The Anatomy of Blackness

Book Reviews: The Anatomy of Blackness


This is an important contribution to an important topic. But it is also a model of how intellectual history should be done. Curran moves well beyond the parade of Big Thinkers that have long dominated the history of ideas. He reads them, to be sure, but he also reads what they read. By this technique, he moves deeper and deeper into the culture of ethnography, anatomy, and slavery in search of the origins and forms of ‘Blackness.’

(Marshall Poe New Books in History)


The Anatomy of Blackness is an enormous contribution to the historiography dealing with the role that science had in understanding and classifying the racial diversity of the French colonial world.

(Adriana Novoa Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences)


Dans ce contexte chargé, le livre d’Andrew Curran commence par un radical, un provocateur, et peut-être, un salvateur pas de côté, en se donnant comme un livre sur la «textualisation» de l’Africain. [. . . ] Par une attention au lexique des auteurs, l’étude de la « noirceur » proposée par Curran dégonfle les vaines querelles et ouvre l’espace pour un autre type d’enquête.

(Thierry Hoquet Critique)


A highly intelligent book on an important topic. The breadth of Andrew Curran’s knowledge about the Enlightenment is astonishing… The book makes the convincing point not only that Africa is a major focus in the Enlightenment’s imagination, but also that natural history and anthropology are central to understanding not only its scientific agenda, but also its humanitarian politics.

(Carl Niekerk Centaurus 2012)


[L]e livre de Curran fournit une étude relevant de l’histoire des textes, des idées et des savoirs naturalistes sur la noirceur à l’époque de l’esclavage et de la naissance des sciences de l’homme qui sera désormais incontournable pour les historiens des images et des beaux-arts. Ceci indépendamment du projet de l’auteur, qui a scruté par le menu ce que recouvraient les concepts fort instables de Noir, de « nègre », de race, de variétés, d’espèces, etc., dans les milieux philosophiques et naturalistes français du xviiie siècle.

(Anne Lafont Perspectives)


 “A definitive statement on the complex, painful, and richly revealing topic of how the major figures of the French Enlightenment reacted to the enslavement of black Africans, often to their discredit. The fields of race studies and of Enlightenment studies are more than ready to embrace the type of analysis in which Curran engages, and all the more so in that his book is beautifully written and illustrated.”

(Mary McAlpin Symposium 2012)


Curran’s approach to intellectual history is an exciting one that transcends the oft-written biographies and other author-centered discussions. His focus on trends and his immersion in the writings of the time creates an accurate rather than anachronistic mindset, which is truly useful for historians.

(Sarah Goodwin Alpata: A Journal of History)

Wide-ranging, well-researched, and compellingly argued, The Anatomy of Blackness makes a substantial and valuable contribution to our understanding of the complexities of Enlightenment theories of racial difference. Curran’s turn from the linear, figurehead-driven histories that describe the crystallization of the concept of race within classification systems to the halting, uncertain elaboration of environmentalist and anatomically based explanations throughout the period represents an important shift in the ways these questions have been treated.

(Lynn Festa, author of Sentimental Figures of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France)


Curran offers a more comprehensive view of this subject than anyone before him: showing how the slave islands of the Caribbean were, in effect, laboratories in which Europeans studied Africans; how sameness and difference chased each other in a hermeneutic circle from which we have still not entirely escaped. The Anatomy of Blackness combines meticulous, original scholarship with unflinching analytical judgments.

(Christopher L. Miller, author of The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade)


The Anatomy of Blackness chronicles the development of Enlightened racial thought like no other book in the disciplines of history or Francophone studies. It reveals how contradictions and ambiguities over race and slavery in the writing of figures like Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot were produced by tensions between their understandings of “natural law” and “natural history.”

(David Garrigus, New West Indian Guide)


This study reveals with striking clarity the complex interaction of the science of human difference in this period with other strands of Enlightenment thought as well as the practices of (French) slave trading and colonial slavery.

(Carolyn Vellenga Berman H-France)


A major contribution to the study of the uses of natural history, the presence and absence of universalism in the Enlightenment, and the origins of modern racial thought.

(Martin S. Staum H-France)


Curran has produced a powerful argument about how Europeans defined not only Africans but themselves in the early modern period; about how depictions of the ‘other’ furnished slavers and planters with the necessary intellectual justifications for slavery; about how natural science has the (frightening) ability to define both body and soul.

(Jeremy L. Caradonna H-France)


The Anatomy of Blackness is an intense and challenging reading experience, but one that certainly repays the effort.

(Stephen Kenny Reviews in History)


The rise of racial science in the late eighteenth century has become a flourishing field of investigation over the past twenty or so years. Andrew S. Curran’sThe Anatomy of Blackness is a significant contribution to this scholarship… In trying to understand why these events unfolded so differently in each nation, Andrew Curran’s study has greatly enlarged our knowledge of an emergent race science in “enlightened” France.

(Nicholas Hudson Bulletin of the History of Medicine)

This engrossing, comprehensive study traces 18th-century European thought on anatomical blackness of Africans… Curran’s ability to dissect and explain complicated arguments of the period’s major thinkers is impressive.



This is a convincing piece of scholarship… a satisfying and clear analysis of how French writers (among other) constructed images of the African body that reflected, while often simultaneously silencing, the central role played by slavery in attracting European interest to the subject in the first place… This book will be read with interest and profit not only by scholars of the Enlightenment, but also those concerned with the history of racial thinking, slavery, the history of science, and Europe’s engagement with the rest of the world.

(Rebecca Earle, European History Quarterly)

Curran’s approach to intellectual history is an exciting one that transcends the oft-written biographies and other author-
centered discussions. His focus on trends and his immersion in the writings of the time creates an accurate rather than anachronistic mindset, which is truly useful for historians.

(Sarah Goodwin Alpata: A Journal of History 2012)


Curran’s Francotropism and medical background enable him to develop insights that should prove important to the ongoing transnationalization and discipline-blurring of literary and cultural studies.

(Ian Finseth Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 2012)


The attention that Curran gives to individual texts and writers is rewarding; treating the same writer and text in its various editions with its attendant changes in more than one chapter and in more than one context allows a network of writerly adoption, adaption, and rejection to emerge. Because he is interested in the disciplinary contexts in which writers wrote as well as the usages to which the writings were put, Curran is able to convey a sense of scientific specialization developing both independently of and loosely in conjunction with national economic, political, and moral issues.

(Roxann Wheeler, Eighteenth-Century Life 2015)


Curran beautifully illuminates and analyzes the complex field of Enlightenment-era thought on race and shows how it shaped the broader society and culture. An exemplary work of intellectual, literary, and cultural history.

(Laurent Dubois, coeditor of Origins of the Black Atlantic )


The most comprehensive analysis of Enlightenment science of race since Michele Duchet’s Anthropologie et histoire au siècle des Lumières. Curran’s careful attention to the emerging sciences of dermal anatomy and albinism highlight tensions between environmentalist and essential explanations of racial difference in a wide range of canonical and understudied eighteenth-century texts, within the wider contexts of European colonialism, slavery, and abolitionism.

(Sue Peabody, author of “There Are No Slaves in France”: The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Régime)


A “tour de force”
(Julia Douthwaite, Dix-huitième siècle, 2014)