The Lusus Naturae: Depicting Enslaved Childhood in Eighteenth-Century Literary and Medical Texts | Rebecca M. Rosen
The Lusus Naturae: Depicting Enslaved Childhood in Eighteenth-Century Literary and Medical Texts
by Rebecca M. Rosen
Postdoctoral Fellow, Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis
Paper presented at the MLA 2022 Roundtable: The Biopolitics of Childhood
Washington DC, January 8, 2022
[Please do not circulate or cite without permission of the author.]
“The Lusus Naturae: Depicting Enslaved Childhood in Eighteenth-Century Literary and Medical Texts” discusses how late eighteenth-century North American and transatlantic English texts treat enslaved Africans and African Americans as always already subject to anatomy by focusing their attention on the visually anatomized bodies of living people. From plaster molds of living children to staged tours of enslaved adults, such exhibitions—and the literary and visual artifacts created in their wake—show how the widespread theft of black bodies, so often cited as the underpinning of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century university instruction, was supported by a literary and visual culture that endorsed the anatomical seizure of the living. I will be focusing on two examples—the 1789 American Museum report from Maryland on an enslaved child named Prince, including an illustration title “the Boy with no Arms,” and a 1790 engraving of John Thomas Bobey Dr. Thomas Pole, a Philadelphia-born, London-based Quaker surgeon, depicting Bobey, an adult with vitiligo, holding a portrait of himself, represented by a plaster cast made when he was a child. I will be describing—and eager to engage fellow roundtable panelists on—the way these images present Prince and Bobey as living—and, implicitly, willing—anatomical exhibits, and how the focus on them as curiosities fits into larger trends of racialized anatomical seizure, and definitions of disability and bodily normativity, among the scientific correspondents in the Atlantic world.