Blogs > Cliopatria > Who Coined the Word Miscegenation?

Apr 21, 2004 11:03 pm


Who Coined the Word Miscegenation?



Emily Eakin, in the NYT (April 17, 2004):

The word miscegenation entered America's bitter racial politics and the national lexicon by way of an ambitious hoax. On Christmas Day in 1863, an anonymous 72-page pamphlet appeared on newsstands around New York City. Titled "Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro," it had all the earmarks of a tract by radical abolitionists.

Arguing that "science has demonstrated that the intermarriage of diverse races is indispensable to a progressive humanity," it triumphantly unveiled a new vocabulary to accompany America's noble, interracial future. In addition to "miscegenation" (derived, the text explained, from the Latin words miscere, to mix, and genus, race), the neologisms included: "miscegen" ("an offspring of persons of different races"), "miscegenate" ("to mingle persons of different races") and "melaleukation" (from the Greek words melas and leukos, for black and white, and used to mean the mingling of those races).

"We must become a yellow-skinned, black-haired people — in fine, we must become miscegens if we would attain the fullest results of civilization," the pamphlet exhorted, pointing to the number of European nations composed "of many diverse bloods" that could claim extraordinary cultural achievements. Just consider the French, it suggested by way of example: "The two most brilliant writers it can boast of are the melaleukon, Dumas, and his son, a quadroon."

Applauded by prominent abolitionists and denounced in Congress, the pamphlet made miscegenation a household word. But the work turned out to be a fraud, an ultimately unsuccessful scheme by two journalists at a pro-Democratic newspaper to turn voters against Abraham Lincoln, the Republican president who freed the slaves and was up for re-election in 1864.

"You have to imagine that an 1863 audience would take this as the worst possible thing," said Werner Sollors, a professor of English and African-American studies at Harvard. "If you read it from a 21st-century point of view, a lot of it seems common sensical."

The pamphlet is just one of many startling textual artifacts Mr. Sollors included in a new book he edited, "An Anthology of Interracial Literature: Black-White Contacts in the Old World and the New." Published in February by New York University Press, the $28 anthology is the first in English devoted to work that Mr. Sollors says has typically been overlooked, an orphan literature belonging to no clear ethnic or national tradition.


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