New Book | Who’s Black and Why?

Posted in books by Editor on February 26, 2022

Forthcoming from Harvard UP:

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Andrew Curran, eds., Who’s Black and Why? A Hidden Chapter from the Eighteenth-Century Invention of Race (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2022), 320 pages, ISBN: 978-0674244269, $30 / £24 / €27.

The first translation and publication of sixteen submissions to the notorious eighteenth-century Bordeaux essay contest on the cause of ‘black’ skin—an indispensable chronicle of the rise of scientifically based, anti-Black racism.

In 1739 Bordeaux’s Royal Academy of Sciences announced a contest for the best essay on the sources of ‘blackness’. What is the physical cause of blackness and African hair, and what is the cause of Black degeneration, the contest announcement asked. Sixteen essays, written in French and Latin, were ultimately dispatched from all over Europe. The authors ranged from naturalists to physicians, theologians to amateur savants. Documented on each page are European ideas about who is Black and why.

Looming behind these essays is the fact that some four million Africans had been kidnapped and shipped across the Atlantic by the time the contest was announced. The essays themselves represent a broad range of opinions. Some affirm that Africans had fallen from God’s grace; others that blackness had resulted from a brutal climate; still others emphasized the anatomical specificity of Africans. All the submissions nonetheless circulate around a common theme: the search for a scientific understanding of the new concept of race. More important, they provide an indispensable record of the Enlightenment-era thinking that normalized the sale and enslavement of Black human beings.

These never previously published documents survived the centuries tucked away in Bordeaux’s municipal library. Translated into English and accompanied by a detailed introduction and headnotes written by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Andrew Curran, each essay included in this volume lays bare the origins of anti-Black racism and colorism in the West.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the author of numerous books and has written extensively on the history of race and anti-Black racism in the Enlightenment. His most recent works include Stony the Road and The Black Church. He is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

Andrew S. Curran is a leading specialist of the Enlightenment era and the author of The Anatomy of Blackness and Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely. He is the William Armstrong Professor of the Humanities at Wesleyan University.


Preface: Who’s Black and Why?
Note on the Translations

I. The 1741 Contest on the ‘Degeneration’ of Black Skin and Hair
1  Blackness through the Power of God
2  Blackness through the Soul of the Father
3  Blackness through the Maternal Imagination
4  Blackness as a Moral Defect
5  Blackness as a Result of the Torrid Zone
6  Blackness as a Result of Divine Providence
7  Blackness as a Result of Heat and Humidity
8  Blackness as a Reversible Accident
9  Blackness as a Result of Hot Air and Darkened Blood
10  Blackness as a Result of a Darkened Humor
11  Blackness as a Result of Blood Flow
12  Blackness as an Extension of Optical Theory
13  Blackness as a Result of an Original Sickness
14  Blackness Degenerated
15  Blackness Classified
16  Blackness Dissected

II. The 1772 Contest on ‘Preserving’ Negroes
1  A Slave Ship Surgeon on the Crossing
2  A Parisian Humanitarian on the Slave Trade
3  Louis Alphonse, Bordeaux Apothecary, on the Crossing

Select Chronology of the Representation of Africans and Race

New Book | Born in Blackness

Posted in books by Editor on February 26, 2022

From Norton:

Howard French, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War (New York: Liveright: 2021), 512 pages, ISBN: ‎978-1631495823, $35.

Traditional accounts of the making of the modern world afford a place of primacy to European history. Some credit the fifteenth-century Age of Discovery and the maritime connection it established between West and East; others the accidental unearthing of the ‘New World’. Still others point to the development of the scientific method, or the spread of Judeo-Christian beliefs; and so on, ad infinitum. The history of Africa, by contrast, has long been relegated to the remote outskirts of our global story. What if, instead, we put Africa and Africans at the very center of our thinking about the origins of modernity?

In a sweeping narrative spanning more than six centuries, Howard W. French does just that, for Born in Blackness vitally reframes the story of medieval and emerging Africa, demonstrating how the economic ascendancy of Europe, the anchoring of democracy in the West, and the fulfillment of so-called Enlightenment ideals all grew out of Europe’s dehumanizing engagement with the ‘dark’ continent. In fact, French reveals, the first impetus for the Age of Discovery was not―as we are so often told, even today―Europe’s yearning for ties with Asia, but rather its centuries-old desire to forge a trade in gold with legendarily rich Black societies sequestered away in the heart of West Africa.

Creating a historical narrative that begins with the commencement of commercial relations between Portugal and Africa in the fifteenth century and ends with the onset of World War II, Born in Blackness interweaves precise historical detail with poignant, personal reportage. In so doing, it dramatically retrieves the lives of major African historical figures, from the unimaginably rich medieval emperors who traded with the Near East and beyond, to the Kongo sovereigns who heroically battled seventeenth-century European powers, to the ex-slaves who liberated Haitians from bondage and profoundly altered the course of American history.

While French cogently demonstrates the centrality of Africa to the rise of the modern world, Born in Blackness becomes, at the same time, a far more significant narrative, one that reveals a long-concealed history of trivialization and, more often, elision in depictions of African history throughout the last five hundred years. As French shows, the achievements of sovereign African nations and their now-far-flung peoples have time and again been etiolated and deliberately erased from modern history. As the West ascended, their stories―siloed and piecemeal―were swept into secluded corners, thus setting the stage for the hagiographic ‘rise of the West’ theories that have endured to this day.

“Capacious and compelling” (Laurent Dubois), Born in Blackness is epic history on the grand scale. In the lofty tradition of bold, revisionist narratives, it reframes the story of gold and tobacco, sugar and cotton―and of the greatest ‘commodity’ of them all, the twelve million people who were brought in chains from Africa to the ‘New World’, whose reclaimed lives shed a harsh light on our present world.

Howard W. French is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Prior to joining the Columbia faculty, in 2008, he was a reporter and senior writer for The New York Times, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for more than two decades. During this time, French served as the paper’s bureau chief in Shanghai, Tokyo, Abidjan and Miami (covering Central America and the Caribbean).


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