A Grammar of Black Masculinity: A Body of Science

Arthur F Saint-Aubin. Journal of Men’s Studies. Volume 10, Issue 3. Spring 2002.

Science, as it developed in Europe and the U.S. during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, set out to capture, to describe, and to catalogue what was considered the “natural” black male body. Scientists succeeded not merely in describing such a body but, in effect, in producing this body and therein in creating a particular social (and psychic) reality for black men (and women). This scientific grammar of black masculinity allowed the dominant culture to discriminate dark male bodies (i.e., to set them apart from white male bodies) and to control them for materialist and psychological reasons.

In this essay, I shall explore how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western science has produced, through a series of authoritative discourses, what I am calling a grammar of black masculinity. For just as what has been labeled a masculinist conception of science and of scientific investigation has shaped our conception of nature, including what constitutes a “natural” body, so too, more specifically, has a white-supremacist conception of science shaped how this culture has come to think about and to theorize the nature of bodies. Therefore, after outlining briefly how a particular idea of race came about as the result of eighteenth-century and especially nineteenth-century “scientific” observations of and projections onto black male bodies, I want to suggest how a particular black male body has been presented and ordained as “natural,” even though it is in fact a body that has been culturally produced. That is, I want to suggest how Western scientific discourse and especially medical discourse—which, again, I identify as manifestly masculinist discourses generated by and imbued with a white-supremacist ideology—has constructed, in terms of black men, a grammar that explains and therein consequently produces what a black male body looks like and how black masculinity behaves and expresses itself.

In other words, the development of science during the 1700s and 1800s, I contend, has provided a vocabulary with which to think about and to talk about racial difference and, in terms of black men, has imposed a singular modality through which black masculinity ostensibly can be experienced, expressed, and understood. That is, in terms of black male corporeality and the expressions of black masculinity, the sciences, in particular anatomy, anthropology, ethnology, biology, and medicine, as they evolved from the eighteenth through nineteenth centuries, are not merely descriptive but are inherently prescriptive and proscriptive. These sciences make manifest what Foucauld has postulated as the “enunciative” potential inherent in language, “its ability to make performative statements rather than merely describe what already exists” (quoted in Jay, 1999, p. 172). Finally, I want to suggest how science and medicine have constructed an entire body of knowledge and have given rise to a body politics at the core of which lurks an intense white masculine insecurity and anxiety.

Eighteenth-Century Science: A Vocabulary of Racial Difference and a Modality of Black Masculinity

Eighteenth-century European science set out to codify some commonly held assumptions about dark male bodies; or, it would be more accurate to say that science began to re-codify these assumptions since the efforts made during the 1700s were not new but were the continuation of a tradition. Scientists undertook this recodification, first by providing a precise and authoritative vocabulary with which to talk about racial difference and about the process of racial differentiation, and second, by circumscribing subsequently black corporeality within a particular modality.(1) Although scientific racism and racialism have led to a particularized reading, or what one might label a “misreading,” of all bodies of color, male and female, as well as certain marginalized white male bodies, I want to look specifically at the black male body because of the axial role that this body has played within the history of science and thus within the narrative of white-supremacist patriarchy. Eighteenth-century science set out to illustrate natural law by establishing biological differences between different (i.e., black and white) bodies and by proving that these “natural” differences account for the differences between the races and, significantly, between the civilized and the primitive. Although other so-called non-white races constituted a part of these studies, as I shall demonstrate, the scientists that I am considering invariably collapsed the racial hierarchy into its two extremes of the black and white races.

At the time, “environmentalism” and “biological determinism” were the two scientific theories used to account for the diversity among human populations. Environmentalism postulated that racial characteristics such as skin color, hair texture, skull shape and size, and bone structure overall were malleable and resulted from environmental forces and conditions including geography and climate; these environmental forces, in turn, determined what crops were grown, which livestock were raised, and, therefore, what was consumed. In sum, racial traits (ultimately both physical and moral) had been shaped by the vagrancies of environment. Significantly, according to this theory, these traits were not fixed but were mutable; presumably, a change in environment could alter the “racial” characteristics of a particular group. Biological determinism, on the contrary, postulated race as inborn, as resulting from what would now be called genetics. Except for crossbreeding, according to this second theory, physical racial traits, with their concomitant moral and intellectual implications, were thought to be eternally fixed.

Black men, along with white women, were the particular targets of eighteenth-century European anatomists. One can say even that scientists in general were obsessed with these two groups because of their positions within the “family of man”—black men as the superior gender of an inferior race, and white women as the inferior gender of a superior race. This led to, among other pronouncements, conclusions that

Women and black males had narrow, childlike skulls; both were innately impulsive, emotional, and imitative. European women shared the ape-like jutting jaw of the lower races, while the males of the lower races had prominent bellies similar to those of Caucasian women who had born many children. (Schiebinger, 1993, p. 158)

Moreover, science was obsessed with black men and white women because they threatened white men with expectations and demands for political enfranchisement, although this threat was not necessarily articulated as such or even consciously experienced as a threat at particular historical moments. However, it is evident that the scientific efforts to delineate race and gender were rooted in a desire to establish and maintain certain relations of power, however vaguely or obliquely this desire may have been articulated. Although I am presently highlighting only black male bodies and black masculinity, it is evident also that scientific discourses on race and gender intersected, thereby reinforcing and confirming each other, in such a way that women’s bodies and femininity, both white and non-white, are necessarily implicated in any theory about black male bodies and black masculinity that emerged at the time. This intersection, however, was not necessarily always deliberate or apparent since discourses on race and gender were at times written and therefore read, if not conceived, as separate literatures. Today, in the wake of Foucault’s notion of “political anatomy” in particular, many scholars have written in detail about the intersection of the scientific literatures on race and gender.

Those eighteenth-century scientists interested in defining and delineating race (as opposed to those interested in defining gender) resorted to the male body, male physiology, because they considered males of each group as genderless prototypes. Carl von Linnaeus (1707-1778) is usually thought to be the first to have proposed a taxonomic system based upon the color of the skin. However, the ancient Egyptians also had developed a system of distinguishing peoples by skin color. Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae, published in 1735, nevertheless, is considered the first modern and thus truly scientific effort to classify the races.

One of the most accomplished zoologists in Europe in the eighteenth century was the Frenchman George Louis Leclerc de Buffon. Building upon his predecessors’ line of thinking, like Linnaeus’s taxonomy, and reflecting commonly held opinions and perceptions, in his Histoire Naturelle, Buffon (1749) categorized humanity as an inalterable hierarchy “with, not simply a man but a white man, at the summit” (quoted in Honour, 1988, p. 13). Indeed, most of the specimens which were examined by physicians and anatomists were the remains (skulls, bones, soft tissue, and skin) of men. It was with the skulls of men specifically that eighteenth-century scientists sought to confirm the existence of a hierarchy of humanity, a racial hierarchy of beings. Since intellectual capacity and the faculty of reason were postulated as the distinguishing characteristic separating man from the lower animals, skull size became the measure to determine the hierarchy among the races of man as well as the measure to separate man from ape. With this emphasis on cranial size emerged the facial theory of racial superiority. The Dutch anatomist Petrus Camper (1794) in his Treatise on the Natural Difference of Features in Persons of Different Countries and Periods of Life

…sorted apes and humans by his newly linea facilis. Having invented an elaborate instrument, he took numerous measurements of skulls in order to determine the angle of “prognathism” or forward jutting of the jaw. He set as the ideal an angle of one hundred degrees, a facial angle acknowledged not to exist in reality but often used to portray gods and goddesses in Greek statuary. With this ideal in mind, apes were said to have a facial angle of forty-two to fifty degrees, African Negroes and Kalmuks (the Mongolian peoples of northwestern China) a facial angle of seventy degrees, and Europeans a more noble angle of eighty degrees…. With his facial angle Camper developed the central visual icon of all subsequent racism: a hierarchy of skulls passing progressively from lowliest ape and Negro to loftiest Greek. (quoted in Schiebinger, 1993, pp. 149-150)

In the eighteenth century, in addition to skin color and hair, “the facial angle was the most extensively elaborated and artlessly abused criterion for racial somatology” (Haller, 1995, p. 9). Moreover, the notion that there exists a correlation between facial features and personality and moral traits can also be traced back to antiquity. Aristotle too saw facial angle as an indicator of relative intelligence. In particular, he had also advanced the idea that due to different anatomies and thus to different “humors,” different races display distinctive dispositions and temperaments. It was in the sixteenth century, however, that scientists like Giovanni Battista della Porta in his De Humana Physiognomonia (1586) gave currency and legitimacy to this notion in modern Europe. However, it was perhaps the eighteenth-century Swiss Johann Casper Lavater (1829), in the studies that he wrote in the 1770s, who best articulated and popularized the notion of such a correlation. “From the idea of a beautiful soul in a beautiful body, Lavater attempted to create a science which could deduce a person’s virtues and vices from the fixed osseous parts of his or her skull and, to a lesser extent, the whole anatomy” (Honour, 1988, p. 16). Later, of course, physiognomy and phrenology, as accepted sciences, served to legitimate and to reinforce social relations of power within European society as well as those between European and non-European peoples.

Perhaps the first book to result from the dissection of African bodies of both sexes was written by a German anatomist who had received black bodies from a colony of Africans that had been established near Frankfort in the 1780s. This text, whose English title might be translated as The Nature of the Physical Differences between Negroes (Moors) and Europeans, presented an image of and therein established a “truth” about black male bodies that went unaltered and unchallenged until well into the nineteenth century (Schiebinger, 1993, p. 115).

Although, as I have indicated, there were antecedents to eighteenth-century European notions about racial difference, it was during the 1700s that large quantities of data were accumulated as increasingly bodies and body parts were examined, measured, compared, and catalogued in private collections and in museums. When black male bodies were compared to white male bodies, the former, though deemed primitive and inferior, were, nonetheless, still considered to be similar to and thus, in the grand scheme of the universe, linked to white male bodies. In particular, the area around the testicles and nipples of white men were confirmed to be darker and thus closer in appearance to the corresponding areas of black men, thus confirming that whereas superiority was to be linked to skull size and intelligence, inferiority was to be linked to sexuality.

The notion that black men could be linked biologically (and thus psychologically and morally) to white men was the source of enormous anxiety and scientific resistance that made the erecting and the policing of racial borders imperative and a never-ending undertaking. That there were general physical similarities between the races was, of course, undeniable. Moreover, from the point of view of the European scientists, there were some easily observable psychological similarities as well, even though they may have been deemed superficial ones. All of this made for a situation in which the anxiety felt by scientists (and white men in general) observing black men can be linked to the discomfort of most humans, according to James Baldwin, observing monkeys in zoos eating their own excrement. It is an anxiety and fear of loss of self and loss of identity that occur when boundaries are deemed to be unctuous and fluid. It is a combination of arousal and discomfort, of fascination and revulsion, that Baldwin has commented on in some of his essays and fictionalized in at least one of his novels: “The sight of monkeys eating their own excrement turns some people’s stomachs,” writes Baldwin (1956). “They might not mind so much if monkeys did not—so grotesquely—resemble human beings.” Black male corporeality and black masculinity were indeed to European men of science grotesque and grotesquely familiar.

Given that black men were categorized within the sexual as opposed to the intellectual mode, genitalia, paradoxically, were not used by eighteenth-century scientists to separate the races of men in the way that the shape and size of the breast, the clitoris, menstruation, or the position of the pelvis were used when women of different races were compared (Schiebinger, 1993, p. 156). There were, to be sure, and especially later, during the nineteenth century, some efforts to use the male pelvis as well as that of the female to make racial distinctions. The pelvises of all males were thought to be primitive, closer to lower animals—although only the pelvis of the African woman was considered to be close to that of the ape. But if in eighteenth-century scientific texts proper male genitalia and male sexual function generally were not compared, how does one explain the phantasms which have produced the iterative narratives of the mythic size of the black penis and the presumably inordinate black sexual appetite? As I shall explore later, it would fall to nineteenth-century scientists and especially to the American physicians of the nineteenth century to fix ate science on the black penis and on black male sexual modality and function. However, from the times of the earliest contact with dark-skinned peoples, Europeans had been obsessed with the sexuality of dark men (and women); moreover, fear coupled with desire generated cultural narratives, in the form of myths and stereotypes, as mechanisms of defense and as means of compensation (in the psychoanalytic sense) and as a means of social and political control. Once again, the Europeans did not create their myth and fantasy about black sexuality out of whole cloth. As Schiebinger (1993), among others, has pointed out, the myth of the peculiar anatomy of black bodies and the fantasy of the hypersexuality of black men can be found also in Aristotle, who believed that men of all races, but especially African men, were hypersexual. He believed further that since the African male was ape-like, if not true ape, he shared the ape’s wild and wanton sexual appetites, activities, and preferences. The dark-skinned man, according to Aristotle, also shared the ape’s physiology since both were capable of a perpetually erect penis.

Although the European obsession with the black penis has had permutations over the centuries, it seems to have traversed the centuries and to have emerged essentially in tact into the twenty-first century. The long-held theory of the bone in the penis of lower primates and the myths and fantasies about the black male member notwithstanding, very little can be found in the early scientific literature proper about black male genitalia. Some voyagers to Africa, although they were not scientifically trained, did make observations about what they thought were the sexual practices and mores of the natives that they encountered. Sometimes they also made observations regarding the anatomy of black men. Several voyagers, for example, wrote about a practice observed among the Hottentot in southern Africa of cutting off the left testicle of young boys. Although some accounts claimed even that the testicles were violently removed and ceremoniously eaten by mothers after parturition, there had never been direct evidence of such a practice. As Schiebinger (1993) explains, the partial castration could have been performed for a variety of reasons: to fulfill a religious tradition akin to and directly derived from Jewish circumcision; to improve hunting skills of men by allowing them to run faster; to avoid the malediction of twin births; and to promote the conception of male offspring.

Again, in the final analysis, all of the efforts to observe and to classify black male bodies were ultimately and invariably about power and desire; moreover, these efforts reflect both a psychic as well as a social reality. European scientists of the eighteenth century resorted to the male form, and they dissected the male body to construct their theories of race in part because, as I have indicated, “man,” the male gender, was believed to be the natural, universal norm from which women deviated, and white men set the standard. Prior to the eighteenth century, Anglo-Europeans, however, “did not identify themselves collectively as a superior racial group…. Rather, Europeans then identified themselves in a variety of aristocratic, trade, religious, ethnic, military, and protonationalist ways, not as `Europeans,’ and not necessarily or primarily as `white,’ if white at all” (Nelson, 1998, p. 5). As Nelson points out, certain historians and theorists have located the invention of race and of whiteness in particular as a symbolic and unifying identity precisely in the eighteenth century. Also in their accounts of colonial America, analysts have concluded that pre-and post-Revolutionary America was the historical period when race and, again whiteness in particular, came to dominate the dominant group’s sense of identity. In both Europe and North America, as Nelson (1998) confirms, science and the scientific perspective, in tandem with the emergence of a national and civic identity, were used to posit white manhood.

Moreover, European men of science resorted to black male physiology specifically to construct their theories of race also because a scientific rationale for the sub-human black man was primordial in justifying the antipathy toward and the enslavement of both black women and black men. In other words, whatever the psychic and psychological reasons, the efforts of eighteenth-century European scientists and theorists cannot be divorced from issues of material gain and social, political, and economic power. It is in the course of the nineteenth century, however, that it becomes even more self-evident that science, and especially medicine, in addition to responding to the psychic and psychological needs of European men, served to support existing hierarchies and power relations.

Nineteenth-Century American Science: Adjectives and Adverbs Pre-Scientific Discourse

If European science in the eighteenth century set forth a vocabulary and a modality of black masculinity, one might say that American science in the nineteenth century developed and deployed a system of adjectives and adverbs to describe in detail and to flesh out, quite literally, the black male body that the Europeans had (re)invented. By the end of the eighteenth century, thinkers of the American Enlightenment, like Thomas Jefferson, were subscribing to the view that in all probability black men were inferior to white men and that this inferiority had only to be “proven” more conclusively and unequivocally by the rigors of science. For example, around 1784, Jefferson wrote about blacks:

The opinion that they are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination, must be hazarded with great diffidence. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstance, are inferior to whites in body and mind.

In fact, nineteenth-century science did indeed set out once and for all to draw permanent racial lines separating black men from white men. As I have stated, science itself, of course, however, was motivated, developed, and deployed in response to and in the service of the dominant cultural and ideological currents of the period. Although it would be convenient to think that nineteenth-century ideologues, leaders, and policy makers used science to buttress and to justify their theory and their activities in regard to black men, in actuality the relationship between the men of science and political ideologues and policy makers is far from a simple one. At times scientists and intellectuals extracted their theory and their “science” from commonly held and articulated views on racial difference already evident in certain laws and social imperatives. It is these commonly held and articulated views that I am referring to as “pre-scientific” discourse and that find their way subsequently into official science. Clearly, racial animus and prejudice, as manifested in the institution of slavery, for example, date back to the earliest contact between European and non-European peoples; therefore, racial prejudice predates scientific racism, which might be defined here as a fully thought out and carefully articulated worldview based on ostensibly objective observations, scientific experimentation, and historical reconstruction. Prescience as well as what one might term “extra-scientific discourse”—that is, a kind of diluted science for popular consumption—presented themselves as absolute and ahistorical. They are related to Roland Barthes’s notion of “mythology” and Fredric Jameson’s notion of “ideologeme.” As Eric Lott (1993) points out, Barthes uses “myth” to designate narratives that present themselves as pure history (science) unadorned and unencumbered by ideology, and for Jameson an “ideologeme” is “ideology narrated, that is, narrations of ideology presented as history or historical fact but from which history has been abstracted, evaporated, overthrown.”

Before the 1830s, although slavery and other forms of subordination and prejudice clearly indicated that whites in general considered blacks to be inferior, a well thought out, carefully articulated, and scientific rationale for the inherent inferiority of black men did not yet exist. However, with the increasing abolitionist call for an end to slavery, a call that implied that blacks were humans deserving of certain inalienable rights, slaveholders and antiabolitionists were obliged to resort to theorizing that blacks were subhuman in order to defend their positions and to counter the cogency of their opponents’ arguments. By the mid 1830s, the force of the abolitionist argument was such that pro-slavery whites began indeed to turn to science and to argue for the first time for an inherent and permanent black inferiority; and in all of this theorizing, “Negro” was reduced to “black man,” and therefore black masculinity was taken as the norm.

In 1835, for example, George McDuffy, the governor of South Carolina, arguing before that state’s General Assembly, proclaimed that “Negroes were `destined by providence’ for slavery and that this was made evident not only by the color of their skin but also by `the intellectual inferiority and natural improvidence of this race”‘ (Fredrickson, 1987, p. 46). Although Thomas R. Drew, professor at William and Mary College in the 1830s, did not address fully or in a consistent manner whether black masculinity was genetic or environmental, he is one of the racial theorists who provided the basis from which some scientists later could have easily developed their own theories. In addition, attorney William Drayton (1836), another South Carolinian, in order to challenge the abolitionists, published in 1836 a pro-slavery pamphlet in which he wrote that “personal observation must convince every candid man that the Negro is constitutionally indolent, voluptuous, and prone to vice; that his mind is heavy, dull, and unambitious; and that the doom that has made the African in all ages and countries, a slave—is the natural consequence of the inferiority of his character.”

It was John C. Calhoun at about the same time who, in a speech before the United States Senate, argued that, given the inherent physical and intellectual differences between the races, slavery was not only not evil but that it was indeed good and necessary for the human condition and for the progress of civilization (Cralle, 1853, p. 631). Later in the 1860s, Alexander H. Stephens echoed this view in a speech to launch the new Confederacy, for which he served as vice president. The views of McDuffy, Calhoun, Stephens, and others were not new of course and, therefore, did not raise any intellectual or political eyebrows; however, as articulated by Southern and Northern leaders and thinkers, these views gained an authority and a respectability after the 1830s and “became, for the first time, the basis of a world view, an explicit ideology around which the beneficiaries of white supremacy could organize themselves and their thoughts” (Fredrickson, 1987, p. 47).

More significantly, what was viewed as the black “difference” was attributed first to physiology, and the views in regard to black masculinity became the very thesis of science itself. That is to say, physicians, anthropologists, naturalists, and biologists set it upon themselves to prove scientifically the validity of what was thought to be a natural black body and the essence of black masculinity. Whereas, before this time, one could speak of racism or racial prejudice as an emotional and sometimes inarticulate response that led to certain practices of white subordination of blacks, after this date, one can begin to speak of “ideological” racism in the United States. That is, using the rigors of scientific investigation and ostensibly objective interpretation, racism became a conscious effort to articulate, to justify, and to propagate a universal white supremacy based on the notion of an inherent black corporeal, intellectual, and moral inferiority. Henceforth, anti-abolitionists resorted, for example, to physiognomy and phrenology and eighteenth-century biological arguments about cranial size and facial angles to argue for inherent black inferiority.

In the nineteenth century, phrenology indeed became another “objective” and “verifiable” way to make racial classifications and specifically to draw the boundary between black and white. In its origins, phrenology claimed merely to be able to identify states of consciousness from an examination of bumps on the surface of the skull. Later, it evolved into a study of the contents of the skull and claimed to have identified different regions of the brain that represented the loci of different mental capacities. Phrenology attempted also to integrate the pure physiology of race differentiation provided by biology with the conclusions that sociologists were drawing about the comparative mental dispositions and capabilities of black and white men. One prominent phrenologist and one of the spokesman for the science was Paul Broca (1824-1880), whose work had been translated and was widely read in the United States. For Broca, the measurements of the skull, craniometry, gave a scientific validity to anthropology and provided the most accurate way to make racial discriminations. He was, for example the “inventor of the cephalic index, the breadth of the head above the ears, expressed in percentage of its length from forehead to back” (Haller, 1995, p. 14).

However, by the early 1860s, most naturalists, with the exception of a few who were not considered to be serious scientists, had abandoned phrenology and were turning to the new evolutionary psychology as the scientific way to measure intelligence and to delineate the races. For anthropologists, however, the shift from phrenology to the evolutionary psychology of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and John Fiske (1842-1901) was a very subtle, almost imperceptible shift. The racial terminology and the racial borders that phrenology had erected transitioned in tact into the terminology and into the tenets of psychology. It is as though phrenologists, under the pressure to conform to the prevailing standards of scientific rigor, went from measurements of the surface of the skull to determining cranial capacity. In this sense, as Schiebinger indicates, skull size or craniometry as an index of relative intelligence and racial difference simply were displaced by IQ tests and the science of interpreting these scores in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Moreover, by the end of the nineteenth century, phrenology itself had been discredited, but craniometry was still a respected science. In fact, the second half of the century witnessed the invention and the perfection of certain phrenological measuring devices: the craniograph (1860); the goniometer (1864), which measured facial angle; the stereograph (1867); the micrometric compass (1869); and the occipital gonimeter (1870) which, as its name suggests, measured the angle of the back of the skull (Haller, 1995, p. 15).

Indeed, the anti-abolitionists began to use body measurements and in particular skull and face measurements to reestablish a racial hierarchy. They began indeed to add more flesh to the skeleton that European scientists had produced. The end game of the anti-abolitionists position, as I shall explore, was to play upon the already deep-seated white male anxiety about black male sexuality and white fear of miscegenation. To stipulate black inferiority was, ultimately, to argue against the degeneration of the superior race through race mixing.

One might consider an 1833 pamphlet by Richard Colfax entitled Evidence Against the Views of the Abolitionists, Consisting of Physical and Moral Proofs of the Natural Inferiority of the Negro as the first fully developed pre-scientific, racist text. Later, in fact, some scientists quite literally and sometimes quite unself-consciously simply provided the necessary “objective” proof for Colfax’s arguments. Moreover, because Colfax, like his contemporaries and his predecessors, took the black man to be the prototypical, genderless Negro, black masculinity was the basis for these observations and conclusions. Simply put, Colfax (1833) confirmed, first, that the Negro man was not only unfit to be free and equal, but that he was ideally fit for slavery, and, second, that the Negro man found his true or natural state and thus his ultimate fulfillment and happiness with a white master. This belief that the black man is incomplete without his white master was rather utopian; it was the desire for an interracial homosociability that would have constituted, as I have suggested elsewhere, a kind of combination of the phallic and the testicular masculine modes.

It is not difficult to see how this belief in a masculine interracial cooperation emerged from and in turn contributed to the stereotype of the childlike black man, the smiling, contented slave, better off under white domination in the United States than in his naturally savage state in cannibalistic Africa.The stereotype of the happy, carefree slave served not only to counter the abolitionist claim of the horrors and sufferings of blacks under slavery; the stereotype served also to quell the anti-abolitionists’ own fears about slave revolts and black male empowerment. It was comforting to imagine the slave as contented with his place in the natural hierarchy. Subtending white male anxiety, however, was a belief in black male duplicity and black male envy. The grinning face of the banjo-playing or dancing adult Negro man was not to be fully trusted; it was feared that his affability was a mask worn for white consumption; it concealed a seething rage, a desire for rebellion, a thirst for revenge. In other words, there is always the conniving black savage lurking beneath the docile, smiling façade who is awaiting the opportunity to take the master’s place. From the master’s point of view, to paraphrase Chaucer, here is a smiler with an erect penis hidden in his trousers. But “as long as the control of the master was firm and assured, the slave would be happy, loyal, and affectionate; but remove or weaken the authority of the master, and he would revert to type as a blood-thirsty savage” (Fredrickson, 1987, p. 54).

What is perhaps not as easily understood is how the belief that the black man is incomplete without his white master and how the theory that the combination of a firm, superior white masculinity with a subordinate but supporting black masculinity would constitute a desirable synthesis and balance—how this theory and this idea came themselves to be a thesis that biologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and physicians set out to prove. Using mortality and morbidity data and projections, for example, scientists and statisticians in the nineteenth century also came to the conclusion that the Negro was healthier and happier under slavery. Moreover, science and especially medicine went a step further even by theorizing and then confirming by way of detailed studies that, once emancipated, the black man was on an inalterable path: he would become irreversibly either crazy or criminal and, therefore, he would eventually become extinct.

“Niggerology” or Official Science

As I have indicated, before the 1840s and 1850s, scientific theories of racial differentiation and hierarchy did not enter in any significant way into the political debate on slavery, though, as Fredrickson indicates, on rare occasions abolitionists of the 1830s did resort to environmentalism to explain the black male deficit and black degeneracy. During the first decades of the nineteenth century, in terms of science proper, Samuel Stanhope Smith’s Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species (published in 1787) was the most authoritative and influential text. Smith, president of what was to become Princeton University, made a case for “monogenesis” or the belief that all races of “man” emanate from a common origin and thus belong to the same species. It was the view that had held sway in the eighteenth century and which had postulated that the white race constituted the original and superior race. If black men possessed an aberrant skin color, if they differed anatomically, psychologically, and morally from white men, it was due, according to the monogenists, to different physical and social environments. Changes in environments, therefore, including changes in climate and culture, would, or could theoretically over time, alter racial characteristics so that Africans transplanted in the Americas would become civilized and white.

Opposing Smith’s environmentalism were scientists such as Dr. Charles Caldwell, a southern physician who practiced in Philadelphia and who from 1811 to 1830 formulated and published his position in Thoughts on the Origin of the Human Race. Caldwell made the scientific case for “polygenesis,” or the belief that the different races came into being separately and thus constitute distinct genera. Among other “objective” conclusions, he found that “the vast preeminence of the Caucasian in intellect was of such an order that it could not be attributed to environment but must be a `gift of nature’ that had been withheld from inferior races” (quoted in Fredrickson, 1987, p. 73). In spite of his professed scientific intent and in spite of a denial of any political objective, Caldwell’s work, his own objections notwithstanding, was used to defend slavery as well as to rationalize the decimation of Native Americans. His influence on other scientists like J. H. Guenebault (Natural History of the Negro Race, 1837) helped to make polygenesis the dominant scientific position in the 1840s, a time when American intellectuals and scientists had succeeded in discrediting environmentalism. In 1854, for example, the eminent scientist Josiah C. Nott, as editor of Types of Mankind: On Ethnological Researches, made it clear that anthropology and ethnology, and indeed what Nott describes in his correspondence as “Niggerology,” were designed to be used as a justification for American racial politics.

In fact, with Nott’s work, recognized in the United States and in Europe as some of the very best of science, the history of science and “niggerology,” or racist propaganda, came to be irremediably conflated; or put another way, white racial anxiety became codified as science. It was in part Nott’s observations and conclusions concerning mixed-race individuals that justified scientifically and that legitimated socially the abjection of black male bodies and the seemingly innate white male aversion to interracial sexual relations. And, as I shall explain, interracial sex meant in fact sexual relations between black men and white women, since relations between white men and black women were not problematic in the same way in that they did not elicit the same repugnance and did not pose the same kind of threat as the relations between black men and white women. Therefore, sex between white men and black women did not require the same kind of policing and control. On the contrary, since slaveholders, and to some extent white men in general, had access to and control over black women’s bodies, these relations were not only tolerated but were encouraged in the sense that the slave master could sire his own slave and thereby generate his own property. In other words, although sexual relations between black women and white men may have been transgressive in that they may have required the crossing of racial borders, there were different social consequences and, more significantly, I would contend, different psychic consequences for this particular transgression. In this sense, W. W. Wright got it exactly right in 1860 when he concluded that color prejudice, anti-Negro sentiment, or negrophobia, was ultimately an aversion to miscegenation, an aversion to black male/white female sexual union.

Whereas earlier efforts to distinguish between the races had concentrated on the head and face, by the late nineteenth century anatomical measurements, or anthropometry, had become the principal way for anthropologists to study and classify the races and specifically to discriminate between black male and white male forms and functions. “The importance of bodily proportions—the perforation of the humerus, the curvature of the femur, the angle which the body makes with the diaphysis, the angle of torsion of the humerus—gained credence principally with the acceptance of race evolution after Darwin” (Haller, 1995, p. 39). Darwin’s work did not radically alter the terms or the tenor of the principal debate on what separated black men from white men physiologically or anatomically. After Darwin, the facial angle theory and research, for example, simply accepted and incorporated the idea of evolution—which itself did not alter the theory that black men were visibly and demonstrably, within the rigors of science, members of an inferior race. Yet, it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that osteological studies became part of comparative race studies; as Haller (1995) further explains, “along with measuring the proportions of the skeleton, physicians began to study muscles, viscera, vessels, and nerves for comparative analysis.”

These late nineteenth-century efforts succeeded in reestablishing and confirming the white male body as the body par excellence, the one to which all other bodies were to be compared and judged. In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had called for the creation of the United States Sanitary Commission, which was charged with a comprehensive examination of the physical and mental readiness of the federal troops. With the advent of new or improved anthropometric devices, the commission oversaw in its first year the examination of more than 800 white Union and Rebel troops. No black men were included in this study. Moreover, Haller (1995) noted,

“The Sanitary Commission based its anthropometric investigations upon the statistical methodology of Belgian philosopher Lambert Quetelet. Quetelet [1836] had made several statistical analyses of human physiognomy, including examinations of 900 men enrolled for the draft in Belgium, 9,500 Belgian militia, 69 convicts in a penitentiary at Vilvarde, and 80 students at Cambridge, England. In 1846 Quetelet applied his theory of probability to “moral and political science.”

His methodology was designed to profile the physiology and the psychology of the average man, and when the U.S. Sanitary Commission used his results as the starting point of its own studies, it confirmed that a white European male was to set the standard.

Dr. Benjamin A. Gould, charged with the commission’s report to the U.S. President, wrote in 1869:

Indeed the external form of this average man may legitimately be adopted as a standard of beauty and a model for art. The eminent scientist [Quetelet]…has shown that we may discover not merely the outward semblance of this abstract being, but his needs, capacities, intellect, judgment, and tendencies.

In its second report, the commission included black and mixed-race men as well as some Native Americans in its investigations. Having by then established the norm, it could set about reestablishing and reconfirming the racial hierarchy. The commission studied and measured more than 12,000 white soldiers and sailors, more than 2,000 “full Negroes,” 863 “mulattoes,” and 519 “Indians.” Even though the universal body was white male, in the final analysis, it was the black male body that drew the most sustained attention from the physicians as evidenced by which bodies were autopsied and, in the reporting of the results after the autopsies, evidenced by which black male physical structures were the most thoroughly examined and were the object of the most sustained commentary. Dr. Sanford B. Hunt, a surgeon in the United States Volunteers in 1869

made studies of the autopsies performed during the Civil War…. He drew up statistics derived from 405 autopsies…[only] 24 of the autopsies were performed on white soldiers and 381 on black. (quoted in Haller, 1995, p. 31).

Hunt’s ultimate objective, as he presented his findings, and thus his most important conclusion, was that the brains of black men were five ounces lighter than the brains of white men.

Indeed, by the late nineteenth century, that black men and white men possessed significantly different anatomies and thus different intellects and moralities was universally accepted throughout the scientific and intellectual communities in the United States. In a seemingly comprehensive and very detailed study published in 1896, Dr. D. Kerfoot Shute concluded from the examination of bone structures of black and white men that there was a definite hierarchy of the races. In “Racial Anatomical Peculiarities,” Shute wrote:

The evolution of races, developing from the anthro-poids through the savage tribes and finally culminating in the advanced civilizations, showed the development of an upright posture which led to corresponding changes in the thorax, pelvis, and lumbar vertebrae. Just as skulls became less prognathous as the races began their slow ascent to higher intellectual attainment, so the posture shifted the weight of the abdominal viscera from the thorax to the pelvis…and also the last lumbar vertebrae tend[ed] to fuse with the sacrum, tilting up still further the pelvis. (quoted in Haller, 1995, p. 49)

Among others physicians, Dr. J. Arthur Thomson (1899) in “The Influence of Posture on the Form of the Articular Surfaces of the Tibia and Astragalus in the Different Races of Man and the Higher Apes” and Dr. John H. Van Evrie (1868) in White Supremacy and Negro Subordination, for example, came to similar conclusions. They agreed that because of the black man’s place in the hierarchy of being, his physiology did not permit him to assume an erect posture. Moreover, he was built in such a way—i.e., the position of his head in relation to his body, the structure of his arms and legs in proportion to his trunk, the way that his pelvis was formed, the shape of his spine—that made the Negro man quite distinct from the Caucasian and quite similar to the ape:

Characteristics that were simian—flattened tibia, narrow pelvis, elongated, calcaneum, long and perforated humerus—relegated the Negro to the bottom of the scale of race development. Osteometrical differences of body linearity, as well as internal anatomical differences, corroborated such skull peculiarities as wide nasal aperture, ankylosed nasal bones, prognathism, receding chin, and well-developed wisdom teeth and created an index for a hierarchy of the races. (quoted in Haller, 1995, pp. 49-50)

Finally, according to Dr. William T. English (1903) in “The Negro Problem from the Physician’s Point of View,” black male anatomy was coarse, rude, and asymmetrical. His hands and feet in particular identified him as a closer relative to the ape than to the European.

Anatomy of Sex

It is not surprising, therefore, that nineteenth-century physicians and scientists would stipulate and then set out to confirm that black men were closer to the lower animals also when it came to sexual appetite, lack of morality, and, to a certain degree, sexual anatomy. In accordance with the general scientific view at the time that there existed an opposition between the head and the loins and that the brain was the mark of superiority, physicians in particular researched and wrote about “the greater abdominal and genital development of the Negro [which] merely corroborated the inferiority of his other anatomical peculiarities—his black skin, flat nose, lesser cranial and thoracic development” (Haller, 1995, p. 51). Dr. Eugene S. Talbot postulated, for example, that the Negro body reached maturity faster than the Caucasian body, which meant that the Negro boy also experienced and acted upon his sexual passions at an earlier age than his Caucasian counterpart. However, Talbot (1899) continued, because the Negro man, in counter distinction to his white superior, ceased to develop further mentally beyond puberty, he became a slave to his sexual passions. Talbot, like other physicians, believed that, in the pre-adolescent, the body was in conflict: either the brain or the reproductive organs could grow and develop, but not both equally. In the Negro as well as in the Mulatto, he postulated, there was an absolute triumph of the reproduction function. One conclusion to be drawn, among others, was that black men and white men were dissimilar in terms of their sexual development and morality.

Moreover, physicians were insistent and unanimous about the “massive proportions” of the black man’s “virile organs.” By the late nineteenth century, “that the Negro penis exceeded in size that of the average adult white male” was universally accepted as true. However, the Negro woman too was marked with sexual difference. Speculations generally concerned

the position of the hymen, early menstruation, and the frequent “atrophic” condition of the external genital organs in which the labia are much flattened and thinned, approaching in type that offered by the female anthropoid ape…lemur and other pithecoid animals. (quoted in Haller, 1995, pp. 54-55).

But it was clearly the black male and his penis that drew the most attention. However, as I have suggested, these late nineteenth-century scientists and physicians did not initiate this interest in the black penis. The sexual organs of blacks had been the object of earlier medical and anthropological studies. Curiosity does indeed date back to the initial encounters that Europeans had with Africans; and some naturalists in the first decades of the nineteenth century had also made observations in particular about the sexual characteristics of black men as part of their comparative studies of “the ape, the African, and civilized man.” In Europe in 1799, for example, Dr. Charles White, a very influential scientist of the period, published An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man:

After examining many “parts of generation” himself—White had at least one African penis preserved in a jar—the doctor reported that the black member was “invariably” longer and stiffer than the white man’s, even relaxed. (In one memorable autopsy, the penis on an African corpse—an organ stiff and relaxed—was measured to be twelve inches.) But the typical African’s testicles and scrotum, White found, were smaller in size and weight than the typical European, as were the ape’s. (quoted in Friedman, 2001, p.114, emphasis in the original)

Like earlier scientists from the eighteenth century, nineteenth-century American physicians also resorted principally to the sexual anatomy of the black woman in order to distinguish the black and white races. “By determining the direction of the vagina, the position of the hymen, and the general structure of the [female] sexual organs, white doctors could set the African apart as a distinct and inferior species of man” (Haller, 1995, p. 50). In other words, in terms of sexual anatomy and function, white men and black men were, except for penile length and girth and testicle and scrotum size, the same, whereas black women were much closer to the apes than to white women. There was, however, an asymmetry in the scientific data and conclusions concerning the sexual differences between the races—an asymmetry that was perhaps a convenient one for some white male scientists and physicians themselves. First, although black men and white men were similar in terms of sexual anatomy, whereas black women and white women were distinctive, it was, on the one hand, the sexual union between the white male and the black female that was thought to be physically possible and indeed that was deemed to be quite “natural” since it led to the production of offspring. On the other hand, the sexual union between the black male and the white female was declared to be physically very difficult and unnatural; such a union was thought to be infertile, one that frequently did not lead to offspring. Quoting the explorer Serres, whose conclusions he nevertheless questions, Paul Broca (1860) writes in L’Hybridité Humaine:

One characteristic of the Negro race is the length of the penis when compared to that of the Caucasian. The dimensions of the Negro member coincides with the length of the uterine canal in the Negress and both are the result of the form of the pelvis in Negroes. However, the result of these physical differences is that the coupling of the Caucasian man with the Negress is easy and poses no inconvenience to the latter. This is not true for the coupling between the Negro and the Caucasian women. She, on the contrary, suffers in the act because the neck of the uterus is pressed against the sacrum in such a way that such a coupling is not only painful, it is most often infertile. (p. 621; emphasis in the original, my translation)

Clearly this seems to contradict somewhat earlier theories from the eighteenth century that had proclaimed that biologically, in terms of the pelvis, cranial size and facial angle, and psychologically, in terms of emotional disposition and mental capacity, black men and white women were quite similar.

If, however, black men and white men, especially for American physicians, were practically indistinguishable when it came to sexual anatomy, they belonged to different species when it was a question of their sexual appetite and, more importantly, when it was a question of their sexual behavior and morality. In other words, as English (1903), among others, confirmed, if black men were bestial in their sexual needs and in the gratification of those needs, it was proof that they had not evolved significantly as a race much beyond their “animal subhuman ancestors.” In a study on syphilis that was clearly more sociological than medical, Dr. Thomas W. Murrell (1909) concluded that the black man was essentially amoral and that on those occasions when he appeared to be moral, in terms of not acting on his sexual impulses, it was merely a ruse, “a matter of convenience,” or because there was “a lack of desire or opportunity” to satisfy himself.

Repeatedly, science and medicine went to great lengths to affirm that if black men were similar to white men anatomically, they were not in terms of sexual practice and morality. There were, physicians and scientists confirmed, close similarities between black men and bulls and stallions during moments of furor sexualis. In this respect, black men in white society were by their very nature criminals and sexual perverts:

When all inhibitions of a high order have been removed by sexual excitement, I fail to see any differences from a physical standpoint between the sexual furor of the negro and that which prevails among the lower animals in certain instances and at certain periods…namely, that the furor sexualis in the negro resembles similar sexual attacks in the bull and elephant, and the running amuck of the Malay race. This furor sexualis has been especially frequent among the negroes in States cursed by carpetbag statesmanship, in which frequent changes in the social and commercial status of the negro have occurred. (Hunter & Lydston, 1893, p. 118)

On the matter of furor sexualis or uncontrollable urges, however, the black woman too was deemed to be slave to her passions. She was deemed to be just as contemptuous and cynical about morality as he; she was judged to be as incapable of chastity as he. It was the black male, nevertheless, with his “stallion-like passion and [his] entire willingness to run any risk and brave any peril for the gratification of his frenetic lust” that made him alone a criminal and the most immediate and intransigent threat to the white race and world civilization (“Genital Peculiarities of the Negro,” 1903, p. 844).

Moreover, in his study, W. T. English had remarked that the fact that the Negro male was living in close physical proximity with members of the superior white race simply exacerbated his already inordinate sexual appetite. Other physicians also postulated that the ultimate object of the Negro’s passion was the Caucasian woman. She alone could provide the complete and perfect satisfaction for his lust. Dr. William Lee Howard of Baltimore likened the black man’s lust for white women to other “natural” and thus inalterable traits. His lust could be lowered or made even more intense, but it could never be eliminated: “what was decided among prehistoric Protozoa,” wrote Howard (1903), “could not be changed by act of Congress” or through education, for example.

It was this very crucial and unalterable differential, the sexual difference between the races, above and beyond all other differences, that proved that white men and black men were distinctive beings who would forever be in conflict, ostensibly over white women primarily and black women secondarily. More specifically, it was a difference that confirmed that black men and white women were meant to be kept sexually separate. No less an authority than science itself confirmed that this sexual difference between the black and white races was one that no degree of education, religious indoctrination, or moral suasion could successfully erase or even adequately mitigate. Howard (1903) writes, still in his capacity as a physician, for example:

It is this sexual question that is the barrier which keeps the philanthropist and moralist from realizing that the phylogenies of the Caucasian and African races are divergent, almost antithetical, and that it is gross folly to attempt to educate both on the same basis. When education will reduce the large size of the negro’s penis as well as bring about the sensitiveness of the terminal fibers which exists in the Caucasian, then will it also be able to prevent the African’s birthright to sexual madness and excess. (p. 424, emphasis added)

It is not surprising then that many late nineteenth-century American physicians recommended castration as a preventive as well as a punitive measure for the black man’s “sex-diathesis,” his particular and natural perversion that compelled him compulsively to seek genital gratification in general and to seek his gratification with white women in particular. This was in part the view of Dr. C. Frank Lydston of Chicago, among other physicians and researchers, as expressed in “Castration Instead of Lynching” (1906).

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the circularity between pre-science, official science, and extra-science wherein preconceived and popular notions became appropriate by ostensibly valid science to be used in turn to validate and reinforce popular notions and to justify social and cultural imperatives, argues, quite simply, for the historical contingency of scientific truth. Since at least the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the notion that science and the production of knowledge in general are historically contingent is no longer a view that is seriously challenged, not even by most scientists themselves. It was Kuhn who reversed the thinking that science progressed because of individual and extraordinary discoveries by particular scientists who, from their observations of nature (including human nature), made significant contributions to an expanding body of knowledge. Kuhn argued instead for a kind of collective thinking and theorizing responsible for scientific development. Adopting Kuhn’s terminology, one could say that what took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in terms of the science of racial construction would be considered “normal science” rather than “revolutionary science.” That is to say, anatomists, anthropologists, biologists, naturalists, and physicians of the period, in spite of their ostensible disagreements on the subject of the origin and the meaning of racial difference, were, nevertheless, guided by a common paradigm. The shift in the predominance of the polygenists and the monogenists during the nineteenth century, for example, was not a revolutionary one and did not constitute a “paradigm shift.” Moreover, since Kuhn first published his thesis, it is commonplace to presume, if not to investigate, how the organization and development of science cannot be divorced from the psychology and the politics of the collective non-scientific experience of the culture within which science emerges.

Finally, there is little doubt that the scientific and medical texts of the late nineteenth century and in particular the data and the conclusions of the United States Sanitary Commission’s reports, which were never systematically questioned by other scientists or physicians, were used after the Civil War and well into the twentieth century to justify political policy and social imperatives in terms of race matters. These texts, which ostensibly set out to describe nature and natural bodies in particular, created, in fact, a social and psychic reality for black men and women alike. In addition to general Jim Crow laws mandating the segregation of the races, some state legislatures came to adopt, and governors signed into law, specific legislation that “deemed one-thirty-second African or African American ancestry the key that distinguished [scientifically] ‘black’ from ‘white’“ (Smith, 2000, p. 590). However, the fact that science could theorize but not measure such a narrow distinction merely augmented white anxiety because it pointed to the ultimate meaningless of the blood and thus physical distinction separating the races. Therefore, ironically then, science, in spite of its obsessive attempts to construct and police racial borders in and on the body, highlighted, by its very efforts, the ultimate invisibility of any color line separating black from white. For this reason in part, and within the context of the anxiety provoked by the presence (within a white-supremacist, patriarchal culture) of black male bodies in particular, a grammar of black masculinity was necessary to discriminate, to make sense of, and, ultimately, to control these threatening dark male bodies.