- Of Black Skin and Biopower:Lessons from the Eighteenth Century
Glancing through a box of Benjamin Rush's papers at the Library Company of Philadelphia, I lingered over the typed page identifying the contents:
Lectures on Pathology: series 3 box 3ContentsOf local diseasesOf the black color of the African p. 505Of the proximate cause of death p. 5251
I was not surprised to find black skin color included in Rush's writings on pathology. As a historian who researches the medical and scientific constructions of race, I am not surprised by many of the theories put forth by renowned physicians of the eighteenth century about human difference—including those that traffic in vocabulary that pathologizes black people's bodies. Rush, whose many claims to fame include being a signer of the Declaration of Independence, an abolitionist, and a respected physician, was also one of many physicians who sought to answer the question "why is black skin black?" His theory appears in his lecture notes and in the form of an essay, "Observations Intended to Favour a Supposition That the Black Color (As It Is Called) of the Negroes is The Leprosy," which was published in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society in 1799.2 Rush's theory has not escaped the analytic gaze of contemporary scholars, meaning that the cloud of obscurity that once covered it is lifting.3 Exemplary work by Kariann Yokota and Eric Herschthal rely on this text to complicate Rush's relationship to race, reframe the role of science in antislavery discourse, and locate the limitations black people faced in the Early Republic because of damaging ideas about their bodies.4
Rush's supposition about black skin is arresting and disturbing, for it encapsulates a kind of hostility toward blackness that casually appears in eighteenth-century medical discourse and knowledge production. Blackness appears as a "problem" to be solved. Eighteenth-century physicians often took [End Page 837] for granted that blackness was a "thing" that needed explanation, and they employed empirical methods that stressed observation, inductive reasoning, and experimentation to do just that.5 This process, exemplified by the likes of Rush, exists as a manifestation of a kind of biopower that attended the production of knowledge about race. Here I invoke Michel Foucault's concept of biopower that operates between disciplining a body and regulating it.6 Bio-power functions by treating the human body as the site where external power can be effectively wielded to make the material body conform to an ideal that supports the dominant culture of a society or broader aims of the state (discipline). That body can also be brought into submission when it relinquishes the information sought from it, as in the case of experimentation. Force and coercion often accompany this process. But when conformity or submission cannot be achieved, that body can be surveilled, modified, or even erased through violent and nonviolent measures (regulation).7
The above framework is useful for thinking about how medical inquiries about black people's skin in the eighteenth century worked as a way to subjugate and, in extreme cases, erase black people's bodies for the sake of advancing science. This is a kind of biopower we might call antiblackness, a term I use to literally mean hostile toward black people. This antiblackness is apparent in medical and scientific writings in the eighteenth century and beyond; it emerges as the textual and material subjugation of black people's bodies that occurred when physicians framed research questions around race, conducted experiments to learn more about race, and, in some cases, circulated ideas about racial difference based on their results. In this brief essay, I focus on the experiments of Thomas Beddoes (a contemporary of Rush) that involved the attempted removal of black pigment in "negro" subjects with oxygenated marine acid—what we now know as hydrochloric acid.8 Rush's willingness to reduce black skin to a pathology, and Beddoes's desire to erase it, exemplifies the antiblackness present in the scientific pursuits of learned men who attempted to make sense of the differences they observed between black and white people's bodies.