The father of modern statistics was also the father of eugenics, not to be confused with genetics. He was also Darwin’s first cousin and he went by Gregor Mendel. No, that wasn’t his name; what was his name? It’s not important. What’s important is he pushed the use of Darwin’s ideas of natural selection to their natural conclusion: the “natural order” of the races. Darwin’s cousin, who will continue to go unnamed until it becomes important enough to fall into my brain, once said: “The average intellectual standard of the negro race is some 2 grades below our own.”
He said much worse things, too, did much worse things, too, but that’s not important. What’s important is the next quote:
“There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot thus live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
Can you guess who said that? I’ll let you ruminate on it for a while. Let’s continue our walk. The Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York was an interesting place. It was the birth of the Eugenics movement in America. Eugenics is a fancy term for: eradication of non-white peoples through forced sterilization and other “enlightened”, scientific methodology. The founder of that place, Charles Davenport, was the son of a famous abolitionist. That means someone who was against slavery.
Maybe Charles Davenport misunderstood the meaning of the word abolitionist. Maybe he mistook it to mean abolish, as in, abolish the negros. Perhaps that’s why he wrote a congratulatory letter all the way to England after his Eugenics Record Office received federal funding to perform their important work. Who did he send the letter to? Frances Galton, first cousin of Charles Darwin, father of modern statistics, founding father of eugenics, firm believer in the hierarchy of races. There we go. I knew his name would come to me.
Galton, not Gregor. Frances, not Mendel. Mendel was the founder of Genetics. Galton was the founder of Eugenics. Similar names, different functions.
Have you figured out who the above quote can be attributed to? I’ll give you a hint: he was an honest guy. We’ll come back to that one, I promise. In the meantime, here’s another quote (history is just riddled with fun facts):
“We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
I won’t make you work for this one. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that as justification for the 1927 decision of Buck v. Bell, an infamous case in U.S. Eugenics history. (Fun fact: Hitler was a big fan of U.S. Eugenics, and often applauded the fine work Americans were doing in scientific racism, forced sterilization, covert experimentation, and so forth).
That last quote means a lot to me because I scribbled it onto a poetry notebook in 2007. I would walk through my racist college and read this quote, while sitting in my racist classes, surrounded by racist people who expected me to inform them of all the ways they were being racist. Things like that eat away at you, like bleach in the belly. Like Bell and The Buck. I mean, Bell v. Buck.
State laws permitting sterilization of those deemed unfit to reproduce – especially those held against their will for a long list of arbitrary reasons– were common American practice in the first half of the 20th century. Many, if not most, of these laws were passed thanks to research being done at places like the Eugenics Records Office.
It fascinates me, as a writer of nonfiction, as a person of black skin, the tremendous amount of effort this country regularly expends to forget its own past. To make those whose present is affected by that past wholly unaware of it. To deny that we are living the same history that you want us to forget. Who is the you, who are we? Hmmm.
I am also fascinated by what people seem to think race means in this country. What slavery means in this country – means, not meant. Present tense, not past. Consider this: Abraham Lincoln didn’t free the slaves out of the goodness of his heart. Abraham Lincoln was no abolitionist like Charles Davenport’s father. Honest Abe was the one who said the quote from earlier in this essay, the one about superiority of whiteness. Lincoln said it during a debate for a senate seat. Some people say excuse it as a statement of political convenience, not rea malice. They rewrite the history books as we live them. Many (black) people say that Lincoln “freed” the slaves out of political convenience, not out of a pure heart. I say freed with air quotes because, aha, the 13th amendment is a thing. Ain’t no (black) body free.
I don’t know, I’m not a historian, but I have yet to meet a (white) historian that I trust, so I wouldn’t want to be a historian. Because the history they spit at me is a history of un-history. It is without context, without meaning. It is devoid of the underlying history, the real black history, that this country works so diligently to suppress.
I remember, once, a black friend of a friend told me that he didn’t find out about the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth or Malcolm X until grad school. His whole life, he was fed a steady diet of Martin’s somber face. Pacifistic. Fred Shuttlesworth lived down the street from Angela Davis’ family when she was a child.
Angela Davis grew up on Dynamite Hill, the neighborhood in Birmingham so titled because of the white pushback to black settlement. Her parents raised her on a steady intellectual diet of anti-capitalistic and anti-racist literature. And outside, the bombs rang out. The price of education, of knowledge, was very real for her. Someone like her could only become who she became, and nothing else. At school, she watched Baldwin and Malcolm lecture at Brandeis University, which is known to be a recruiting ground for the US intelligence community. You are who you are influenced by. What was I on about?
Something about Birmingham bombings. Something about Angela Davis. Something about former Arkansas Governor George Wallace. “Well, boys,” he said to his advisors, after losing the election to a Klansman. “That’s the last time any son-of-a-bitch outniggers me.”
A few years later, Wallace went from anti-KKK politician to vociferous defender of racism, yelling “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” at the school’s entrance as the first black children were escorted in by the national guard so they wouldn’t be torn apart by the frothing white mob.
Look, I’m getting distracted. What I’m trying to say is what George Wallace said to NBC after he received 100,000 letters of support from people in the North for his pro-Klan stance: “they all hate black people… That’s it! … The whole United States is southern!”
The political economy of racist ideas. The self-interest that underlies racism in all its forms. It’s not about intelligence or ignorance. It’s about self-interest. It’s about greed. I guess that makes sense, then, how I have no choice but to write about race. That’s bleak, not black. That’s the color of my skin.
Said Farah is a Somali-born, Seattle-raised writer based in Minneapolis, MN. His work is in conversation with third-culture writers who’ve sought to explore questions of identity, place, and belonging. He uses writing as a way to parse the natural conflicts which arise from his multiplicities. He is a 2018 Alum of the VONA / Voices Workshop for Writers of Color. He is an MFA Candidate and Graduate Instructor of Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota. He holds a BA in Creative Writing & Literature from SUNY: Empire State College and is founder/facilitator of the Minority Memoir Writing Group at The Loft Literary Center.