Race is a conundrum at the heart of academics Henry Louis Gates and Andrew Curran’s new book, Who’s Black, and Why? (Harvard University Press, 2022) The titular question, however, is a bit of a misnomer.
Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but most everyone should have a rudimentary understanding of race as a social construct by now. There is no white race or Black race, no Jewish race or Asian race; scientifically speaking those don’t exist. Genetic traits can be shared between large groups, but the markers responsible for so-called racial differences—including skin color—make up less than 1% of human DNA.
Past theories that once justified racial classifications now read like silly or cruel jokes. Take, for example, outdated essays written in response to a contest sponsored by the Bordeaux Royal Academy of Sciences in 1739. Using an inherently biased writing prompt which has not aged well, the essayists were asked to explain, “What is the physical cause of the Negro’s color, the quality of the Negro’s hair, and the degeneration of both?”
Gates and Curran have collected, introduced and annotated those contest essays, which make up the bulk of their new book. Published on this scale for the first time, the essays will also play a part in a lecture from renowned writer and professor, Gates, and his co-writer, Curran, both of whom will be in Santa Fe to speak at the Lensic on April 13 under the auspices of the School for Advanced Research. And although the upcoming lecture, dubbed The Invention of Race, has already sold out, the ongoing work remains vital.
“The hard part was [that the essays] were written in French and crappy Latin, in 18th century script,” Curran explains, “which can be very hard to decipher.”
Reconsidered today, he continues, the essays are absurd yet terrifying. Though serious in tone, they perpetuate utter bigotry. Take for example, excerpts which read like, “Blackness is a mark of God denoting sinfulness,” or, “Blackness arises from vapor arising from the skin,” and “God transmits ethical proclivities to people. A moral defect in the parents leads their progeny to be Black.”
Historically, the essays document the point at which such ideas were somehow imbued with scientific validity. The Bordeaux Academy’s journal was widely known and respected; the contest was, Curran points out, a seminal event in the story of how race was “invented” and when practitioners of so-called objective science began subdividing human groups in the 1700s. It was, Curran says, similar to “the way they previously classified animals.”
Curran further believes many still fail to fathom the amoral impact of what happened and its ongoing, overarching impact.
“Race was created by a bunch of novices and amateurs who really didn’t have any empirical basis for what they were saying,” he tells SFR. “When you read each essay, you find so many contradictions that you realize these men didn’t know what they were doing.”
Commentary on skin color—especially Black skin color—can be traced back as far as you like, but Curran argues that before the 1700s, stereotypes surrounding skin color were a vague assortment of indeterminate ideas. After that, they emerged into the major categories we continue to take for granted: Caucasian, African or Asian races, among others.
In fact, before the 1700s, Curran says, “the word ‘race’ was generally used to talk about horses, or to describe a race of kings.”
“It was generally used to talk about the idea of lineage, but that’s very different from believing skin color means a person is suitable for something, or isn’t suitable at something else,” he continues. “Whereas before, when you talked about different groups of people, although you might call them Black, sure, you also talked about their nation and their people as opposed to race in a biological way. The invention of race is the crystallization of the various ideas which had been floating around.”
Curran leaves no doubt that the invention was a profoundly negative turning point. 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 essayists invariably presume the first humans to have been white, which continues to be synonymous with beauty, normalcy and humanity.
Of course, as we know, scientists today report that the earliest human life can be linked to Africa. Nevertheless, according to Bordeaux Academy of Science papers, Blackness and all other skin colors were forms of degeneration. The logic was convenient: Finding reasons to dehumanize Black skin justified the escalation of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and racial hierarchy was used to support the forced deportation and enslavement of 12 million Black Africans between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Race theory deemed dark-skinned Africans “sub-human” and deserving of slavery because of it. Native Americans, meanwhile, were classified as “savages” and expendable because they lived outside the conventions of normative, or white, humanity. The list goes on.
“The thing people really need to understand is that 99% of human DNA is the same, and there is no validity to these kinds of biological categories,” Curran says. “At the same time, the paradox is that you need to recognize these same categories sociologically in order to address the problems of the past. That’s the rub, right?”
The rub as I see it is that the pseudo-science of the past was promulgated to support white supremacy. Genocides and holocausts have cemented indelible economic and structural barriers in the present, too.
So how will the Western world resolve it? Or can it? Do we ignore and dismiss racial categories? Do you vote for intensive education in the history of race? Massive reparations? Reading Who’s Black and Why? and similar books has enhanced my appreciation for the tragic absurdity of racial hierarchies—but my skepticism that the problem can simply be wished away has only deepened.