The great race debate of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries posed the question: Is race biologically fixed, or externally mutable? Samuel Stanhope Smith was a primary proponent of the latter opinion, as seen in his essay “An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species to which are Added Structures.” Initially, he seems to be a researcher documenting the entire spectrum of human color diversity. However, as the essay continues, his focus shifts from all of humankind to individuals of a “savage complexion” (44). As evidence to support his argument that race is oscillating, he weaves his personal experience with scientific language. Smith assumes the persona of a scientist or medical specialist observing and analyzing an individual. A young, unnamed, Native boy becomes the object of comparison. In using this framework, Smith successfully creates an illusion of authority and conveys that his work is merely objective. Although, disguised beneath the language of neutrality, Smith concurrently presents “white” as the model of human perfection. Each description of the boy’s racial transformations are presented as dramatic improvements. The the lightening of his skin tone, the lessening of the “savage” features, and his intellectual development are all credited to his proximity to whites.
Smith commences his study of the Native American by listing the physical traits he deemed aesthetically displeasing, and the miraculous amelioration of these features. The supposedly “obvious difference” that this youth exhibits can only be understood in juxtaposition with the “fellow-students” (61). Before listing the peculiar traits, Smith must first give a point of ...
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... ideal. Overtime, the native boy “acquires the agreeable expression of civil life” (60). Smith, as a white male and member of educated society, claims the privilege of determining what an “agreeable expression” is. Using his literary capabilities he seems to scientifically validate the ideal. The underlying implication of this work is not a new concept, but it is disguised in terminology that gives his opinion authority. The modern discussion of race has shifted, and it is now widely recognized as a construction. Smith, and authors like Smith are studied as major architects in the creation of race. However, within this text it is apparent that beauty too is a construction, and race becomes foundational to that structure. Reading Samuel Stanhope Smith can inspire a modern reader to contemplate if, and to what extent race and the concept of beauty still overlaps today?
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