A Profile of the Negro American

A Profile of the Negro American

A Profile of the Negro American

A Profile of the Negro American

Excerpt

They are "a lazy, apathetic people, eating coarse food and indifferent to the arts and comforts of life." Backward and inferior, they have failed to produce "a good poet, a capable mathematician, or a man of genius in a single art or a single science." (141, pp. 14, 136)

These charges sound suspiciously similar to the racist stereotype of the Negro American; but actually they were made by influential European writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries against all Americans. Advanced by such men as Cornelius de Pauw, a Dutch scholar, Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist, and Abbé Raynal, a French scientist, these assertions were a part of a widely accepted theory of "American degeneration." (141) The central contention of this theory was simple in the extreme: the severe climate of North America led inevitably to physical and mental retardation and retrogression among every living thing -- plants, animals, and humans. No people could prosper in such an environment; indolence, apathy, ill-health, and stupidity would forever mark Americans.

Naturally, Americans of revolutionary times did not take kindly to such ideas. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson led the effort at disproving the stereotype, with Jefferson devoting a goodly portion of his famous Notes on Virginia to a refutation of the charges of American degeneration. Often these rebuttals betrayed a strong defensiveness. Much was made of unusually large animal skeletons. Far from degenerating, argued Americans, animals actually grew bigger and better in North America.

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