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The Anatomy of Blackness

Science and Slavery in an Age of Enlightenment

Andrew S. Curran

Publication Year: 2011

This volume examines the Enlightenment-era textualization of the Black African in European thought. Andrew Curran rewrites the history of blackness by replicating the practices of eighteenth-century readers. Surveying French and European travelogues, natural histories, works of anatomy, pro- and anti-slavery tracts, philosophical treatises, and literary texts, Curran shows how naturalists and philosophes drew from travel literature to discuss the perceived problem of human blackness within the nascent human sciences, describes how a number of now-forgotten anatomists revolutionized the era’s understanding of black Africans, and charts the shift of the slavery debate from the moral, mercantile, and theological realms toward that of the “black body” itself. In tracing this evolution, he shows how blackness changed from a mere descriptor in earlier periods into a thing to be measured, dissected, handled, and, often, brutalized. Penetrating and comprehensive, The Anatomy of Blackness shows that, far from being a monolithic idea, eighteenth-century Africanist discourse emerged out of a vigorous, varied dialogue that involved missionaries, slavers, colonists, naturalists, anatomists, philosophers, and Africans themselves.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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Title Page

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

From its inception, I was convinced that this book would require an explanatory preface. After all, it confronts the reader with the same set of eighteenth and nineteenth-century beliefs about black Africans that the Academy has been deconstructing for the past forty years. The people who ultimately read this book will often find the unpleasantness of the past in these pages, and...

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pp. xiii-xvi

During the past four years, I have been lucky enough to discuss this book with a wide range of superb scholars, among them Charlemagne Amegan, Wilda Anderson, Stephen Angle, Srinivas Aravamudan, Sophie Audidi

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Introduction: Tissue Samples in the Land of Conjecture

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pp. 1-28

In 1618, the influential Parisian anatomist Jean Riolan the Younger became the first person to seek out the precise source of the blackness within African skin. Borrowing his general method from Vesalius himself, Riolan blistered the skin of a black African man with a chemical agent. He then removed the seared specimen and painstakingly examined its various strata.1 Some sixty years after Riolan conducted his experiment, Marcello Malpighi used a similar...

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CHAPTER ONE: Paper Trails: Writing the African, 1450-1750

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pp. 29-73

Across from the Jer

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CHAPTER TWO: Sameness and Science, 1730-1750

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pp. 74-116

As the keeper of the Jardin du Roi, George-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, had one task that was more critical than his other responsibilities: providing an objective inventory of the content of the king's natural history cabinet. This takes up a large portion of the third volume of Buffon's Histoire naturelle.1 Within this somewhat tedious enumeration of dried, embalmed, and waxed specimens, one finds the description of two preserved African heads. The first...

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CHAPTER THREE: The Problem of Difference: Philosophes and the Processing of African "Ethnography," 1750-1775

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pp. 117-166

Throughout the second half of the eighteenth century, the major thinkers associated with the French Enlightenment accessed a wide range of proto-ethnographical information on black Africans. Many perused popular travel narratives such as those by Jacques-Joseph Le Maire,William Bosman, William Snelgrave, Francis Moore, Reynaud des Marchais, and Abb

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CHAPTER FOUR: The Natural History of Slavery, 1770-1802

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pp. 167-215

Eighteenth-century natural history encompassed an extensive range of subjects: insects, plants, animals, minerals, and the "stars and meteors" that lit up the night sky.1 Most memorably, however, natural history provided the forum for a new and wide-ranging exploration of the human species. While this particular area of inquiry was theoretically circumscribed by the primary function of the discipline---providing an accurate description of nature...

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Coda: Black Africans and the Enlightenment Legacy

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pp. 216-224

In one of the more lyrical moments of the Encyclop


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pp. 225-274

Works Cited

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pp. 275-294


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pp. 295-310

E-ISBN-13: 9781421402307
E-ISBN-10: 1421402300
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421401508
Print-ISBN-10: 1421401509

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 29 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 794700407
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Anatomy of Blackness

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • French literature -- 18th century -- History.
  • Blacks in literature.
  • Africa -- In literature.
  • French literature -- 19th century -- History.
  • Travel writing -- History and criticism.
  • Blacks -- Race identity.
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