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Like all ideas, race has a history. There was a time before it. In turn conceptions of it have shifted over time, and it has been charged with different meanings in different settings. In the past decade or so, some of the most vital and original studies in the history of race have been produced by scholars of medieval and Renaissance Europe. Scholars like Geraldine Heng, M. Lindsay Kaplan, Cord Whitaker, and Noémie Ndiaye have worked to uncover old patterns of bias and hatred against peoples whose difference was perceived to be collective, innate, and in some sense permanent. These scholars have put pressure upon the conventional account that holds that the earliest origins of race are to be found in 18th-century European culture.
But even those scholars who have aimed to extend the history of race further back in time have never denied that some momentous shift took place in the period of the Enlightenment. It is this shift that most interests Gates and Curran, and they are correct in their claim to have located a novel point of access into what they refer to in their title as “the 18th-century invention of race.”
In 18th-century European culture, race was articulated in the first instance as a principle of classification. It was developed in the course of efforts to bring the variety of human life within a simple and stable scheme. In order to appreciate why such a scheme was understood to be so important, one needs only to scan the geographical literature of the Renaissance and early-modern period. The descriptions of the world from this time — like the atlases, histories, and travel narratives from which they were drawn — are a mess, if the reader will permit a technical term. They are immense, multivolume monuments to two distinct perceptions. On the one hand, such works record an almost infinite number of discrete human communities. On the other hand, they assume that all the peoples of the world are descended from the single act of creation described in Genesis. (God “hath made of one blood all nations of men,” Paul explains in Acts.) Often the first perception is taken as evidence of the second: The variety of the creation is seen to attest to the limitless power and fecundity of the creator.
The promise of race, in this context, was order, that favored value of Enlightened minds. To believe that the peoples of the world could be divided upon the basis of race was to hold that there were not many hundreds of human kinds and that perhaps it was not so important to insist that they were all one. Rather there were a few of them; you could count them on your hand.
The first attempt to develop a scheme of racial classification was the work of the French traveler and physician François Bernier. In an essay that was printed in the prestigious Journal des Sçavans, in 1684, Bernier proposed what he called a “new division of the Earth” into what he termed the different “species or races of men.” He counted four. Bernier had seen more of the world than almost all of his contemporaries, but he said that one did not need to know too much about its various peoples in order to place them within one or another of the races. It was not language, religion, or culture that determined race: It was physical appearance. Above all, for Bernier, to divide the peoples of the world on the basis of race was to do so on the basis of their skin color.
In the decades after Bernier wrote, the proposal that he had put forward never achieved popular status. The old method for the description of the peoples of the world — the endless rehearsal of the features particular to discrete communities — remained by far the most common one. The famous schemes of racial classification, such as those of Linnaeus and Blumenbach, were not developed until the second half of the 18th century. Nevertheless, in the meantime, the impulse that was behind the work of Bernier did come increasingly to the fore in European culture. This was the case in particular with respect to the peoples who came from sub-Saharan Africa. Observers in Europe laid more and more stress upon what these peoples all had in common as opposed to what made each one distinct. They started to fasten upon the supposed black color of their skin as the outward mark, and perhaps even the essential source, of their shared identity.
If one part of the background to the Bordeaux essay contest is the history of race, then another is the history of slavery.
That has now changed. In Who’s Black and Why?, Gates and Curran have brought out a learned and important edition of the complete record from the 1739 Bordeaux essay contest. In so doing, the editors have not only made a new set of documents available to modern readers; they have also affirmed the importance of the 18th century in the development of the idea of race.
Curran and Gates have done admirable work to surround the essays at the center of their book with the apparatus that all but the most specialist readers will need in order to understand them. There is an elegant preface, a thorough contextual introduction, a headnote before the start of each essay, a somewhat scattered “Chronology of the Representation of Africans and Race,” and a number of detailed endnotes, which explain some of the references in the essays and provide suggestions for further reading.
All that said, as soon as one starts to read the essays collected in this book, one cannot avoid the impression that one has entered an alien intellectual world. It seems more medieval than modern. As a matter of fact, discourse in Europe about the cause of Black skin — and about the causes of human complexion in general — had advanced rather little since the earliest medieval speculations upon the matter.
The Bordeaux contestants all dismiss the old legend that the Blackness of African peoples could somehow be traced to the curse that Noah had placed upon the son of his son Ham in the Bible. Even so, it is essential to all of them that their answers to the question posed by the Academy fit within the frame of Biblical history as they understand it. They all accept the popular belief that the first humans whom God created were white like themselves; they then set out to explain how so many humans came to be Black. This was actually the more precise version of the question that the Academy had posed. “What is the cause of the degeneration of Black hair and Black skin?” the Academy had asked. By “degeneration,” what they meant was the purported change in color over time from white to black. (They fully intended the implication that this had been a change from better to worse.)
The essays that the Bordeaux contestants put forward in response to this question drew in turn upon another opinion that had its roots in the ancient world. This was the opinion of the classical Greek and Roman geographers that differences in complexion among the peoples of the world were due to differences in the climates where they happened to live. In the belt of land that ran along the Equator, which Aristotle had termed the Torrid Zone, the people had, as it were, been burned black by the extreme heat of the sun.
Most of the Bordeaux contestants accepted some version of this account, even if none of them was prepared to describe it in very exact terms. One puzzle that confronted them was that the Black people from the Torrid Zone were not known to turn white when they traveled to the temperate or cold regions of the Earth. The puzzle was easily solved by the assertion that in fact this was what did take place. Just as white skin had turned Black, in the time since the creation, so Black skin could turn white. In order to be consistent, the theory of degeneration needed to work in both directions.
No account of the Bordeaux essays can be complete without the sense of confusion that is their constant theme. Several of the authors devote most of their allotted space to the critique of popular beliefs about the cause of Black skin. Others reflect that perhaps Blackness is one of the secrets of nature or God that no human inquiry will unravel. One of the authors reports that when he started his research he found himself in “a land of conjectures” — and that when his work had concluded he had been able to produce no more than conjectures of his own. Every proposal is qualified. Sometimes authors pile them on top of one another as if, in sum, they might amount to something.
The confusion of the Bordeaux essays is one feature that Gates and Curran do not quite capture in their presentation of them. The editors prefer to draw from each essay a single clear answer to the question that the Academy had posed. For the most part, the essays were untitled, so the editors have supplied them all with new titles. Thus a meditation upon Newtonian optics, the principles of alchemy, and the theory that the body was a complex of inner elements or humors becomes “Blackness as an Extension of Optical Theory.” A discourse upon anatomical experiments that were taken to prove that Black people had a soft, oily, extra layer of skin becomes “Blackness as a Reversible Accident.” As the nonsense accumulates, it appears to wear down the editors. By the time they arrive at the final three essays, Gates and Curran have all but abandoned the effort to extract coherence. The titles that they provide are hardly titles at all: “Blackness Degenerated,” “Blackness Classified,” “Blackness Dissected.”
Gates and Curran are correct to insist upon this point. They note that by 1741, the year in which the essays were received at the Academy, the Compagnie Perpétuelle had overseen the transportation of 37,000 enslaved Africans to the West Indian colonies. In that same year, ships from Bordeaux alone carried close to 2,000 Africans across the Middle Passage. Several members of the Academy had ties to the slave trade or to the colonial plantations that depended so much upon it. Bordeaux was a port town. By the middle of the 18th century, it had claimed for itself a position within the vast transoceanic system of African slavery in the Atlantic world.
Over time, a small number of persons from Africa had come to live in Bordeaux. They had arrived either directly from the continent or from the West Indies. Fanciful images of their faces are still engraved onto the façades of administrative offices and townhouses near the port. Some of the local residents who saw them must have wondered when they would turn white.
An old principle in France held that any enslaved person who arrived within the borders of the realm would at that moment become free. But this was not what had happened to these Africans. In 1738, Louis XV issued an order that enslaved persons who were brought to France could be held in bondage for a period of up to three years. The order then went before each provincial assembly for approval. Paris voted against it; Bordeaux voted in favor. Gates and Curran suggest that this was the most immediate context for the essay contest that was announced in the next year. Slavery had become legal in Bordeaux.
To be sure, the Academy never mentioned this fact in their advertisement for the contest. The system of Atlantic slavery was likewise seldom mentioned in the essays that the Academy received in response — even though, when it did come up here, it was treated as a matter of common knowledge. The persons whose skin was an object of such interest for the contestants were envisioned for the most part as ones who lived in Africa. No contestant ever said that the darkness of a person’s skin could be put forward as the reason for their enslavement. At the same time, none seems to have believed that they needed to decide upon the cause of Blackness in order to continue to enslave Black persons.
From start to finish, the Bordeaux contest was presented as a scientific and intellectual occasion. Half of the essays were submitted in Latin. But one reason for which a contest on the cause of Blackness was held in Bordeaux from 1739 to 1741 was slavery. Attention had fixed upon the bodies of the persons from whose coerced labor the town and indeed the nation stood to benefit. It is possible that a more directly legal or moral inquiry would not have been welcome in this context. Observers might have been forced to consider what happened to those bodies once they were enslaved.
Blackness was another issue, the Academy seemed to believe. They asked their contestants to train their minds on that. The contestants were well prepared to do so. They read and wrote and read and wrote. They tinkered with their submissions. And at the port of Bordeaux, ships pulled up anchor and sailed out to sea, headed for the Torrid Zone, with room to spare below their decks.