tenets of Hippocratic medicine and therefore attributed phenotypical differences to factors such as air, water, food, and local climate. Others wrote from an anatomical perspective, basing their explanations regarding the cause of Blackness on dissections of the cadavers of African-descended people, especially the enslaved. In these dissections, anatomists searched for the exact epidermal layer, secretion, bile, or blood that produced darker-hued skin. At the end of the introduction to part I, Gates and Curran examine the case of German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s racial classifications to illustrate how out of what one of the 1741 essayists called the “land of conjecture” emerged an increasingly ossified and damaging system of white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and scientific racism. “This was no longer the dusk before the dawn of race,” they write, “it was the first light of scientifically rigorous racism: an era when the ability to reason was being painted white; an era when naturalists and taxonomists began dividing the world’s peoples into discreet [sic] subspecies; an era where skin color and category became synonymous with racial destiny.”
The details in and about these essays will certainly be of interest to the target audience, mainly “eighteenth-century scholars and anyone else concerned with the history of medicine, the history of science, and the history of race.” Gates and Curran make the essays wonderfully navigable and comprehensible, with the aforementioned features in addition to images and descriptive titles that clearly communicate the main points of each piece. For the 1741 contest, evocative examples include: “Blackness through the Maternal Imagination” (essay 3); “Blackness as Moral Defect” (4); “Blackness as a Result of Divine Providence” (6); “Blackness as a Reversible Accident” (8); “Blackness as a Result of Hot Air and Darkened Blood” (9); “Blackness as an Extension of Optical Theory” (12); and “Blackness as a Result of an Original Sickness” (13). In part II, which covers the 1772 contest on “‘Preserving’ Negroes” during the Middle Passage, Gates and Curran give the titles “A Slave Ship Surgeon on the Crossing” (1); “A Parisian Humanitarian on the Slave Trade” (2); and “Louis Alphonse, Bordeaux Apothecary, on the Crossing” (3).
For a modern-day reader, the ideas put forward in these essays are disturbingly hilarious in their outlandishness, enthralling in their evolutionary logic, horrifying and enraging in their racism and sexism, and briefly gratifying in the moments in which strong antislavery sentiments are expressed. The final essay of the volume opens with White Lives Matter or All Lives Matter statements that once again show the deep history of certain racial arguments. One cannot help but feel relieved that members of the Bordeaux Academy were so disappointed by the essay submissions that they chose no winner for either the 1741 or 1772 contest.
Who’s Black and Why? is not a book that you’ll read in a single sitting. The contest’s essays can be convoluted in their language and logic, not to mention the authors’ moral positioning. It can also be taxing to confront page after page of derogatory, pseudo-scientific ideas about Black skin and hair. But it is 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.
This history of race and racism, with its details and sources, should not be cloistered in the realm of academic knowledge and debate among experts. It is all of our history, collectively, and understanding its development can help all of us recognize the language, concepts, and structures that perpetuate racist hierarchy, in the 18th century and the present day. Gates and Curran have made the bold and significant gesture of bringing the Bordeaux Academy’s essay contests to today’s public, democratizing access to specialized sources and giving us the tools to grapple with a past that is not entirely past.
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.
This article was commissioned by Marlene Daut and supported with funds from the Institute for Humanities and Global Cultures at the University of Virginia.
- Among the most notable of these African-descended residents were Isaac and Placide Louverture, sons of the celebrated military general and leader of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture (1743–1803). ↩
- The book concludes with footnotes and an index, preceded by a “Select Chronology of the Representation of Africans and Race” with dates spanning from the eighth century BCE to the 1890s. Scholarship on this subject has expanded exponentially in the past years, especially regarding Black Europe, so interested readers can use this chronology as a springboard for further exploration. For a wonderful introductory history on Black Europe, see Olivette Otele, African Europeans: An Untold History (Basic Books, 2021). ↩