The best books about race and the enlightenment

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Andrew Curran Author Of Who's Black and Why? A Forgotten Chapter in the Eighteenth-Century Invention of Race
By Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Andrew Curran

Who are we?

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is an award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, and has authored or co-authored twenty-two books; he's also the host of PBS’s Finding Your Roots. Andrew Curran is a writer and the William Armstrong Professor of the Humanities at Wesleyan University. His writing on the Enlightenment and race has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Newsweek, and more. Curran is also the author of the award-winning Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely and The Anatomy of Blackness.

We wrote...

Who's Black and Why? A Forgotten Chapter in the Eighteenth-Century Invention of Race

By Henry Louis Gates Jr. (editor), Andrew S. Curran (editor),

Book cover of Who's Black and Why? A Forgotten Chapter in the Eighteenth-Century Invention of Race

What is my book about?

Who’s Black and Why? recounts the birth of the concept of race and anti-black racism during the Enlightenment era. We tell this story by looking back to 1739, the year when the Royal Academy of Sciences in Bordeaux announced that it would give a gold medal to the author of the best essay on the sources of “blackness.” Sixteen essays were ultimately dispatched to the Academy from all over Europe. Some of the contestants affirmed that Africans had fallen from God’s grace; others that blackness had resulted from a brutal climate; still others emphasized the anatomical specificity of Africans. This book, in short, is designed to be a compelling, albeit distressing, gateway to the origins of race and racism – as well as their inextricable links to African chattel slavery.

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The books we picked & why

Book cover of There Are No Slaves in France: The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Régime

Why did I love this book?

Sue Peabody’s book on the death of the “free soil principle” in France is a milestone in legal history. Beginning in 1315, when Louis X signed the letters patent that forever associated the words French and France with the eradication of slavery, anyone who was bonded or a serf was supposedly “free” when stepping foot in France. This tenet began to fall apart in 1716, when the then Regent created a loophole for slaveowners returning to France with their enslaved servants. Peabody takes us deep into the legality (and illegality) of slavery on French soil as well as several illustrative court cases. There are No Slaves in France is a model of how archive-extracted research can be woven into a riveting and revealing story. A must-read for anyone interested in the relationship between mercantilism, race, and the legal statutes that created and legislated different categories of people.  

By Sue Peabody,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked There Are No Slaves in France as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There Are No Slaves in France examines the paradoxical emergence of political antislavery and institutional racism in the century prior to the French Revolution. Sue Peabody shows how the political culture of late Bourbon France created ample opportunities for contestation over the meaning of freedom. Based on various archival sources, this work will be of interest not only to historians of slavery and France, but to scholars interested in the emergence of
modern culture in the Atlantic world.

Book cover of The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture

Why did I love this book?

Roxanne Wheeler’s The Complexion of Race occupies an important place in both our libraries. Rare are the books that deal with the complexities of human complexions with such subtlety. Wheeler does not start off by assuming the existence of a monological or commonly shared understanding of race; she charts the numerous causal flows that produced the early-modern discussion of the human, including the “empire of climate,” natural history (physiology and anatomy), and the fact that the British (Protestant) way of life became the benchmark for measuring all things foreign. 

By Roxann Wheeler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Complexion of Race as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the 1723 Journal of a Voyage up the Gambia, an English narrator describes the native translators vital to the expedition's success as being "Black as Coal." Such a description of dark skin color was not unusual for eighteenth-century Britons-but neither was the statement that followed: "here, thro' Custom, (being Christians) they account themselves White Men." The Complexion of Race asks how such categories would have been possible, when and how such statements came to seem illogical, and how our understanding of the eighteenth century has been distorted by the imposition of nineteenth and twentieth century notions of race on…

Book cover of Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840

Why did I love this book?

This groundbreaking book takes the reader into the forgotten world of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medicine, especially as it relates to the enslaved peoples of the New World (from the Southern United States to the wider Caribbean). One cannot help but hear the first examples of “race norming” or “adjusting” in Hogarth’s study of how white doctors saw pathology, treatment, and various diseases themselves as affecting different categories of people in different ways. Medicalizing Blackness allows us to see how doctors transformed the New World into an enormous laboratory that not only generated new knowledge, but created structures of surveillance and control that became part and parcel of medical literature and practice.

By Rana A. Hogarth,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Medicalizing Blackness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1748, as yellow fever raged in Charleston, South Carolina, doctor John Lining remarked, ""There is something very singular in the constitution of the Negroes, which renders them not liable to this fever."" Lining's comments presaged ideas about blackness that would endure in medical discourses and beyond. In this fascinating medical history, Rana A. Hogarth examines the creation and circulation of medical ideas about blackness in the Atlantic World during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She shows how white physicians deployed blackness as a medically significant marker of difference and used medical knowledge about black bodies to improve…

Book cover of Ape to Apollo: Aesthetics and the Idea of Race in the 18th Century

Why did I love this book?

David Bindman was among the first scholars to dive deeply into the critically important relationship between aesthetics (including standards of beauty) and the emergence of race within the nascent human sciences. Bindman is a very careful scholar who, in addition to being a superb art historian, pays careful attention to the subtle shifts in terminology (and iconography) that reflect substantive changes in the way that non-European groups were seen and depicted during the Enlightenment era, be they “savages,” Blacks, or Asians. Scholars of race will find unexpected links between aesthetics and race here, including Winckelmann on the link between climate and the supremacy of Greek statues – or Lavater’s aesthetic-driven understanding of human physiognomy. Since it was first published in 2002, this beautifully illustrated book opened up a whole field of research.

By David Bindman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ape to Apollo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ape to Apollo is the first book to follow the development in the eighteenth century of the idea of race as it shaped and was shaped by the idea of aesthetics. Twelve full-color illustrations and sixty-five black-and-white illustrations from publications and artists of the day allow the reader to see eighteenth-century concepts of race translated into images. Human "varieties" are marked in such illustrations by exaggerated differences, with emphases on variations from the European ideal and on the characteristics that allegedly divided the races. In surveying the idea of human variety before "race" was introduced by Linneaus as a scientific…

Book cover of Dark Side of the Light: Slavery and the French Enlightenment

Why did I love this book?

The philosopher and polemicist Sala-Molins fired a bow shot across Enlightenment scholarship with this book in 1992. In an era when most French scholars of the Enlightenment continued to study (and valorize) the figureheads of the era, Sala-Molins attributed the supposed silence of the philosophes regarding the horrors of chattel slavery to deep-seated racism. More polemically he called out individual thinkers such as Voltaire and Montesquieu, the latter of whom Sala-Molins memorably called a négrier or slave trader. Peu importe or little does it matter that the book itself is rife with historical inaccuracies. The Dark Side of the Light was and is a powerful cri de coeur directed at scholars of the eighteenth century, a plea for them to look more carefully at the legacies – good and bad – that we now associate with the Enlightenment. 

By Louis Sala-Molins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dark Side of the Light as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and Montesquieu are best known for their humanist theories and liberating influence on Western civilization. But as renowned French intellectual Louis Sala-Molins shows, Enlightenment discourses and scholars were also complicit in the Atlantic slave trade, becoming instruments of oppression and inequality.

Translated into English for the first time, Dark Side of the Light scrutinizes Condorcet's Reflections on Negro Slavery and the works of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Diderot side by side with the Code Noir (the royal document that codified the rules of French Caribbean slavery) in order to uncover attempts to uphold the humanist project…

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