The Robert B. Silvers Lecture:
Henry Louis Gates Jr. & Andrew S. Curran

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Andrew S. Curran

Gates: Stephanie Berger; Curran: Olivia Drake

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Andrew S. Curran

In 1739 Bordeaux’s Royal Academy of Sciences announced the subject of its latest essay contest: What is the physical cause of blackness and African hair, and what is the cause of Black degeneration? By the time entries were received two years later, more than four million Africans had been kidnapped and shipped across the Atlantic into a life of brutal enslavement in cities and on farms and plantations. None of the contest submissions was ever published until last year, in a book edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Andrew S. Curran, Who’s Black and Why? The essays, written by naturalists, theologians, physicians, and amateurs, document the search for a “scientific” understanding of race. Together they provide an indispensable record of the Enlightenment-era thinking that normalized the sale and enslavement of Black human beings.

For the 2022 Robert B. Silvers Lecture, Gates and Curran tell the story of the contest, contextualize it in the history of the period, and discuss how the essays laid bare the origins of anti-Black racism and colorism in the West.

The Robert B. Silvers Lecture is an annual series created by Max Palevsky in recognition of the work of Robert B. Silvers, who was a co-founding editor of The New York Review of Books.

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