Friday 10 November 2023

Stereotypes about Black Bodies in French Medical Literature (1780-1950)

In parallel with the colonisation of African countries, colonial doctors and scientists started describing "African bodies" developing a hierarchy between Black peoples of Sub-Saharan Africa, i.e., from The Cape of Good Hope to Senegambia.  Interestingly, there were conflicts between some doctors and differing attitudes between home country practitioner medicine and colonial medicine on the field.

This research focuses on the descriptions of African people’s body according to French Doctors writings from the end of the 18th century to mid-20th century. Thoughthe black race is seen as monolithic group in the medical writings at the beginning of the period, the African multiplicity slightly came up under the colonial doctors’ pens. Their action and their work started developing in the last third of the 19th century in parallel with the colonization. Beyond the principal human races classification, the French doctors and scientists established a hierarchy between the black peoples of Sub-Saharan Africa, from The Cape of Good Hope to Senegambia. The view onAfrican bodies varied and became more refined all along the studied period, despite the permanency of numerous racial stereotypes. A sexual description of the peoples is added to the racial and ethnic taxonomy. Based on medical dictionaries, research monographs about human races or even on colonial medicine work, our work displays, within the descriptions of the black bodies, the overlapping of the theories about race, gender and kind, and also explains the similarity of the rhetorical methods used to define and describe the Other, should they be female or black. Moreover, this research highlights the way these representations thrived on scientific controversies, political concerns and interactions between home country practitioner medicine and colonial medicine on the field. Though the medical speeches stigmatize racial inferiorities or even the inversion of gender of the African people, this work also underlines the antithetical opinions and the conflicts between some doctors about these consensual.

To the ethnic taxonomy, a sexual description was added since hypersexuality was one of the most common prejudices about Africans, not only in medical literature. These supposedly overdeveloped sexes were associated with uncontrollable sexuality. The association, again, was established to justify female circumcision and polygamy. With sexology emerging, doctors and scientists intended to learn about the sexuality of the othered "in order to define sexuality in their own society by race (sic), gender or class". Understanding the so-called sexual practices of Africans was a means to help colonists to control and preserve their own sexuality. 

In effect, white expatriates who passed several months in the colonies underwent all sorts of temptations owing to the visible bodies of women, the so-called “free” sexuality and the climate — temptations to avoid for the sake of preserving the colonial power’s integrity and authority. Out of these fears arose discourses and warnings about racial mixing and its dangers for the white race.

Myths, random observations and racist theories about a "black sexuality" as the antithesis of a "white sexuality" (moderate, hygienic and connected with moral values) were introduced to maintain boundaries and support colonialism, the latter being marketed as a "civilising mission". Hypersexuality was seen as a main characteristic of Black people. Pseudo-scientific approaches, such as establishing a correlation between skull shape, brain weight and the size of genitals with carnal instincts and pleasures and intellectual weakness - were supposed to explain "Black hypersexuality".

It is still the same way that, with the N*gro, the intellectual organs being less developed, the genitals acquire more preponderance and extension. (Gazette Medicine of Paris, 1841)

In the first half of the twentieth century, women were portrayed as virile since they did hard work, had muscular bodies, short hair and were courageous while men were portrayed as effeminate because of their alleged laziness and intellectual inferiority, and hairless body. Colonial doctors regarded their mission as a civilising one as their work was also about redefining the social roles specific to each gender (Peiretti Courtis, 2018).

Discourse surviving black men for their physical strength and robustness also existed in medical books throughout the period studied and particularly at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century’s when the degeneration of the white race worries the medical and political sphere. The black body then becomes an example of virtue and resistance to offer to white men weakened by civilization and urbanization. African femininity is also valued during the nineteenth and first twentieth century when it comes to presenting a model of maternity to white women forsaking their mission. If Africans are erected, according to the political or social context in France, as an example for the French, everything seems nevertheless to bring them back to their body, presented as their main strength and wealth. These discourses have political consequences. Feminization but also the infantilization of black peoples led to a more general devaluation of Africans, which had political repercussions such as to justify the colonization of men considered inferior, intellectually or even physically close to women and children. And subject to their passions. Thus, the famous speech of Ferry in 1885 draws its roots in the breeding ground of the radiological medicine and in the tests brought by the scientists of an inferiority of the black race. Similarly, while the writings of colonial doctors have highlighted African diversity, they have generated, by aiming to rationalize the colonial work, a strengthening of ethnic groups but also differentiations and hierarchies still existing today in Africa.

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- Peiretti Courtis, D. (2018). Stereotypes about black bodies in French medical literature: race, gender and sexuality (1780-1950), Journal of Historical Archaeology & Anthropological Sciences, 3(3), link
- photograph by Sory Sanle via

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