The Future of Science Is Black

I did not struggle through the academy as a Black girl from a marginalized socio-economic background just to teach white people that Black peoples are human.

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Feb 13 2018, 3:00pm

A decolonization-focused protest at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Image: Sarah Luby Burke

In January, H&M added itself to a very long list of retailers trafficking in scientific racism. The viral images, from H&M’s UK retail site, featured a young Black boy modeling a sweatshirt with the words “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” and a young white boy modeling a sweatshirt with the words “Mangrove Jungle…Official Survival Expert.”

The internet erupted at this injustice. In South Africa, the Economic Freedom Fighters, a “radical and militant economic emancipation movement” and political party, led protests at six H&M stores in the Gauteng province of Johannesburg. Police fired rubber bullets at activists, and critics focused on the destruction of property rather than the violence of dehumanization.

We know this story. Just as former US President Barack Obama was frequently rendered a monkey in political cartoons, H&M styling those particular kids in those particular sweatshirts was not an accident. The part of the story we often leave out is how the history of this racism is intimately linked to the history of science.

Radical science is key to understanding how calling us, Black peoples, monkeys makes no scientific sense. Radical science is key to addressing the environmental injustices slowly killing our communities, while advancing our capacity to adapt to a changing planet. Radical science is key to Black liberation.

Scientific Racism: Then and Now

Eugenics was once an accepted scientific field led by white natural historians and biologists who used flawed scientific methods to separate humans into different, genetically distinct groupings, or “races,” on the basis of phenotype, morphology, and intelligence.

Scientists convened at eugenics conferences held at prestigious museums and universities to illustrate their hypotheses. Black peoples were at the bottom of the human hierarchy they constructed, with false claims of our close relationship to non-human primates used to explain this positioning in evolutionary time and justify discrimination against Black bodies in material space.

Purveyors of these myths trafficked in Black peoples, ripping them from their homes and bodily autonomy in an attempt to create scientific experiments and comedic performance out of human beings.

Black peoples were at the bottom of the human hierarchy they constructed

The woman now infamously known as Hottentot Venus, Sara “Saartjie” Baartman of the Gonaquasub group of the Khoikhoi, was taken from Cape Town, South Africa to be exhibited alive, often naked, in London and Paris for eugenics-informed biomedical curiosity about the supposed anomalies of Black female anatomy. Upon Sara’s death in 1817, Georges Cuvier, acclaimed French zoologist, dissected her body to substantiate physical anthropology hypotheses that claimed Black people were the “missing link” between human and non-human primates. Cuvier compared her anatomy to that of an ape, specifically, the orangutan.

Ota Benga, a man from the Mbuti pygmy peoples in the Congo, was kidnapped by white supremacist ‘African explorer’ Samuel Verner. Benga was exhibited in New York’s Bronx Zoo (then known as the New York Zoological Park) in 1906 as a living example of the “missing link” between ‘Man’ and apes. He was first exhibited in a cage with a chimpanzee and later moved to a larger cage, which he shared with an orangutan.

Ota Benga pictured holding a chimpanzee. Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division

While Black ministers protested the exhibition, William Temple Hornaday, zoologist and the first director of the Bronx Zoo, defended the decision to exhibit Ota Benga, proclaiming, “I am giving the exhibition purely as an ethnological exhibit.”

An editorial in The New York Times, published in 1906, also defended the exhibition, writing, “Ota Benga, according to our information, is a normal specimen of his race or tribe, with a brain as much developed as are those of its other members. Whether they are held to be illustrations of arrested development, and really closer to the anthropoid apes than the other African savages, or whether they are viewed as the degenerate descendants of ordinary negroes, they are of equal interest to the student of ethnology, and can be studied with profit.”

If you had not yet heard of these or the many other examples like them, you are not alone. I had not learned about them either, not even during my six years of advanced education in zoology and anthropology.

This is not an accident. Scientific racism coexists alongside historical amnesia in scientific institutions and the practice of science today. A senior academic at the University College London was holding eugenics conferences, allegedly in secret, since at least 2015. Colonial conservation practices continue to displace indigenous peoples from their land in order to establish protected areas or game reserves. After being violently evicted from their homes, the San in Botswana’s Central Kalahari have to contend with “shoot-on-sight” policies when caught “poaching” on a reserve set up on their ancestral lands.

Early Black Radical Resistance to Scientific Racism

Though our bodies have been experimented on, and our communities displaced, in the name of science, our ancestors used science and art to resist racist narratives.

Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, gifted orator, and politician, countered eugenicists, including the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, with ethnological analyses. In his book Notes on the State of Virginia, first published in 1781, Jefferson attempted to use natural history to justify the inferiority and oppression of Black and Indigenous Americans.

Douglass refuted the claims of Jefferson and other eugenicists. In his 1854 speech, “Claims of the Negro, Ethnologically Considered,” Douglass wrote, “Common sense itself is scarcely needed to detect the absence of manhood in a monkey, or to recognize its presence in a negro…what are technically called the negro race, are a part of the human family, and are descended from a common ancestry, with the rest of mankind.”

Half a century later at the Paris Exhibition, sociologist, historian, and human rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois exhibited “Types of American Negroes.” In showcasing the diversity of Black American culture and physical features, Du Bois directly challenged racist depictions underlying eugenics, such as those of natural historians Josiah Clark Nott (who personally enslaved Black peoples) and George Robert Gliddon's “Types of Mankind.”

DuBois challenged racist depictions like Nott's "Types of Mankind." Image: University of Michigan
“Four African American women seated on steps of building at Atlanta University, Georgia” Photographed by Thomas E. Askew. Exhibited in “Types of American Negroes” by W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900. Image: Library of Congress

Sarah Mapps Douglass, abolitionist and educator in the 1830s, resisted negative tropes of Black women through her illustrations of flora and fauna. Her watercolor painting of a black butterfly in nature was simultaneously a meditation on the free Black woman and a departure from the grotesque ways Black women were depicted in media during that time.

A token of love from me to thee. Watercolor print by Sarah Mapps Douglass. Source: Library Company of Philadelphia.

Radical Science in the 21st Century

In April 2017, an estimated 1.3 million people across the world participated in the March for Science, inspired by the Trump administration’s anti-science rhetoric and policies. Some scientists argued that the march was politicizing science and infusing it with “identity politics,” as the March’s diversity committee worked to respond to calls for a diverse, inclusive march. Others argued the march was not going far enough to acknowledge that science is indeed a political institution that has directly contributed to violence against marginalized peoples. These were just a few of the concerns with the march voiced on Twitter using the hashtag #marginsci, created by biochemist/biophysicist Stephani Page.

On the surface, scientists increasing their engagement in political activism might suggest a turn towards acknowledging racism in science. However, scientists of marginalized identities who have been speaking out against systemic inequality before the #resistance are critical of the way in which #ScientistsTakeaKnee, the march, and the rise in diversity initiatives across scientific institutions fail to take actual action against white supremacy.

Recently, social justice movements have been shining a light on white supremacy in science through more direct action. On Indigenous Peoples’ Day in October 2017, Decolonize this Place, NYC Stands with Standing Rock, BYP100 and others organized a protest at the statue of Teddy Roosevelt, eugenicist, 26th US president, and son of the founder of the American History of Museum of Natural History. In August 2017, BYP100 organized a protest in front of the statue of J. Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology,” who experimented on Black women without anesthesia because he believed we could not feel pain.

My Call to Action

It was July 20, 2016 at 8:30 AM and my phone was flooded with text messages from friends and comrades facing arrest. They chained themselves to the entry of the New York City Police Department’s union to bring national attention to the union’s protection of another officer’s unjust murder of another Black person. Although I was in a leadership position in this movement group, I was sitting unchained, hundreds of miles away, at a well-attended symposium with a majority white audience at one of the most preeminent conservation biology conferences in the country.

I considered the words of W. E. B. Du Bois: “One could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, and starved.”

Scientists in authority positions have told me that social justice does not belong in science. I have been accused of “reverse racism” for speaking out against actual racism at an international science conference, where I organized a handful of workshops and presentations on inclusion. While being called on to do “diversity” work for free and in hostile environments, I am tokenized and my status as a scientist questioned—despite years of education, global fieldwork, and management experience in ecology and conservation science.

The author, Cynthia Malone. Image: Kali-Ma Nazarene/Three Wand Studio

I did not struggle through the academy as a Black girl from a marginalized socio-economic background just to teach white people that Black peoples are human. I did it because I am passionate about monkeys and apes and the science of understanding their worlds, despite whatever myths racist natural historians perpetuate about our relationship to them.

Black scientists invested in doing science differently must build community with Black activists, who have honed the art of organized disruption, unapologetically declaring that “Black Lives Matter” as we reclaim our rightful place in scientific history. Together, we can explore questions critical to a radical scientific practice: What would science look like if everyone learned about the history and current manifestations of scientific racism and the illegitimacy of its theories? What would science look like if Black peoples’ worldviews were genuinely, consistently valued in knowledge production processes that generate theories and frameworks for inquiry? What would science look like with significant financial backing to address racist inequalities in education, health, and exposure to climate change impacts? What would science look like if our attention to debunking modern strands of eugenics intersected with debunking white, heteronormative, and cis-privileged notions of gender binaries and constructs?

In striving to respond to that which seems nearly impossible, we defiantly make room for new futures while honoring the work of our ancestors. We make possible a world where all peoples have the opportunity to ethically engage in the beautiful pursuit of curiosity that makes science worth fighting for.

Cynthia Malone is a conservation scientist, activist, and PhD student at the University of Toronto. Follow her on Twitter here .