Deconstructing Pseudo-Scientific Anthropology: Anténor Firmin and the Reconceptualization of African Humanity

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, History, Media Archive on 2015-03-23 01:41Z by Steven

Deconstructing Pseudo-Scientific Anthropology: Anténor Firmin and the Reconceptualization of African Humanity

The Journal of Pan African Studies
Volume 7, Number 2, August 2014
pages 9-33

Gershom Williams, Adjunct Professor of African-American History and African-American Studies
Mesa Community College, Mesa, Arizona

“The science of inequality is emphatically a science of White people. It is they who have invented it, and set it going, who have maintained, cherished and propagated it, thanks to their observations and their deductions.” –Jean Finot, Race Prejudice (1907)

“A preponderance of (fossil) and genetic evidence has revealed, virtually beyond a doubt, that the same Europeans who created the idea of race and White supremacy are the genetic progeny of the very Africans they devalued.” –Salim Muwakkil, Chicago Tribune


Euro-American ideas and assumptions regarding African innate inferiority and racial inequality are central to the pseudo-scientific ‘race myth’ of White supremacy. In their search to find an expedient explanation, rationalization and justification for the horrific holocaust of enslavement, Europeans and later White Americans developed the international thesis and concept of African biological and intellectual inferiority.

In this exploratory essay, I am endeavoring to present a critical review of the anti-racist, vindicationist tradition of African American and Haitian intellectuals who challenged, rejected and refuted the ‘scientific racism’ of Euro-American ethnologists, Egyptologists, anthropologists, historians, philosophers, and physicians.

In another essay that we discuss in the contents of this manuscript, anti-racist theorists Stepan and Gilman argue that those stigmatized and stereotyped by the ideology of ‘scientific racism’ published prolific counter narratives that remain obscured and unrecognized by the historians of mainstream science.

What did the men and women of African descent in the diaspora, categorized by the biological, medical and anthropological sciences as racially inferior have to say about the matter? How did they respond to the charges and claims made about them in the name of science? In seeking to provide credible answers to the latter questions, we are re-visiting the powerful and illuminating publications by Black American and Haitian writers of the pre-Antènor Firmin era which are viable proof of the vindicationist tradition inherent among diasporan Black intellectuals. This school or community of literate intellectuals boldly offers a passionate and consistent rhetoric of resistance to economic and psychological enslavement and the mis-education of their people.

This essay remembers and pays homage to those public intellectuals of the early and late nineteenth century who dared to disagree with popular opinion and proceeded to debate the dangerous discourse of race and the fallacy of White supremacy. Central to our narrative are the names and voices of David Walker, Lydia Maria Child, Frederick Douglass, Martin R. Delaney and George Washington Williams. All of the aforementioned writers preceded the publication of Haitian scholar and statesmen Joseph Antènor Firmin’s The Equality of the Human Races in 1885. Haitian anthropologist, Egyptologist, Pan-Africanist and politician J. Antènor Firmin did not rise out of an intellectual vacuum to conduct study and research for his massive and masterful manuscript.

As I attempt to demonstrate in this paper, there is a long standing pre and post Firmin intellectual tradition in the United States and Haiti during the early nineteenth and continuing throughout the twentieth century. Like many of the intellectuals already mentioned, Antènor Firmin (a descendant of the Haitian intellectual Maroons) obviously did not possess an inferiority complex. He was not intellectually intimidated by the dominant thinking and behavior of the advocates of racial ranking and hierarchy.

A bold and brilliant thinker, he re-envisioned and re-conceptualized the image and pre-colonial cultural heritage of African descended people. Lastly, my essential purpose in presenting this paper is to convey to the reader(s) that prior to the invention and propagation of the ‘race myth’, the concept and belief in Black inferiority was non-existent.

As classicist historian Frank M. Snowden Jr. writes in his iconic text, Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks, “…Nothing comparable to the virulent color prejudice of modern times existed in the ancient world. This is the view of most scholars who have examined the evidence and who have come to conclusions such as these: The ancients did not fall into the error of biological racism; Black skin color was not a sign of inferiority…” (Snowden 1983: 63) By confronting and deconstructing the multitude of racial myths and stereotypes fashioned by Euro-Americans centuries ago, Antènor Firmin and others who believed in liberty, equality and fraternity could dismantle and destroy the foundational pillars of scientific racism. It is indeed instructive to remember what anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits stated a half century ago. “…The myth of the Negro (African) past is one of the principal supports of race prejudice in this

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Skin Bleach And Civilization: The Racial Formation of Blackness in 1920s Harlem

Posted in Articles, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Passing, Social Science, United States on 2013-04-02 03:58Z by Steven

Skin Bleach And Civilization: The Racial Formation of Blackness in 1920s Harlem

The Journal of Pan African Studies
Voume 4, Number 4 (June 2011)
pages 47-80

Jacob S. Dorman, Assistant Professor of African American History and American Studies
University of Kansas

Unlike previous scholarship on skin-bleaching advertisements conducted by scholars such as Lawrence Levine and Kathy Peiss, this paper finds those advertisements reflected a definite and widespread preference for light skin among African Americans in 1920’s Harlem. Newspaper records and historical archives demonstrate that tangible if permeable boundaries existed between “black,” “brown,” “light brown,” and “yellow” “Negroes” in 1920’s Harlem. Skin bleaching was far more than merely cosmetic: it was a profoundly micro-political form of self-masking and identity shifting mediated by the new mass market. The advertisements not only appealed to the desire to be beautiful but also to the desire to find a mate, get a better job, and associate oneself with the future, modernity, and progress. Skin bleaching was one practice in a universe of speech and speech-acts that constituted an African American version of the discourse of civilization. At one extreme, skin-bleaching represented part of a “Great White Hope” that lightskinned “New Negroes” might actually be able to escape their “Negro” past and become a new near-white “intermediate” race, as anthropologist Melville Herskovits pronounced them in 1927. Uncritical reconstructions of a unitary “black” subject position in 1920’s Harlem obscures the deep divides and antagonisms based on class and color that striated Harlem society. Recognizing these truths suggests that multiple “Negro” racial identities were constructed through quotidian actions both pedestrian and potent.

Introduction: Neither Simple Nor Sanguine

“To absorb a handful of Negroes in America and leave the unbleached millions of Africa in their savage blackness would be to deepen the gulf of racial cleavage as a world problem.” These were the words of Kelly Miller, Dean of Howard University, in a 1926 newspaper column entitled: “Is the American Negro to Remain Black or Become Bleached?” No outraged letters to the editor followed, nor were Miller’s views out of step with public opinion in the early decades of the twentieth century. Miller’s comment illustrates that the practice of skin bleaching was part of a much larger discourse of civilization, a discourse that incorporated the uplift of Africa’s “unbleached millions” and that allowed one of the most prominent African American commentators of the day to seemingly offensively entwine the words “unbleached,” “Africa,” “savage,” and “blackness.” “Bleaching” was a potent double entendre, referring either to lightening the skin through bleach or through racial “amalgamation.” In all senses, bleaching was complicated and far more than merely cosmetic.

Skin bleaching can’t be understood in simple or sanguine terms, and it repels efforts to pigeonhole it as either callow self-hatred or bold racial resistance. Rather, the argument of this article is that bleaching was part of seemingly contradictory ideas of progress, racial advancement, and civilization. African American skin bleaching practices in the 1920s constituted a profoundly micro-political form of self-masking and identity shifting mediated by both ideology and consumerism. The mask of face bleach exposes some of the other masks that Black folk assumed and fought over in that turbulent decade, as they struggled among themselves to define the boundaries and definitions of “the race.” Skin bleaching was thus a part of an embodied and everyday Black mass discourse of civilization that illuminates disagreements between titans such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey as well as the alchemy of racial transformations performed as everyday, private ablutions. If the formation of African American identity and the racial formation of Blackness proceeded not as a seamless natural evolution but through a series of incremental, politicized discourses, then skin bleaching helps to stain and delineate one chapter in the racial formation of African Americans…

…Racial Alchemy

Even, perhaps especially, the forward-thinking elites, the so-called “Talented Tenth,” were infected with this racial prejudice against blackness. Edgar M. Grey argued that “the abiding mental leftovers from slavery are still with us and we have not as yet grown out of the habit of estimating our values in terms of whiteness.” Some believed that bleaching could even affect a kind of racial alchemy, progressively lightening either a subset or the entirety of the race. This could happen in at least one of three ways. Without a doubt, skin bleaches aided tens of thousands of fair-skinned African Americans to pass as white. Because men were said to have an easier time passing as white than women, the light-skinned women who remained in the Black community would marry darker skinned men, gradually lightening the entire “Negro” population. Skin bleaches could also help an individual attract a fairer-skinned partner, thereby lightening or “raising” the color of one’s progeny. Kelly Miller predicted that the erasure of intra-racial color lines would precede an inevitable erasure of inter-racial color lines. “The rise and spread of the mixed element has…merely overlapped a like number of blacks. The lighter color gains upon the darker, like the illuminant upon the darkened surface of the waxing moon, without increasing the total surface of the lunar orb.” A third, and more surprising prediction was that skin bleaches might help a subset of “colored people” distinguish themselves as a nonblack race.

The idea that colored Americans were turning into a new, non-black race had some currency in the 1920’s, especially among the so-called “New Negroes.” In another of his studies from that decade, presented of all places at the 1927 Pan-African Congress, anthropologist Melville Herskovits stated that physical measurements of the “New Negro” demonstrated that they formed an intermediate race between Africans and white men. Furthermore, he predicted that the Negro would eventually be absorbed into the white population. The work was discussed approvingly on the women’s page of The New York Amsterdam News, the kind of forum usually devoted to recipes, beauty tips, and lengthy lists of hostesses and hosts of society gatherings. In a column titled “The Feminist Viewpoint,” the progressive, forward-thinking author wrote, “Isn’t it good to know that we who are called the American Negro are a new race? This mixture of three great primary races—white [sic], Negro and Mongoloid (Indian)—makes us neither white [sic], Negro nor Indian, but a whole new race.” Kelly Miller concurred, arguing that the numbers of “unadulterated negro types” and “the other extremes which cannot be easily detected from white” were diminishing, while the “average of the race is approaching a medium of yellowish brown rather than black.” In another version of the same essay, Miller wrote, “A new sub-race is forming under our very eyes.” Miller, like others, expected “pure blooded Negroes” to disappear outside the rural South. “The near whites will have crossed the line or bred backward on the color scale. A new Negroid race will have arisen.” Edward R. Embree’s 1931 Brown Americans: The Story of a New Race repeated the theme that “Negroes” constituted a new race. The author began his volume with the bold statement: “A new race is growing up in America. Its skin is brown. In its veins is the blood of the three principal branches of man—black, white, yellow-brown. …The group is new in its biological make-up; in its culture it is almost entirely cut off from the ancient African home.” For many the New Negro constituted a new Negro race, and light skin was the physical marker of this new racial destiny…

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Black No More: Skin Bleaching and the Emergence of New Negro Womanhood Beauty Culture

Posted in Articles, History, Identity Development/Psychology, New Media, United States, Women on 2012-05-10 03:15Z by Steven

Black No More: Skin Bleaching and the Emergence of New Negro Womanhood Beauty Culture

The Journal of Pan African Studies
Voume 4, Number 4 (June 2011)
pages 97-116

Treva B. Lindsey, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies
University of Missouri, Columbia

This article examines the usage of skin bleaching products and processes among some African American women in the urban upper south in the United States during the early twentieth century. Numerous African American women invested in these products and processes as means to shed vestiges of enslavement and to configure “urbane” and “modern” identities. More specifically, as African American women exercised their ability to function as consumer citizens, manufacturers and advertisers built upon prevailing beauty aesthetics among whites and on a black intra-racial beauty standard that posited dark skin as inferior. By exploring the history of skin lightening in this particular community, I uncover a politics of appearance that intersected with white cultural hegemony as well as gendered discourses about urban black modernity and social mobility. Although pre-Emancipation enslaved and freedwomen struggled against the devaluation of their darker hues, the privileging of white skin imparted lasting effects on African American beauty culture and intra-racial class and color politics. Some African Americans internalized beauty aesthetics that privileged whiteness. Among African American women in the urban upper south, skin bleaching rose in popularity during the early twentieth century. I discuss what factors led to this rise in popularity such as the desires of some African American women to perform urban modernity and to participate in the public sphere as consumer citizens through the purchasing and usage of products associated with fashioning a “New Negro” self. Beauty culture, and in particular, discourse surrounding skin bleaching, served as sites for competing ideals and perspectives regarding the aesthetics of New Negro womanhood.


Understand, we do not advertise this bleach to make one white.
God alone can accomplish this, and it would be miraculous.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, skin bleaching products and procedures became increasingly popular in African American communities across the United States. Many African American newspapers and periodicals carried numerous advertisements for these products and procedures in their consumer sections. Although skin bleaching/lightening had a long history in African American communities in the U.S., the formalization of a raciallyspecific consumer marketplace during the Progressive and New Negro eras created opportunities for manufacturers and sellers to target new, potential customers. The rhetoric extant in these advertisements trumpeted whiteness and or lightness as preferential and aesthetically desirable. Advertisers marketed their skin bleaching products and processes to African American communities throughout the United States. African American women in urban centers became central to advertising discourses. African American men participated in various arenas of beauty culture, however, beauty culture existed as a feminized space. Through purchasing a skin bleach cream or a bar of complexion soap, New Negro women in the U.S. embraced their fledgling status as consumer citizens and contributed to broader discussions about the interplay of race, class, color, gender, aesthetics, urbanity and modernity.

At the core of the New Negro Movement was a desire for a re-creation of self, both individually and collectively. New Negroes acted upon this desire for re-creation through reconfiguring aesthetic and cultural traditions. African Americans engaged in new practices and aesthetic discourses with an unprecedented sense of possibility for self-determination and autonomy. Through the altering, adorning, and maintenance of physical appearance, African Americans could literally reconstruct and refashion themselves and create new models of black aesthetic identity. Aesthetic practices were integral to African Americans in shedding the vestiges of enslavement and for asserting their place within the modern world…

…Prior to Emancipation, many African Americans associated light skin with greater freedom and opportunity as well as with membership in an elite class of African Americans. Some free African American women were of both European (white) and African (black) descent, and subsequently certain phenotypical features, including lighter skin, represented freedom to enslaved and impoverished African Americans. While not accepted fully by whites, free African American women often attained comparatively more social and economic freedoms than enslaved women. Many of the African American elite in Washington, arguably because of their mixed-race heritage had lighter skin. For many of them, their skin color in its unaltered state was the ideal to which thousands of African Americans strove to achieve. The physical appearance of the “Negro Elite” became integral to an African American politics of appearance that intersected with ideas about African American possibility and the fashioning of a New Negro identity. According to black beauty scholars Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps, “by the time slavery was officially abolished in 1865, ‘good’ hair and light skin had become the official keys to membership in the Negro elite,” although exceptions were made based upon educational attainment and occupation. Free African American women were the foremothers of the “Negro Elite” class that continued to grow after Emancipation.

The ideal of light and white skin were foundational to how white manufacturers who dominated the African American beauty industry throughout the nineteenth century created and marketed racially-specific beauty products and how some African Americans consumed beauty products. From the midnineteenth century onward, white-owned companies manufactured and sold skin care products that claimed to lighten and whiten black skin. These advertisements appeared in African American periodicals and reified lighter skin as both “American” and modern beauty ideals. Freedwomen were the prime consumers of these products. A small market for skin care products for the African American elite in D.C. emerged in the 1840s and 1850s. Among black Washington women of all classes, skin-lightening continued to flourish after emancipation and well into the twentieth century. These beauty practices often reflected the aspirations of some Washington women to adhere to prevailing beauty norms and to escape the vestiges of “physical blackness,” which located them at the bottom of the U.S. beauty hierarchy and connected them to their past as slaves or poor workers. Attempting to escape their cultural past and their labor identities, some African American women migrating to Washington in the late nineteenth century mimicked styling choices and practices of D.C.’s African black and white women. Dark skin was not viewed as attractive or modern within certain elite circles in Washington and within the U.S. more broadly. Consequently, the racially-specific enterprise of African American skincare that emerged post-Emancipation honed in on a racial-social-class-color-gender hierarchy that devalued dark skin and that further solidified the primacy of physical whiteness…

…The advertisement for Black Skin Remover champions the product’s ability to make black skin several shades whiter and mulatto skin “perfectly white.” The “before” and “after” images used in the advertisement display a stark transformation of dark skin to white skin. While boasting other “positive” effects such as the removal of wrinkles and pimples, the most significant selling point of the face bleach was its ability to achieve whiteness for its purchaser. Toward the end of the advertisement, the manufacturer notes that the product will be sent to the consumer in a way in which, the contents of the package would be known only to the consumer. Despite the popularity of skin-lightening processes among some African Americans, this small section of the advertisement suggests a potential backlash from African Americans who viewed skin lightening/whitening as an anti-black cultural practice. It also suggests that consumers of skin lightening products desired a transformation that appeared “natural” and not achieved through usage of products.

On the same page of the advertisement for Black Skin Remover is an advertisement for another skin bleaching product, Hartona Face Bleach. Similar to the advertisement for Black Skin Remover, the Hartona Remedy Company claims that its face bleach “will gradually turn the skin of a black or dark person five or six shades lighter, and will turn the skin of a mulatto person almost white.” The advertisement also promises that the face bleach will be “sent securely sealed from observation.” Both advertisements capture the effects of white cultural hegemony on African American beauty culture as well as the existence of African Americans opposing the consumption and usage of skin bleaching products and processes. Through the advertising culture that emerged in Washington’s African American press, physical whiteness was constructed as the ideal to which African American women should strive. Notably, the advertisements focus on African American and “mulatta” women as consumers. African American men also consumed these products, however, throughout the New Negro era, advertisers primarily targeted African American women and identified African American beauty culture as a feminized space. At the expense of the devaluation of their skin colors, African American women became the central figures of a racially-specific aesthetic-based enterprise that responded to perceived and real desires for social mobility and aesthetic valuation within a cultural hierarchy premised upon white cultural hegemony…

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Mothering Children of African Descent: Hopes, Fears and Strategies of White Birth Mothers

Posted in Articles, Family/Parenting, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Oceania, Women on 2011-03-02 00:57Z by Steven

Mothering Children of African Descent: Hopes, Fears and Strategies of White Birth Mothers

The Journal of Pan African Studies
Volume 2, Number 1 (November 2007)
pages 62-76

Annie Stopford, Ph.D., Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist and Adjunct Research Fellow
University of Western Sydney, Sydney, Australia


It is often acknowledged that African identities are “complex, contested and contingent,” and that these negotiations and contestations are conducted in many locations around the globe (Ahluwalia and Zegeye 113). However, there has been little discussion thus far about the role of non-African parents of mixed African-Western children in these processes. In many parts of the world where the African Diaspora has spread, there are increasing numbers of children being born to African and non-African parents, particularly (but not only) African fathers and non-African mothers of diverse ethnicities. Non-African parents may play a significant role in facilitating, supporting, or obstructing their children’s positive identifications and associations with Africa and “Africanness,” especially if and when the marriage or relationship breaks down and the child or children reside with the non-African parent.

In this article, I use extracts from interviews with white Australian birth mothers of African Australian children to explore how they negotiate some of the complexities, challenges, and rewards of mothering children of African descent. I argue that the contributions of non-African mothers of African-other children add an important dimension to discussions about the complexities of postcolonial and Africana hybrid identities. The article begins with a description of empirical data sources, some information about the field of research, and an exploration of the theoretical underpinnings of the discussion. This is followed by a discussion of some issues described by research participants, with an emphasis on narratives about lived experience and intersubjective dynamics. The article concludes with a brief reflection on the implications of these narratives.

…The Research Field

Despite the plethora of recent literature about interracial and postcolonial subjectivities, there has been little in-depth discussion thus far about mothering children of mixed cultural, ethnic, and racial descent. The focus of discussion in mixed race and hybridity studies tends to be on the children of couples of mixed cultures and races, rather than the parents themselves, and the damage done by racist and essentialist discourse to the children of those people who cross “the color line,” especially black/white relationships.

There have, however, been some studies of mixed race and culture families that focus on the parents and their responses to their children (Phoenix and Owens 158-177; Dalmage 1-32). There has also been some feminist and critical race research and discussion specifically about or by white mothers of African descent children in Western locations, and white mothers of African descent children living in Africa, with a particular emphasis on the way white mothers resist racism and try to foster positive identifications with blackness (Reddy 43-64; Lazarre 21-51; Twine 729-746, 878-907; Adomako Ampofo In My Mother’s House). Because fighting racism and fostering Africana identities are of course inextricably linked, I see this research as continuing the work of the aforementioned writers.

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Estelusti Marginality: A Qualitative Examination of the Black Seminole

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Native Americans/First Nation, United States on 2011-03-01 23:00Z by Steven

Estelusti Marginality: A Qualitative Examination of the Black Seminole

The Journal of Pan African Studies
Volume 2, Number 4 (June 2008)
pages 60-80

Ray Von Robertson, Assistant Professor of Sociology
Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas

Approximately four years ago, I began collecting interview data with Black Seminoles/Estelusti in Oklahoma. My research focused on how the Black Seminoles negotiated their marginal status within the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and with nonfreedman Blacks. Using Weisberger’s (1992) marginality construct, I found that the Estelusti most often employed ‘poise’ to manage their state of ‘double ambivalence’. This study further explored the issue of Black Seminole marginality after their reintegration into the cultural group in 2003. My findings, while different in specifics, were generally consistent with those found a few years earlier. The Black Seminoles still appear to experience significant marginality and are not fully accepted by the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.

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