Why Garlick, Molyes, and Porrets have white roots, deep green leaves, and blacke seeds? Why severall docks, and sorts of Rhubarb with yellow roots, send forth purple flowers?
Book VI, section 10 of Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica treat the “Blacknesse of Negroes.” In this, and the subsequent section, Browne disputes, as is his habit, the received wisdom about the object of his concern. Others have said that Black people are Black because of the heat of the sun, or their proximity to the equator: not so, says Browne, for other people who live at the Equator, like some American Indians, are not as dark-skinned as Black people, and some people who live very far South of the Equator, like the people who live in Southernmost Africa, are as dark-skinned as people who live further north, and furthermore, even stillborn children of Black people are dark-skinned, even though they have never been touched by the sun. Others have said that Black people are Black because they are the descendants of Noah’s son, Ham, whose descendants, because Ham had mocked his father, will be “a servant of servants…unto his brethren” (Genesis 9:25): not so, says Browne, because explanations that rely on miracles aren’t really explanations, and, furthermore, it’s not clear at all that dark skin is a curse. Black people seem to have no problem with it; dark-skinned Africans tell stories where the devil is white; and all theories of beauty Browne knows say that beauty has to do with symmetry and grace, not with color: everyone, says Browne, considers “horses…handsome under any colour,” at least, presumably, if they have good proportions and move well.
We can fault Browne for his obvious preference for light-colored skin. Even though he accepts that preferences in ideal facial features have to do with familiarity, he never fully steps back from his own investment in his own skin color. He writes, for example, “there are many [near the Equator] whose complexions descend not so low as blackness”: “not so low” is, frankly, a low thing to say. But what’s striking to me is that Brown begins his discussion of dark skin by talking about plants, and that he ends his discussion by talking about donkeys, that is, the legend that donkeys have cross-shaped markings in their hide because Christ once rode on a donkey.
We might say that Browne’s enframing of his discussion with plants and animals might be one more instance of a white writer “dehumanizing” dark-skinned people. However, I think that it’s something quite different: Browne is at least implicitly asserting that there’s no special set of rules for humans, at least when it comes to investigations of natural explanations.
For Browne, people, Black people included, are subject to the same material forces that anything is, so that an investigation of people requires investigating the forces that could impact anything. It’s no wonder, then, that the next section in his discussion of Blackness should be a long consideration of the chemical character of Blackness: like other writers of his generation, he wondered how could there be a color without light.
The effect of treating skin color as just one more natural phenomena obviously has the beneficial effect of removing it from any supernatural claims: it’s not a curse (nor, for that matter, a blessing). Browne’s approach has the advantage of curtailing the need to argue, for example, that all white people are the descendants of Gehazi, Namaan’s servant, cursed with leprosy by Elisha in 2 Kings 20:27. The AME minister George Wilson Brent advanced this position in the late nineteenth century, understandably so, since for centuries whites had been calling Brent and his people the cursed descendants of Ham. Two can play that game!
No such “contrivances” are necessary for Browne. If he begins with the presumption that a discussion of Blackness is a discussion only of skin color, and if his argument is, effectively, that the same sun falls on everyone, and if he finds, finally, that he cannot adequately explain the origins of Black skin, then surely he’s offering something better than the dangerous certainties offered by Thomas Jefferson or William Harrison. Jefferson’s discussion of Blackness is, of course, an attempt to argue that Black people are naturally inferior, and he takes their skin color — which he publicly claims to find repugnant — as something whose negative character extends as far as their morals and minds. And in Holinshed’s Chronicle, William Harrison, likewise takes the sun as having mental effects, though Harrison argues — quite unlike Jefferson — that too much sun makes people so clever that they can’t be trusted. Browne by contrast concerns himself narrowly with skin color, and the only certain answer he’s willing to give is that all other answers to date have been self-serving and unconvincing.
Browne, again, is obviously biased in favor of white people. And his implication that Blackness is worth investigating, and that Whiteness isn’t, singles out dark skin as an object that requires special explanation, which is itself perhaps further evidence of Browne’s biases, or perhaps just evidence that Browne was more accustomed to light than to dark skin. That said, I’m wondering if Browne’s refusal to countenance miraculous explanations, and his refusal to offer easy certainties, even if they benefit people like him, offered a lost possibility for imagining human difference, one less violent than what would become dominant in the ensuing centuries. Or is it just that Browne is able to imagine Nature as one great indifferent system — the same for plants and horses and people alike — because he’s writing in the early 1640s. Is it just too early in the history of the English enslavement of Africans for his thoughts to be as polluted as those of Jefferson and Emerson?