Yo, What's With the Skulls?
All semester long in my seminar, Languages of Fear, Racism, and Zombies, I've been guiding students through perspectives in critical discourse analysis and a range of discursive representations of humanity and the Other. We began with the Wild Man of the European Renaissance and traced the genealogy of this idea to the contemporary framing of Bear Grylls and his Man vs. Wild television series. Next, we began to explore Darwinian paradigm as it relates to our radicalized, gendered, and classist ideas of civilization, competition, and primitivism. We discussed the life and times of Nathaniel Isaacs, Saartje Baartman, the implications of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and the Haitian and African origins of the zombie. Our next moves will be to examine the notion of the zombie in the context of Henrietta Lacks' immortal (and undead) cells, and the language and visual discourse of Romero's Night of the Living Dead.
The way I see it, there's no studying the zombie without equally examining (1) what we think makes us human and (2) our fears of death, dying, and reanimation. What better way to enhance our study than to interact with a massive collection of human skulls? Admittedly, it was a bit creepy to be in a room surrounded by the ossified remains of hundreds of people I could never know. But, we were oriented by our immensely knowledgable guide, Penn Museum specialist, Paul Mitchell...
History is a clock that people use to tell their time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are, and what they are.
- Dr. John Henrik Clarke, historian & activist
Who Was Samuel Morton?
At any rate, we learned that Samuel Morton was a Philadelphia contemporary of Charles Darwin. At the time, Philly was the largest city in the U.S.! However, unlike Darwin (who advocated an evolutionary perspective), Morton was a polygeneist and used his measurement research on human skulls to support a biblically motivated belief in the innate differences of human groups based on racial distinctions. In other words, within Morton's view, racial groups were altogether different species, and these differences could not be undone through education or breeding. Unsurprisingly, Indigenous Australians and Africans were at the bottom of the hierarchy, and in improving status, next came the Indigenous of the Americas, then Asians. Europeans were the most advantaged caste.
Consistent with his contemporaries and predecessors, Morton also regarded the Egyptians as the oldest and most advanced ancient civilization, but could not reconcile their African origins. Using phrenology, he claimed the ancient Egyptians were of at least two concurrent races, a European type and a blend with Negro. This is an important detail because it closely ties to the Hamitic hypothesis employed by colonial theorists, missionaries, and linguists of the time (tracing back to Immanuel Kant and others), who assigned the great achievements of the world to those with the lightest skin and most European features. In this way, erasure was a constant feature of Western popular culture and Manifest Destiny.
To accomplish his mass study of skull size (then believed to relate closely to intelligence), Morton had skulls sent to him from all over the world. These human remains were often dissociated from their parent skeletons, and in some cases, removed from burials.
Understanding Scientific Racism.
The answer: Not so much. We learned that even as population genetics helps to explain the spread of features governing outward appearance or recessive traits, in ways that are akin to linguistic typology and genetic theories, it is much more useful to think of these features along a continuum or cline. Our genetics are much more complex than our outer appearances display. As Paul explained, someone presenting as White, may indeed have colored ancestry, and vice versa. He went on to clarify that if we're not specifying race to its historically situated context, then we're invoking it too crudely. Simply put, race is not a correct way of (scientifically) categorizing humans, even though it remains a social reality.
This resonated with me, particularly as I find it important to explain the notions of language and fluency as infinitely more complex than the popular uses of these terms would suggest. Rather than language or dialect, linguists prefer the term variety. Instead of race, anthropologists prefer the term populations.
This discussion led to other powerful questions:
- Why do we feel the need to racially structure our medicine if race is so problematic?
- Are we really post-racial?
- What is racism?
- Can the fictionalized forensic anthropologist 'Bones' really determine someone's racial type from their skeletal remains?
- What about our contemporary interaction with the skull collection and the way it was historically amassed, connects to our desensitization toward to violence, oppression, and trauma?
Museum Exhibits as Critical Discourse.
The action list is a long one, but museum visits have to be on it. We need to continue interacting with collections such as these, in respectful and appropriate ways, so that we can encourage a visceral and strong engagement with history and the things that make us human. Before we viewed the Samuel G. Morton Collection, a few of my students (many of whom were not born in the U.S.) were generally familiar with some of the colonial abuses, tragedies, and science of the mid-1800s. But now, I know this is a segment of our course that they will be unable to forget because they have now had a tactile experience with artifacts from this historical period. These exhibits constitute a critical discursive statement--both visually and linguistically--on the importance of historical objects and materials in reminding us of where we have been and what our society(ies) is based upon.
Our big, huge thanks to the folks at the Penn Museum who helped us to arrange our special visit. Another set of thanks to the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility at Swarthmore College, as well as the Swarthmore College Department of Linguistics, for funding our museum expedition by train into Philadelphia.