The race competition

An old photograph of the former home of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Belles Lettres, and Arts at Bordeaux. It was located on the fashionable Avenue du Tourny.

On January 15, 2019, I received an unexpected phone call from Henry Louis Gates Jr. I had never met the famous Harvard professor, but he asked me if I’d be interested in doing a book with him on a curious essay competition organized by Bordeaux’s Royal Academy of Sciences in 1739. The winning of these ‘prize puzzles’, as they were called in eighteenth-century English, had often transformed people’s careers. The most famous example of this is, of course, that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who submitted his famous essays on ‘the sciences and the arts’ and the ‘origins of inequality’ to two such contests.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discours qui a remporté le prix à l’Académie de Dijon. En l’année 1750. Sur cette question proposée par la même académie: si le rétablissement des sciences et des arts a contribué à épurer les mœurs. Par un citoyen de Genève (Genève, 1750/1751).

Bordeaux’s 1741 competition was quite pointed: it focused on the source or causes of black skin and hair. This was actually one of the biggest ‘anthropological’ questions of the day, linked as it was to the larger question of how all of humankind’s varieties – they were not yet called races – came into being, and how they related to each other, or not.

Explanations related to Black skin had been circulating for twenty-five centuries before the Bordeaux contest. But the 1741 competition was the first time that a scientific institution invited Europe’s best thinkers to envision an entire sub-species of humans in terms of separate genealogies and separate categories. It is hard, now, not to marvel at the audacity of this French provincial Academy.

The first page of essay number 2, as submitted by its author.

Long story short, Skip Gates (as he is known in more informal settings) and I spent months figuring out just how to contextualize the contest. In addition to a substantial introduction, we decided that we would add a history of race timeline. He came up with a great title for the book: Who’s Black and Why? A hidden chapter from the eighteenth-century invention of race (Belknap/Harvard, 2022).

The resulting book dives deeply into this strange contest: its strange result (which I will not reveal here), the academy members themselves, as well as the history of the Port city of Bordeaux, whose slave-trading vessels ultimately carried 150,000 enslaved Africans to the New World. Slavery is, of course, the unstated link between the contest and the fascination with African skin.

To a certain extent one might say this book is slice of history, a microhistory of how race came about. Yet Who’s Black and Why? is also a macrohistory because the essays from the contest – they came from as far as Germany, Sweden, and Ireland – might also be seen as a European focus group, or a core sample of what Europeans thought about what was considered humankind’s most ‘extreme variety’, dark-skinned Africans.

Regarding the contest itself, the Academy of Sciences was primarily interested in naturalistic (not religious) explanations for blackness. And they received many ‘physical’ explanations, most of them pseudoscientific absurdities. One contestant maintained that blackness came from the vapours that emanated from the skin; another that the power of a pregnant mother’s imagination had imprinted a dark colour on her child and its descendants; a third claimed that blackness was passed on from person to person through darkened sperm; a fourth that the stifling heat and humidity of the Torrid Zone stained the skin and clouded the humours. Present in these essays, however, were also the three major tendencies that became the foundation for the new idea of race that was taking shape during the Enlightenment.

Herman Moll, geographer; Thomas and John Bowles, publishers: Negroland and Guinea with the European Settlements …  Atlas minor (London, 1729). The French slave port of Gorée appears in the upper left section of the map. By the time the Bordeaux slave trade had begun to rise, the entire west coast of Africa had been colonized by European powers.

The first was that of genealogy. Nearly a decade before Buffon published his own theory of degeneration in the third volume of his Histoire naturelle (1749), one of the thinkers posited that an original prototype human race moved around the globe and morphed into humankind’s many varieties as a result of climate and different types of food.

The second tendency is the rise of anatomical theories related to the source of blackness. This was best exemplified by the only contestant who ultimately published his essay after the contest: a surgeon named Pierre Barrère, who had been a surgeon on a plantation in Guiana. Barrère’s so-called findings – he maintained that his studies demonstrated that Africans had black blood and bile – were republished throughout Europe, in Diderot’s Encyclopédie, and even cited by Thomas Jefferson.

Title page of Pierre Barrère, Dissertation sur la cause physique de la couleur des nègres, de la qualité de leurs cheveux, et de la dégénération de l’un et de l’autre, par M.*** docteur en médecine de l’université de Perpignan (Paris, P.-G. Simon, 1741) (public domain, digitised by Google).

And there was a third tendency in the essays as well. In addition to the aforementioned genealogical and anatomical theories, some essays revealed a classificatory impulse, a desire to break humankind down into discrete sub-species or races. Twenty-five years later, thinkers including Blumenbach and Kant would bring human taxonomies to a new level, providing the essential infrastructure for organizing centuries of xenophobia into trenchant categories.

Who’s Black and Why? is designed to be helpful for both researchers and students. To that end we have also created an extensive timeline of the history of race www.whoisblackandwhy.com. We hope that this, and the book itself, will be a gateway into a curious moment in Enlightenment-era history, one where science was actively claiming jurisdiction over the human species.

Andrew S. Curran, William Armstrong Professor of the Humanities, Wesleyan University

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