“Cultivating the Human: Plant Plasticity and the American Eugenics Movement,” Kathleen M. Burns

October 26, 2023 Add to Calendar 4:30–5:30 p.m.

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Rachel Mayeri


The Science, Technology & Society Program at the Claremont Colleges invites you to attend this talk by Kathleen M. Burns, the 2022–2024 Hixon-Riggs Early Career Fellow in Science, Technology, and Society at Harvey Mudd College.

Drawing upon plant pedigrees, novels, magazine advertisements and agricultural experiments, Burns will show how plant reproduction alternately inspired and frustrated early 20th century eugenicist theories of biological determinism in the United States. Plants’ reproductive plasticity enabled Mendelian scientists and eugenicists alike to counterintuitively imagine sex and race as discrete, rigid and visible traits subject to cultivation. In an effort to thwart narratives of eugenics bent on controlling procreation through material and discursive regimes of plant breeding, early 20th-century Black thinkers and scholars, such as Zora Neale Hurston, Charles W. Chesnutt and George Washington Carver draw upon the queering power of plant plasticity—plants’ ability to propagate through vegetative, networked, self-pollinated and otherwise nonheteronormative means—to upend assumptions of reproduction based on gender and racial difference. Even as plant plasticity connected the apparatus of agricultural plant breeding and its attendant relationship with eugenics, within the oppressive sexual economies of the plantation, it also offered a means through which to conceptualize Black formulations of kinship that stem from but grow beyond the racialized ecologies of plantation afterlives.

Kathleen M. Burns holds a PhD in English from Duke University. Her research has been supported by fellowships from Duke University, American Council of Learned Societies and the American Philosophical Society. Her book project, Vegetal Forms: How Plants Cultivate Life in Literature and Science, looks at how storied and material relationships with plants produce racial, gendered and ethnic formulations of the human.