Science and Race

I am struck by a word that Craig Steven Wilder uses in the prologue to describe Henry Watson Jr. in Ebony & Ivy: “embodies” (Wilder 8). Wilder states that Watson’s career “embodies themes in the history of American colleges” (Wilder 8). Given our examination of archives and their focus on personal narrative, this presents an important framework. I wonder about the research process and deciding on one story that fits the themes covered in the book. Wilder begins his presentation of the relationships between American universities and race and slavery with a personal narrative of one man. I think this is a typical tactic for books of a similar nature to try to get the reader interested in a topic that is not in their academic field. To integrate detailed human experience into a survey of this topic is effective in allowing readers to connect with a specific person rather than trying to make them take on the whole topic, which a book geared towards fellow academics might do in its introduction.

I enjoyed the chapter about the colonial roots of racial science. As Wilder states, “Race did not come from science and theology; it came to science and theology” (Wilder 182). Racial ideas are instead an integral part of empire building and are incorporated into scientific and theological ideas to give them legitimacy. Reading this chapter, I was reminded of a time of scientific research, which I had forgotten: a time when science had to adhere to religious understanding. In this case, race and complexion needed to be explained given the existence of Adam and Eve (Wilder 187). Though the Enlightenment and the expansion of reason were at play, there was still a strong religious center in society. At the time when scientific theories of racial superiority were developing, they too had to fit within the religious mythology of the time. I have been fascinated by tales of racial origins which often are part-science, part-mythology. I am especially interested in how they take root and when they become “fact” for a society. As Wilder explains, American colleges cemented the validity of these “truths” about human difference (Wilder 193).

Bryn Mawr and the Seven Sisters differ from many of the institutions that Wilder discusses because the former were established after the abolition of slavery in the U.S. However, many of the same ideas about race, intelligence and education are present in both histories. As Wilder points out, “people of color came to campus only as servants and objects” (Wilder 3). Like Bryn Mawr in its earlier history, students did not see people of color as anything other than servants and objects and so scientific reasons for racial difference that were taught could paint people of color as incapable of intelligence.