The following is an excerpt of my book-in-progress. For context, see the previous section here. I am a bit reticent to post this section because it’s part of a longer chapter that’s in constant flux, and I’m always concerned with representation. So, take this for what it is: a work in progress.
The orbits of the skull watch me through the glass. I wonder for a split second whether I’m not the one on display in the museum case, head detached from my frame and placed on a low pedestal, my meaning curated for viewers by tidy rectangles of text posted beside me.
My double and I are alone here in the museum basement: a fleshless, gutless nineteenth century cranium opposite a living twenty-first century head coiled with gray matter. The elder skull’s hollow sockets seem to peel off my skin, unwrap my bones. I feel a sharp cold enter my rib cage and creep around my joints, haunting the spaces between my radii and ulnae.
What do you see?
I say it aloud, but the hoary head doesn’t answer.
This augur has no power to pronounce a favorable word over me. Its pedestal is a witness stand, this skull one more testimony to my colonizing ancestors’ crimes. The mounting evidence points to a clear verdict: guilty. Judgement is passed. The sentence alone remains.
I read the bodies of text that frame my experience of the exhibit, but in years to come I won’t remember quite how they told the story of this skull. I’ll recall primarily that the skull was cast as a representative sample of over a thousand other skulls collected by Dr. Samuel George Morton.
I will go on to read books and articles that deepen my understanding of colonialism and its links to white supremacy and the invention of race. And I will start to piece together all the feelings I do not now understand. Over time, my initial impressions will be reworked by new information. And I will write this scene in a way that doesn’t match the original experience.
I’ll leave my readers with this solemn charge: Document my omissions, assess my arrangement of this story, critique its operations, and write it again. Do not let this book be the final word.
I read that the skull and its thousand odd contemporaries were taken to Philadelphia from disparate places across the globe, the skeletons left at their burial sites. This staggered forced migration occurred at the behest of an American physician and natural scientist named Samuel Morton, who collected skulls to sate his taste for phrenology.
Phrenology was a white supremacist pseudoscience that was popular in the early-mid 1800s. Its main premise was that cranial features are indicators of a person’s character and intellectual ability. It was one of many tools employed by proponents of scientific racism, also known as ‘race biology.’ Phrenologists used their findings to promote the myth that humans can be divided into physically discrete races and categorized in a racial hierarchy.
Samuel Morton marked each skull by racial type and geographic provenance, gathering an army of samples to prove his hypothesis that ‘Caucasians’ possessed the largest skulls. Morton believed not only that people could be categorized into ‘races’ based on variant physical characteristics, but that these differences suggested that people of other races were actually distinct species.
He assembled his troops of skulls and measured their cranial capacity using seed and shot, comparing the average skull sizes of each ‘race.’ As he had anticipated, the Caucasian skulls were the biggest and the black African skulls (labelled ‘Negroid’) were the smallest, with the other races in between.
The conclusion was inescapable: White people were the smartest race and it was this intellectual superiority that enabled them to colonize the globe. Morton published his findings in three volumes over the course of ten years, and his research was often cited as a scientific justification for slavery in the U.S.
I digest this exhibit–titled Year of Proof: The Making and Unmaking of Race–with cool reason and a critical eye. Morton was nothing if not meticulous–any challenge to his authority must match his exactitude measure for measure. Discrediting Morton’s work takes thirty-six years of balanced academic debate between a host of anthropologists, a science historian, and a philosopher. They must sift through Morton’s documentation to figure out where he went wrong. The public needs proof. No one will believe them if they just say he’s a racist and call it a day. The court of public opinion needs the cold, hard evidence of the academy, that just utopia where all men are created equal and their arguments receive equal scholarly treatment before the law of science.
I follow the scholars as they tease out the effects of Morton’s bias step by step. The story of white supremacy dominates the way he selects his cranial samples for examination, the different tools he uses to measure cranial capacity, and the presuppositions he has about racial groupings.
Morton’s method and premise are flawed and his main conclusion–that Caucasian skulls are bigger on average–is wrong. He doesn’t just make incorrect racist extrapolations from correct data by claiming that white people are more intelligent because of their cranial capacity. He mis-measures the skulls and gets the data about Caucasian skull size wrong.
But Morton isn’t rigging the results. He believes in the integrity of his work. He’s an unabashed racist but doesn’t think this interferes with his scientific method. He proceeds with the notion that this pageant of skulls and scholarship is about science and not the story he needs to believe to live comfortably in his cocoon of white supremacy.
Morton is not, he believes, writing on the world but reading it. He is a witness to the way things are, not a co-producer of reality. He is interpreting nature’s signs, not signaling. This is about facts, not personal or communal identity, and certainly not the distribution of wealth.
The value of a story can be measured by what you lose when you let it go. Morton doesn’t need to assess the worth of white supremacy because the cost and gain are inscribed in the machinations of the legal and socioeconomic systems of the United States.
Slavery is a Southern phenomenon, but systemic racism is endemic to both the North and the South. The so-called Age of the Common Man inaugurated by Morton’s contemporary, President Andrew Jackson, gains rights for working class people but, following the philosophy enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, only white men are defined as ‘people.’ Native Americans, Blacks, and women are excluded.
The gains of a scientific justification for racism are very high for white men like Morton. The U.S. was founded on the presupposition that seizure of indigenous land by European colonists was divinely sanctioned. This theological premise had concrete economic and civil implications: Land ownership and governance belong to people of European descent. Morton’s economic livelihood and social status is tangibly contingent on the truth of white supremacy because the entire system was designed to facilitate the well-being and rights of white men at the expense of women and people of color.
The price of giving up white supremacy is high for Morton. It would entail redistribution of the power he wields and, by extension, a painful renegotiation of the self. So, he must dull himself to the flesh-and-blood cost being paid by others. He justifies the exploitation of women and people of color by excluding them from the definition of ‘human.’ If they are human, then America’s systemic racism is an unpardonable crime. But if they are something else, something Other, then maybe the commodification of their flesh is acceptable.
But this isn’t just about Morton’s personal consciousness. White America needs science to back up its conviction of white superiority to perpetuate a pristine vision of the communal white self. In whitened memory, the United States was founded on noble aspirations of freedom, rights, and equality for all.
This is the myth written over the images of Native Americans dying along the Trail of Tears, a series of forced relocations inaugurated by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. As Andrew Jackson worked to secure rights for working class white men, Indian removal was a concurrent and top legislative priority of his administration.
“Freedom and Justice for All” is the slogan scrawled across the bellies of the American slave ships bound for Africa to secure labor to build a nation founded on the unfreedom of those peoples.
Lose this story and the white national self shatters. And when our delusions have been smashed and scattered into the wind, who will we be?