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Purity and Pride: Dr. Shantella Sherman Brings Eugenics Back into Focus

Eugenics has undergirded social engagement, public policy, and popular culture in America since the 1850s, yet the average American remains unaware of its reach. From marriage selection and school testing, determining who should have children and what characteristics threaten the sanctity of the nation, eugenics firmly informs our decision-making. Using popular film, television shows, scholarly texts, and the experiences of her audiences, Dr. Shantella Sherman, introduces eugenics to the public through lectures, talks, and screenings. Since 2009, Sherman has worked with college students at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, the David Clarke School of Law on the campus of the University of D.C., and the general public, through lectures at the African-American Civil War Museum and D.C. Public Libraries, to help them unlock bias, deconstruct racism, and re-interpret the language of “fitness.”

“Many of my students gravitate towards the scientific language of eugenics because they’ve watched episodes of the popular BBC series Orphan Black, which examines human cloning, creating better humans by tampering with genes to remove or improve certain behaviors and conditions,” Sherman said. “Those same students, get to examine more fully how the television series grew out of an entire movement that gave us beauty contests, aptitude tests, and the crude medical experiments adopted by Adolph Hitler to create a ‘master race.’ Sherman said that her public lectures in the D.C. area – initially scheduled in two-hour increments in 2014 -- have grown to an average of 3.5 hours each, through interactions with audiences. Everyone wants to know more about eugenics. “African-Americans are shocked to learn that leading figures in the intellectual and social history of this country prescribed to eugenic and hereditarian thought as a part of a racial uplift platform. Scholars like Kelly Miller, W.E.B. DuBois, and E.E. Just, accepted many and reformulated other theories related to degeneracy that were eugenic in scope,” Sherman said. Hasani Muhammad, a Howard University junior and self-described Pan-Africanist, told Acumen that he often disassociated Blacks being labeled and marginalized from Black people themselves, believing eugenics to be a white-over-Black-paradigm. After reading Sherman’s book, In Search of Purity, Popular Eugenics and Racial Uplift Among New Negroes 1915-1935, he is beginning to understand it now as a fit over unfit equation. “It’s like reading the Isis Papers for the first time and seeing how racism/white supremacy holds our movements in place, and then seeing eugenics as the primary methodology for racial, social, and gender bias,” Muhammad said. “It’s naïve to believe that Black people did not embrace and help propagate the same ideas about Blacks in the South or in ghettos as white people held about all of us.”

Sherman said that some of her older students enjoy dissecting eugenic positions in films and television series, where the theories are hidden in plain view and can be easily connected to their own experiences. She points to a recent screening of the 1974 film Claudine, starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones. “When we consider that several generations of Black women migrated from the South without husbands, but with their children – we overlook the manner in which many were received. Not only were these women scrutinized sharply for having “too many” children, but their sexuality and morality were under constant surveillance,” Sherman said. “To settled, educated, and decidedly middle-class Black households, the migration of poorer, less-educated, and (in their words), less sophisticated African-Americans felt, at times, like more of an invasion than simply a relocation.” Sherman said that lectures tend to move through several historical turns, including the 1927 Supreme Court ruling in Buck v. Bell that made legal the sterilization of any persons considered socially defective to ward off the tide of imbeciles and degenerates in the nation. “My mother had 16 children and she left my father down in South Carolina around 1963, when his drinking and fighting got to be too much. I know all about how it felt to move to D.C. and have other Black people looking at me and laughing or sucking their teeth,” Eloise Mayberry, 71, one of Sherman’s audience members told Acumen. “My mother was doing the best she could and we were well-mannered, even if our clothes sometimes weren’t the best. And I remember how people poked and prodded us at the public health center and school. They kept saying that we were backwards, feebleminded, and incorrigible. It wasn’t until listening here today that that was eugenics… We were being labeled.” Sherman also tackles social constructs and preferences that grew out of eugenic laws that center around race hygiene, including skin complexion and hair texture preferences, grooming, and overall deportment.

“Audiences have to move beyond the surface light-skin over dark-skin or hair weave analyses, and look closely at the difference between preference and necessity. We have advertisements in newspaper want-ads that announce, “Colored woman wanted as cook. No hard-lookers need apply’ -- in parenthesis, hard-looking is defined as too black or dark,” Sherman said. “In an age where skin color is social currency, marrying lighter may have constituted a necessity rather than a aesthetic preference. Now how that is used today, in popular television, dating, etc., is where the dialogue shifts.” Sherman said that examining eugenic theories today makes for healthy dialogue as new restrictions on birth control, calls for the sterilization of the poor and imprisoned, and a growing belief that criminal behavior and poverty develop as traits in the womb.

“If you don’t understand eugenics, you’re missing three-quarters of the mainframe to public policy and legal platforms; these are laws and regulations that dictate how we live and how well we live. But so long as the conversation is strictly surface, those most in peril and vulnerable to eugenic legislation never gain an opportunity to advocate on their own behalves.” For more information on Dr. Sherman or to schedule a talk, visit The Acumen Group at ; Copies of In Search of Purity can be purchased through

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