Origins of Racial Difference

Ideas about biological difference and blackness is not a new phenomenon. These ideas about racial difference between black and white people have existed since the colonial days of Benjamin Rush and linger in the Age of the Coronavirus. Racial Immunity is one aspect of this concept that made its way into the American subconscious since the 1700s. Rush, "The Father of American Medicine" believed Black people had a natural resistance to Yellow Fever and the darkness of their skin was a form of leprosy. The following images will document how believed racial differences about African Americans has led to the mistreatment of this group of Americans. Every origin has an ending destination, will the 21st century be the final stop?

Benjamin Rush (1869). Print. Bequest of Dr. James Rush.

Benjamin Rush (1746-1813) is predominantly known as “The Father of American Medicine,” but was really just an average physician. He was also an educator and signer of the Declaration of Independence. When America was faced with the yellow fever pandemic, Rush began publishing material that stated that Black people were resistant to the fever. He also wrote that Black people’s skin was a form of leprosy. As Rush was an elite who dominated medical and political spaces, it’s no surprise to see how the concepts of racial difference have become part of the American belief system.

Dr. Josiah C. Nott and George Gliddon, “Types of Mankind” (Philadelphia, 1854).

This portrait highlights an aspect of perceived racial difference by associating Black people with animals. The top left skull is associated with a Greek white man. The bottom left is an image of a young Chimpanzee and its skull. The middle skull represents an African American skull. The placement of these two images suggests that black people are a mixture between ape and human. The pictures of the middle skull look like the combination of the Chimpanzee and Greek’s skull. The side by side comparison between apes and Greeks aim to depict black people as subhuman.

William R. Weiss, Crawling African American Man (1860-1870). Image from William R. Weiss, The catalog of Union Civil War patriotic covers (Bethlehem, Pa., 1995).

This drawing portrays a Black man crawling, wearing a striped jumper with a whip in his hand. The man’s body is depicted in a grotesque manner. It’s important to note the fact that this image was created during the Civil War, and was used on an envelope. Sending letters was the main form of communication during these times and the inclusion of this image on an envelope highlights the propaganda that was circulating in the public domain. This image draws on the idea that Black men are animal-like criminals who are looking to gain control and arguably get revenge.

William R. Weiss, Monkey Envelope. Image from William R. Weiss, The catalog of Union Civil War patriotic covers (Bethlehem, Pa., 1995).

This drawing is an image of a monkey-like figure with glasses attempting to read a book despite it being upside down. The displayed statement–“the Negro-man sir seeks to know the bitter end and finds confusion and ruin only”–portrays the Negro-man as a monkey. The text stating that he only finds confusion and ruin suggests that Black people aren’t intelligent and that they destroy everything they possess. This envelope circulated throughout the civil war and highlights the level of exposure and accessibility of this propaganda.

Robert J. Thom, Marion Sims: Gynecologic Surgeon (Alabama, 1845). Courtesy of University of Michigan.

This painting by Robert Thom (1845) illustrates the objectification of the Black woman at the hands of White doctors. The man standing with his arms crossed is J. Marion Sims. He is known as the “Father of Gynecology” due to several operations he performed on three enslaved women, paving the way for the creation of the nation’s first women’s hospital. The pain levels that these women endured made it possible for us to know about women’s health to the extent that we know today. Images like these advocate for racial difference by the narrative that Black women aren’t as sensitive to pain.

Benjamin Rush, To Thomas Jefferson From Benjamin Rush, 4 February 1797 (Philadelphia, 1797). Courtesy of the Library Congress.

This letter is addressed to Thomas Jefferson from Benjamin Rush on February 4th 1797. During this time, the yellow fever was ending in Philadelphia. In the letter, Jefferson and Rush are discussing the newness and hope that they can now envision. In it, Rush mentions that he’s trying to prove that the black color of Black people’s skin is a form of leprosy. He mentions that despite him highlighting racial difference, he intends for his findings to result in people still treating Black people with humanity and justice. This letter highlights the power dynamics that Rush had in order to be able to influence the entire political foundation of the United States.