LIVE from NYPL: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. & Andrew S. Curran: The Robert B. Silvers Lecture

Event Details

The two scholars reveal a hidden chapter from the 18th-Century invention of race.

We are excited to welcome audiences back to in-person gatherings in our new programming space at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (on 5th Avenue and 40th Street), as well as in the iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman building. This season we will also host virtual offerings, and in an effort to create even more access, many of our in-person programs will be livestreamed. Because we are committed to gathering safely, we have implemented a series of health and safety protocols. Please review those below, and learn more here.

Book jacket for Who’s Black and Why? by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Andrew S. Curran

In 1739 Bordeaux’s Royal Academy of Sciences had announced their latest essay contest: explain the sources of “blackness.” What is the physical cause of blackness and African hair, they asked, and what is the cause of Black degeneration? By the time answers were received two years later, more than four million Africans had been kidnapped and shipped across the Atlantic into a life of brutal enslavement in cities, farms, and plantations on the other side of the world. None of the contest submissions were ever published, until last year, in a new book edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Andrew S. Curran, Who’s Black and Why?   The essays, written by a mix of naturalists, theologians, physicians, and amateurs, document the search for a “scientific” understanding of race. Together they provide an indispensable record of the Enlightenment-era thinking that normalized the sale and enslavement of Black human beings.

For the annual Robert B. Silvers Lecture, Gates and Curran retell the story of the contest, contextualize it in the history of the period, and discuss how the essays lay bare the origins of anti-Black racism and colorism in the West.

The Robert B. Silvers Lecture is an annual series created by Max Palevsky in recognition of the work of Robert B. Silvers, who was a co-founding editor of The New York Review of Books.

To join in-person | Please be sure to register for an In-Person Ticket. Doors will open around 5:45 PM. For free events, we generally overbook to ensure a full house. Priority will be given to those who have registered in advance, but registration does not guarantee admission. All registered seats are released shortly before start time, and seats may become available at that time. A standby line will form 30 minutes before the program.

To join the livestream | A livestream of this event will be available on this NYPL event page. To receive an email reminder shortly in advance of the event, please be sure to register! If you encounter any issues, please join us on NYPL's YouTube channel.



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Henry Louis Gates, Jr. recommends these titles for further reading: Andrew S. Curran recommends these titles for further reading:


We are excited to welcome you back to LIVE from NYPL in person. As we gather together, your health and safety is of the utmost importance.

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  • Assistive listening devices and/or hearing loops are available at the venue.
  • You can request a free ASL (American Sign Language) interpretation or CART (Communication Access Real-Time Translation) captioning service by emailing your request at least two weeks in advance of the event: email or use this Gmail template.
  • This venue is fully accessible to wheelchairs.
  • Captions and a transcript will be provided.
  • Media used over the course of the conversation will be accompanied by image descriptions, which can be found here.
  • You can request a free ASL (American Sign Language) interpretation by emailing your request at least two weeks in advance of the event: email or use this Gmail template.


Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the author of numerous books and has written extensively on the history of race and anti-Black racism in the Enlightenment. His most recent works include Stony the Road and The Black Church. He is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

Andrew S. Curran is a leading specialist of the Enlightenment era and the author of The Anatomy of Blackness and Diderot and The Art of Thinking Freely. He is the William Armstrong Professor of the Humanities at Wesleyan University.



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LIVE from NYPL is made possible by the continuing generosity of Celeste Bartos, Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos and Adam Bartos, the Margaret and Herman Sokol Public Education Endowment Fund, and the support of Library patrons and friends.