Anastasia C. Curwood, Visiting Fellow
James Weldon Johnson Institute for Race and Difference
Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia
This article examines the significance of Caroline Bond Day’s vindicationist anthropological work on mixed-race families early in the 20th century. Day used the techniques of physical anthropology to demonstrate that mixed-race African Americans were in no way inherently deformed or inferior. Using Day’s published work and unpublished correspondence, I show that her study was noteworthy for two reasons. First, unlike most other anthropologists of her time, but presaging later scholars, she studied her own family and social world, a perspective that both gave her unique data unavailable to others and removed barriers between herself and her subjects. Second, as a mixed-race African American woman, she found herself not only fighting preconceptions about the racial inferiority of African Americans but also serving as a liaison between her research subjects and mainstream, White-dominated physical anthropology. This article argues that Day’s importance as a scholar lies not only in her argument against racial inferiority but also in the outsider-within status that allowed her to make her case within academic anthropology in the early 20th century.
Caroline Bond Day (CBD; 1889–1948) was one of the first African American anthropologists to turn her lens on her own people. As a Radcliffe College senior in 1918, she decided to pursue scholarly training in physical anthropology. The African American undergraduate was well aware that anthropologists had long used physical measurements and descriptions to demonstrate the racial inferiority of non-White people, and that many scholars thought the racial mixing of Whites and African Americans would create aberrant, malformed offspring. As a race woman, that is, an advocate for race consciousness and race pride who also experienced the effects of sexism, Day sought to combine the tools of anthropologists and her own social networks to refute the idea of mongrelization.
In 1932, under the supervision of Harvard physical anthropologist Earnest Hooton, Day published her Radcliffe master’s thesis, A Study of Some Negro-White Families in the United States. It showed that the mixture of African Americans and Whites simply yielded children with some characteristics of each race, who were entirely normal. In fact, Day observed, these offspring were often middle-class and lived lives that were very like those of middle-class White people, although in U.S. culture they were regarded as African American. As an outsider within her field, Day adapted the methods of anthropology to her own uses.
Caroline Bond Day reflected the desire of many Black intellectuals, led by her teacher W. E. B. Du Bois, to redirect scholarly and popular ideas about African Americans away from the realm of pathology and stereotype. St. Clair Drake, himself a scholar-activist who spent his career from the 1930s to the 1980s charting African Americans’ experiences of domination, adaptation, and resistance (Harrison 1992:253), called this intellectual tradition of refuting racist and imperialist assertions of Black inferiority “racial vindication” and situated CBD within it (Drake 1980:2, 10; Harrison and Harrison 1999a, 1999b:12). Like many other scholars and social activists of her period, she presented what she thought was the best possible image to the White gaze. In her case, this meant members of the “best families” among Black Americans, most of whom, she demonstrated, had White and, in some cases, Indian ancestry. She had faith that the scientific quantification of race could help with the task that Drake prescribed for Black intellectuals and that John L. Gwaltney would take on 50 years later: “setting the historical record straight” (Baber 1998:198; Gwaltney 1981xxiv).
This essay contains some preliminary explorations into the intersection of her work and life as a Black woman and anthropologist in the early 20th century. Building on the work of Faye V. Harrison (1992:244) and Hubert B. Ross et al. (1999:40), and drawing on additional archival (CBD Papers) and secondary (Alexander 1999) sources that did not inform those earlier works, this essay documents her early influences, including her relationship with Du Bois and exposure to Franz Boas, and the methodologies with which she later challenged the discipline of anthropology…
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