Towards a New Genealogy of Eugenics: Slavery and the Study of Race Crossing
The Elias E. Manuelidis Memorial Lecture in the History of Medicine and Science
Scientific endeavors to study mixed race people with Black and white ancestry in the early twentieth century did not emerge in a vacuum, nor did ideas about race that would later undergird eugenic race crossing studies on that very group of people. Slavery gave rise to myths and taxonomies that would come to dominate lay and scientific perceptions of mixed-race people’s bodies for years to come. Moreover, slavery facilitated the often violent contexts in which racial intermixture took place across generations in the Americas. In this talk, I discuss how the anti-Black racism that circulated before and after slavery’s demise became constitutive of a kind of biological determinism that rested on faulty, but enduring ideas— namely that race is an element of biology; that degrees of Black ancestry in a mixed race person can be made legible; mapped on to their bodies through examination and quantification. These ideas steered the trajectory of eugenic research into race crossing, generating debate and elevating the careers of a number of biologists, physicians, statisticians, anthropologists, and others who aligned themselves with eugenics. As they collected family pedigrees, measured skin color, hair texture, rates of disease, physical form and function, these eugenicists relied on racial logic from the slavery era that held Blackness to be a constellation of discrete bodily features and dispositions. Thus, this talk will highlight slavery’s little studied role in the development of eugenicists’ opinions about the fitness of mixed-race people with Black and white ancestry in the Americas.
University of Illinois Urbana-ChampaignRana Hogarth, PhDAssociate Professor of History