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The Anatomy of Blackness

, 328 pages

29 b&w photos

August 2011



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The Anatomy of Blackness

Science and Slavery in an Age of Enlightenment

2012 Outstanding Academic Title, Choice Magazine

This volume examines the Enlightenment-era textualization of the Black African in European thought. Andrew S. Curran rewrites the history of blackness by replicating the practices of eighteenth-century readers. Surveying French and European travelogues, natural histories, works of anatomy, pro- and anti-slavery tracts, philosophical treatises, and literary texts, Curran shows how naturalists and philosophes drew from travel literature to discuss the perceived problem of human blackness within the nascent human sciences, describes how a number of now-forgotten anatomists revolutionized the era’s understanding of black Africans, and charts the shift of the slavery debate from the moral, mercantile, and theological realms toward that of the "black body" itself. In tracing this evolution, he shows how blackness changed from a mere descriptor in earlier periods into a thing to be measured, dissected, handled, and often brutalized. Penetrating and comprehensive, The Anatomy of Blackness shows that, far from being a monolithic idea, eighteenth-century Africanist discourse emerged out of a vigorous, varied dialogue that involved missionaries, slavers, colonists, naturalists, anatomists, philosophers, and Africans themselves.

Andrew S. Curran is a professor of French at Wesleyan University and a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine in the history of medicine. He is the author of Sublime Disorder: Physical Monstrosity in Diderot’s Universe.

"This is an important contribution to an important topic. But it is also a model of how intellectual history should be done. Curran moves well beyond the parade of Big Thinkers that have long dominated the history of ideas. He reads them, to be sure, but he also reads what they read. By this technique, he moves deeper and deeper into the culture of ethnography, anatomy, and slavery in search of the origins and forms of 'Blackness.'"

"Curran's approach to intellectual history is an exciting one that transcends the oft-written biographies and other author-centered discussions. His focus on trends and his immersion in the writings of the time creates an accurate rather than anachronistic mindset, which is truly useful for historians."

"A definitive statement on the complex, painful, and richly revealing topic of how the major figures of the French Enlightenment reacted to the enslavement of black Africans, often to their discredit. The fields of race studies and of Enlightenment studies are more than ready to embrace the type of analysis in which Curran engages, and all the more so in that his book is beautifully written and illustrated."

"A highly intelligent book on an important topic. The breadth of Andrew Curran's knowledge about the Enlightenment is astonishing... The book makes the convincing point not only that Africa is a major focus in the Enlightenment's imagination, but also that natural history and anthropology are central to understanding not only its scientific agenda, but also its humanitarian politics."

"This engrossing, comprehensive study traces 18th-century European thought on anatomical blackness of Africans... Curran's ability to dissect and explain complicated arguments of the period's major thinkers is impressive."

"Curran's Francotropism and medical background enable him to develop insights that should prove important to the ongoing transnationalization and discipline-blurring of literary and cultural studies."

"Wide-ranging, well-researched, and compellingly argued, The Anatomy of Blackness makes a substantial and valuable contribution to our understanding of the complexities of Enlightenment theories of racial difference. Curran's turn from the linear, figurehead-driven histories that describe the crystallization of the concept of race within classification systems to the halting, uncertain elaboration of environmentalist and anatomically based explanations throughout the period represents an important shift in the ways these questions have been treated."

"Curran beautifully illuminates and analyzes the complex field of Enlightenment-era thought on race and shows how it shaped the broader society and culture. An exemplary work of intellectual, literary, and cultural history."

"Curran offers a more comprehensive view of this subject than anyone before him: showing how the slave islands of the Caribbean were, in effect, laboratories in which Europeans studied Africans; how sameness and difference chased each other in a hermeneutic circle from which we have still not entirely escaped. The Anatomy of Blackness combines meticulous, original scholarship with unflinching analytical judgments."

"The most comprehensive analysis of Enlightenment science of race since Michele Duchet's Anthropologie et histoire au siècle des Lumières. Curran's careful attention to the emerging sciences of dermal anatomy and albinism highlight tensions between environmentalist and essential explanations of racial difference in a wide range of canonical and understudied eighteenth-century texts, within the wider contexts of European colonialism, slavery, and abolitionism."

"This study reveals with striking clarity the complex interaction of the science of human difference in this period with other strands of Enlightenment thought as well as the practices of (French) slave trading and colonial slavery."

"A major contribution to the study of the uses of natural history, the presence and absence of universalism in the Enlightenment, and the origins of modern racial thought."

"Curran has produced a powerful argument about how Europeans defined not only Africans but themselves in the early modern period; about how depictions of the 'other' furnished slavers and planters with the necessary intellectual justifications for slavery; about how natural science has the (frightening) ability to define both body and soul."

" The Anatomy of Blackness is an intense and challenging reading experience, but one that certainly repays the effort."

"The rise of racial science in the late eighteenth century has become a flourishing field of investigation over the past twenty or so years. Andrew S. Curran's The Anatomy of Blackness is a significant contribution to this scholarship... In trying to understand why these events unfolded so differently in each nation, Andrew Curran's study has greatly enlarged our knowledge of an emergent race science in "enlightened" France."

"This is a convincing piece of scholarship... a satisfying and clear analysis of how French writers (among other) constructed images of the African body that reflected, while often simultaneously silencing, the central role played by slavery in attracting European interest to the subject in the first place... This book will be read with interest and profit not only by scholars of the Enlightenment, but also those concerned with the history of racial thinking, slavery, the history of science, and Europe's engagement with the rest of the world."

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