By the turn of the twentieth century, race science, ethnology, and sexology had conspired to calcify the racial and sexual limits of the “human.” This article posits that contemporaneous African American novelists responded to the anti-Blackness of American sexual scientific discourse by presenting their own investigations of sexual behavior through literary narrative. This practice, which we might call “Black vernacular sexology,” adapted the language and methods of institutionalized sexual science to refute the claims of scientific racism and to generate sexual knowledge from a Black standpoint. This essay examines Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901) as a powerful example of Black vernacular sexology, arguing that the novel performs a case study of a Southern aristocrat to reveal how whiteness is constructed through a perverse and sexualized obsession with Blackness. Placing the novel in dialogue with American racial and sexual scientists, the article demonstrates how Chesnutt adapts the methods and refutes the racist claims of official sexology while also refusing to duplicate that field’s pathologization of individuals. This analysis suggests that the study of American sexual scientific discourse requires an understanding of how turn-of-the-century African American literature provided a Black vernacular sexology to combat anti-Black scientific truth-claims about sex itself.

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