Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance

Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance

Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance

Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance


Challenging conventional constructions of the Harlem Renaissance and American modernism, Daylanne English links writers from both movements to debates about eugenics in the Progressive Era. She argues that, in the 1920s, the form and content of writings by figures as disparate as W. E. B. Du Bois, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and Nella Larsen were shaped by anxieties regarding immigration, migration, and intraracial breeding.

English's interdisciplinary approach brings together the work of those canonical writers with relatively neglected literary, social scientific, and visual texts. She examines antilynching plays by Angelina Weld Grimk as well as the provocative writings of white female eugenics field workers. English also analyzes The Crisis magazine as a family album filtering uplift through eugenics by means of photographic documentation of an ever-improving black race.

English suggests that current scholarship often misreads early-twentieth-century visual, literary, and political culture by applying contemporary social and moral standards to the past. Du Bois, she argues, was actually more of a eugenicist than Eliot. Through such reconfiguration of the modern period, English creates an allegory for the American present: because eugenics was, in its time, widely accepted as a reasonable, progressive ideology, we need to consider the long-term implications of contemporary genetic engineering, fertility enhancement and control, and legislation promoting or discouraging family growth.


The person taking the eugenic family history should be thoroughly, scientif
ically trained. the history is perhaps the most important item of the examina
tion, and it is also the most difficult task of all to secure a complete and con
sistent record from the imperfect recollections and limited information of
most families. in Kansas this unit is directed by the Professor of Eugenics
from the State University. Social workers, trained in case record work, may take
very good histories.—”Fitter Families for Future Firesides, a Report of the
Eugenics Department of the Kansas Free Fair” (1924)

The [Negro] race is faced with a startling fact. Our birth rate is declining; our
infant mortality is increasing; our normal rate of increase must necessarily be
slowing up; our educated and intelligent classes are refusing to have children;
our women are going into the kind of work that taxes both physical and mental
capacities, which of itself, limits fecundity.—Alice Dunbar-Nelson, “Woman's
Most Serious Problem” (1927)

I have no doubt that the paper [the Criterion] will appear too conservative to
some and too radical to others, but I have gone on the principle of trying to
secure the best people of each generation and type.—T S. Eliot, letter to John
Quinn (1922)

Eugenics, the science of breeding better human beings, saturated U.S. culture during the 1920s. It seeped into politics. It permeated social science and medicine. It shaped public policy and aesthetic theory. It influenced the nation's literature. It affected popular culture. Eugenic thinking was so pervasive in the modern era that it attained the status of common sense in its most unnerving Gramscian sense. From eugenics' inception in late-nineteenth-century England to its peak in the United States during the postwar years of the late 1910s and 1920s, few challenged the notion that modern nations, especially those beset by immigration, must improve their human stock in order to remain competitive, indeed viable, in the modern world. G. K. Chesterton, H. L. Mencken, Nella Larsen, Angelina Weld Grimké, and a few representatives of the Catholic Church were among the handful of oddly disparate protestors against the utopian idea that a nation's human stock, like its livestock, could and should be improved on—with some professional, state, and institutional intervention, that is. Margaret Sanger . . .

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