Abstract

abstract:

This essay shows how Black Americans responded to and challenged scientific racism in the mid-nineteenth century. Specifically, it focuses on how they adopted and coopted the disciplines of physiognomy and phrenology—two sciences based on the notion that people's heads and faces revealed their moral and mental capacity. As recent scholarship has demonstrated, disciplines like physiognomy and phrenology provided the ideological scaffolding for later versions of scientific racism. This article tells a different story. By focusing on how African American intellectuals strategically analyzed heads and faces, it exposes how people of color engaged with antebellum race theory, reformulating it in unique ways and for their own purposes. Although white people relied on physiognomic "evidence" to argue that African Americans were mentally and physically inferior beings, Black Americans coopted the very discourses that undergirded the rise of racial essentialism, crafting an alternative science of facial analysis to argue for racial equality. When wielded by Black hands, physiognomy and phrenology did not solidify white supremacy; they instead became tools for vindicating the mental capacities of people of color.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-0895
Print ISSN
1543-4273
Pages
pp. 601-640
Launched on MUSE
2021-07-26
Open Access
No
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