History, Department of


In Search of Purity: Popular Eugenics and Racial Uplift among New Negroes 1915-1935

Shantella Y. Sherman, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Document Type Article

A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: History, Under the Supervision of Professor Jeannette Eileen Jones. Lincoln, Nebraska: May, 2014

Copyright (c) 2014 Shantella Y. Sherman


“In Search of Purity: Eugenics and Racial Uplift among New Negroes, 1915-1935” examines the reinterpretation of eugenic theories by Black scholars, who helped integrate the science into a social movement for racial uplift. Areas of analyses include: The Talented Tenth, links between ideas about social degeneracy and physical hygiene, eugenics courses and professors at Howard University, hereditarian, and colorism. Guiding principles of African American-led eugenic theory are examined alongside the fading imagery of the Old Negro that consisted of stereotypes scattered throughout plantation fiction, blackface minstrelsy, vaudeville, and Darwinism. Specifically, terms like germ plasm (negative characteristics transmitted through genes through continual selection, unchanged, from one generation to the next) , and racial hygiene (a public health platform designed to eliminate, among other ailments, venereal disease and promote healthy reproduction within a race) are analyzed in their relation to popular discourses about Black cleanliness that included “moral fitness” and intellectual ineptness. Ideologies that intrinsically tied blackness to social degeneracy and criminality, as well as terms like full-blood and mulatto, are also examined. Links between standards of beauty, desirability, and marriage-worthiness in relation to those ideas are also critiqued. Of particular interest is the impact of racial hygiene discourses on African-American advertising through the promotion of products to lighten skin and straighten hair in order to eliminate noticeable signs of racial inferiority.

Adviser: Jeannette Eileen Jones