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Emancipation—Black and White


An 1865 essay by British natural scientist Thomas Henry Huxley on the emancipation of black slaves and white women. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), born in Ealing, England, was a preeminent British natural scientist and advocate of Darwinian evolution. Largely self-educated, Huxley became president of the Royal Society (1883-1885) and worked to advance education in Great Britain. Among many available biographies, see Adrian Desmond, Huxley [2 vol.] (London: Penguin, 1998) and Cyril Bibby, T.H. Huxley: Scientist, Humanist and Educator (New York: Horizon Press, 1960). 

While Huxley opposed slavery, in this 1865 essay he voices only mild resignation at the legal end of the institution in the United States. He opposes the enslavement of "Quashie" — a pejorative term for blacks — because it interferes with natural selection, not because of its inherent injustice. The emancipation of slaves, he asserts, did not invalidate arguments that blacks are inherently unequal. Now emancipated, Huxley contends, blacks will not be able to compete with whites. “The highest places in the hierarchy of civilization will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins,” (20) he writes. Having been freed from the human “artifice” of slavery, Huxley alleges “laws of social gravitation” imposed by nature will pull blacks downwards. (21)  

Based on concepts of scientific racism, the essay presents an especially good example of the interrelationship of racialist and masculinist thought. Just as blacks were inherently inferior to whites, Huxley claimed, so too were women naturally inferior to men. In the social competition released by emancipation – for blacks from slavery, and for women, from restricted participation in work employment and civil life – white men would inevitably demonstrate their superiority to the detriment of both blacks and women. He believed that education, which he endorsed, could ameliorate only partially the natural deficits of these classes. (23-25) Emancipation, concludes Huxley, would serve to demonstrate the inferiority of women and blacks; he advocated emancipation even though, in his view, blacks and women were incapable of realizing its benefits.  It follows for him as social ethics that “The duty of man is to see that not a grain is piled upon that load beyond what Nature imposes; that injustice is not added to inequality.” (26)  For a positive view of this essay, see William Provine, "Geneticists and Race," American Zoology 26 (1986) 857-887, 860.

There were numerous contemporary citations of ‘Emancipation—Black and White’ and it retained currency for a prolonged period. It was reprinted decades later in a collection of Huxley’s essays, Science and Education (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1898, 66-75), and other editions. Century Readings for a Course in English Literature (New York: The Century Co., 1921, 967-970), a standard English literature teaching anthology in the United States during the early twentieth century, included the essay uncritically as a model of Victorian science writing. Citing this essay, the intellectual historian George Frederickson suggested that such Darwinist analyses of African American social potential after emancipation “fitted in perfectly with the disposition of many Northerners to remove the black man’s ‘disabilities’ and give him a competitive chance, not because of a firm conviction that equal opportunity would lead to a demonstration of biological equality, but merely with the expectation that it would permit him to find his ‘natural level,’ wherever it might be.” Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind (Wesleyan University Press, 1987, 236). 

Source text: Huxley, Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1903) 20-26. Originally appeared in the Reader, May 20, 1865.

- Joe Lockard