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Response to Review of The Anatomy of Blackness: Science & Slavery in an Age of Enlightenment

I am deeply grateful for the time and effort that Professor Stephen Kenny of the University of Liverpool has taken to engage with my book. In addition to providing a meticulous reading of The Anatomy of Blackness, Professor Kenny fruitfully situates the book within a number of historiographical debates, including the ‘origins of racism debate’ and the role of anatomy within the colonial laboratory. This is an impressively erudite review.

I was intrigued that Kenny begins his account of my book with an allusion to my earlier work on human monstrosity; no one has done this in previous reviews and I would like to open my response to him by addressing what is a very important (but perhaps not immediately obvious) link within my work.

Kenny correctly assumes that I am fascinated by the early modern study of the body in general, in both its deviant and racialised forms. Some scholars, however, have assumed (unlike Kenny) that my study of the Black African is actually part of a wider examination of the monstrous body and the category of monstrosity. The implication is that there is a rubric known as the African monster – a category of extreme moral and corporeal alterity – that was part and parcel of a massive politics of othering that begins with Herodotus and the monstrous races of Antiquity and finishes with 19th-century pseudo-science, e.g., phrenology and race classification.

This is not at all what I have argued in The Anatomy of Blackness. On the contrary, I have attempted to demonstrate that the scientific practices of the early-modern era were not (initially) marshaled to de-humanize Africans, but in order to reconcile Blacks' perceived differences with the presupposed essential and genealogical sameness of humankind, which was a scriptural construct. Likewise, I have maintained that some of the most dehumanizing thought-structures regarding the African paradoxically emerged from a belief in a shared origin, not from an a priori conviction that Africans and Europeans were different races or species. This aspect of my work has proved challenging for some scholars, particularly those who have assumed that rise of race science can be charted in a linear fashion, as it often is in anthologies such as Emmanuel Eze's Race and the Enlightenment.

There are, however, a number of fascinating linkages between monstrosity and the 18th-century study of human ‘varieties’. These points of contact, however, are actually quite different from what is generally assumed, and have less to do with a thematic link than they do with shifts within scientific practices. Regarding monstrosity, by the 1740s, the birth of a monstrous fetus or baby was increasingly ‘de-sacralized’ by the era’s naturalists (an earlier generation had debated the divine meaning of such events). Maupertuis and Buffon in particular believed that monsters were simply the result of the failure of some mechanical process (be it a faulty egg, sperm, or maternal imagination). Curiously enough, this made monsters much less foreign, less other, less monstrous in a sense. Monstrosity as an absolute category, as a lapse or exception to nature, ceased to exist for naturalists. The era of purely physical explanations had begun.

The study of monstrosity and the study of the human underwent the same basic shifts in epistemology. As metaphysical explanations for humankind's genesis (based on scripture) also lost their lustre, natural historians increasingly looked to material accounts. Like explanations for human monstrosity, new theories of human origins were based (although without being stated as such) on the idea of the accident. This began with Maupertuis, whose speculative understanding of monstrosity (among other things) allowed him to put forward an entirely material explanation according to which an original white race produced chance human phenotypes (Blacks, for example) that eventually became numerous enough to constitute a particular group or variety. Although Buffon retold this story using climate theory, the basic paradigm he used was the same: he attributed different types of humans to a chance alignment of causal forces that had acted upon and changed the white prototype over time. Africans, according to these new materialist explanations of humankind, were certainly not monstrous. And yet, like monsters, Black Africans were somehow both close to and different from the original model. This is an interesting tension: like human anomalies, Blacks were seen as a contiguous and yet inferior branch of the human species that was always in dialogue with the ur-category.

What does this mean for the potential link between monstrosity and non-Europeans? In my opinion, there are four main points: 1) the sameness-difference dialectic that underpins early race science clearly echoes the sameness-difference tension that one finds in the era's new explanation of human monstrosity; 2) the same thinkers who ushered in the naturalisation of monstrosity had an active role in explaining human phenotypes, and this is no accident; 3) non-Europeans were not seen as monsters, yet the basic understanding of the accident that came to define monstrosity c. 1740 was used to explain non-Whites as well; 4) a rhetoric of monstrosity, extreme alterity, and dehumanisation for Blacks began to be employed more often after 1770 when antislavery thinkers began putting pressure on the proslavery lobby.

Not unexpectedly, I was gratified to see that Kenny's painstaking review of my book did not unearth any glaring errors of content or method. And yet, Kenny does make two astute remarks that might be best characterized as hidden desiderata. The first comes when Kenny points out something that I had not thought about: the fact that the production of seductive categories of humankind – the making of race – enhanced the careers of certain European men. This intriguing observation dovetails with a second remark regarding the circulation of books and borrowing records among natural historians in the colonies and/or proponents of race. Both observations speak to a desire to move beyond strictly textual history and to understand the construction of race on a micro-historical, network, or institutional level. These are indeed very useful avenues of research and I will take them to heart as I inch toward my next project. I might add that, while it is too late for The Anatomy of Blackness, I have recently been studying the interplay between travel writing and natural history by looking at the libraries of various Enlightenment intellectuals. In short, I agree with Kenny that fleshing out the study of race on the level of networks and institutions can provide us with new insights into this fraught question.

I once again thank Stephen Kenny for his wonderful colleagueship and thoughtful reply.