Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Andrew S. CurranMar 14, 2023
Who's Black and Why?
A Hidden Chapter from the Eighteenth-Century Invention of Race
Harvard University Press 2022
Who's Black and Why?: A Hidden Chapter from the Eighteenth-Century Invention of Race (Harvard University Press, 2022) is the first translation and publication of sixteen submissions to the notorious eighteenth-century Bordeaux essay contest on the cause of black skin. In 1739 Bordeaux's Royal Academy of Sciences announced a contest for the best essay on the sources of "blackness." 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 importantly, they provide an indispensable record of the Enlightenment-era thinking that normalized the sale and enslavement of Black human beings. 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.
Andrew S. Curran is the William Armstrong Professor of the Humanities at Wesleyan University.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
Caleb Zakarin is the Assistant Editor of the New Books Network