Authors: Carl Zimmer
Ham's curse grew wildly popular in the British colonies as a moral justification for these laws. Ministers proclaimed Noah's divine prophecy in sermons, and pamphlets circulated in the American South explaining how God turned the skin of Ham's children dark as a sign of their sin. Africans inherited their enslavement
as surely as they inherited their color. Over the course of the 1700s, Ham's curse became downright biological. Slavery's defenders now began drawing up catalogs of essential differences between the white and Negro races.
The Blacks born here, to the third and fourth generation, are not at all different in colour from those Negroes who are brought directly from Africa,” a Jamaican plantation owner named Edward Long observed in 1774. Instead of hair, Long claimed, his slaves had “a covering of wool, like the bestial fleece.” When Long turned to the minds of slaves, the differences from Europeans seemed even more profound. “They have no plan or system of morality among them,” Long declared. “They are represented by all authors as the vilest of the human kind.”
By the late 1700s, slaveholders could apply a scientific veneer to these beliefs. Naturalists argued that, just as animal and plant species could be divided into varieties, so, too, could
Carl Linnaeus defined four races:
(“reddish, cholericÂ .Â .Â . paints himself with fine red
lines; regulated by customs”),
(“sallow, melancholyÂ .Â .Â . haughty, avariciousÂ .Â .Â . ruled by opinions”),
(“blackÂ .Â .Â . women without shameÂ .Â .Â . indolentÂ .Â .Â . governed by caprice”), and
(“whiteÂ .Â .Â . inventiveÂ .Â .Â . governed by laws”).
A few decades after Linnaeus, the German anthropologist
Johann Friedrich Blumenbach proposed a new system of five races instead of four. His races were Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. Blumenbach came up with the label Caucasian after studying a skull in his collection from a woman who lived in the Caucasus Mountains. It was, he later said, the most beautiful skull he ever laid eyes on. She belonged to the same race as people who lived across Europe, Blumenbach believed. He thought the reason that Caucasians had such beautiful skulls was that they were the first people created by God. They retained humanity's original glory, while other people degenerated, producing the other four races.
Blumenbach's system became popular over the nineteenth century, but many of the nuances of his ideas were lost along the way. Blumenbach argued that there was no sharp geographical divide between the races, for example, with each race blending insensibly into neighboring ones. Later anthropologists tried instead to pinpoint fixed anatomical differences. Some even went so far as to reject the idea that humans had a single origin. They argued that every human race had been separately created and forever locked into its place in the divine hierarchy. There was never any question as to how that order was stacked. At the top, one 1852 American textbook explained, was “the white race, who is distinguished above them all: the most perfect type of humanity.”
This racial hierarchy had to remain intact and legally clear-cut, no matter how confusing reality was. For all the imaginary walls that were erected between the races, sex forever threatened to bring them down. Early on in the American colonies, black and white indentured servants would sometimes marry and have children. By the end of the seventeenth century, colonial governments had laws in place to stop that practice. The Virginia House of Burgesses labeled the children of black and white parents as an “
abominable mixture and spurious issue.” These interracial children were
deemed Negroes as well, and thus slaves. The words that described them had legal weight, even if they were scientifically absurd. Colonial governments were pretending that the flow of heredity from white parent to Negro child could be arbitrarily severed.
Despite all the laws, more interracial children were bornânot just to Negro slaves but to free Negroes as well. Some stayed in Negro communities, where their own children ended up inheriting more African ancestry. Others wound up with so much European ancestry that they sometimes chose to “pass” as white. Like the Spanish governors before them, southern states developed a vocabulary to bring some order to their human property. But if they looked closely at their words, they grew uncertain. Was African blood so potent, so poisonous, lawmakers wondered, that inheriting even a drop would overwhelm a much greater portion of white blood? In 1848, a judge in South Carolina tried to answer the question and failed. “When the mulatto ceases, and a party bearing some slight taint of the African blood, ranks as white, is
a question for the solution of a jury,” he concluded.
Frederick Douglass took pleasure in forcing his fellow Americans to recognize how badly their racial classifications failed to align with reality. “
My father was a white man, or nearly white,” he wrote in his autobiography. “It was sometimes whispered that my master was my father.”
Douglass's mother was a Maryland slave named Harriet Bailey, who worked as a field hand. His biographers consider it likely that her owner, Aaron Anthony, raped her along with a number of his other female slaves, and then used these children of his for slave labor. Although Douglass may have inherited Anthony's DNA, he did not inherit the legal status that came with it. Instead, Douglass grew up as a slave, driving cows to grazing fields and keeping them out of his father's garden. Anthony loaned Douglass out at age eight to his son-in-law's brother in Baltimore. There Douglass did an assortment of jobs until 1838, when he used false papers to slip aboard a northbound train.
Over the next few years, Douglass started a newspaper and began lecturing across the country in favor of abolition. In 1848, when he traveled aboard a steamboat across Lake Erie to a convention in Buffalo, his fellow
passengers recognized him and pleaded for him to give an impromptu speech. Douglass stood up and delivered his case against slavery. “During my remarks, I convicted the slaveholder of theft and robbery,” he reported back to his newspaper.
An actual slaveholder, it turned out, was aboard the ship that evening. The man stood up, “with a most contemptuous sneer on his face,” Douglass recalled, declaring, “âIt was not to be supposed that any white man would condescend to discuss this question with a
Douglass decided to reply with “a somewhat facetious account of my genealogy.” He told the slaveholder “that he was much mistaken in supposing me to be a
Instead, Douglass declared, “I was but a half negroâthat my
was as white as himself, and if he could not condescend to reply to negro blood, to reply to the European blood.”
The slaveholder could not. He stamped away, astonished, Douglass recalled, that “such sentiments and impudence as he had heard from my lips, could be tolerated and applauded by white men in any part of this Union.”
Two decades later, America's slaves would be emancipated. The former Confederate states kept searching for a way to oppress them, and to do so they needed a reliable way to identify different races. Even a drop of black blood became enough to exclude a person from whiteness. In 1924, the state of Virginia enshrined this practice as law by passing the
Racial Integrity Act, which barred interracial marriages. The law defined whites much like the Spanish had three hundred years earlier: white people were those “whose blood is entirely white, having no known, demonstrable or ascertainable admixture of the blood of another race.”
There was just one problem with this “one-drop rule.” The Virginia law defined whiteness as the absence not only of black blood but of Indian blood, too. Ever since the days of John Randolph, many prominent white Virginians had boasted of being direct descendants of Pocahontas. The Racial Integrity Act would have rendered them no longer white. That
would simply not do, and so the state legislature tacked on a so-called Pocahontas exception. Even if Virginians were up to one-sixteenth Native American, the revised law held, they would still be considered white. People who were one-sixteenth black, on the other hand, were still black.
It might be comforting to dismiss the Racial Integrity Act as a monstrosity from a vanished racist past. But when the law was passed in 1924, genetics had already been around for almost a quarter of a century. And some of its most prominent figures gave their support to the law. Many eugenicists not only wanted to stop inferior white people from having children; they also wanted to keep the white race genetically pure.
Racism had been a fundamental feature of eugenics ever since Francis Galton coined the word. When Galton studied the heredity of talent, he compared it in different races. Without any reliable way to actually make such a measurement, he simply used his intuitions. Thinking back on his travels through southern Africa, he concluded that he and his fellow white explorers were far more talented than the Africans they encountered. “
The mistakes the negroes made in their own matters, were so childish, stupid, and simpleton-like, as frequently to make me ashamed of my own species,” Galton wrote.
Africans inherited that childishness, Galton believed, in the same way that they inherited their curly hair or dark skin. The great talents of northern Europeans were just as hereditary, he believed. When Galton promoted eugenics, he promised that careful breeding would make northern Europeans even more talented, and the benefits would redound to all the inferior races, too. Throughout their global empires, Galton believed, northern Europeans ought to use eugenics to improve those lower races as much as their heredity would allow.
Galton wrote about race with the cool abstraction of an English gentleman who spent most of his time in London clubs and meetings of scientific societies. For some white American scientists,
the question of race was far more urgent and intimate. In the Jim Crow years after the Civil War, millions of blacks boarded trains headed out of the South, to cities like New York and Chicago. Those cities were also taking in immigrants from abroad
at the same timeâno longer just northern Europeans but huge numbers of Italians, Poles, Russians, and Jews, along with Chinese and Latin Americans. Some white scientists responded to this sudden mixture by trying to put old-fashioned racism on a new scientific footing.
A scientist named Harvey Jordan experienced a fairly typical anxiety for his time. Jordan grew up in the late 1800s in rural Pennsylvania, where, he later wrote, he “was impressed with the importance of heredity, while playing about the barns.” Rather than become a farmer, though, Jordan went to college and became an expert on anatomy, studying at Cornell, Columbia, and Princeton. He spent the summer of 1907 in Cold Spring, New York, where he met Charles Davenport. Davenport taught him the new science of genetics, and, from Cold Spring, Jordan headed straight to the University of Virginia to become an anatomy professor and help modernize its medical school. In all that work, heredity was first and foremost on his mind.
Jordan was appalled to discover in Virginia “the distressing racial conditions in our colored population in the South.” But he didn't see these conditions as being caused by social forces. Instead, biology was to blame. Its solution must therefore be eugenicsâa state-run program of control over who got to have children. Jordan thought it would be especially useful to encourage mulattoes to have children with full-blooded blacks, in order to spread white genes among their children. They would act like yeast in bread dough, he thought, “
as a leaven in lifting the colored race to a higher level of innate mental and moral capacity.”
Before such a program could be put in place, Jordan believed it would be necessary to uncover the genetic foundation of the races. He would need the guidance of his eugenic gurus to carry out the task. “
I have been wondering if I could be of service in this great work,” Jordan wrote to Davenport in 1910, “perhaps in gathering statistics at close range.”
Just as Davenport had assigned Henry Goddard to study the heredity of feeblemindedness, he tutored Jordan on how to investigate the heredity of race. They agreed that Jordan would start by studying the most obvious feature that appeared to set the races apart: skin color.
Jordan found four families of mulattoes. To measure their skin color, he
brought with him a colored top. The top, a child's toy made by the
Milton Bradley Company, had become popular among anthropologists as a way to measure skin color. It had wedges of yellow, black, red, and white. If the top was set spinning fast enough, the colors blurred together into a single hue. By adjusting the size of the wedges, the scientists could change the blurred color. Jordan would have his mulatto subjects hold out their arm and spin his top next to it. He would keep adjusting the colors on the top until he reached a matching shade. Then he would write down the size of the different wedges that produced the match.
Jordan sent his color numbers to Davenport, along with pedigrees of his mulatto families. Their data suggested that the color of children was not simply a blend of their parents' skin. In a single mulatto family, the children might range from light to dark. The way in which they inherited their color, Davenport realized, hinted that the trait followed Mendel's Law, passed down through the generations by hidden factors.
Davenport wanted to publish the data, but he was worried that the results might not hold up. If it turned out that the children were illegitimate, Jordan's pedigrees would be rendered useless. When Davenport told Jordan about his concerns, Jordan assured him he had nothing to worry about. “
There isn't the least doubt, I think, about the legitimacy of the children,” Jordan wrote. “One man is a minister, one principal of the colored school, one a thriving merchant and one a barber, and all seem considerably above the grade of morality and intelligence of the ordinary stupid and irresponsible negro.”