On reporting scientific and racial history
*Rae Wynn-Grant*
*National Geographic Society, Washington, DC 20002, USA.*
Email: [log in to unmask]

Science  20 Sep 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6459, pp. 1256-1257
DOI: 10.1126/science.aay2459

   - Article <>
   - Info & Metrics
   - eLetters
   - PDF <>

In his News Feature “Science's debt to the slave trade” (5 April, p. 16
<>), S. Kean discusses the
role of the slave trade in 18th-century European science with an
unfortunate lack of sensitivity (*1*
<>). Scholars
quoted in the article use “we” and “us” when talking about people who are
surprised by scientists' connection to the slave trade. This in-group
construction (*2*
<>) suggests an
underlying assumption that neither the Africans and African-Americans
enslaved nor their descendants, who experienced and survived 400+ years of
the transatlantic slave trade, were scientists then or are scientists
today. Although the author and editors may have intended to raise awareness
about white scientists' problematic involvement in the slave trade—a worthy
goal—the language used in the article serves as an example of how inclusion
is one of the wider science community's biggest challenges.

An opening sentence is typical of the article's flawed perspective:
“Petiver eventually amassed the largest natural history collection in the
world, and it never would have happened without slavery.” This passage can
be read to suggest a worthiness of slavery, diminishing the means from
which the collection came about. Dr. Carolyn Roberts, the only person of
color interviewed, is given one quote in the piece, introducing
non-consensual studies on enslaved Africans. Kean directly follows Dr.
Roberts's quote by listing various ways black bodies were manipulated and
pulled apart, but he does not offer the reader any guiding judgments.
Without bringing the reader back to the role of institutionalized racism
and power dynamics, the article does little to support its title—a “debt”
that scientists need to repay.

Alarmingly, the suggestion that early Western scientists were wrong does
not appear clearly in the piece. Although Kean briefly details the harsh
nature of the slave trade, he never describes these men—scientists who are
revered in a white-washed version of history—as complicit in the murder,
torture, and brutal enslavement of black people. An estimated 12 million
Africans were forced across the Atlantic Ocean, with variable rates of
survival (*3* <>,
*4* <>). To
suggest, as the article does, that European scientists “had to hitch rides
on slave ships,” as if they were without options for their work other than
to use (and profit from) this inhumane system, is to exonerate their
insidious behavior and corrupt belief system. For them to participate in
this institution, they had to believe science was more important than black
life. Saying that they did it for “access” is eliminating their
responsibility. Slave ships should always be conceptualized as sites of
violence, torture, and brutality—without reconsideration—and should not be
characterized, as one of the scholars quoted does, as sites of scientific
discovery. To do otherwise is an affront to all of the descendants of those
enslaved peoples who are today working within a Western scientific
philosophy that was built on the backs of our ancestors (*5*

The benefits of slavery to white scientists are explained in this story—the
author describes scientists as real people with names, internal dialogue,
and triumphs. Meanwhile, the destruction of families, communities, empires,
identities, and souls goes unmentioned; enslaved people who endured this
violence are “slaves” throughout the piece. The discussion in this article
is squarely centered around white people, white conquest, white so-called
discovery, and white profit, and has little concern for the black
experience or for how the legacy of slavery has directly influenced the
participation of black people in science today. If Western science has
gained anything from the transatlantic slave trade, it has lost much more
in terms of human capacity.

Historical facts, patterns, or commonalities that affected the way many
people lived and died are plagued with moral and ethical violations that
require thoughtful discussion. Although the term “white supremacy” is often
equated with direct violence, it also encompasses language use and word
choice that reinforce racial hierarchies. By using language and context
(even unintentionally) that propagate the idea that white interests trump
black liberation, this piece, at the utmost, upholds colonial science and
white supremacy. At the minimum, this type of writing is a microaggression
that can cause black people to feel unvalued and unwelcome in the
scientific community. I implore *Science* magazine, Sam Kean, scientists,
and journalists globally to put the experiences, values, and needs of
people from oppressed backgrounds at the center of historical narratives to
endow them with truth and transparency (*6*
<>, *7*

This is an article distributed under the terms of the Science Journals
Default License
References and Notes

   1. ↵
   of language that conveyed a white-centered perspective can be found at
   2. ↵T. van Dijk, in Discourse and Society, Volume 4 (Sage, 1993), pp. 249
   Google Scholar
   3. ↵H. L. Gates Jr., “Slavery, by the numbers,” The Root (2014);
   Google Scholar
   4. ↵N. Hannah-Jones, “Our democracy's founding ideals were false when
   they were written; Black Americans have fought to make them true,” The
   New York Times (2019);
   Google Scholar
   5. ↵E. J. Smith, Science 353, 1586 (2016).
   FREE Full Text
   6. ↵J. E. Harris, Africans and Their History (New American Library, New
   York, 1972).
   Google Scholar
   7. ↵S. McDougal III, Research Methods in Africana Studies (Peter Lang
   Inc., New York, 2014).
   Google Scholar