American Civilization

March 5, 2009

We Cotch Him

Key Terms






“anti-colonial imperialism”

“cultural resistance”

Art and Propaganda

“Thus the white artist looking in on the colored world, if he be wise and discerning, may often see the beauty, tragedy and comedy more truly than we dare. Of course if he be simply a shyster like Tom Dixon, he will see only exaggerated evil, and fail as utterly in the other extreme as we in ours. But if, like Sheldon, he writes a fine true work of art… or like Ridgeley Torrence, a beautiful comedy… or like Eugene O’Neill, a splendid tragedy like ‘The Emperor Jones’– he finds to his own consternation the Negroes and even educated Negroes, shrinking or openly condemning…. [O]nly yesterday a protest of colored folk in a western city declared that ‘The Emperor Jones is the kind of play that should never be staged under any circumstances, regardless of theories, because it portrays the worst traits of the bad element of both races.’

“No more complete misunderstanding of this play or of the aim of Art could well be written….

“Nonsense. We stand today secure enough in our accomplishment and self-confidence to lend the whole stern human truth about ourselves to the transforming hand and seeing eye of the Artist, white and black…. Torrence and O’Neill are our great benefactors– forerunners of artists who will yet arise….”

— WEB Du Bois, “Negro Art” (1921)

“Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent….”

WEB Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926)

The Emperor Jones

On its face The Emperor Jones looks like the tarnished relic of a racist past, one more loathsome piece of kitsch in the junkyard of “ethnic notions”. Divorced from its aesthetic and socio-historical context, Eugene O’Neill’s story of the fall of Brutus Jones– the “emperor” of a nameless West Indian island, and former Pullman car porter and fled convict– seems like an exercise in the grotesque. According to this uncomplicated view the play simply represents an African American con man’s regression into his racial past, what Race Scientists might call “reversion to type” and President Andrew Johnson once suggested was a “‘tendency to relapse into barbarism’” (quoted in Fredrickson) a form of atavism ostensibly peculiar to the “Negro”.

I want to argue in this lecture that this well-intended but insufficient reading of The Emperor Jones is incorrect, that it fails to take into account not only O’Neill’s pointed criticism of US imperialism– a project which was and continues to be directed at impoverished people of color globally– but the very strange and unstable dynamics of racial identity itself.

“The inborn characteristics of the Negro had been formed by natural selection during ‘ages of degradation’ in Africa and his savage traits could not have been altered in any significant way by a mere two centuries of proximity to Caucasian civilization in America. Thus his present ‘reversion to type’ was understandable. Lacking the discipline of slavery, ‘the young negro of the South… is reverting through hereditary forces to savagery.’”

Paul B. Barringer in The American Negro: His Past and Future (1900) quoted in Fredrickson

James Weldon Johnson 28 Aug. 1920

The Context: Haiti



US Invasion and Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934.

O’Neill situates the play “on an island in the West Indies as yet self-determined by White Marines”. Note the irony here. As with This Bloody Blundering Business a satirical sensibility functions as a form of criticism.

The historical context of the play, specifically the United States government’s use of gunboat diplomacy to control Haiti’s domestic situation, points to a critique of an economically and racially motivated violation of the sovereignty of so called third world Caribbean nations, an imperialist project provoked by U.S. concerns about Germany’s influence in the region and justified, legally, by the Monroe doctrine. “Humanitarian” arguments were also advanced in light of Haiti’s political instability.

His protagonist is loosely based on two Haitian rulers, Henri Christophe and Guillaume Sam (though the Gelb biography also mentions a nameless bartender).

Despite the official rationale that the occupation was a necessity imposed on the United States by Haiti’s unstable political situation– a ‘moral duty’ undertaken to protect the lives and property of American citizens– United States’ policy in Haiti reflected a desire to ‘quickly establish U.S. political and economic dominance. Further, such dominance was part of a larger Caribbean plan (Abbot, 100).

In the first year of the occupation alone, U.S. Marines ensured that Philippe-Sudre Dartiguenave was ‘elected’ president by the Haitian Senate, the customhouses were taken over, the Haitian army was disbanded, the national bank was seized and all of its available cash sent to New York , and, on September 16, 1915 an agreement was pressed upon the Haitian government that allowed U.S. Marines to ‘police the country and to control public finances for ten years’ (101).

Here is how Haitian born novelist Edwidge Danticat phrases it:

“On July 28, 1915, U.S. forces invaded Haiti, launching an occupation that would last 19 years.

The U.S. invasion came in the wake of President Woodrow Wilson’s professed commitment to make the world safe for democracy. However, as soon as the Marines landed in Haiti, Wilson’s administration remapped the country into police departments, shut down the press, installed a lame-duck government, rewrote the constitution to give foreigners land-owning rights, took charge of Haiti’s banks and customs and instituted a system of compulsory labor for poor Haitians.

Those who resisted the occupation — among them a militant peasant-run group called Cacos — were crushed. In 1919, U.S. Marines in blackface ambushed and killed the Cacos’ fearless leader, Charlemagne Peralte, mutilated his corpse and displayed it in a public square for days.

By the end of the occupation, more than 15,000 Haitians had lost their lives. A Haitian gendarmerie was trained to replace the U.S. Marines, then proceeded to form juntas, organize coups and terrorize Haitians for decades.

Although U.S. troops were officially withdrawn from Haiti in 1934, the U.S. government maintained economic control of the country until 1947.”

Some Documents:

“The election of Dartiguenave is preferred by the United States.”

— Navy Dept. dispatch to Adm. Caperton

“In order that no misunderstanding can possibly occur after election, it should be made perfectly clear to candidates as soon as possible and in advance of their election, that the United States expects to be intrusted with the practical control of the customs, and such financial control over the affairs of the Republic of Haiti as the United States may deem necessary for efficient administration….”

–Telegram Secretary of State to Charge D’Affairs, August 10, 1915

Art. I. The Government of the United States will, by its good offices, aid the Haitian Government in the proper and efficient development of its …resources and in the establishment of the finances of Haiti on a firm…basis.

Art II. The President of Haiti shall appoint, upon nomination by the President of the United States, a general receiver … who shall collect, receive and apply all customs duties …

The President of Haiti shall appoint, upon nomination by the President of the United States, a financial advisor…

Art. III. The Government of …Haiti will provide by law…for the payment of all customs duties to the general receiver…

Art. V. All sums collected …by the general receiver shall be applied first [to pay his expenses] second, to the interest and sinking fund of the public debt of …Haiti…

–Treaty Between The United States And Haiti Signed September 16, 1915

Further context:

These initial acts of imperialism were, however, only the beginning of an eighteen year effort to transform ‘every aspect of Haitian life’ (Suggs 36). U.S. troops dispersed Voudoun ceremonies, chased worshippers away, destroyed sacred drums and other artifacts, and arrested houngans and mambos.  Marines and the U.S. trained Haitian army sought and destroyed armed resistance on the part of officers of the old, ‘disbanded army, landowners, and peasants’ (Trouillot 101).  In order to combat guerilla warfare more effectively, the occupying American forces instituted forced labor on road construction. Laborers were ‘roped together like slaves, underfed and brutally overworked’ in a revival of an old French Colonial practice known as the corvee (Abbott 41). Those who attempted to escape risked being shot. The increasing antagonism of U.S. forces, most of whom brought with them to Haiti the prevalent racist attitudes of the United States and saw the Haitians as little more than savages, finally led to the Cacos Wars (1918-1920), in which thousands of Haitians were killed (42).

The press in the United States, particularly “Negro newspapers,” were aware of the events transpiring in Haiti. The Nation published at least four articles on U.S. involvement in Haiti in the latter half of 1920. James Weldon Johnson condemned the brutality of American troops and ‘charged that the U.S. Marines had killed 3,000 Haitians since 1916 in so-called hunting bandits expeditions’ (Suggs 36).  Two unsigned articles in the Literary Digest, ‘Probing Haitian Scandal’ and ‘Undeclared War in Haiti,’ both of which appeared in October, 1920, criticized Democratic presidential candidate James M. Cox for his position on the occupation and suggested that Republican contender Warren G. Harding would be more amenable to changing U.S. policy toward Haiti. This prediction, however, proved to be optimistic. ‘The first step in Harding’s reorganization and rationalization of his Haitian policy was the acceptance of the recommendations of the Select Senate Committee on Haiti and Santo Domingo to continue the occupation indefinitely.”

“In October 1930 Haitians chose a national assembly for the first time since 1918. It in turn elected as president Sténio Joseph Vincent. In August 1934 U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt withdrew the Marines; however, the United States maintained direct fiscal control until 1941 and indirect control over Haiti until 1947” (Enc. Brit.)

The Play

At a time when most depictions of blacks on stage and screen consisted of racial myths and falsehoods, The Emperor Jones was the first American play to present black actors–as opposed to black-faced actors–and to highlight a black protagonist, arguably one of the most important African-American characters in the history of American drama.  The Emperor Jones established the careers and reputations of such legendary actors as Charles Gilpin and Paul Robeson by offering them a role that, at least superficially, defied popular racial misconceptions.  More importantly, the play assisted in encouraging white audiences to sympathize with an African-American character who did not fit the well-established minstrel show taxonomy of dandy, sambo, etc.

Critics were immediately compelled to invoke Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello. Both Othello and Brutus Jones are powerful men of African descent who are ultimately destroyed by their foibles.

The Emperor Jones was heavily influenced by expressionism, “a general term for a mode of literary or visual art which, in extreme reaction against realism or naturalism, presents a world violently distorted under the pressure of intense personal moods, ideas, and emotions: image and language thus express feeling and imagination rather than represent external reality” (Oxford Concise).


Above: Possibly the most widely known example of Expressionist painting, Edvard Munch’s The Scream (a series of paintings, actually, created between 1893 and 1910).

It is said that O’Neill’s play was a product not only of his own travels in Honduras, but the photography of Charles Sheeler, who focused on African sculpture from 1916-1918.


Above: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, influenced by African masks.

An interest in “the primitive” was a hallmark of the early phase of modernism, a sensibility which characterized the work of both EuroAmerican and AfricanAmerican artists. Primitivism would become a fertile resource for writers such as O’Neill and Vachel Lindsay (see his frankly revolting poem The Congo) and also Harlem Renaissance figures including Aaron Douglas and Claude McKay. See also Orson Welles’ amazing adaptation of Shakespeare, the so-called Voodoo Macbeth:



Above: Aaron Douglas’ The Emperor Jones Series (woodcut on paper, 1926)

Racial Themes

Scene One:

The color scheme, the overdetermined whiteness of the set– “white-washed walls…. white tiles… white pillars”– are an obvious clue that the dominant racial hierachy of the period is askew.

The palace can be seen as an inversion of the plantation myth; the agrarian paradise where everyone is content and knows her place; here, the master is African-American.

Smithers enters wearing the classic effects of the colonizer: pith helmet, riding crop, puttees, pistol and cartridge belt.

The dialogue between Jones and Smithers is rife with role reversals and inversions (ex. Jones feels “contempt” for Smithers, he tells him to “talk polite, white man”).  Structurally speaking, O’Neill uses Smithers to provide exposition and background regarding Jones’ rise to power.  On another level, Smithers is a corrupt hanger-on, a vulture who scavenges on the remains of Jones’s once-mighty island empire.  He is subordinate to, fears and loathes, Jones yet also admires his cunning and tenacity.  Smithers’ sense of white supremacy, the natural order of things, is undermined by Jones’ brash effectivity.

The description of Jones is telling, and brings us back to the metaphor of blood in the “common sense” discourse of the day: Jones, according to the script, is a “full-blooded Negro” whose “features are typically negroid, yet there is something decidedly distinctive about his face– and underlying strength of will, a hardy, self-reliant confidence in himself that inspires respect.”

It would be easy to point to this passage as evidence of a relatively uncomplicated negrophobia were it not for the fact that in The Hairy Ape Mildred’s aunt is also “a type– even to the point of double chin and lorgnettes”. What this seems to indicate is that typicality is not simply a function of race. On the other hand it is undeniable that Jones’ position as emperor and the ostentation of his uniform are intended to be incongruous. Even so, according to the stage directions “he has a way of carrying it off.”

References to “the natives” are contemptuous as well. Clearly BJ views himself as superior, wilier, more sophisticated. This apparent contradiction– an African American  exploiting Afro-Caribbean people– is complicated not only because it challenges our notions of racial affinity and commonality, but because it makes us question that very assumption– i.e., that it is to be expected that BJ would feel sympathy or obligation to other members of the African Diaspora.

Rather BJ has internalized the class and race logic of wealthy American whites:

“dere’s little stealin like you does and dere’s big stealin like I does”, a lesson he attributes to his years as a Pullman car porter.

Jones even goes so far as to explain the most effective methods of colonization to Smithers: exploit local culture (Jones’ claims to be invulnerable to all weapons save a silver bullet seems to tap into native supersitions) and learn the language.

Jones’ past is interesting: it is implied he was imprisoned for murder and that he escaped by killing a guard. Mention of lynching.

The residue of minstrel show conventions: BJ talks to his feet more than once, he claims to have gotten into “an argument wid razors ovah a crap game.” Confronted with a vision of a chain gang “his eyes pop out”.

It becomes evident during his conversation with Smithers that BJ is someone to be taken seriously. He matches his defiance of white supremacy– “man, de white men went after me wid bloodhounds where I come from an’ I jes’ laughs at ’em”– with scrupulous planning– “Dawn tomorrow I’ll be out at de oder side and on de coast whar dat French gunboat is stayin’. She picks me up, take me to the Martinique when she go dar,and dere I is safe wid a mighty big bankroll in my jeans”.

Yet one of the central facts of The Emperor Jones is that it is a play about an African-American adventurer written by an Irish-American man. Does this fact mean that what we are witnessing is some sort of more sopthisticated version of a Minstrel Show? This is an important question, one that we can only answer by thinking about the play’s historical performances, from the opening with Charles Gilpin in 1920 to its revival by the Wooster Group in 1993 (revived again in 2007) when Kate Valk played Brutus Jones in black face and Willem Defoe played Smithers (see time-lapse of performance here).

The drums begin:

Letter from Marines stationed in Haiti during the occupation describe a similar experience. U.S. troops were unnerved by “the nights broken by the throb of voudou drums and the thin eerie wails of conch shells” (38). This form of cultural resistance was, perhaps, ultimately more effective than the armed resistance that the Cacos waged against the Marines.

O’Neill’s biographers also claim that he experienced this sound as a result of a bout of malaria.

Scene Two: “the forest is a wall of darkness dividing the world”. The stage directions suggest two things: Jones is headed into the dark terrain of his own unconscious or some sort of racial memory, and he is entering the domain of the “native”– the Cacos guerrilla.

The “little formless fears” can be read not only as the Jones’ internal state externalized but in terms of the Haitian guerillas who attacked both Haitian troops and U.S. Marines then seemingly vanished into the jungle during the Cacos Wars of 1918-1920.

Scene Three:

We find that Jones has lost his stylish Panama hat and “His face is scratched, his brilliant uniform shows several large rents“.

Jeff, the Pullman porter whom Jones murdered during a dispute over a game of craps, appears.  Jeff crouches on the ground, throwing dice “with the regular, rigid, mechanical movements of an automaton,'” a picture that, viewed within the context of the natives’ supernatural opposition toward Jones, suggests that Jeff is a zombie. The clicking of the dice, a sound that evokes both the rattling of bones and the casting of lots, catches Jones’ attention. Stunned, he recognizes Jeff. He takes the apparition to be a living man. Gradually, however, Jones realizes that because Jeff’s presence on the island is an impossibility, he is a ‘ha’ant’ (21). He fires his revolver, once again revealing his position in the forest and expending another round of ammunition. Jeff vanishes and Jones ‘plunges wildly into the underbrush’ (21).

The chain gang scene– Scene Four— serves to fulfill two functions: it continues Jones’ regression into his own past– pointing to the similarities between his former position as a prisoner and the natives’ situation as subjected or colonized persons– and it introduces the idea of the ‘corvee,’ a form of impressment instituted by U.S. Marines to build roads that would enable them to undertake ‘hunting bandit’ missions with greater efficacy. The road, as a symbol of empire, is both another attempt to restructure the terrain, to alter its essential features and thus recreate it in the image of the imperial center, and a means of confining the indigenous population. The natives are compelled to undertake labor, the product of which aids occupying forces to annihilate armed resistance. Peasants who have been impressed into the corvee are effectively barred from participating in the guerilla warfare that they depend upon to free them from the shackles of empire. In addition to causing Jones to relive his oppressed past, O’Neill suggests a broader critique of the methods of empire building; a set of strategies scarcely distinguishable from the crudest expression of imperialism, the slaved-based economy of EuroAmerican colonialism.

BJ is now “stripped to the waist”. It should be obvious by now that as BJ loses clothing he symbolically sheds layers of “civilization,” or what we could deem the social mask. In stripping away these marks of socialization, O’Neill isn’t simply invoking the myth of a “reversion to type” but attempting to speak universally. In this instance BJ is more than a representative of his race. It goes without saying however, that this is also a kind of strip-tease, with the athletic black male body slowly revealed to the audience. There is clearly a “phantasmatics” of fascination and desire at work here, one that is decidedly raced but which exceeds that encoding.

The Auction Scene (Scene Five):

BJ begins to break down. Plagued by doubt, fear and guilt, he laments his bad behavior, begging god forgiveness. Figures emerge from the gloom and we find ourselves confronted by the pantomime of a slave auction. Again, these figures are described as “stiff, rigid, unreal, marionettish about their movements” in the stage directions.

Note the presence of mother and child– the invocation of the destruction of the family as a consequence of chattel slavery. Outraged, Jones fires twice. He is down to his last (silver) bullet.

In Scene Six O’Neill further regresses the character of Brutus Jones– explicitly linking his “depth psychology” with historical memory. Jones’ “pants have been so torn away that what is left of them is no better than a breech cloth”

We are now witnessing the Middle Passage. The enslaved are reduced to an keening murmur. Jones joins in. It is interesting to note that certain Voudou ceremonies involve a reenactment of crucial moments in history (Parrinder).

Scene Seven: The Witchdoctor and Crocodile God

Jones, frightened and confused , remarks “seems like I ben heah befo'”.

Now appears perhaps O’Neill’s most technically accomplished portrait of an undifferentiated Other.  With his painted body, antelope horns, bone rattle, cockatoo feathers, (post-contact?) glass beads, and numerous piercings, the Congo witch-doctor is an impressively thorough hodgepodge of every conceivable cliche in the white imagination.  He starts to dance and chant, crooning ‘without articulate word divisions’ (29), yet constructing ‘a narrative in pantomime’ which echoes Jones’ own flight from pursuit.

“Jones has become completely hypnotized. His voice joins in the incantation, in the cries, he beats time with his hands and sways his body to and fro from the waist. The whole spirit and meaning of the dance has entered into him, has become his spirit. Finally the theme of the pantomime halts on a howl of despair, and is taken up again in a note of savage hope. There is a salvation. The forces of evil demand sacrifice. They must be appeased. The witch-doctor points with his wand to the sacred tree, to the river beyond, to the altar, and finally to Jones with a ferocious command. Jones seems to sense the meaning of this. It is he who must offer himself for sacrifice.”

What exactly is going on here? In Scene Eight we discover that Jones has been killed by Lem’s soldiers (Lem, the figure of Cacos resistance to imperial rule). By what witchcraft has Jones’ fired his silver bullet at the apparition of a Crocodile God and ended up dead himself?

A psychological reading of the scene would likely argue that confronted with his core psychology, the rapacious and irrational psychic forces of his unconscious, Brutus Jones is destroyed.

Our “uncomplicated” reading of the play would probably dismiss any deeper meaning to the scene, and instead contend that O’Neill is simply regurgitating an incoherent colonialist fantasy of primitive natives and racial atavism.

An overtly politicized reading might suggest that all of the supernatural elements of the play symbolize cultural resistance to imperialism, as was a significant aspect of the formation of Voudou.

Scene Eight: “We cotch him.”

Lem’s certainty and imperturbability. His ‘primitive’ soldiers. Smithers gets the last lines. Think about what it means for the last word of this play to be what it is. How is this explosive word being used? Clearly as a gesture of racist contempt on the part of Smithers. But what else does the term signify in light of all that has passed? Let’s keep this an open question.

The Performances

Brutus Jones was first played by Charles Gilpin whose tortured relationship with O’Neill over the play’s dialog has become legend. Years after the premiere of the Emperor Jones Gilpin is reported to have said “I created the role of the Emperor. That role belongs to me. That Irishman, he just wrote the play.”

Show clip from Robeson’s performance as Brutus Jones in the 1933 adaption written by Dubose Heyward the author of Porgy (1924) a novel which was the basis for the musical Porgy and Bess.

There was also a 1955 television adaptation starring Ossie Davis.


Above: the Wooster Theater Group’s version of the Emperor Jones. Actor Kate Valk performed the part in both racial and gender drag.

February 18, 2009

Racing Science

Filed under: Jim Crow,Machine Age,Race Science,White Supremacy — equiano @ 9:45 pm

Key Terms:

“allochronism”– literally, “other-timing”. When one group places another outside of its own temporal or historical sequence as in the phrase “they’re primitives.”

anthropometry– the measuring of human features. ex. craniometry, the measurement of the skull.


“biogenetic law”– Haeckel’s term for the principle of recapitulation

blood– one of the most powerful metaphors pertaining to race and heredity. “I have Irish blood.” “My friend has Cherokee blood” etc.

“gemmule”– “Darwin’s term for a hypothetical particle of heredity carried by all cells and capable of moving to sex cells, thus permitting a direct influence of environment upon heredity”

Mendelian inheritance– certain characteristics are transferrable from parent to child. The basis of modern genetics.

monogenist: springing from a single source. “one blood”.

neo-Lamarckism– “a popular late 19th century alternative to Darwinism, postulating that adaptations arise as characters acquired by active organic responses to environment and are passed on to offspring by heredity” (Gould). ex. Giraffes go their long necks from generations of stretching to obtain leaves to eat. In human society, parents could acquire characteristics which they might then pass on to their descendants, including moral or intellectual defects.

phylogeny– “the evolutionary history of a lineage, conventionally depicted as a sequence of successive adult stages”

polygenist– “the early and mid-19th century theory that human races are separate species”

racialism– the belief that racial difference exists though no single race is superior to another. The early writings of WEB Du Bois exemplify this notion.

racism– the belief that races are ranked hierarchically in terms of abilities or attributes.

racial senescence– “the theory that lineages, like individuals, pass through prgrammed stages leading inevitably to phyletic exhuastion and death (extinction)”

recapitulation– “the repetition of ancestral adult stages in embyonic or juvenile stages of descendants”. ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.


rule of hypodescent– the “one drop rule”

white supremacy– the ideology and practice of white social privilege at the expense of other races. Jim Crow, segregation, lynching, Asian exclusion and the convict least system are all examples of white supremacy in action.


“This is a county of white men. And as Long as I am president it will be a government for white men.”

Andrew Johnson

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

–Marlow, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world.”

Charles Darwin, On the Descent of Man (1871)

To be a Negro in a day like this

Demands rare patience—patience that can wait

In utter darkness.

James D. Corrothers

“Then will the world enter upon a new stage of its history– the final competition of races, for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled.”

Josiah Strong, Our Country

“We have only to imagine what America would be to-day if she had fallen… into the hands of any other people than the Colonizing British, to see how vitally important is this question of race. America was indeed fortunate in the seed planted upon her soil…. the American of today remains true to this noble strain and is 4/5 British” (2-3).

Andrew Carnegie,  The Triumph of America (1885)

“It is highly probably that whole nations have regtrograded in the scale of life. Certain savage peoples like the Bushmen and Australians are believed by ethnologists to represent decadent stocks. Wars, famines, the encroachments of superior races, as well as inherent vices, have operated, and are still operating, to destroy entire tribes and races. The gradual extinction of the American Indians and many of the South Sea Islanders illustrates a process of degeneration that is going on in our own time.”

George Dawson (1896)

“Poverty, even, is sweeter to them than confinement. Naturally they become warlike and predatory in their habits. Assuming that ‘all is fair in war,’ they act upon the principle that ‘might makes right’, whether it be the might of brute force, or savage cunning. The comforts and restrains of social and civil life are not to be compared with trusty weapons and a swift-going steed. Despising governments, they are yet controlled by their emirs, their sheiks, and their traditions. Ishmaelites by descent, they are Ishmaelites in disposition also;  their hand against every many, they trust no an thoroughly, save their own brotherhood. Uncertain, vindictive, and selfish, they are the source of apprehension to every traveler. Living in clans or hordes, for self protection, however, rather than for love’s sake, their one pre-eminent object in life is subsistence– food, shelter, clothing” (21-22).

George Needham “Street Arabs and Gutter Snipes” (1884)


“God has… made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America…. We are trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace.

“What shall history say of us? Shall it say that we renounced that holy trust, left the savage to its base conditions, the wilderness to the reign of waste, deserted duty, abandoned glory?… Our fathers… unfurled no retreating flag. That flag has never paused in its onward march. Who dares halt it now– now, when history’s largest events are carrying it forward?”

–Senator Albert Beveridge, Speech from January 9, 1900.

“Thank God for the iron in the blood of our fathers, the men who upheld the wisdom of Lincoln and bore sword or rifle in the armies of Grant! Let us, the children of the men who proved themselves equal to the mighty days, let us, the children of the men who carried the great Civil War to a triumphant conclusion, praise the God of our fathers that the ignoble counsels of peace were rejected; that the suffering and loss, the blackness of sorrow and despair, were unflinchingly faced and the years of strife endured; for in the end the slave was freed, the Union restored, and the mighty American republic placed once more as a helmeted queen among nations” (5).

Theodore Roosevelt, “The Strenuous Life” (1899)

“The cyclone of civilization rolled westward; the forests of untold centuries were swept away; streams dried up; lakes fell back from their ancient bounds; and all our fathers once loved to gaze upon was destroyed, defaced, or marred, except the sun, moon and starry skies above, which the Great Spirit in his wisdom hung beyond their reach.”

– Simon Pokagon, “The Red Man’s Greeting” at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

“My thoughts, the thoughts of Washington, Trotter and others, were the expression of social forces more than of our own minds. These forces or ideologies embraced more than our reasoned acts. They included physical, biological and psychological forces; habits, conventions and enactments. Opposed to these came natural reaction: the physical recoil of the victims, the unconscious and irrational urges, as well as reasoned complaints and acts. The total result was the history of our day. That history may be epitomized in one word– Empire; the domination of white Europe over black Africa and yellow Asia, through political power built on the economic control of labor, income and ideas. The echo of this industrial imperialism in America was the expulsion of black men from American democracy, their subjection to caste control and wage slavery. This ideology was triumphant in 1910”

– WEB DuBois, Dusk of Dawn.

Beginnings: Race is a Lie

10929_2_03, Miss Richard Wachira

The paradox of Race is that it is a lie which has produced a kind of truth; it is a true lie.

The fundamental instability of the Race Concept is illustrated by the various ways in which it has been “explained” by experts over the last 400 years. At different moments Race has been linked to physical characteristics, culture, language, religion, geography and what we would now call ethnicity. Just as telling is the fact that over the course of time experts have designated from 3 to 60 different races. Race, then, as  a concept, is fatally incoherent. Nonetheless, from these often contradictory fragments, public policies, practices, and popular beliefs we can construct an American (US) “racial worldview”.

1. All the world’s peoples can be divided into biologically separate, discrete, and exclusive populations called races. A person can belong to only one race.

2. Phenotypic features, or visible physical differences, are markers or symbols of race identity and status. Because an individual may belong to a racial category and not have any or all of the associated physical features, racial scientists early in the 20th century invented an invisible internal element, “racial essence,” to explain such anomalies.

3. Each race has distinct qualities of temperament, morality, disposition, and intellectual ability. Consequently, races have different behaviours that are linked to their physical differences; i.e. each race has distinct behavioral traits.

4. Races are unequal. They can, and should, be ranked on a gradient of inferiority and superiority. As the 19th-century biologist Louis Agassiz observed, since races exist, we must “settle the relative rank among [them].”

5. The behavioral and physical attributes of each race are inherited and innate, therefore fixed, permanent, and unalterable.

6. Distinct races should be segregated and allowed to develop their own institutions, communities, and lifestyles, separate from those of other races.

There is no biological foundation for the Race Concept. Pick any two so-called white people and analyze their DNA. The odds are extremely likely that their genetic profiles would be less similar to one another than to a randomly chosen person of color. In other words, there is greater genetic variation within a so-called racial group than between different so-called racial groups.

Or take a tribe of chimpanzees from East Africa. There is more genetic variation within that single tribe than over the entire human species.

The biological definition of race is a sub-species, which is to say “a population of organisms differing from others of the same species in the frequency of heredity traits.” No such divergence of hereditary traits exists in the human species.

Phenotypical characteristics such as hair texture, facial or eye structure, melanin content of the skin, etc. are irrelevant. They tell us nothing about the individual. It is by giving these features semantic weight– social meaning– that the Race Concept gains currency. That we choose to note these superficial differences– we could even say construct them– is thus an ideological imperative in the sense that the Race Concept is asserted 1) as a content to have something of importance to tell us about members of different races 2) as a form to structure our thinking itself.

On the other hand, as a biological fiction Race has very real social consequences. Race– like gender and class– is a determinant of human experience and, as sociologists say, “life chances.” So Race is a biological lie which has produced a kind of social truth.

The above is a baseline for any intelligent discussion of Race.

A Rough Timeline of Race Theory with Key Concepts and Thinkers

Prior to the Age of Discovery (pre-15th century) there are few theories of human difference. The rise of deepwater navigation brings greater contact between disparate populations and thus increased speculation on human biological diversity. Some thinkers turn to the Christian bible as a source of information to explain apparent differences between groups. For instance the book of Genesis, in which Ham, the son of Noah is cursed: “cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren” (9:21-15). The curse of Ham blackened the skin of his descendants, it was thought, yet there is no textual evidence in the bible for this belief. It was only between the 2nd and 6th centuries CE that another sacred text, the Babylonian Talmud claimed Ham’s sons were black. Other biblical passages claimed that all the races were a single species born of one creation, as in Acts: God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” (17:26).

Ancient cultures had no consistent belief in racial difference. The Race concept gained credence only at the same moment when the early stages of capitalism commenced and with the rise of slavery.

1440: Portuguese traders hold the first public slave auction in Lagos.

1445: The Pope allows Portuguese to subject all “infidels” to servitude.

1455: the island of Arguin becomes a fortified slave market.

1466: Cape Verde archipelago discovered. King of Portugal grants settlers a monopoly on the African slave trade.

1470: 83% of slaves in Naples are black Africans from the sub-Saharan region.

Late 16th century:

the word “Negro,” borrowed from Portuguese, enters the English language.

the word “race” enters the English language as a rough synonym for type, sort or kind.

1590 SPENSER F.Q. II. xii. 8 Seagulles..And Cormoyraunts, with birds of ravenous race. 1648 HERRICK Hesper., On Spalt (1869) 226 Of pushes Spalt has such a knottie race. 1715-20 POPE Iliad V. 66 Expert..In woods and wilds to wound the savage race. 1783 JOHNSON Let. to Mrs. Thrale 20 Nov., I hope [her disease] is not of the cephalick race. 1823 SCOTT Peveril xxv. (motto), Amidst the faded race of fallen leaves.

we can also see race used to describe wine

1520 WHITINTON Vulg. (1527) 15 This is a cup of good romney, and drynketh well of the rase.

and as a term related to reproduction:

1. a. The offspring or posterity of a person; a set of children or descendants. Chiefly poet.

1570 FOXE A. & M. II. 1841/1 Thus was the outward race & stocke of Abraham after flesh refused.

1520: Paracelsus, a Swiss physician, argues for a separate creation (polygenism) on the basis of the biblical story of Cain and Abel (darker people are the children of Cain).

1619: first enslaved Africans arrive in British N. America (Jamestown, VA). This is a key moment in the development of the white race. Though initially European descended indentured servants and enslaved Africans possessed virtually the same social status, and no European thought of themselves as “white,” over the course of the 17th century distinctions began to be made.

Lucilo Vanini argues that Africans are descended from apes; as proof, their color. More broadly around this time is the spread of the notion that sub-Saharan Africans are inferior. See for instance Elizabethan drama: Shakespeare criticizes this idea in Othello and seems to confirm it in Titus Andronicus, as does the character of Eleazar in Christopher Marlowe’s Lust’s Dominion.

Spanish conquest and colonization. The Ottoman Empire blocks European expansion to the east and thus impels movement westward across the Atlantic. The Spanish enslave indigenous people such as the Arawak (1,500 men, women, and children by 1495) which sparks a debate about the relative humanity of Native Americans (de Las Casas). The Americas will, over many years, register as the single most important setting/situation for philosophers and scientists interested in human difference.

1684: Francois Bernier undertakes the first formal effort to classify humans.

1774: Edward Long, The History of Jamaica: “the Negro” is “void of genius” and “incapable” of civilization. A separate species.

1758: In Systema Naturae, (10th edition) Linneaus argues for 4 basic categories of human being: Americanus, Africanus, Europaeus,and  Asiaticus.

1781: Notes on the State of Virginia: ” I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”

1791: Haitian Revolution enflames the imaginations of people of African descent and the paranoia of slave-holders.

late 1700s: Buffon argues that black people are the product of hotter climes with more sunlight. Over time darker skin becomes hereditary. On the other hand, Laplanders have relatively dark skin because of the extreme cold. Petrus Camper, a Dutch anatomist, develops the science of physiognimy, studying facial angles of various races as they relate to those of apes.


In general, 18th century naturalists agreed that there was a hierarchy of races, but tended to be monogenists. At the turn into the 19th century that would change as polygenism was revived.

1795: JF Blumenbach coins the term “Caucasian” in his On the Natural Variety of Mankind (pdf). He also argues for 5 races– Caucasian, Mongolian Ethiopian, American and Malay– on the basis of skin color and cranial size. This last additional race designation, according to Stephen Jay Gould, changes the theoretical “geometry” of race. Race distinctions go from being largely geographical and temperamental– a kind of linear model of difference–  to hierarchical.

1799: Charles White publishes Account of the Regular Gradation of Man:

“Where shall we find, unless in the European, that nobly arched head, containing such a quantity of brain, and supported by a hollow conical pillow, entering its centre? Where the perpendicular face, the prominent nose, and round projecting chin? Where that variety of features, and fullness of expression; those long, flowing, graceful ringlets; that majestic beard, those rosy cheeks and coral lips? Where that erect posture of the body and noble gait? In what other quarter of the globe shall we find the blush that overspreads the soft features of the beautiful women of Europe, that emblem of modesty, of delicate feelings, and of sense? What nice expression of the amiable and softer passions in the countenance; and that general elegance of features and complexion? Where, except on the bosom of the European woman, two such plump and snowy white hemispheres, tipt with vermillion?”

Note the aesthetic valuation of race here. As Stephen Jay Gould points out, aesthetic criteria for the hierarchizing of races was (and is) fairly common. In the Mismeasure of Man, Gould cites Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Oliver Wendell Holmes remark on the extermination of the North American indigenes:”and so the red-crayon sketch is rubbed out, and the canvas is ready for a picture of manhood a little more like God’s image.” As we’ll see, the concept of manhood is a crucial component of white supremacy.

Late 18th/Early 19th centuries: The rise of Anglo-Saxonism. Drawn in part from Tacitus’ Germania, published in the late 1st century CE which describes the Germanic tribes who fought Rome.

“For my own part, I agree with those who think that the tribes of Germany are free from all taint of intermarriages with foreign nations, and that they appear as a distinct, unmixed race, like none but themselves. Hence, too, the same physical peculiarities throughout so vast a population. All have fierce blue eyes, red hair, huge frames, fit only for a sudden exertion. They are less able to bear laborious work. Heat and thirst they cannot in the least endure; to cold and hunger their climate and their soil inure them.”

Theodore Parker: “‘the ethnological idiosyncrasy of the Anglo-Saxon– his restless disposition to invade and conquer other lands; his haughty contempt of humbler tribes which leads him to subvert, enslave, kill and exterminate; his fondness for material things, preferring these to beauty; his love of personal liberty, yet coupled with the most profound respect for peaceful and established law; his inborn skill to organize things to a mill, men to a company, a community, tribes to a federated state; and his slow, solemn, inflexible, industrious and unconquerable will’” (100).

1839: Samuel Morton publishes Crania Americana.

1840s: Louis Agassiz emigrates from Switzerland to the US and becomes a professor at Harvard and director of the Museum of Comparatize Zoology. Originally a monogenist (in large part because of his Christian beliefs) he undergoes a kind of negrophobic panic when he first encounters African Americans in Philadelphia. The experience is so powerful for Agassiz that he eventually embraces polygenism. He rejects the criterion of interfertility for species in order to do so.

“As much as I try to feel pity at the sight of this degraded and degenerate race, as much as their fate fills me with compassion in thinking of them as really men, it is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us. Seeing their black faces with their fat lips and their grimacing teeth, the wool on their heads, their bent knees, their elongated hands, their large curved fingernails, and above all the livid color of their palms, I could not turn my eyes from their face in order to tell them to keep their distance, and when they advanced that hideous hand toward my plate to serve me, I wished I could leave in order to eat a piece of bread apart rather than dine with such service. What unhappiness for the white race to have tied its existence so closelv to that of the negroes in certain countries! God protect us from such contact!” (letter to his mother, Dec. 1846)

We know of the existence of the negro race, with all its physical peculiarities, from the Egyptian monuments, several thousand years before the Christian era. Upon these monuments the negroes are so represented as to show that in natural propensities and mental abilities they were pretty much what we find them at the present day,–indolent, playful, sensual, imitative, subservient, good-natured, versatile, unsteady in their purpose, devoted and affectionate, in everythink unlike other races, they may but be compared to children, grown in the stature of adults while retaining a childlike mind…. Therefore I hold that they are incapable of living on a footing of social equality with the whites, in one and the same community, without being an element of social disorder.” (letter, 10 Aug. 1863)

Agassiz began to work with Samuel Morton, a physician with a vast collection of human skulls (over one thousand at the time of his death). This was a very significant meeting of two men who would become celebrated scientists. Morton’s goal was to quantify human inequality by measuring the size of skulls and thus brains, a practice known as craniometry. Morton’s largest sample of skulls were Native American of which he possessed 338. The reason he had so many was because of the scalp bounty on Indians. Also, it is likely that there were more female and children’s skulls in that sample becuase these would have been the easiest to harvest.

1850: Robert Knox publishes The Races of Men in which he argues that democracy is a product of the Teutonic race.


1853: Comte de Gobineau, frequently referred to as the father of modern racism, publishes his Essay on the Inequality of Races which posits three major races: White, Yellow and Black. Within the White race are different sub-groups which are also races: Aryan, Nordic, Alpine and Mediterranean. The Aryan white race he held to be the purest. Americans were profoundly influenced by Gobineau’s ideas, which became the foundation for Nazi race theories especially in their emphasis on purity and the consequences of miscegenation.

1854: Nott and Gliddon publish Types of Mankind. Grouping by geography, physiology and language, they arrive at 8 different races: Arctic, Asiatic, European, African, American, Polynesian, Malayan, and Australian.

1857: Dred Scott Case. No one of African decent may be a citizen.

Herbert Spencer publishes Progress: Its Law and Cause, a work that seems to anticipate Social Darwinism before Darwin’s On the Origins of the Species is published.

1859: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life is published. This is a watershed event.


With the publication of the Origin of the Species the polygenic theory seemed to have been refuted definitively, though many monogenists still relied on the biblical account of creation as the authoritative source for that view. The notion that humanity shared a common source did nothing to undermine the belief that the races were inherently unequal in their difference and thus inequality flourished, from the persistence of phrenology and Peter Campers’ “facial angle” which divided physiognomy into the orthagnous and prognathous categories, a system resurrected by congressmen debating the 15th amendment, to the study of differences in the size and texture of brains or the distinction between the properties of hair.

The project for the measurement of human difference was almost always undertaken in the service of hierarchizing various groups. The failure to establish any clear-cut distinctions that withstood the demands of scientific method did little to impede the search for some definitive means of justifying racial hierarchy and if some methods such as phrenology became the object of satire and charges of quackery, new methods were being developed which would prove even more resilient.

Late 19th Century: Race is a “fact” of everyday life. There is still a vast confusion about where it begins and ends, what its causes and ultimate consequences are. At the same time white supremacy is simply a given for white Americans.

1860s: Black Codes

1866: Ku Klux Klan organized in Pulaski, Tennessee. From 6 former Confederate soldiers it rapidly increases in membership.

1869: Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, publishes Hereditary Genius which argues for the innate superiority of the English upper classes. Eventually he would develop the photographic method of “composite portraiture” to generate ‘ideal’ or averaged human (criminal) types.


1870s: Anti-Chinese movement in the American West.

1871: On the Descent of Man by Charles Darwin.

1877: RB Hayes pulls troops from the South, in effect betraying freedmen and signaling the end of Reconstruction.  White supremacy in the form of new local laws and political terror immediately worsens.

1882: Chinese Exclusion Act.

Alphonse Bertillon develops an anthropometric system for the idenification of criminals.


1883: The Civil Rights Act of 1875— establishing the right of all citizens to the “full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement”–is overturned by the Supreme Court.

1887 : Mound Bayou founded as an alternative to a white supremacist society. All black town.

1890s: Jim Crow fully established. Alfred Binet develops tests to measure mental ability which leads to the Stanford-Binet IQ.

1895: The Atlanta Compromise Speech by Booker T. Washington in which he essentially accedes to segregation.

Ida B. Wells publishes A Red Record.

1896: Plessy v. Ferguson

1898: Spanish-Cuban-Filipino-American War.

Wilmington “Race Riot”. Unknown number of African American citizens murdered in what amounted to a white supremacist insurrection. Yet Collier’s Weekly represents the even with the following image:


1899: Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden”


H.T. Johnson’s “The Black Man’s Burden”:

Pile on the Black Man’s Burden,

‘Tis nearest at your door,

Why heed long bleeding Cuba

Or dark Hawai’s shore;

Halt ye your fearless armies

Which menace feeble folks,

Who fight with clubs and arrows

And brook your rifles’ smoke.

Pile on the Black Man’s burden,

His wail with laughter drown,

You’ve sealed the Red Man’s problem

And now deal with the Brown.

In vain you seek to end it

With bullet, blood or death,

Better by far defend it

With honor’s holy breath.

Pile on the Black Man’s Burden,

His back is broad though sore,

What though the weight oppress him,

He’s borne the like before,

Your Jim crow laws and customs,

And fiendish midnight deed,

Though winked at by the nation

Will some day trouble breed.

Pile on the Black Man’s Burden,

At length ’twill heaven pierce,

Then on you or your children

Will reign God’s judgments fierce:

Your battleships and armies

May weaker ones appall,

But God Almighty’s justice

They’ll not disturb at all.

1890s?-1910s?: The Blues.

1899-ca. 1913: Philippine-American War. Many African American soldiers are struck by the racism directed against Filipinos by white troops. Methods used to suppress the “insurrection” include lynching, collective punishment and torture– acts that are rationalized on racist grounds.


1900: Gregor Mendel’s experiments in heritability are re-discovered after 35 years of obscurity.

Paul B. Barringer in The American Negro: His Past and Future (1900) writes that “‘sociological problems are in most cases biological problems [because] the ontogeny is the repetition of the phylogeny [and] the life history is the repetition of the race history’. The inborn characteristics of the Negro had been formed by natural selection during ‘ages of degradation’ in Africa and his savage traits could not have been altered in any significant way by a mere two centuries of proximity to Caucasian civilization in America. Thus his present ‘reversion to type’ was understandable. Lacking the discipline of slavery, ‘the young negro of the South… is reverting through hereditary forces to savagery.’” (253).

1903: WEB DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk.

1904: St. Louis World’s Fair showcases recently conquered people of the Philippines and a Congolese man named Ota Benga who would, 2 years later, be displayed next to an orangutan at the Bronx Zoo.

1910: Eugenics Record Office founded


1913: HH Goddard publishes The Kallikak Family

Dec. 7, 1915: President Woodrow Wilson, in his third address to Congress states that

“I am sorry to say that the gravest threats against our national peace and safety have been uttered within our own borders. There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life; who have sought to bring the authority and good name of our Government into contempt, to destroy our industries wherever they thought it effective for their vindictive purposes to strike at them, and to debase our politics to the uses of foreign intrigue…. Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out. They are not many, but they are infinitely malignant, and the hand of our power should close over them at once. They have formed plots to destroy property, they have entered into conspiracies against the neutrality of the Government, they have sought to pry into every confidential transaction of the Government in order to serve interests alien to our own. It is possible to deal with these things very effectually. I need not suggest the terms in which they may be dealt with.”

1917: Robert Yerkes– with the help of HH Goddard, director of the Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys, and others– develops an IQ test  which is given to 1.75 million Army recruits whose “average mental age… stood just above the level of moronity at a shocking and meagre 13” (Gould 226).

Nov. 7, 1919: Over 10,000 “suspected” communists and anarchists– many if not most recent immigrants– arrested in the first wave of what comes to be known as the Palmer Raids. Three months later another 6,000 people are arrested and held without trial.

1920: Lothrop Stoddard publishes The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy.

Mid-1920s: KKK membership as high as 5 million in the US.


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