Christianity, Race, and the Haunting of Biomedical Science

Within recent years, biomedical research seems to be making leaps and bounds; surgeries are getting more precise, new transplants have been successful, and DNA has been mapped out more accurately than ever before. However, what is often not highlighted is how preconceived notions stemming from Christianity and the concept of race may be hindering this progress. In his lecture at Brown University on November 5, 2019, Dr. Terrence Keel explored the history as well as the connections between Christianity, race, and biomedical science. 

Dr. Keel began his lecture by referencing a problematic journal published in March of 2015, where the country’s first biological research organization claimed to have found a single gene variant that would account for the higher rates of cancer within the African-American population in comparison to Whites, Asians, Latinxs, etc. This is problematic because it conveys ideas that genetic differences between races are scientifically backed, even though they are not. Research has shown time and time again that the differences between the DNA of  different ethnic groups are so small that they are negligible. In fact, Dr. Keel stated that any two given orangutans will always have more genetic diversity than any two humans, no matter the ethnicity. Then why are people so eager to determine a genetic basis for these disparities rather than focusing on effects environment, poverty, and structural racism have had on health? Keel goes on to explain how the race concept has its origins in the religious cultural assumptions from Christian intellectual history. 

In order to back the claim that Christian thought played a large role in establishing race, Dr.Keel cited and analyzed stories directly from the bible. One such story was Noah’s Ark, a story that describes a time where the people on God’s earth were growing wicked and straying from His vision. God, however, saw goodness in Noah and instructed him to build an ark so that Noah, his three sons, and their wives would survive the flood and repopulate the planet. Looking at images from the Weimar Bible 1534, one can clearly see images of Noah and his sons, all of them white with blonde, brunette, and red hair. God, himself, is anglo-saxon as well. This clearly conveys moral beliefs about which people are closest to God, as well as, which people were preferred to repopulate the planet. 

Continuing with the story, each son was meant to repopulate one portion of the earth- Asia, Europe, and Africa. Medieval maps of the world, known as T and O maps, section the globe into three parts, each with a continent and the name of one of Noah’s three sons. The thought process that went into making this elementary map has persisted over time. In 1781, German physician Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, concluded that “it is very easy for the white colour to degenerate into brown, but very much more difficult for dark to become white…” His “scientific” beliefs were rooted in the Christian idea that whites were the first to populate and then repopulate the earth. Modern research tracing mitochondrial DNA has actually shown that the earliest humans came from East Africa and that all humans have descended from there. Unfortunately, this evidence is often ignored or silenced because it counters traditionally accepted Christian beliefs. 

To this day, the Christian view that whites were the first to populate is still circulated within major science journals and mainstream media. For example, Dr. Keel quoted from Nicholas Wade who was also referenced in Professor Lundy Braun’s lecture on December 3rd. In one particular article Wade says “Human evolution has not only been recent and extensive; it has also been regional. The period of 30,000 to 5,000 years ago, from which signals of recent natural selection can be detected, occurred after the splitting of the three major races.” He then clarifies that the three principal races are “Africans, East Asians, and Caucasians.” These three groups that Wade writes about in his book, A Troublesome Inheritance, published in 2014, directly correlate with the three groups in the T and O maps from medieval times. To make matters worse, Wade’s thinking was circulated in major news outlets such as Time Magazine and  the Science Times section of The New York Times where he served as the staff writer from 1982 to 2012. 

Unfortunately, work such as Wade’s is commonly circulated and seen within various news sources. As Prof. Braun pointed out in her lecture, we get questions to the answers we ask. With only new 44 projects on race/racial discrimination receiving funding in comparison to the 21,956 projects on race/genetics, it is no wonder that people are looking to genetics to explain differences in health as opposed to structural racism. In Lundy Braun’s  article, “Race, ethnicity and lung function:a brief history,” she demonstrates how race is deeply ingrained in the healthcare system by examining the history of the spirometer. Braun argues that instead of using race in a fixed way that presumes genetic variance, we should further explore the ways in which the various environments and life experiences of different races may have affected health. 

In order to back her argument, Braun first establishes how views on lung capacity, both previously and currently, have been influenced by race. Braun cites Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on  the State of Virginia” in which he describes the “lung differences between slaves and white colonists.” Jefferson was not alone in his work that strove to establish inherent differences between races. Samuel Cartwright, a plantation physician and slavholder, used a spirometer to establish that “the deficiency in the negro” was  “20 per cent”. Neither Jefferson nor Cartwright considered any other reasons for the differences in lung capacity beyond race. 

Although both Jefferson and Cartwright were alive over 200 years ago, many of the same close-minded ideas about race playing a role, or the only role, in lung capacity still exist. As described by Braun, “the  idea of racial and ethnic difference in lung capacity is so widely accepted that correction factors are actually programmed into spirometers.” These “correction factors” are based purely upon race without taking into considering where said person has lived, their occupation, or any other influences. 

Braun purposefully mentions Jefferson and Cartwright’s studies, as well as the technology of modern day spirometers to highlight their shocking similarities and to denote that in both cases, race is too quickly accepted the reason for the difference in lung performance and should be challenged further. Both Keel and Lundy agreed that racialized ideas around who can get sick, feel pain, or even “be believed by doctors” are the areas that healthcare professionals need to focus on in order for the health of the country to truly improve.

Works Cited


Family Weekend Slavery and Legacy Walking Tour

Every year come mid-October, Brown University offers the Family Weekend Slavery and Legacy Walking Tour run by the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University. During the course of the tour, families stop at the Ruth J Simmons Quadrangle, University Hall, and the Slavery Memorial on the quiet Green. This blog will highlight the history described at each stop of the 2019 tour as well as the relevancy of each location to Africana Studies and the topics covered in class lectures as well as the readings. 

Ruth J Simmons Quad:

The tour started at the Simmons Quadrangle, an area of campus named after Ruth J Simmons in 2012. In many ways, Simmons was a groundbreaker. She was the first African-American president of an Ivy League University and was also one of the first people to delve into the relationship between trans-Atlantic slave trade and Brown University. While many colleges have tried to minimize or downplay the role slavery played in building and shaping their institutions, Dr. Simmons chose to acknowledge and further explore this role. By starting this conversation and prompting research, Dr. Simmons was, in part, achieving one of the many goals of Africana Studies– to bring to light to topics that are often overlooked or dismissed in the “typical” western historical canon. In 2006, the “Slavery and Justice report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice” was released, and Brown has continued to research this topic until the present day. Although Brown is and should be commended for its work in recognizing slavery, one must still mention that the institution recieves monetary compensation from the work it does as well. This creates a complicated positive feedback loop in which Brown profits from acknowledging its history of profiting from slavery. 

University Hall:

The second stop of the tour was University Hall. This building, the oldest on Brown’s campus, houses the Hidden In Plain Sight exhibit. The exhibit explores the foundation of Brown University as well as the role slavery played in the economy and development of  campus and the surrounding area. All three of the Brown brothers were heavily invested in slave trade and owned slaves. It was enslaved African and Indegenous Peoples’ that built University Hall itself. Despite having built University Hall, no one involved with the laborious process of its creation was allowed to enter it after its completion. This ties in with the system of negative racialization that Professor Paget Henry detailed in his lecture given on September 9, 2019. The first of five factors that worked to create a negative mindset when viewing African-Americans, was the idea that “African- Americans were the polar opposite of white Europeans.” By denying enslaved Africans the right to enter the building and creating a physical barrier, the Brown brothers demonstrated a clear divide between enslaved Africans’ rights and the rights of white people, propounding the idea that there was a difference between the two groups.

The Hidden In Plain Sight exhibit also focuses in on Chancellor Stephen Hopkins who was the former Rhode Island governor in 1755. The sentiments he relayed in the “Rights of Colonists Examined” in comparison to his actual practices were reflective of a large portion of white colonial society at the time. While white colonists in the era of the American Revolution were calling for freedom and liberty and not wanting to be governed by anyone but themselves, they owned slaves.  

Slavery Memorial: 

The tour concluded at the monument titled Slavery Memorial on the Brown University Front Green. The monument, designed by architect Martin Puryear in 2014, is meant to recognize Brown University’s connection to the trans-Atlantic slave trade as well as the work of Africans and African-Americans, both enslaved and free, who helped build the university. The memorial consists of two parts- the first being a sculpture and the second, an engraved granite cylinder. The sculpture, made of cast iron, is of a ball and chain. The iron ball, eight feet in diameter is embedded almost entirely in the ground, with only the top quarter peeking out of the surface. Attached the ball are the first four links, the last one broken in a jagged manner.

 After viewing the sculpture from all sides, the tour guide prompted the group to share their own personal reflections. One man said the break in the chain represented an unshackling and a sense of freedom, however, there is a serious flaw with his logic. The chain, broken and with jagged edges, clearly demonstrates a struggle. Nothing was unshackled, and only through force and effort was one freed. There is additional significance in the ball being rooted in the ground. Just as the ball is embedded in the earth, the history of slave trade and slavery associated with  Brown will forever be rooted in the university’s history. 

Also of importance is the engraved stone plinth that stands in front of the sculpture. The  first part of it reads: This memorial recognizes Brown University’s connection to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the work of Africans and African-Americans, enslaved and free, who helped build our university, Rhode Island, and the nation. While Brown is mentioned initially, it is important to notice that the inscription quickly shifts to include the state of Rhode Island as well as the nation. One could criticize this transition for taking the focus away from solely the university’s connection to slavery and broadening to include other institutions as well.  

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One of the driving questions in Africana Studies revolves around finding the sources with in this field of study. This tour demonstrated many primary sources that are used in the field as well as demonstrating how new secondary sources are formed. Ruth Simmons advocated for new research which in turn led to the “Slavery and Justice report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice.” This report drew from primary sources such as slave trader ledgers, pamphlets, and even other secondary sources to find what was important and draw new conclusions. Africana Studies continues to expand as more research and time is invested in the wealth of resources and knowledge that exists and demands more exploration.

Works Cited

Banerji, Shilpa. “Brown University Applauded For Examination of Its Ties To Slavery.” Diverse, 20 Oct. 2006,

“Brown University.” Martin Puryear | Slavery Memorial | Public Art,

“Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity (OIED).” Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice | Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity (OIED) | Brown University,


Chloe Wray

Tamara Lanier. Google her name and hundreds of articles will appear from newspapers such as The New York Times, The Smithsonian, and The Boston Globe. But what is her story, and why is it making national headlines? As described by the Modern Culture and Media department at Brown University, “Tamara Lanier and her lawyer Preston Tisdale filed a lawsuit against Harvard University for the wrongful possession and expropriation of images of her ancestors who were enslaved in South Carolina in the 1850s (Jacquelynn Jones).” Another part of Lanier’s lawsuit asked that “Harvard University to reckon with its historical amnesia and to return the photographs to her family, it also holds them accountable for their complicity in the institution of slavery and asks them to acknowledge the role they played in perpetuating the systematic subjection of Black Americans after emancipation (Jacquelynn Jones).”

Image of Renty Taylor Courtesy of Harvard University

When Lanier spoke at Brown University she presented a much more personal side of the story– one that revolves around familial ties above all. As a child, Lanier’s mother always stressed the importance of knowing where one comes from and enjoyed telling the story of her great-great grandfather Papa Renty- formally known as Renty Taylor. In fact, this story was so important to Lanier’s mother that she made Lanier promise to write it down and trace their geneology. Lanier’s journey with the images of her enslaved ancestors began shortly after the passing of her mother when she set off to do exactly as she had promised. In a casual conversation, Lanier relayed her story to Richard Morrison, the owner of a local ice cream shop in Norwich, Connecticut. Morrison, who had a particular passion for ancestry, offered to help her find information on Renty and his descendants. Weeks later, Morrison had amassed relatively extensive information on Renty: he was known as “the black african,” he was literate, and there was an 1850 daguerrotype of him as well as his daughter Delia. The photos were taken by Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz as part of his work in “[settling] the relative rank among races” for his Essay on Classification (Aggasiz). Lanier came to learn that the images were still used by Harvard as  the cover to the book “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography, and the Power of Imagery,” and recently, as the backdrop to a conference. 

While Lanier’s reasons for suing the university, stated in the block quotation above, stem from a personal story, her lawsuit is still relevant to a wide variety of topics in Africana Studies today. Agassiz’s work so clearly ties in with the system of negative racialization described by Professor Paget Henry in his lecture given on September 9, 2019. The first of five factors that worked to create a negative mindset when viewing African-Americans, was the idea that “African- Americans were the polar opposite of white Europeans.” In this case, Agassiz literally compiled what he considered to be “scientific evidence” that proved the differences between races, thus reinforcing the negative racialization. Secondly, Prof. Henry discussed epidermalization, or “identifying a race by their skin color rather than any self identifiers.” Once again, Agassiz was a proponent of this branch of thinking. He identified as a scientist and viewed slaves as his test subjects. He saw skin color, brain size, and body type, focusing on phenotypic traits, rather than human beings. The results of his, as well as others, studies all worked in creating stereotypes ranging from the “natural slave” to the “buck,” and as a result, the “African was seen as physical, criminal, and oversexualized for both males and females.” Although the work that Agassiz performed was blatantly racist and dehumanizing, he and Harvard University profited from it. Lanier’s concern is that Harvard continually profits off her ancestors images that were taken nonconsensually. This is what Lanier means when she states in her lawsuit that “Renty and Delia remain enslaved in Cambridge, Massachusetts.” Her goal is not to profit, but that the daguerreotypes be placed in the public domain.

Additionally, Lanier’s lawsuit ties in with one of the driving questions of Africana Studies: What does it mean to be a “problem”? And along with that, for whom? Lanier has received, to put it lightly, “pushback” from others since filing the lawsuit. Some comments target the legitimacy of her genealogical claims and others harshly critique the “need that some African-American descendants feel to get reparations for hardships they never had to endure.”Tisdale mentioned the death threats both he and his client have received. In the eyes of some people viewing her case, Lanier is the problem although nothing she is doing personally affects them in any way. In a way, this could also tie in with the systemic racism that Professor Trisha Rose discussed in her lecture on September 26, 2019. Professor Rose unpacked the concept of wealth and explained the tendencies of people to view their wealth as a product of their own hard work when in reality it was handed to them. This misconception often leads to the perception that those in lower classes are lazy or unmotivated. The critiques Lanier has received may come from that very misconception; Lanier is looking to sue to make money– looking to take any easy way up that she can find.  This mindset, within itself, is a problem. Julius Lester once said, “the history of America looks very different viewed from a cotton patch.” In a similar fashion, one can argue that these photos look very different when the subjects are your relatives.

Works Cited

Agassiz, Louis. “Essay on Classification : Agassiz, Louis, 1807-1873 .” Internet Archive. Cambridge, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, January 1, 1962.

Bound By Harvard: 169 Years a Slave Presentation given by Tamara Lanier and Preston Tisdale and held at Brown University on September 25, 2019

Moser, Erica. “Descendants of Racist Scientist Back Norwich Woman in Fight over Slave Images.” The Day, June 21, 2019.

Wade, Peter, and Audrey Smedley . “‘Race’ as a Mechanism of Social Division.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., January 21, 2019.