On April 13 and 14, 2023, SAR hosted two events focused on the invention of the concept of race in eighteenth-century Europe and its implications. The conversation was led by noted Harvard faculty member and PBS personality Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and his colleague Andrew S. Curran of Wesleyan University. Gates and Curran collaborated on a book, Who’s Black and Why? A Hidden Chapter from the Eighteenth Century Invention of Race (Harvard University Press, 2022). The history described in their book was the focus of the April 13 SAR President’s Lecture at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, which drew an enthusiastic audience of 687. The event was ably moderated by Chelsi West Ohueri, an anthropologist on the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin and a former SAR resident scholar.
Who’s Black and Why? describes a now-forgotten essay contest organized in 1739 by Bordeaux’s Royal Academy of Sciences. The contest invited speculation on the origin and causes of “blackness,” including such questions as why Africans had distinctive physical features and whether they could be regarded as fully human.
The French interest in blackness reflected at least two important strands of Western history: the rise of scientific classification systems pioneered by Linnaeus and the parallel growth of intercontinental trade in enslaved Africans. The result was the emergence of “race” as a classificatory system organized hierarchically, with Africans inevitably ranked below white Europeans. With erudition and wit, Gates and Curran discussed why the concept of race remains so persistent even though it has been debunked by scientists for nearly a century.
Toward the end of the evening, Professor Gates shared stories of how racial legacies play themselves out in his hugely popular PBS series, “Finding Your Roots.” Some of his prominent interviewees are unsettled by the discovery of Black or White ancestors in their family tree, whereas others desperately seek confirmation that a Native American ancestor could be found there. Nearly all of us, Gates observed, are curious about “where we came from” and how it shapes our experience generations later.
On April 14, Andrew Curran met with an audience of 40 in SAR’s Dobkin Boardroom to take a deeper dive into the genealogy of the concept of race. He was joined by SAR board member Estevan Rael-Gálvez, who discussed his own ongoing genealogical project focused on the enslavement of Native Americans in New Mexico and beyond.
These lively, well attended events exemplify SAR’s commitment to promoting important conversations for SAR members and the Santa Fe community in general.
A video of the April 13 Gates/Curran event at the Lensic is viewable here.