- The Anatomy of Blackness: Science and Slavery in an Age of Enlightenment by Andrew S. Curran
The rise of racial science in the late eighteenth century has become a flourishing field of investigation over the past twenty or so years. Andrew S. Curran’s The Anatomy of Blackness is a significant contribution to this scholarship focusing particularly on biological theories concerning the nature and origin of black skin color among scientists of the French Enlightenment. These highly problematic anatomies of the black body rationalized the racist degradation of African peoples, though intriguingly during the same era when some thinkers of the Enlightenment were attacking the institution of black slavery in the Caribbean. [End Page 200]
Although writers on Africa and Africans in the seventeenth century often demeaned these peoples as savage or unenlightened, they lacked a framework for conceptualizing le nègre as an innately inferior or degraded “race.” Only in the wake of the European colonization of the Caribbean, along with the mass importation of black slaves, did “blackness” itself become an absorbing scientific topic. Curran identifies a series of mid-eighteenth-century authors as landmarks in the creation of the racial categorization of le nègre. Buffon’s chapter “Variétés dans l’espèce l’humaine” in his Histoire naturelle (1749) set out a scientifically attractive thesis on the “degeneration” of dark-skinned people from a common human stem as the result of climate and other environmental factors. If previously, as in Marcello Malpighi’s anatomy, dark skin seemed merely a third dermal layer reacting to a sunny climate, scientists such as Barrère and Le Cat, influenced by the German scientist Meckel, claimed that black skin corresponded to deeper physiological peculiarities in Africans such as black bile, dark blood and brain tissue, and even dark sperm. Visual difference became more than skin deep, for vulgar antipathy to Africans as naturally stupid, lazy, oversexed, or immoral now seemed scientifically “proven.”
Curran has given us one of the most informed, detailed, and perceptive studies of how this evolution from prejudice to race science developed in a French context. He also presents us with a series of important questions. First, what do his findings imply about the liberalizing revolution of the “Enlightenment”? Many of this era’s leading lights, like Voltaire, were viciously racist in the cause of debunking such “superstitions” as the common genesis of humanity from Adam and Eve. Second, what is the responsibility of “science” in the creation of an ideology that would lead ultimately to a respectable academic racism in the nineteenth century, along with its horrendous legacy in the twentieth century? It took a very long era of racist atrocity for the supposed self-corrective mechanisms of science to debunk the egregious “mismeasure of man” pioneered by scientists like Le Cat, Valmont de Bomas, or Virey. Third, how do we understand the simultaneous rise of racial science and that great inaugural movement in human rights, the campaign to abolish slavery?
Indeed, among the most sensitive and informative sections of Curran’s book examine the ambiguous relationship between scientific racism and antislavery in France. An antislavery position did not necessarily imply a rejection of scientific racism, as demonstrated by Mirabeau, who embraced both positions. Curran nonetheless leads to the conclusion that an unambiguous rejection of slavery, as in the case of Diderot or Condorcet, was most consistently and logically argued by insisting that science itself had become the dogmatic mignon of greed, politics, and bigotry. According to this position, black slaves seemed different not because Africans were anatomically different, but because they were the victims of a violent and dehumanizing system. It is interesting that in Britain, where institutionalized science had nothing close to the prestige that it achieved in France, the abolitionist movement was far more organized, public, and effective. Although the British abolitionist movement was not without its racialized overtones, as in its sentimental portrayals of the gratefully infantile “Negro,” its mobilizing inspiration was a [End...