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

Thu. Mar 10, 2022 6:30pm - 7:30pm EST
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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

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

Book Cover of Who’s Black and Why? by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. & Andrew S. CurranIn 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. CurranWho’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 the NYPL event page. To receive an email reminder shortly in advance of the event, please be sure to register!


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.

In order to attend LIVE from NYPL, patrons age 12 and older will be required to show proof of their full COVID-19 vaccination status, and patrons age 5-11 will be required to show proof of at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Proof of a negative COVID-19 test will not be accepted as an alternative to vaccination. Masks covering one’s nose and mouth are required in order to enter the Library, and must stay on for the duration of one’s time in the building.

Proof of vaccination may include:

  • NYC COVID Safe App NYS Excelsior Pass

  • CDC Vaccination Card (or photo)

  • NYC Vaccination Record

  • An official immunization record from outside NYC or the U.S

  • If you received the vaccine outside of the U.S., please be sure to visit the link with more information below.

Learn more about the Library's covid policies for LIVE from NYPL here.

If you have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 or suspect you have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, please stay home.


In-Person | 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 accessibility@nypl.org or use this Gmail template. This venue is fully accessible to wheelchairs. 

Livestream | Captions and a transcript will be provided. Media used over the course of the conversation will be accompanied by alt text and/or audio description. You can request a free ASL (American Sign Language) interpretation by emailing your request at least two weeks in advance of the event: email accessibility@nypl.org or use this Gmail template.


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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.


Please submit all press inquiries to Sara Beth Joren at least 48 hours before the event: email sarabethjoren@nypl.org or use this Gmail template.

For all other questions and inquiries, please email publicprograms@nypl.org or use this Gmail template.

The New York Public Library's free services and resources are made possible thanks to the support of the Friends of the Library. Join this group of Library lovers and take advantage of special membership benefits, like invitations to members-only virtual events, discounts at the Library Shop, and more. Join now.

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.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. © Peter Simon

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Stephen A. Schwarzman Building 476 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10018