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Magic Melanin: Spreading Scientific Illiteracy Among Minorities


Bernard Ortiz De Montellano

Volume 16.2, Winter 1992

Multicultural Pseudoscience: Spreading Scientific Illiteracy Among Minorities

Afrocentric beliefs include a range of tenets. One of the fundamental ideas is that Egypt is the source of civilization and that during its glorious days Egyptians were black. For some, Egypt was the source for European civilization by way of the Greeks, a claim for which there is some evidence. More extreme proponents claim that Egypt was the source of the New World civilizations of Mesoamerica and the Andes as well as Chinese and Indian civilizations. These are claims for which there is no credible evidence. As described previously (Ortiz de Montellano 1991), these ideas are being taught in the several urban school districts that have adopted the Portland African-American Baseline Essays. The Science Baseline Essay (Adams 1990a) claims, among other things, that thousands of years ago Egyptians flew in gliders, electroplated gold, knew accurately the distance to the sun, and discovered the Theory of Evolution. The essay also claims that “the Ancient Egyptians were known the world over as the masters of ‘magic’ (psi). precognition, psychokinesis, remote viewing and other undeveloped human capabilities.” Psi is proclaimed to be a scientific discipline that is studied in leading universities today (Adams 1990a: 41-42).

In our society, science has replaced religion as the main source of explanation about the natural world. Consequently, people as diverse as Madison Avenue hucksters and New Age gurus know that claiming a scientific basis for a belief will make it easier to sell a product. Similarly, a particular group of African-Americans, sometimes called the “melanin scholars” or the “KMWR [pronounced khemware, after Kemet, the name for Egypt] Scientific Consortium,” is providing a “scientific” rationale for Afrocentricity. Some of the better-known members of the group are: Leonard Jeffries, professor of African-American studies at the City University of New York; Wade Nobles, professor of AfricanAmerican studies at San Francisco State University; Frances Cress Welsing, a Washington, D.C., psychiatrist; Richard King, a Los Angeles psychiatrist; and Hunter Adams, a technician at Argonne National Laboratory and author of the Portland Baseline Science Essay. The group’s message is spread primarily by broadcasts on black radio stations of lectures given at annual melanin conferences. This method of dissemination makes documenting their assertions difficult; melanin scholars do not publish in journals or in easily accessible books. The main source of my information about this group is a number of lectures broadcast on the Detroit Public School’s educational station, WDTR 90.9 FM.

The key idea of the melanin scholars is that melanin, a widely distributed pigment in the natural world, found in all humans, has a number of extraordinary properties that are best manifested in black people. They claim that melanin is a superconductor, that it absorbs all frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum, that it can convert sound energy to light energy reversibly, and that it can function as a minicomputer to process information. According to the group, in addition to the skin, hair, and eyes, melanin is widely dispersed in the human body, for example, in twelve sites in the brain, in all the major organs, and in all muscles. The group claims that melanin is involved in the regulation of all psychological and physiological processes of the human body. They state that because of this people with high melanin levels have better muscular coordination (which makes them better athletes), are mentally superior, have unusual faculties, such as ESP, and are influenced by the magnetic fields of other humans and of the earth (Montgomery 1989). They attribute to melanin numerous other properties. Lectures about melanin are replete with scientific sounding terminology: substantia nigra, solitons, phonons, electromagnetic radiation, melanocyte, extrapyramidal tract, pineal gland, hypothalamus, and so on. This creates the impression that there is a scientific base for the claims.

The alleged properties of melanin, mostly unsupported, irrelevant, or distortions of the scientific literature, are then used to justify Afrocentric assertions. One of the most common is that humans evolved as blacks in Africa, and that whites are mutants (albinos, or melanin recessives) (Welsing 1989; King 1991). No one disputes that humans evolved from Africa, but the rest of the statement profoundly distorts genetics. Afrocentrics treat skin color as if it was governed only by one gene, and thus subject to absolute Mendelian dominance / recessiveness. If this were true, humans could only be black or white. However, skin color, like intelligence or height, is controlled by several genes, which explains why humans exhibit a wide color spectrum. Whites do not exhibit a total absence of melanin, but only a lesser amount. That is why whites can increase the amount of melanin in their skin by exposure to the sun. There is also no evidence that the amount of melanin in internal organs correlates with the amount of melanin in the skin. For example, the amount of melanin in the substantia nigra is normal in albinos (Siegel et al. 1989: 755).

Welsing (1989; 1991) uses the notion of whites as melanin recessives to explain white racism on a “scientific” basis. She professes that white men have to destroy black men in self defense because black men have the potential to destroy white men genetically. According to Welsing, a white child can only be produced by having a white mother and father. She claims that all other combinations can only produce black children, and that black men are considered dangerous because they could force white women to have sex. These ideas are easily acceptable in parts of the African-American community where there is broad support for theories that claim the existence of a conspiracy to destroy black males. The high rates of murder, of imprisonment, and of drug use, as well as the high rates of unemployment among black males, are cited as evidence for the conspiracy. The seemingly scientific explanation and academic credentials of some of the speakers are impressive to audiences uneducated in science. This appealing “scientific” explanation for white racism, in turn, makes other melanin claims more likely to be accepted. For example, Barnes (1990) argues that cocaine is part of the racist plot because melanin and cocaine are both alkaloids and have a high affinity for each other. Barnes also claims that blacks can test positive for cocaine even a year after its most recent use, because cocaine co-polymerizes into melanin. Melanin is not an alkaloid and there is no evidence whatsoever for melanin co-polymerizing with cocaine in vivo.

The idea that melanin is an essential component of humanity and that it confers many desirable powers is expanded by others into classical racism. Wade Nobles (1989) states that whites stopped evolving with the development of the central nervous system (CNS), but that blacks continued to evolve an essential melanic system (EMS). From this he develops an “equation": CNS + EMS = HB (human being) - that is, whites are not fully human. Others, such as Richard King (1991), express the same idea by their repeated use of the term hueman instead of “human,” with the connotation that only people with color are truly human. The idea that people to be discriminated against are not fully human has always been used by racists as a justification for their actions. It is sad to see it being used by people who have suffered so much from racism themselves.

The ideas of the melanin scholars are being spread in a much more insidious way. The melanin scholars are the theoreticians behind the Science Baseline Essay; its author, Hunter Adams, is one of the principal members of the group. It is interesting, however, that Adams does not use melanin as the basis for many of his examples. Maybe the claims for melanin are so radical that the association of the African-American Baseline Essays with melanin would hinder their adoption by school districts. However, many assertions in the Baseline Science Essay that seem incongruous or are asserted without any rationale can only be explained or put into context by referring to theories espoused by the “melanin scholars.” For example, the Essay claims that Egyptians in antiquity were black, that Egyptians were far in advance of other civilizations, and that Egypt was the origin of most scientific inventions. The explanation of the melanin scholars for these statements, unstated in the essay, is that melanin confers a mental advantage upon its possessors. Because melanin is the reason for their achievements, it is essential that Egyptians be black.

The claim in the Science Baseline Essay that Egyptians (i.e., blacks) have extrasensory powers is based on work by Frances Cress Welsing (1975). Welsing proposed that a correlation between high blood pressure and blackness of skin was due to the fact that melanin picks up energy vibrations from other people under stress. The darker the skin, the more melanin, and thus the more vibrations would supposedly be picked up. In turn, this higher sensitivity to vibrations of others would lead to higher blood pressure in the recipients. Welsing (1989) expanded this idea to explain why George Washington Carver was so successful in discovering useful products from plants. According to Welsing, Carver owed his success not to his master’s degree in chemistry, but to the fact that he was very dark. She states that Carver discovered the components of plants and their uses because the plants “talked to his melanin and told him what they were good for” during his early morning strolls in the woods. The consequences of a wide acceptance of this notion by AfricanAmerican schoolchildren could be quite damaging. Children could reject appeals from teachers to study hard for years in order to be prepared to become scientists. Black children could respond that in order to be a scientist all they need do is “Let my melanin pick up the vibes.”

Welsing (1989) also provides the explanation for another of the Baseline Essay’s disturbing statements. Adams states that the Dogon of Mali discovered a dwarf companion of Sirius, Sirius B, which is invisible to the naked eye. He also claims that they knew that it is extraordinarily dense and that it has an orbital period of 50 years (Adams 1990a: 60). Adams presents this theory without explanations or justifications, even though he is aware of Welsing’s explanation. This leaves the reader wondering how the Dogon were supposed to have accomplished these feats. According to Welsing, the Dogon’s melanin functions in a manner similar to an infrared telescope, and they were able to detect Sirius B through the melanin in their pineal glands. Welsing claims further that everything that happens on Earth is converted to energy and beamed up to Sirius B. She maintains that the high melanin content of black people enables them to tap into that information. She alleges that Greek oracles were black and that their melanin enabled them, as it does present-day blacks, to foresee the future.

Adams (1990a) claims that astrology is scientific, but again does not provide an explanation. He presented his rationale in lectures at the 1987 Melanin Conference (Adams 1990b). The ability of melanin to absorb and respond to magnetic fields is a key component of his explanation of astrology. Adams also claims “that movement [magnetic motion] is reflective of the movement of the sun, moon, planets, and stars. Thus, at birth, every living thing has a celestial serial number, or frequency power spectrum. This is the basis for astrology right here.”

The melanin scholars have managed to avoid public scrutiny because of the manner in which their message has been disseminated. Leonard Jeffries has aroused the most publicity because of his position in media intensive New York City (see, e.g., Tierney 1991) and his propensity for openly racist statements. However, the racist views of this group can potentially increase further the racial hostility in this country by providing a supposed “scientific” rationale that in one stroke explains white oppression and the genetic superiority of blacks. As the theoreticians behind the Portland Baseline Essays, they can increase scientific illiteracy among those poor urban children who are most in need of better science teaching. These children do not need pseudoscience traveling under the guise of multiculturalism.


Bernard Ortiz De Montellano

Bernard Ortiz De Montellano is emeritus professor of anthropology at Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.