Scientific American

THE WHITEWASHING OF BLACK GENIUS. Frederick Douglass, Antonio Maceo and the outrages of “racial science”

By Griffin Black on October 12, 2020By Griffin Black on October 12, 2020

The Whitewashing of Black Genius
Antonio Maceo, left, and Frederick Douglass, right. Credit: Maceo AlamyDouglass Alamy

Sometimes it is the strange similarities and symmetries of unrelated historical moments that most clearly display the patterns of human experience. Archives separated by oceans can be in dialogue with each other. A case in point: in the National Library of Scotland and the national archives in Cuba, you can find unsettling documents detailing the skull measurements of two renowned Black leaders of the 19th century. These peculiar archival records demonstrate the long relationship between scientific inquiry and racism. Together, they caution against the perennial problem of societal prejudices seeping into scientific “progress.”

Frederick Douglass, the American abolitionist orator and publisher, and Antonio Maceo, the celebrated military hero of the Cuban independence movement, are rarely if ever mentioned together. Yet these men experienced strikingly similar scrutiny about their mixed racial ancestry. Racist commentators asked whether these Black leaders’ achievements were attributable to their partial “European” or “white” blood. The primary objective of 19th-century “racial science” and ethnology was to stratify the human species into superior and inferior racial categories; such ideas could then be used to justify racial oppression.

But in the attacks levied against these two figures, another factor is in play: the erasure of nonwhite excellence. Douglass’s rhetorical mastery and Maceo’s courageous military exploits were testaments to Black artistry, intellect and leadership. By suggesting their triumphs stemmed from their having partial white ancestry, white critics attempted to rob them of their status as exemplars of Black genius.

Why skulls? Why were some 19th-century scientists so crazy for craniums? Samuel George Morton, a scientist from Philadelphia, epitomized this trend. Morton’s office, filled with skulls from around the world (many retrieved by grave robbers), was affectionately known as the “American Golgotha.” To Morton, skulls were the key: cranial characteristics dictated racial difference and supposedly proved Europeans were the pinnacle of human advancement. Morton’s Crania Americana perpetuated the ideas of cranial racial difference that had a sprawling hold on 19th-century medical and popular thought. Even the skulls of celebrated leaders like Douglass and Maceo did not escape racialized scrutiny.

en the skulls of celebrated leaders like Douglass and Maceo did not escape racialized scrutiny.

Antonio Maceo deserved his title, “the Bronze Titan.” He achieved the rank of major general, and fought in hundreds of military engagements against Spanish colonial authorities and refused to be slowed by the many wounds he suffered in the field. Maceo’s parents were classified as “pardos libres,” meaning they were free (not enslaved) and mixed-race. Given his Afro-Cuban parentage, Maceo took pride in his position as a public symbol of the potential for racial equality in Cuba. He led multiracial militias and famously rejected the terms of the 1878 Pact of Zanjón for not guaranteeing independence and the total abolition of slavery. Maceo was killed in battle on December 7, 1896, and came to symbolize the collective struggle of a multiracial Cuban population and a national future free from past racial injustices.

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