Thursday, January 22, 2009

Human Races

In a book I just read called NORMANS AND SAXONS: SOUTHERN RACE MYTHOLOGY AND THE INTELLECTUAL HISTORY OF THE CIVIL WAR, by Ritchie Devon Watson, Jr. (Louisiana State University Press), I encountered some fascinating facts new to me. The author documents by numerous quotations that Southerners in the nineteenth century thought of themselves as “Cavaliers” opposed to the Northern “Puritans.” Moreover, they conceived this division as ethnic rather than merely cultural; Southern Cavaliers descended from noble, chivalrous Normans (conveniently disregarding all the Scots, Irish, and other nationalities that settled below the Mason-Dixon line and ignoring the millions of non-aristocratic farmers and laborers who constituted the majority of the population). Northern Puritans, they maintained, descended from churlish Saxons. (Many Northern writers accepted this distinction but, of course, exalted Puritan values.) To the “aristocratic” Southerners, the Northern “race,” being motivated by self-righteous fanaticism and (incongruously, it seems) mercenary greed, were dishonorable cowards determined to impose tyranny on the unoffending South.

I learned that the term “race” as now used originated in the nineteenth century, that many ethnic groups (as we would now classify them) were considered separate races, and that racial characteristics were believed to include all sorts of mental and moral traits. Southerners believed themselves innately superior not only to the black race but to the mongrelized, barbarian hordes of the North. Oddly, the South’s admiration for Sir Walter Scott’s IVANHOE resulted in emulation of, not the Saxons, the heroes of the novel, but the Normans, the story’s villains. As for “all men are created equal,” that was a dangerous notion Jefferson had picked up from those radical Frenchmen.

My first reaction to this historical phenomenon was astonishment: I’ve always known my Virginia ancestors embraced beliefs that only white supremacist fringe groups would admit to nowadays. But I’d never suspected my forebears were actually NUTS. :) Further thoughts: NORMANS AND SAXONS helped me understand GONE WITH THE WIND on a new level, as well as the classic silent film BIRTH OF A NATION. (Catch it on Turner Classic Movies sometime and reflect on the boggling fact that many people literally viewed the KKK as noble knights defending their homeland and the purity of their ladies.) Most intriguing to me is the concept of polygenism, the theory that the various races of humanity had originated separately and had always been essentially different subspecies or even different species. This idea dominated anthropology in the middle of the nineteenth century, directly opposed to the previously accepted belief in monogenism, that all human races sprang from one origin, with racial differences caused by environment. Since the Bible portrays humanity as being descended from a single pair of ancestors, polygenism was the avant-garde, iconoclastic, progressive scientific theory of the day.

Now, I can understand how someone could credibly argue this hypothesis with reference to groups that look very different. An extraterrestrial anthropologist might at first glance, prior to DNA testing, mistake Scandinavians and Australian aborigines for different species. But Normans and Saxons, for heaven’s sake? The idea reminds me of the STAR TREK episode about the two implacable enemies trapped in a hereditary racial war because one is black on the left side and the other is black on the right side. The theory of polygenism sparks lots of potential SF premises, though. Suppose Neanderthals survived hidden among us. (Philip Jose Farmer wrote a short story on that topic.) What about the “hobbit” people whose remains were discovered on a Pacific island, apparently a previously unknown human group in which normal adults were no bigger than small children? If Yeti or Sasquatch exist, they might be another intelligent humanoid species. Some modern anthropologists, although in the minority, champion the multiregional hypothesis of human evolution. In this system, Homo sapiens developed independently in various locations after our pre-human ancestors migrated from their African point of origin. The currently dominant theory, on the other hand, holds that all surviving human groups descended from a single population in Africa. Wikipedia has a short article on “Polygenism” and a fairly comprehensive one on “Multiregional origin of modern humans.”

I wrote a paper exploring the version of polygenism represented by the lycanthropic, vampiric “witch folk” of Jack Williamson’s DARKER THAN YOU THINK. You can find it archived here in issue 4 of the JOURNAL OF DRACULA STUDIES:


  1. Very interesting. I'm a seventh-generation Southerner and I can see the remnants of this alive even in my own family.

  2. . . . many people literally viewed the KKK as noble knights defending their homeland and the purity of their ladies.

    In the mid-1990s, I was a Big Brother with United Way in the Foothills area of South Carolina. I remember the buzz that went up when the KKK had some sort of rally in the area. Some people were aghast, while others were excited--not necessarily pleased, but in the sense that this was big news for an otherwise sleepy community. My Little Brother fell in the not-necessarily-pleased-but-excited-and-otherwise-ambivalent camp, and so it fell upon me to explain to him:

    "You know," I said, "if they take hold around here, it's not just blacks that need to worry. You won't be safe either. They hate you and me too."

    He stared at me for a second, digesting this. "You mean because we're Catholic?"

    I was a bit thrown by the fact that this was the first thing he thought of. "That too," I finally said. "But more importantly, because we're Hispanic. They don't see us as white."

    There was this moment of slow comprehension--I could pretty much literally see it cross his face. Growing up in the community that he had--and with the specific circle that he had--he had internalized the notion that white was the way to be, and it had never occurred to him that by some standards, he wasn't. He definitely had some racist ideas about blacks. I haven't been in touch with him in years, but I hope realizing that he himself was subject to prejudice and racism maybe opened his eyes to the possibility that some of the stereotypes he had absorbed were themselves not true.