Review of Who’s Black and Why?

In 1741, the exalted members of the Bordeaux Royal Academy of Sciences met to consider sixteen essays written in response to the following question: ‘What is the physical cause of the Negro’s color, the quality of [the Negro’s] hair, and the degeneration of both [Negro hair and skin]?’ The essays were written by naturalists, physicians, theologians and amateur savants, none of whom impressed the academicians enough to take out the Academy’s prize, which had been offered in 1739. I wonder whether it occurred to the judges that part of the problem might be the original question, which was as loaded as the slavers leaving the west coast of Africa for plantations in the Americas. That some of them belonged to aristocratic families whose flagging fortunes had been given a boost by the slave trade would suggest that it probably didn’t.

Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Andrew S. Curran, Who’s Black and Why? is the remarkable story of the 1741 competition, and an essential document for anyone interested in the intellectual history of race and its relationship to the material reality of slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The book contains a long introduction that sets the competition in context, as well as a ‘Select Chronology of the Representation of Africans and Race’ that places the assumptions on display in the essays in a broader intellectual frame. It is the sixteen essays themselves, however, that really highlight how ugly and confused the attitudes to black people were in this era, in which theological and Enlightenment approaches to the question jostled for prominence. Much of the reasoning displayed in these essays would be funny if the subject wasn’t so weighty. 

The arguments are dead on arrival, of course. Though the concept appears to be ineradicable in political and cultural matters, we now know that ‘race’ has no basis in biology, let alone theology, and that attempts to identify fundamental differences between humans on the basis of their observable differences (skin-colour etc.) will end in failure. What race does have a basis in, however, is what we might call ‘the history of bad ideas’ and here we are offered a glimpse of that history at a hugely important moment of transition. Thus while some essays reproduce the story that the black races descended from Noah’s (cursed) son Ham, others make the ‘polygenetic’ case that black people constitute a different species of hominid. One of the entrants even argues that blackness derives from the ability of white women to produce black offspring through the ‘maternal imagination’ during pregnancy, and proposes an experiment in which a white man is covered in odorless black paint and directed to have sex with a white woman. Whether anyone has run this experiment I don’t know, but I think it is our scientific duty to do so. Perhaps Justin Trudeau could oblige.

It would be nice to think that this ‘hidden chapter’ was hidden for a reason – that this strange anthology of just-so stories, tossed off in response to a flawed question, is no more than a historical curiosity. But as Gates’ and Curran’s chronology suggests, the reality is far more depressing. As the academicians pondered the entries, the ink was still wet on Carl Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae, in which the genus homo is taxonomised into four geographical ‘varieties’, and Voltaire was arguing (as were many others) that blacks and whites were separate species, and that blacks were naturally inferior. Indeed, it is at this time in history, and not in spite of scientific thought but largely as a consequence of it, that the category of race was fully constructed, in a way that underwrote the slave trade and would lead to the great genocides of the twentieth century. Those apt to regard the Enlightenment as the basis of human improvement and progress are encouraged to look a little closer at this history.

As an insight into that history, Who’s Black and Why? is an important resource, though it is very much in the form of a resource that it is offered to the general reader, who may be put off (wrongly, I think) by the feeling that it is not ‘for them’. At any rate, the field is open for a more ‘literary’ treatment of this episode, which could weave the different themes in the essays into the broader history of racialism at this crucial point of its conceptual development. It would take a very good writer to do it, but whoever took it on would be doing the world a service. This is a story that needs to be told, not least because it is far from over.


Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Andrew S. Curran (editors)

Who’s Black and Why? A Hidden Chapter from the Eighteenth-Century Invention of Race Belknap Press, $49.95; 320pp


First published in The Weekend Australian