publisher colophon
  • Nigger Peasants from France: Missing Translations of American Anxieties on Race and the Nation

Introduction: Race, Nation and Nationalism

In Crossfires: Nationalism, Racism and Gender in Europe, the majority of the contributing authors, whether writing on women and ethnicity in contemporary Russia, gender and the history of ethnic hatred in Yugoslavia, or a comparison between black and white British youth and their understanding of nationality, underscore the ways in which many Europeans directly link nationalism with right-wing extremism. In her article “Young People: Nationalism, Racism and Gender,” Ann Phoenix relates the results of a questionnaire put to both black and white British youth. The following paragraph gave me pause:

The ambiguity caused by the recognition that national status involves inclusions and exclusions also had an impact on young white people. Some felt unable to claim Englishness because they perceive that the symbols of Englishness have been hijacked by the extreme Right. This raises the issue of whether positive features of nationalism (if one accepts that there are some) can be maintained when symbols of Englishness/Britishness are perceived to be predicated on racism. For many of the young people we interviewed, the Union Jack has been ‘vacated’ because its symbolism is seen to have been appropriated by far Right groups.

What struck me about this paragraph is how these teenagers—and, it seems, even the author—understand nationalism as the domain of the “far Right,” and even suggest that this appropriation may be as old as the formation of nationalist discourse itself. I do not believe this is the case in the United States. When depicted abroad (name any country!), the American flag most often stands in as a reminder of American military aggression and the exploitative nature of a global capitalist machine. At home, however, it is not the American flag but the flag of the Civil War’s Confederate army, the “stars and bars,” that is far more broadly recognized as symbolic of right-wing [End Page 831] extremism and racism. In Germany, those sensitive to the atrocities of the Nazi past are extremely alert to the ways in which appeals to nationalism are used. Some go so far as to say that any and all nationalist sentiment on the part of a German party should be outlawed. It is also true that French nationalism is widely recognized amongst the Anti-Semites and anti-Anti-Semites alike as antagonistic to Jews, if not all other non-white peoples. Again, in the United States, it is not the nationalist discourse, but what is perceived as the regionalist discourse of the “red-neck Southerner” that is hostile to non-whites, specifically African Americans.

American commentators, military personnel and legislators argue that if the American discourse on nationalism is hostile to anything or anyone, it is hostile to ideologies (i.e., communism, socialism, anarchism) rather than specific peoples. Implicit in this contention is that America’s role as the “world’s oldest democracy” ensures that our particular brand of nationalism is incapable of acting out against specific peoples; that is only for nations with an extreme right-wing or left-wing history. Outside of postcolonial studies (and in this case I include minority studies), the idea that the American discourse on the nation might in fact be inherently hostile to a people is still very much a foreign concept.

This paper looks at a crucial moment in American history: the mid-19th century, when America was by all accounts on the brink of civil war and the debate over slavery had hit yet another one of its furious, divisive peaks. These two questions, over the future state of this nascent nation and the future of America’s blacks, were in fact intimately tied to one another. Considered together within the larger theoretical and/or historical context of the national discourse, they echo America’s immediate “post-Colonial” history and presage much of its immediate future, specifically with regard to non-whites as an actual threat to the nation. In order to demonstrate and explore how race and the nation were two sides of the same coin, I use the trope of translation, both figuratively and literally, as it occurred between a French nobleman known as the “Father of Modern Racism” and two American ethnologists nearly forgotten by all except scholars working on the history of 19th-century American racist discourse. 1

Part One: Niggerology, at Home and Abroad

On June 20th, 1856, Count Arthur de Gobineau penned a bitter complaint to his close friend the Count of Prokesch-Osten, about the recent American translation of his Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines [Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races]. In the letter, the “Father of Modern Racism” complained:

Do you not wonder . . . at my friends the Americans, who believe that I am encouraging them to bludgeon their Negroes, who praise me to the skies for that, but who are unwilling to translate the part of the work which concerns them? 2 [End Page 832]

Gobineau’s American “friends,” Josiah Nott and Henry Hotz, both “race scientists” (George Frederickson notes that Nott often referred to his work as “the nigger business” or “niggerology”) were no doubt unaware of Gobineau’s displeasure (Frederickson 78). Josiah Nott and Henry Hotz both worked tirelessly to prove that the American Negro was a deadly threat to the nation. Nott was a frequent contributor to Southern journals and newspapers and lectured extensively throughout the South, while Hotz engaged in an intellectual debate on the future role of the Negro in the American nation. 3 Neither Hotz nor Nott actually owned slaves, and so it seems had little to gain economically—outright—from the slave trade. They welcomed the arrival of Gobineau’s Essai, as evidenced in the adoring rhetoric of the translation, as a European ally in the fight against black advancement.

And who could blame them? The Essai, after all, was the first “objective study” to boldly claim that the differences between the races were permanent, determined by blood, and left little doubt as to the quality of “Negro” blood. In one of his most infamous statements on Negro ability, Gobineau, it would seem, leaves little room for misunderstanding:

The Negro is the most humble and lags at the bottom of the scale. The animal character imprinted upon his brow marks his destiny from the moment of conception. He will never evolve beyond his limited circle of intelligence. He is not, however, a pure and simple brute, for within the narrow confines of his cranium there exists the indices of grossly powerful energies. If these mental faculties are mediocre or even non-existent, he nonetheless possesses desire, and consequently a will of terrible intensity. Many of his senses are developed with vigor unknown to the two other races, principally taste and smell . . . These principal traits are combined with an instability of mood, a variability of sentiment that cannot be determined and that annuls, for him, virtue along with vice. One could say that the very way in which he pursues his object in such a fit of passion, putting his sensitivity in flux and inflaming his longing, renders the first promptly appeased and rapidly casts the second into a forgotten oblivion. Lastly, he has as little respect for his own life as he does for others’; he kills for the sake of killing, and this automaton that is so easily moved is, in the face of suffering, either a coward who seeks refuge in death or else monstrously indifferent.

Fervently committed to the democratic ideals and technological progressivism of the Enlightenment and its own recent Revolution, the French public and intelligentsia did not receive Gobineau’s new theory on the decline of civilization and its causes very well. In the face of brave, bright predictions on man’s infinite perfectibility through education and innovation, Gobineau spat a crude melange of pessimism, anxiety, and aristocratic scorn for the nature of the masses. He took the future and constructed a biological brick wall beyond which, he claimed, man could never progress. Even worse, man (his abilities and greatness perfectly exemplified by the Aryan) the Essai argued, was rapidly falling into decline. What was the cause of this decline? None [End Page 833] other, the Count claimed, than the heedless and foolish intermixture with lesser races. According to Gobineau, the result of racial mixture was not simply a “blending” of two peoples, but a distinct and different species, superior to one parent, inferior to the other, and in all ways a threat to the existing order if replicated through more interbreeding.

One would think, therefore, that the Essai was ideally suited to the political and psychological climate of pro-slavery factions in the United States as they moved into the second half of the 19th century with much (in their imagination) to fear. As George Frederickson notes in The Black Image in the White Mind, America was not unaware that the institution of slavery was far from a solid cornerstone in this young and struggling nation. Despite the inspiring and uplifting scenes from the Continental Congress most often described in high school history books, the legality (not to mention morality) of slavery in a self-styled democracy was debated from the very onset of the nation. Defeated by a narrow vote after a rancorous battle, anti-slavery advocates were determined not to lose the war. The pressure against slaveholders and their adherents was not just from within: an array of prominent and powerful members of European governments and aristocracies denounced America’s system of chattel slavery. These attacks increased as nations such as Britain and France slowly instituted bans on the slave trade, abolished slavery on its own shores, and eventually eradicated the system—in theory, if not in practice—from its colonies. 4 Gobineau added his own condemnation to the American system in the Essai, as Michael Biddiss reveals:

[Gobineau’s] stand on the slavery question is subtle. There was little need for him to stress further the inferiority of the Negro. Instead he used the issue to maintain his assault upon white America. He castigated the inconsistency of those who advocated slaveholding while proclaiming liberal and egalitarian doctrines in other spheres. Of the enslavement of the Negro and the dispossession of the Indians, Gobineau comments that the true Aryan invaders of old were never so ruthless, since they did grant to the conquered some part of the soil and, unlike white Americans, they did not exhibit ‘the need to destroy everything around them which was not related to their own thoughts’.

The irony of his condemnation was obviously lost on Gobineau even though his “scientific” theory of Aryan racial superiority could easily be read as a boon to those who supported the enslavement of blacks on American soil. The fear of insurrection, after all, was looming large in the Southern imagination, accompanied by a shift in the discourse on slavery. George Frederickson has written that up until the 19th century, the debate over slavery had largely ignored whether or not the “Negro” was in fact the intellectual equal—not to mention even a relative—of the white American. However, with the advent of ethnology in the early 19th century, the terms of the debate shifted into discussion as to the “Negro’s” position on the human family tree. [End Page 834]

Speculation on the degree of humanity possessed by the black was not new to the American discourse on slavery and the nation. Thirty years after the Founding Fathers decided that the institution of slavery would remain—as would the rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence that supposedly decried it—one of those Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, began his Notes on the State of Virginia, a document that brilliantly outlines Jefferson’s vision of the nation. It stands today as one of the best examples of American intellectual advancement in the immediate “post-Colonial era.” As Merrill D. Peterson writes, “The book whetted the appetite of the tiny community of American philosophers, and upon its publication in 1785 ensured Jefferson a scientific and literary reputation on both sides of the Atlantic” (Jefferson xxiv). It also, as Peterson hastily mentions, became one of the most infamous pronouncements on “Negro” inferiority in the 19th century.

As scholars such as Peterson, Winthrop Jordan and Paul Finkelman have argued, Jefferson’s description of the black in Notes does no credit to his reputation as a scientist and scholar. Stating that the Negro can be distinguished from other races by his unique and unpleasant odor, his penchant for idleness and curiously subhuman intellectual and emotional capacity, Jefferson finishes with a brief and fantastical excursion into the nature of “blackness” itself 5 :

The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to the eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?

In discussing the black, Jefferson frames “blackness” not as a color, but as some mysterious, lurking quality in the Negro; its cause is unknown but, as he points out to us, that is irrelevant, given its striking effect on the human form. Blackness is then transformed from a quality to an actual quantity, “an immovable veil” that marks the “other race” from the rest of humanity (in this case, Native Americans and European Americans). 6 Whereas the “red” and “white” peoples have been chosen by Nature to be pleasing to the eye and unveiled for unrestricted exchange with all human beings, the “black” is marked with a warning so that we may not confuse his humanoid form with an actual human being. In tandem with his argument on slavery, Jefferson is suggesting that the lowly role of the Negro in American society is the fault of the Negro, not the slave traders or slave owners—nor the politicians who approved and legalized the slave’s status in the nascent democracy. [End Page 835]

In the context of discourse, the Notes can be looked to as one of the starting points for ethnography as scientists, urged on by those such as Jefferson, began their inquiries with the assumption that “blackness” was indicative of inferiority and, quite possibly, indicative of danger to the rest of the human race. It can also be looked to as an example of how the Negro first was linked to the nation and framed as a threat to its well being. Josiah Nott and Henry Hotz, although since rendered obscure or forgotten figures in history, left their legacy in a work that is now stocked in university and public libraries nationwide, and in its time was read by both fellow “race scientists” and laymen who were convinced that the greatness of their nation could not tolerate free Negro citizens.

Part Two: Nigger Peasants

America has never been a nation of racially homogenous peoples. Even further, its formation in an age where European countries had been framed and were still understood as monarchies, lands owned by a race of related peoples (indeed, monarchical families in Europe were themselves linked by intermarriage), the framing of America as a nation was no easy task. Indeed, the question of a “nation” as a land mass governed by its populace was still a relatively new idea and an increasingly important preoccupation for those philosophers who inherited the question from the European philosophes. One man who provided the cornerstone of our modern day understanding of the nation is of course Hegel, and his understanding of America within the context of nationhood is revealing:

[America’s] original nation having vanished or nearly so, the effective population come for the most part from Europe; and what takes place in America, is but an emanation from Europe. Europe has sent its surplus population to America in much the same way as from the old Imperial Cities, where tradesguilds were dominant and trade was stereotyped, many persons escaped to other towns which were not under such a yoke, and where the burden of imposts were not so heavy.

This sense of America as no more than tracts of land populated by the poor and unfortunate from Europe was a very real predicament in the framing of the nation. As Winthrop Jordan notes in White Over Black: American Attitudes Towards the Negro, 1550–1812, anxieties over nationhood and nationality have been prominent since the inception of the nation, and did not abate as America moved through the 19th century and towards what to many seemed an inevitable civil war.

One could note, sardonically, that Hegel’s comparison between Medieval Europe and the United States in the 19th century is interesting if one considers that these present-day Europeans were escaping to a land where these yokes and burdens were simply carried by another people. The comparison between the hatred of the peasant [End Page 836] and the black, and the anxiety over nationhood become less of an ironic footnote in the history of modernity if one returns to Gobineau’s Essai and its American translation.

Count Gobineau, Michael Biddiss argues, was first and foremost an aristocrat who fiercely resented and loudly bemoaned the decline of the ruling class after the Terror of 1789. Despite the moniker its author earned as the Father of Modern Racism, the main goal of the Essai, in fact (dedicated, one should note, to George V of Hanover), is to prove “scientifically” that the bourgeois and peasant classes are as abysmally unfit to govern as their former lords and masters are fit to rule. Inextricably bound up with this argument is the idea of the nation as a conglomerate of peoples linked by blood—a race, in short.

It would be impossible to narrate the entire complicated and often self-contradicting argument of the Essai, but a few points must be made in the face of current understandings about Gobineau’s work. Firstly, Gobineau’s argument that a nation is defined by the race that leads it is at least partially directed against the traditional discourse symbolized by Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in which the collapse of civilizations is linked to a collapse of morals, religious fanaticism, and acquisitiveness. The second chapter of the Essai, entitled “Fanaticism, Luxury, Corruption of Morals and Irreligion Do Not Necessarily Lead to the Fall of Societies” explains Gobineau’s viewpoint. Instead, Gobineau argues, it is the degeneration of the peoples, due to excessive intermixture with lesser breeds, that causes decline.

At this juncture, one can understand why Gobineau’s work would prove so appealing to a nation struggling to define itself and defend its institution of chattel slavery—the latter in place, one could argue, if simply to prevent racial intermixture. 7 Yet as my first quote from Gobineau in a letter to Prokesch-Osten indicated, the American translation excised large portions of his text. The Essai is a staggering 1,200 pages long, while Hotz and Nott’s translation does not quite reach 400. Their translation, it should be noted, is still the standard edition in university and public libraries across the nation, a testament to the book’s extended popularity since its arrival in 1856. Given that Hott and Notz’s translation is the only English translation available to scholars interested in researching the development of “modern racism,” it becomes more than a matter of curiosity, but one of scholarship, to ask exactly what was excised. 8

To begin with, Gobineau’s condemnation of the American practice of chattel slavery was eliminated from the American translation—although, as Michael Biddiss notes, his outrage was not linked to a corresponding commitment to human suffrage. Gobineau had little love for the Americans, whom he regarded as nothing more than a loosely defined aggregate of Europe’s most degraded racial stock, hardly the stuff from which one could expect a great nation:

They are a very mixed assortment of the most degenerate races of olden-day Europe. They are the human flotsam of all ages: Irish, crossbred Germans and French, and Italians of even more doubtful stock. The intermixture of all these decadent ethnic varieties will inevitably give birth to further ethnic chaos. This [End Page 837] chaos is in no way unexpected or new; it will produce no ethnic mixture which has not already been, or cannot be, realized on our own continent. Absolutely nothing productive will result from it, and even when ethnic combinations resulting from infinite unions between Germans, Irish, Italians, French and Anglo-Saxons join us in the south with racial elements composed of Indian, Negro, Spanish and Portuguese essence, it is quite unimaginable that anything could result from such horrible confusion but an incoherent juxtaposition of the most decadent kinds of people.

Gobineau’s withering and repulsed opinion on the American “nation” reflected the anxieties, as we shall shortly see, of the translators themselves; small wonder that this commentary was not translated into the English. Small wonder, too, that the totality of Gobineau’s comments on race are also missing.

In his “Analytical Introduction” to the translation, Dr. Henry Hotz echoes Gobineau’s sentiments that one cannot proceed with the development of a theory of racial hierarchies if one is going to be bogged down by every single example of individual achievement accomplished by the members of the inferior races. Hotz even goes so far to refer to Gobineau’s dictum that:

I will go even further than my adversaries in that I do not doubt there are a good many African chieftains who surpass, through force and abundance of their ideas, by the intensity of their active faculties, the common level of our peasants or even the level that our bourgeoisie, satisfactorily instructed and reasonably gifted, can attain.

(Essai 313, translation mine)

What Hotz overlooks, however, is the wide-ranging significance of this seemingly anomalous passage in Gobineau in which he predicates the importance of class over race. For Gobineau, of course, class is race: the European peasantry, as he so painstakingly argues, has little and next to no relation to the racial group of Aryans who comprise the noble families of Europe. Gobineau is far more fluid, as a matter of fact, in his views on “race” as we understand it, than on “class.” 10

Gobineau’s Negro defies simple definition. In his discussion of the peoples that comprise Africa, Gobineau makes a multitude of distinctions based on geography, migratory history, civilization, religion, and a host of bizarre physical determinations that effectively serve to deconstruct the meaning of the “Negro” through obsessive categorization. Despite that move, Gobineau proceeds to credit the “Negroid” race as the only true and original possessors of artistic genius—a fact that was not lost on the Negritudists roughly one hundred years later. 11 Then, in opposition to his central argument that links the decline of civilization to excessive interbreeding, Gobineau staunchly declares “Artistic genius, which is equally foreign to each of the three great types, arose only after the intermarriage of White and Black” (Essai 208). 12 The reason, he declares, is: [End Page 838]

Most certainly the black element is indispensable in developing a race’s artistic genius, for we have seen what a profusion of fire, of flames, of sparks, flights of fancy and lack of reflection reside in its essence, and how much the imagination, this reflex of sensuality, as well as all material appetites enslave themselves to the impressions that create the arts, indeed to a degree of intensity wholly unknown to the other families of humans.

(Essai 473–74, translation mine)

This determination does not, of course, raise the Negro up to the rank of the Aryan, and it should also be noted that Gobineau saw very little value in the arts. At the same time, it posits an agency and productive intent on the part of the black that those such as Jefferson and Hegel refused to entertain. 13 By expanding the contribution of the Negro race to civilization to something other than cheap labor, Gobineau’s Negro is already defying the particular vernacular within which Hotz and Nott wish to locate the American bondsman. 14 Gobineau does not stop here in his ideas regarding miscegenation. In one of the few passages in which he actually mentions the current situation of blacks in the colonies, he lays out a plan in which the mulattos could be integrated into white society—including the professional class, eventually obliterating any color distinction whatsoever. 15

For Gobineau, the Negroid is simultaneously the most reductive and degraded of all races on the planet, one of the most diverse and malleable, and, actually, necessary to the progress of Aryan civilization. 16 In other words, Gobineau’s Negro is quite simply not the Negro to be deployed in a discourse for a nation that is already anxious about its racial heterogeneity and the looming and large black population threatening to mongrelize what is already a very tenuous claim to racial homogeneity. There is, however, a group of people that Gobineau directly posits as a threat to the nation, a group that he denies any possibility of progress: the peasant. In anecdote after anecdote Gobineau relates the hopelessly retrograde ability of the French peasant, who actively resists education, refinement, not to mention contributing productively to society. In speaking of the French nation, Gobineau is very clear that these peasants may inhabit the land, but they are certainly not part of it—shades of Thomas Jefferson and his construction of the Negro.

Of course, for obvious reasons, Hotz and Nott did not radically alter Gobineau’s Essai so as to translate the European peasant into the American Negro especially (as Gobineau himself noted), when he equates white American citizenry with the offal of Europe’s population. Yet in their strategic extraction of those sections on the degraded and retrograde peasant, America as a nation of degraded peasant stock, and the multivalent and contradictory manifestations of the Negro, not to mention the black’s monopoly on (meaning the whites inherent lack of) artistic ability, Hotz and Nott make a discursive translation in which the peasant’s stagnant intellectual capacity and predisposition for heavy labor becomes the provenance of the American Negro. [End Page 839]

Part Three: Negroland and the Anxious Nation

This discursive translation of the European peasant into the American Negro is intimately bound up with Hotz and Nott’s anxious discourse on the American nation, an anxiety that reveals itself quite tellingly and convincingly in the structure and format of The Moral and Intellectual Diversity of Races (as the translation is revealingly renamed). The American translation of Gobineau’s text is framed by Henry Hotz’s “Analytical Introduction” and “an appendix containing a summary of the latest scientific facts bearing upon the question of unity or plurality of species by J.C. Nott, M.D., of Mobile,” as the inside leaf attests. Structurally speaking, the work implicitly links the discourse on the nation with what Nott so tellingly termed “niggerology.” The work begins with an exposition on the meaning of nation and ends with a series of “scientific” studies arguing that the Negro is a separate species. The body of the text does not include Gobineau’s endless and ultimately meaningless divisions and sub-divisions of the Aryan and Negroid races, thus polarizing his discussion into a race war between white and black in which the American nation is at stake.

The first few paragraphs of Hotz’s introduction immediately frame the way in which the reader is meant to read Gobineau; namely, in the context of a threatened nation and the threatening Negro:

Before departing on one’s travels to a foreign country, it is well to cast a glance at the map, and if we expect to meet and examine many curiosities, a correct itinerary may not be an inconvenient travelling companion. In laying before the public the present work of Mr. Gobineau, embracing a field of inquiry so boundless and treating of subjects of such vast importance to all, it has been thought not altogether useless or inappropriate to give a rapid outline of the topics presented to the consideration of the reader—a ground-plan, as it were, of the extensive edifice he is invited to enter, so that he may afterwards examine it at leisure, and judge of the symmetry of its parts . . .

Rhetorically speaking, these first few lines place the relationship of nation and the Other in an anxious context. Introducing a metaphor of travel, Hotz underscores the location of the American nation in a world filled with unknowns (“foreign country” and “curiosities”) which confound the American traveler’s frame of reference. These encounters, Hotz notes, should not occur without a guide, specifically a map, which is, of course, the litmus test for a nation: does one appear as terra incognita, a rambling, casual space of purple, or in the clearly defined and legible space of the nation? 17 Hotz then likens these tropes of mapping and travel (both intimately connected with the shape and formation of the nation) with Gobineau’s excursion into the diversity of races, signaling that the definition of one’s nation, both figuratively and literally, are necessarily reliant upon the “traveler’s” ability to distinguish from one another and, it is suggested, from his nation of origin. 18 But what is one to distinguish, and along which guidelines? Hotz quickly answers this question in the following paragraph before it is allowed to linger. He has already hinted at it, one [End Page 840] should note, with his curious use of the term “symmetry” in the final sentence, suggesting none other than the human body. 19

Whether we contemplate the human family from the point of view of the naturalist, or of the philosopher, we are struck with the marked dissimilarity of the various groups. The obvious physical characteristics by which we distinguish what are termed different races, are not more clearly defined than the psychical diversities observable among them. “If a person,” says the learned vindicator of the unity of the human species, “after surveying some brilliant ceremony or court pageant in one of the splendid cities of Europe, were suddenly carried into a hamlet in Negroland, at the hour when the sable tribes recreate themselves with dancing and music; or if he were transported to the saline plains over which bald and tawny Mongolians roam, differing little in hue from the yellow soil of their steppes, brightened by the saffron flowers of the iris and tulip; if he were placed near the solitary dens of the Bushman, where the lean and hungry savage crouches in silence, like a beast of prey, watching with fixed eyes the birds which enter his pitfall, or greedily devouring the insects and reptiles which chance may bring within his grasp; if he were carried into the midst of an Australian forest, where the squalid companions of kangaroos may be seen crawling in procession, in imitation of quadrupeds, would the spectator of such phenomena imagine the different groups which he had surveyed to be the offspring of one family? And if he were led to adopt that opinion, how would he attempt to account for the striking diversities in their aspect and manner of existence? 20

The contrast the narrator sets up between Europe and Africa and Asia is clear. Europe is signified by “brilliant ceremony or court pageant” in one of its (no doubt numerous) “splendid cities.” On our discursive map, the geography of Europe is confidently determined, leaping over determinations of nations and national boundaries, pinpointed by (to borrow a term from Clifford Geertz) “thick description.” More specifically, the author of this passage need only conjure up specific events in unnamed locales because he can rely upon a signifying chain that predetermines the logical conclusion that one cannot have cities without nations, and one cannot have ceremonies and pageantry without a nobility. This nobility, in turn, points to an ordered society and, above all, a meaningful collective that is further buffeted against the depiction of an uncivilized bunch through that powerful signifier of “splendid cities.” Europe equals nations equals cities equals civilization. Without question, this geographical terrain is both purposeful and potent.

By contrast, it will not come as a surprise that that which lies beyond Europe is the antithesis of meaningful society, a terrain so unbecoming that even the fictive traveler on his hypothetical journey does not arrive there on his own volition; he is instead “suddenly carried.” Within a single sentence we are lifted from brilliant civilization and abruptly deposited into a single hamlet in a mass known derisively as “Negroland.” The comic novelty of this term “Negroland” explodes into a mass of derogatory [End Page 841] connotations. Concepts of race and nation are combined in one term and rendered an oxymoron—one sees the term “Negroland” and understands that it automatically points to the impossibility of the black occupying sovereign lands. One can say “England” and we know we are speaking of a nation nestled in the heart of a powerful Empire—yet Negroland speaks of nothing but the hilarious concept of primitives (or, more likely, given the tenor of the piece, misguided liberals) attempting to claim a black nationhood. “Negroland” is a fantasy, a child’s whim, perhaps, and on our discursive map it is one of the “purple countries.” 21 Two final contrasts pin down this determination of the Negro as the antithesis of the nation: in splendid European cities one can witness pageantry and ceremony; in Negroland’s single hamlet, the pageant and the ceremony is nothing more than “dancing and music.” Bereft of the ultimate referent of meaning, namely the nation, ordered societies become relatively random collections of individuals (race, it seems, being the only determinant), and even human actions of celebration can only be interpreted as simple displays that lack a signifying chain that could link them to civilization. There is no court, there is no nobility, there are, quite clearly, only tribes living atop a landmass.

Left at that, Negroland’s lonely hamlet might only strike the reader as rather pitiful and proof of the black’s innate inferiority and meaninglessness in the history of civilizations. But the passage moves on to the simultaneously curious and bland “yellow” Mongolian living atop his yellow saline steppes, then to the animal-like dens inhabited by the lurking and predatory Bushmen, living only to wait, watch, and devour, introducing a striking contrast. 22 In the case of the latter, we are to understand that peoples incapable of creating civilizations are not simply pathetic. Their lack of a civilizing impulse conflates them with the animal kingdom where the difference between killing and murder is nonexistent: nature has bestowed with the gifts of the hunter, who cannot recognize such niceties. The final description seals the jar into which the Negro has been stuffed: it is not just his instincts that are animal, he is an animal—or, even worse, he attempts to imitate the animal but fails, remaining only a “squalid companion.” Lastly, it is not simply any peoples lacking the ability to construct a nation that are a threat to existing nations, for we see the ridiculously “bald and tawny” Mongolian simply roaming the land. The Mongolian is not a threat; although he may move, he has no direction, simply roaming in search of nothing. From the narrative distance of the map, it seems as if he does not move at all, so closely matched is his skin color with the color of his sandy plains. It is specifically the nation-less Negro who is a threat to Western nations, for somehow his particular racial designation, no matter if he is a Bushman or an aborigine, render him a semi-animal fueled by ferocity.

Part Four: American Anxieties

Nonetheless, the “Negroes” described in the passage above bear only an imaginary, hypothetical threat to the American nation, existing thousands of miles from American shores. All the same, the passage leaves a lasting impression: Europe, [End Page 842] secure in her civilized status, is either correct in her confidence or foolishly unaware of the looming threat. At the very least, however, the threat is not immediate, for those specific vicious and predatory Negroes are also far removed from the splendid cities of Europe. America, however, is not so far removed from a black threat, for it houses large numbers of blacks within its borders.

Yet these Negroes, one could be quick to add, are for the most part cruelly chained and oppressed; surely we cannot see them as a threat: they have been beaten, they have been tamed. By the mid-19th century, a discourse of the innocent and suffering black slave was widespread enough to challenge this image of the threatening black: there were increasingly lurid accounts of depraved white slaveholders and brutally exploited black slaves. By the mid-19th century, as both Winthrop Jordan and George M. Frederickson have noted, both anti-slavery and pro-slavery advocates believed that American slavery would not see the end of the century. At the same time, the abolitionist discourse (taking, interestingly enough, a page from Jefferson) now focused on slavery as an institution that contributed to the moral depravity of whites as they viciously oppressed blameless, innocent Negroes. European nations had since banned slavery within their borders and the sale of slaves; abolitionists both at home and abroad, not to mention a wide range of intellectuals, stood alongside an increasingly powerful industrial North that loudly condemned such an atavistic practice in such an atavistic, agrarian Southern society. Given that it was not the intellectual capability of the Negro that was being debated, but the moral practice of the slave owner, it was becoming increasingly difficult for pro-slavery forces to convincingly argue that the enslavement of the American Negro secured peace and prosperity for the American nation.

In order to convince the reader that this Negro was in fact a threat to the American nation, Hotz had to make two key points. In his introduction, he begins in the manner of Gobineau: namely observing that the human races are obviously dissimilar with regard to achievement. Just as Jefferson argued Negroes as incapable of progress, Hotz notes that in terms of color and accomplishment, the Negroid races have evinced no sign of change:

In whatever manner the diversities among the various branches of the human family may have originated, whether they are primordial or were produced by external causes, their permanency is now generally admitted. “The Ethiopian cannot change his skin.” If there are, or ever have been, external agencies that could change a white man into a Negro, or vice-versa, it is obvious that such causes have ceased to operate, or operate only in a lapse of time so incommensurable as to be imponderable to our perceptions . . . if races have preserved their identity for the last two thousand years, they will not lose it in the next two thousand.

Hotz “borrows” from Jefferson by transforming skin color into a physical marker of inferiority, then defines inferiority as that which is “static,” which in turn posits that which does change as progressive and therefore superior. In racist shorthand, blackness [End Page 843] becomes conflated with that which does not change. By beginning with the assumption that the human races are distinct based on physical characteristics, and then observing that they have remained distinct for at least two millennia, Hotz is able to posit that there must in fact be different types of human beings. With this argument, he is also able to refute those abolitionists who argue that disparities in development only point to different stages of progress, and are the result of “circumstance,” “education” and means of subsistence. Hotz holds that this argument is untenable in the face of those same writers abandoning the related argument that climate and diet are factors of human development in that the two are inextricably linked.

Hotz then goes on to examine the argument posited by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, and the theories of John Locke, both of whom held that the mind of man is a tabula rasa when he first comes into the world, and his development is wholly dependent upon external factors. Taking on the metaphor of the “blank tablet,” Hotz opines that these tablets are of different qualities: “A tablet of wax receives an impression which one of marble will not; on the former is easily effaced what the other forever retains” (Hotz 20). Furthermore,

We do not deny that circumstances have a great influence in moulding [sic] both moral and intellectual character, but we do insist that there is a primary basis upon which the degree of that influence depends, and which is the work of God, and not of man or chance.

(Hotz 20, italics mine)

Thus, when it comes to the question of nature or nurture, both are influential, but it is the latter that is ultimately the deciding factor. Observing that most would agree offspring of the same parents can have radically different intellects, Hotz asks why it is then considered “blasphemy” to argue that two different races, descended from the “same stock,” should be differently endowed. Therefore, regardless as to whether one is a monogenist or a polygenist, racial inferiority is an inescapable conclusion.

Just as Jefferson constructs “blackness” as the ultimate signifier of difference, Hotz also produces skin color as proof positive that the human races are different with regard to intellect. However, Hotz holds, this conclusion does not mean (as many abolitionists charged) that some races are also morally inferior to the degree that they escape “God’s grace.” Borrowing from Gobineau, the “Analytical Introduction” argues that the Christian doctrine is a simple one, composed of “a few simple lessons and precepts, comprehensible to the meanest capacity” (Hotz 22). Observing that men of great intellect are not necessarily great Christians, Hotz produces a formula in which the moral sense, requiring next to no cerebral ability, is almost a completely separate faculty.

Having rendered the issue of morality moot, Hotz moves on to the heart of his claim: namely, that when one compares the white race against the black, one cannot help but observe that “the whole history of the former shows an uninterrupted progress; that of the latter, monotonous stagnation” (Hotz 32). Despite the fact that the “Negro race” has been blessed with the most favorable of circumstances with [End Page 844] regard to climate, geographical location, and contact with “the most polished nations of the earth,” they have still failed to move beyond their primitive state. Even further,

As if to afford a still more irrefragable proof of the mental inequality of the races, we find separate divisions of the same island inhabited, one by the pure, the other by a half-breed race; and the infusion of the white blood in the latter forms a population incontestably and avowedly superior.

Hotz does not make clear exactly what geographical location he means: either he designates Africa as an “island,” or else he is speaking of the West Indies and its mulatto population—although he fails to explain exactly what “achievements” mulattos have made in contradistinction to the “Negro population.” Yet, unlike Gobineau, Hotz does not pursue the ramifications of this idea with regard to “improving” the Negro race through intermixture. This omission is hardly surprising, given that “blackness” had already been constructed as an active marker of difference directly antagonistic to the American idea of nationality. 23 For Hotz, distinguishing between “mixed” and “pure” Negroes only serves to underscore white superiority and black “stagnation.” In the same vein as Gobineau, Hotz also allows that the “smartest” Negro was probably superior to a white with low intellectual capacity, but this in no way changes the general deficiency of the black race. Hotz also supposes, within this example, that said Negro is no doubt the product of intermixture.

Unlike Gobineau, Henry Hotz’s introduction is not invested in proving the degree to which civilization has declined as a result of Aryan intermixture with weaker races, given that Gobineau’s “Aryan” exclusively signified the aristocratic classes. Because America used its official status as a democratic society to argue it was free from the class strata that plagued European nations, inferiority is posited within racial categories, one in which Negroes and Caucasians stand on opposite ends of the spectrum. 24 Whereas Gobineau’s Essai was intent upon demonstrating the collapse of nations and nationalities through intermixture, Hotz is intent upon proving America as a distinct nation of “Anglo-Americans” who cannot and should not be confused with the Negro population. Nonetheless, much of Gobineau’s approach proved useful to his argument.

Just as Gobineau announced he would explain the collapse of civilization through a purely secular historical analysis, so do Hotz and Josiah Nott (in the appendices) deploy the “science” of ethnography to explain Negro inferiority and, concomitantly, the superiority of the “Anglo-American.” Hotz acknowledges the difficulty of categorizing the spectrum of the world’s “races,” and rejects the more complex gradations certain “ethnographers” have designated; instead he opts for Gobineau’s general categorization of “three races,” 25 arguing that because yet another ethnographer also hit upon this idea independent of Gobineau, “this coincidence of opinion in two men, pursuing, independent of, and unknown to each other, different paths of investigation, is a strong evidence of the correctness of their system, which, moreover, has the merit of great simplicity and clearness” (Hotz 62). 26 This highly questionable leap is essential to Hotz’s ensuing argument, which he posits forthwith: [End Page 845]

In common parlance, the terms nation and people have become strictly synonymous. We speak indifferently of the French people, or the French nation; the English people, or the English nation. If we make any distinction at all, we perhaps designate by the first expression the masses; by the second, rather the sovereignty. Thus we say the French nation is at war with Russia. But even this distinction is not always made. My purpose is to restore the word nation to its original signification, in which it expresses the same as the word race, including, besides, the idea of some sort of political organization. . . . .It might therefore be defined by an ethnologist as a population consisting of homogenous ethical elements.

. . . The word people, on the contrary, when applied to an aggregation of individuals living under the same government, implies no immediate consanguineous ties among them. Nation does not necessarily imply political unity; people, always. . . . It is hardly possible to exaggerate the importance of keeping in view this distinction . . .

Given that the definition of America and Americans relies upon a nation that is not bound by blood but political beliefs, Hotz’s formula seems anti-American. Yet at this time the debate over slavery had begun to fracture the nation. Many pro-slavery advocates argued that emancipation would lead to innumerable outrages committed by Negroes on white women, and that the nation would become a degraded collection of mixed-race bastards. 27 By arguing that a nation should be held together by common blood and political beliefs, Hotz indirectly points out that it is through these political beliefs—namely, pro-slavery—that the nation will retain its racial purity. The debate over slavery becomes a debate over the miscegenation of the nation.

Hotz goes on to use this construct in order to underline the impossibility of a member of one nation ever becoming a member of another, given the requisite homogeneity needed to posit one’s nationality. Yet this construct is clearly produced for the exclusive means of examining American nationality, since, as Hotz explains, “owing to the great intermixture of the European population, produced by their various and intimate mutual relations it does not apply with the same force to them as to others” (Frederickson 68). The “Introduction” draws upon the examples of ancient civilizations, from Hungary to Persia to China in order to reiterate Gobineau’s argument that it is heterogeneity that causes the downfall of nations.

On the question of morality, Hotz argues that those races of low intellect are incapable of achieving a higher moral sense and, even further, “Government there can be no other than the right which force gives to the strong, and its forms will be slavery among themselves” (Frederickson 95). Like Gobineau, Hotz locates blackness as a signifier for inferiority that evinces itself in the body, allowing for abstractions such as intellect to be “seen” and immediately determined from physical aspect.

Yet Hotz uses this distinction towards other means, namely to posit the American nation as one wholly composed of “Anglo-Americans” albeit also populated by Negroes (a people, most certainly, but not Americans). Hotz never applies his theory [End Page 846] to the American nation, but he ends his introduction on a telling note when commenting on the political turmoil of Europe at that time:

Everywhere the same cry: Nationality. It is not the temporary ravings of a mob driven frantic by hunger and misery. Happy are we who are removed from the immediate struggle, and can be but remotely affected by it. Yet, while I write, it seems as though the gales of the Atlantic had blown to our peaceful shores some taints of the epidemic that rages in the Old World. May it soon pass over, and a healthy atmosphere soon prevail!

In other words, racial homogeneity must be preserved in order to preserve the American nation and, by association, those who advocate manumission are also advocating the decline and eventual destruction of the American nation: miscegenation is the antithesis of nation.

The American invention of the Negro was bound up part and parcel with the American invention of the nation. Like Gobineau’s peasant, the American Negro was incapable of progress, although in reality both groups were the backbone of the expanding agricultural and industrial ventures of the nation. Nonetheless, both Jefferson’s and Hotz & Nott’s discourses produce a nation imperiled by the Negro presence. Jefferson developed a paradoxical “peril” produced within a framework of a nascent (and therefore fragile) nation threatened by the enslaved Negro. Jefferson points to the Negro’s lowly status, attaches to it a faceless, purely physical creature, and pronounces the Negro as one who enslaves himself. Within Jefferson’s logic, this inferior presence is therefore dangerous to the nation because it is obvious that he cannot and will never achieve Subject status. Jefferson’s Subject is simply a more highly evolved “species” of human being, this superiority made clear through the Subject’s achievement of logos. The Negro is not a Subject because he is an animal; bereft of a racial discourse, Jefferson instead points very vaguely to this marker of blackness that encases the Negro both from within and without.

Within this theory, one must justify how it is that a superior species can be threatened by an inferior one, especially one that is enslaved. According to Jefferson, the Subject has reason to fear the threat of violence should this non-Subject be freed and, even worse, the Subject has reason to fear rape, for the non-Subject is always looking to move up the evolutionary ladder by mating with a superior species. As Winthrop Jordan points out in White Over Black, the Freudian theorist would read this narrative as an outrageously clear example of the Self projecting onto the Other. This is an indisputable reading; Jefferson constructs a narrative of the nation that refuses to engage with ugly realities such as the violent repression and sexual exploitation of black slaves by white owners and overseers. As such, the Negro becomes the repository for all of the intentions and actions committed by the Self to which the Self cannot admit. Jefferson’s nation, and therefore his Subject, is bound by paradoxes that can only be maintained by positing the Other as both inferior and threatening. His theory also truncates his personal agenda: unable to relinquish the luxuries that this exploited labor affords him, and yet wishing to maintain himself as a moral thinker, Jefferson [End Page 847] leaves a promissory note at the end of his discourse; the Negro must be expelled from the realm of the Subject.

The political climate had changed by the time Hotz and Nott took up “the Negro Question”; Negro inferiority was no longer as popular as a justification for slavery—of course many believed Negroes were inferior, but common sense ran that inferiority did not justify such cruel oppression. The North had begun to dominate the American economy, and so imparted its sensibilities. Southerners were viewed as a morally deficient, uncivilized group whose system of slavery matched their crude ethics. At the same time, slave narratives recounting the degraded practices of white men who were sexually attracted to black women (akin to bestiality, in some circles) reinforced the abolitionists’ stance that, regardless of the Negro’s ability, slavery was a blight on the American landscape. 28 Interestingly enough, Jefferson had opined that owning slaves inevitably wreaked moral damage on the slave owner, and this opinion was growing (if not for the sake of those poor Negroes, then at least for the sake of our moral character). Jefferson’s production of the nation in peril had also become an important factor. The slave system had never enjoyed halcyon days: Southern legislatures were constantly changing the wording of laws in order to maintain the Negro as persona non grata, and revising and reworking the budgets for their local militias because the fear of slave rebellions loomed largely in the white southern mind. 29 At the same time, Northern industrialists and abolitionists were eager to see the slave system dismantled, using their political and economic clout to deprive the South of this handy workforce. Slavery became the umbrella for all the other related issues that were dividing the nation: political and religious beliefs, economic competition as well as issues surrounding class status and ancestral lineage.

Outlined by Jefferson and further denigrated and limited by the racial discourse of the 19th century, the American Negro is produced as an inferior species of human being that poses a constant threat to the white Subject. As Other, he represents all that is retrograde, what the Subject would be without logos and, perhaps, what the Subject could devolve into should an unrestricted interplay occur. On one level, the Negro Other is threatening because he represents the non-progressive and yet durable aspect of Nature. And, just as the origins of nature cannot be divined, so too does the blackness of the Negro signify a mysterious difference that should function as a warning sign for the white Subject. The Negro Other stood outside of civilization, and this inability is rhetorically rendered as an oddly threatening agency, as if the Negro willfully maintains a retrograde character in the face of progress, refusing to become progressive.

The American rhetoric surrounding the Negro in the 20th century would embody the majority of these factors: even after Emancipation, racists posited the American Negro as incapable of achieving parity with whites. This failure would be attributed to the Negro’s inability to do anything more than mimic whiteness and his primitive nature that could not fathom and so actively rejected any civilized behavior. His presence on the American landscape would continue to be (re)produced as unnatural and unwanted; his presence would also continue to be threatening to the ideological and racial purity of the American nation. [End Page 848]

I was recently asked, by a shocked graduate student who had overheard me expounding on my current favorite theme, “the Western invention on the Negro,” if I was implying that discourses on nationality were in fact bound up with discourses on the black. Equally shocked by his question, I began to analyze the many ways in which questions of race and nationality are often kept separate, both in the “ivory tower” and the public domain. I would not argue that race and nation are always involved with one another, but I am struck by what seems a strategic refusal on the part of politicians and mainstream political scientists to even entertain the possibility that the two might in fact be connected.

Quite often, the irony of “the world’s oldest existing democracy” that held on so tightly to its brutal system of chattel slavery and the discourses that helped sustain this contradiction is either ignored or denied. Instead attention is diverted to and blame directed at scattered individuals and stereotypes, from the crazed white militias living in the wilderness to the violent, self-destructive black male of the inner city who angrily rejects a nation attempting to embrace and educate him. Given our own determination of America’s borders as racially, rather than geographically defined (as Pat Buchanan so memorably put it, “building a wall to keep Juan out”), and the scramble on the part of Western governments to redefine citizenship and/or nationality in the wake of increased non-white immigration, one wonders at the nature of this refusal to acknowledge the connection. We are not discussing building a wall between Canada and the United States; we are providing financial incentives and easing restrictions for white immigration. 30 Given all of this, there is no doubt in my mind that the current efforts of thinkers both in and out of the academy to explain the ways in which our thoughts on the nation are defined most often by our thoughts on race (and vice-versa) is not “trendy,” “incendiary,” or “questionable,” but absolutely necessary.

A final irony: as I noted at the beginning of this paper, Americans tend not to interpret the American flag or our discourse on the nation as inherently racist. Instead, we attribute such retrograde, ignorant and anti-democratic ideas to a group Gobineau would also have been pleased to condemn. I refer, of course, to the Southerner, the red neck, our translation of Gobineau: the “American peasant.” We are certainly learning from Europe but, it seems, we are a few decades behind.

Michelle M. Wright

Michelle M. Wright is an Assistant Professor in Literary and Cultural Studies and holds the McCandless Chair in English at Carnegie Mellon University for the years 1997–2000. She was born in Rome, Italy, the daughter of an African-American diplomat, and is currently working on a manuscript entitled Missing Persons: The Search for Postcolonial Subjects in the African Diaspora.

Footnotes

1. Indeed, in “Josiah Clark Nott and the Heroic Age of Alabama Medicine,” author John T. Morris, B.S., M.D., engages in an understatement that is both hilarious and disturbing. Framing Nott’s medical career as one of unquestionable heroics, he quickly refers to Nott’s lifelong crusade to prove that the American Negro was a vicious species of ape, a threat to the nation and therefore deserving of extermination, or at the very least kept in chains for perpetuity as “anthropology,” regrettably noting that “Today, many of Nott’s premises are rejected, but they established him as an expert in Europe, where scholars regarded him as America’s preeminent anthropologist” (27–28).

2. From Correspondence entre le Comte de Gobineau et le Comte de Prokesch-Osten, 1854–76. The translation and citation used here are from Michael Biddiss’ Father of Racist Ideology. Biddiss notes that the Correspondence “contains frequent faulty readings and all quotations from it here have been checked against the original letters.”

3. More can be found on Josiah Nott in Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black.

4. A letter from the Marquis de Condorcet, a French nobleman who served the American Revolutionary cause, to Thomas Jefferson could go far in teaching American schoolchildren (not to mention undergraduate and graduate students) about the moral ambivalence and hypocrisy of this nation’s beginnings. (See The Portable Thomas Jefferson.) In this letter, Condorcet reminds Jefferson of the principles of human suffrage and equal representation that spurred those outside the conflict, such as he, to contribute efforts. Condorcet then underscores his disappointment and bewilderment with regard to the perpetuation of the British slave system under the new American flag. It suggests, he darkly hints (further revealing his naivete, I would argue, of the American affinity for and attachment to black chattel slavery), that the American Revolution was a revolution only for whites, and not for blacks. Jefferson’s response is stupefying, to say the least. The owner of three plantations and 500 slaves at his peak, Jefferson replies that he too is dismayed to see slavery still existing on liberated soil, and further believes that the American slaveholder is not an American at all, in that he is engaged in such blatantly anti-democratic practices.

5. I imitate Jefferson’s sole use of the masculine singular when referring to the black, although there is little doubt he would have wished to exclude “Negresses” from his description.

6. I have argued that this is the very same “veil” that Du Bois resignifies in his many works, the most prominent being The Souls of Black Folk, of course.

7. Of course, as historians have shown, the occurrence of intermixture between whites and blacks radically dropped upon Emancipation, and whites found it harder to access the black women who had since vacated their slave quarters. In a lecture given at the Midwest Consortium for Black Studies and the Center for Africanamerican Urban Studies and the Economy, Brenda Stevenson detailed the widespread practice of rape by white slave owners despite the blind eye turned to or outright denial of such actions in the white discourse of the time. Winthrop Jordan has noted that white outrages on the black body most inverted themselves in the discourse on slavery at the time: the black woman becomes the seductress, the black man the violent fiend and rapist of white womanhood, etc.

8. Actually, a 1914 translation of the Essai, entitled “The Moral and Intellectual Diversity of the Races” is the other option available to scholars; but outside of a new 2-page introduction and a rather liberal re-translation of Gobineau’s chapter headings, the translated material is more or less (actually, less) than what Hotz and Nott selected. At this point, it is difficult to argue that the translation of Gobineau into English was not primarily a matter of white racist propaganda rather than “objective scholarship.”

9. Translation by Michael Biddiss from Father of Racist Ideology.

10. In order to avoid too much confusion, I will continue to use the categories of race and class as we understand them in the modern sense, however flawed and offensive.

11. In fact, in a separate work I argue that Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor deliberately deploy Gobineau’s depiction of the Negro as an artistic force against the discourse on the Negro as an empty, stagnant shell—the latter an argument used by Hegel to justify colonialist expansion into Africa.

12. Translation by Michael Biddiss.

13. Jefferson, of course, is famous for his derisive and patronizing comment on the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley in Notes. After admitting he stands ignorant in the field of poetry, he doubles the insult by further declaring that “religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.”

14. One of the earliest discourses in defense of the enslavement of Africans for forced labor is that Africans alone are strong enough to withstand the climate of the Americas, the West Indies and, of course, Africa, not to mention the debilitating demands of the actual labor.

15. “The mulattos would have lived by the shore, with the purpose of maintaining constant contact with the Europeans, in a rapport that they seek. Under the direction of the latter, one would have seen merchants, courtiers above all, lawyers and doctors, squeezing even closer those ties that carress them, mixing more and more, gradually ameliorating, losing, in measured proportions, their character, along with their African blood” (Essai 187, translation mine).

16. Another contradictory move: although Gobineau notes he has little time for Art, he criticizes the Aryan race for lacking artistic ability and at one point even suggests that this lack can lead to a “soulless” civilization.

17. My rhetoric is very deliberate here: in recent years, a number of analyses have appeared on Western cartography, from the Age of Discovery to the present day. The most memorable aspect, of course, is how these cartographers mapped the “unknown space,” often decorating the landscape with fantastic creatures for lack of information. Equally important, I believe, is the coloring of these different spaces—even today, western nations often appear on maps in light colors, and those outside of the West are filled with dark shades such as purple, rendering, most often, the notation of cities and natural formations literally and figuratively illegible.

18. Again, I will defer to Hotz’s exclusive use of the masculine singular. To open the discussion of nation and the other to female travelers is an intriguing and fruitful theoretical voyage, but I am unable to give it justice in this paper.

19. This rather hasty reading is supported by both Gobineau’s and Nott’s discussions of inferior and superior races, inferior races lacking the pleasing symmetry of form natural to the Aryan.

20. The “learned vindicator” is James Cowles Prichard, M.D., in his 1841 work Researches into the Physical History of Mankind.

21. See note 23.

22. In the discursive dialectic often set up between white (thesis) and black (synthesis), various derivatives of the “Asian” are often set up as a middle term that is non-threatening and quite often serves to reject claims of blatant racism. Gobineau makes this quite clear in his Essai, when he addresses the reader and defends what may come across as a Negrophobic argument by pointing to his extreme admiration for “Chinese civilization.”

23. Although some Southern states actually compiled a series of intricate laws determining whether or not a person was black or white based on intermixture, even those individuals with 1/64 of black blood were still viewed as inferior by society, despite what the law would have allowed.

24. This is not to argue that race supplanted class as the means for maintaining and exploiting the labor of an oppressed group of peoples. Instead, I point to the 18th- and 19th-century discourses on American democracy that proudly contrasted themselves against Europe as a place where no man could consider himself as inherently superior to his fellows by virtue of birth. The American history of the working class and disempowered whites, from indentured servitude to corporate exploitation of working-class whites at the expense of the lives, future, and health of the latter, points to a radically different picture. At the same time, the argument that the degraded black served as a useful screen for the exploitation of white labor remains, in the face of much evidence, a compelling argument.

25. Gobineau also posits a multiplicity of racial divisions that surpass the complexity of the ones Hotz rejects.

26. In a typically contradictory mode, Gobineau begins the Essai with a “three races” model, but complicates, subdivides, and creates “new” races in later chapters. In Father of Racist Ideology, Michael Biddiss notes that not too long after the publication of the Essai Gobineau all but abandoned any attempt to categorize by race. His many travels in a diplomatic capacity introduced him to a whole new range of peoples who, in his view, defied categorization. “I don’t know what race they are!” he exclaimed in a letter to a friend.

27. See Frederickson’s The Black Image in the White Mind for a discussion of these fears.

28. Pro-slavery factions still argued that the slave system was a benevolent patriarchy, but the abolitionists had since flooded the market with horrific accounts of white sadism and licentiousness on plantations. Although I could not argue the definite origin of this trend, I would venture that Jefferson’s opinion that slavery degraded the moral sense of the slave owner, combined with the lurid tales of the slave narrative (not unlike the popular white novels of the time), placed the plantation owner in a very bad light. Indeed, Europe, especially England, had already combined her class sensibilities with a humanist anti-slavery stance, so that those who owned plantations were often viewed as “bad going to worse.”

29. See Frederickson’s The Black Image in the White Mind for an in-depth discussion on slavery and the myth of profit.

30. As of this writing, the United States is offering financial incentives for (white) Europeans with advanced degrees to apply for American citizenship. Germany, while denying citizenship to its native-born peoples of Turkish descent, allows anyone who can prove German ancestry a simple system of application to obtain German citizenship.

Works Cited

Biddiss, Michael. Father of Racist Ideology: The Social and Political Thought of Count Gobineau. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1970.
Correspondence entre le Comte de Gobineau et le Comte de Prokesch-Osten, 1854–76. Ed. C. Serpeille de Gobineau. Paris: Plon, 1933.
de Gobineau, Count Arthur. Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines. Paris: P. Belfond, 1967.
———. The Intellectual and Moral Diversity of Races. Introduction by Henry Hotz. Afterword by Josiah Nott. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1856.
Frederickson, George M. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on the Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press; Scranton, PA: Distributed by Harper & Row, 1987, c. 1971.
Hegel, Georg. “Introduction.” The Philosophy of History. Trans. J. Sibree. New York: Dover Publications, 1956.
Hotz, Henry. “Analytical Introduction.” The Intellectual and Moral Diversity of Races. By Count Arthur de Gobineau. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1856.
Jefferson, Thomas. The Portable Thomas Jefferson. Ed. Merrill D. Peterson. New York: Penguin Books, 1975.
Jordan, Winthrop. White Over Black. Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Va., by the University of North Carolina Press, 1968.
Morris, John T. “Josiah Clark Nott and the Heroic Age of Alabama Medicine.” Alabama Medicine, The Journal of MASA (June 1991).
Nationalism, Racism and Gender. Ed. Helga Lutz, Ann Phoenix and Nira Yuval-Davis. London: Pluto Press, 1995.
Nott, Josiah. “Afterword.” The Intellectual and Moral Diversity of Races. By Count Arthur de Gobineau. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1856.

Previous Article

Precious Lord

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6512
Print ISSN
0161-2492
Launched on MUSE
1999-11-01
Open Access
No
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.