I’ve been waiting for people to die before I told this story on my blog, but certain people seem to take forever to do that so I’m not waiting any more. Besides, it happened a long time ago. The story I’m telling you happened to me a long time ago (about 1990) and the thing that happened to me really amounted to someone telling me a story, which in turn happened a long time before that (about 1977).
There had been some kind of thing, a barbecue, at the home of Scotty MacNeish. If you don’t know who Scotty is, you should. He is the archaeologist who discovered and documented the origins of corn in the highlands of Mexico. He was a justifiably famous and generally respected archaeologist who, enigmatically, worked at a prep school instead of a university for much of his career. At the time of his death, in a vehicle accident while in the field in Belize, Scotty worked at Boston University, but for many years before that he was at Phillips Andover Academy. Phillips Andover is the archetypal American prep school, a pretty good imitation of the old style British prep schools, but located in the small community of Andover, Massachusetts, north of Boston. Until recently, Phillips prepared its students mostly for Yale, though a few would go to Harvard. Samuel Morse went there and later invented Morse Code and stuff. Oliver Wendell Holmes went there. Two American Presidents went there.
So, there was this barbecue at Scotty’s house, and Bruno Marino was the chef. That was the first time I had met him. We later became friends and colleagues and later on he went off to run the revamped Biosphere project. The thing about Bruno is that he was CIA. This meant that any event involving food and Bruno, you’d want to go to, because as you know those CIA guys really know how to cook.
Since we were at Scotty’s house, we were also on or very near (I was never sure) the property of the Academy. It seems we just had to walk through the gate in the backyard fence and we were amid the bricks and ivy of the venerable old institution. And at one point, Scotty and I wandered off to the museum and library, which on this summer weekend evening was closed and dark.
Scotty wanted to show me a wooden cabinet he was about to throw in the trash, along with some other items, because I had expressed an interest in it. In fact, that evening I took the item home where it still serves me nicely today. It is a small solid oak card catalog, one of many the library was getting rid of as they started the switch to other means of keeping track of their books.
At some point we wandered off to the museum. We stood in a darkened hall and talked for a while. I could see that there were exhibits around the walls, but the lighting for each exhibit was turned off so I could not see what they were. That’s when Scottie started to tell me the story.
“Years ago, we had a directors meeting here, with the board of directors of the Academy. They were all former students, and all had gone off to Yale and were all pretty wealthy. Doug and I (that was Doug Byers, the famous anthropologist who also worked at Phillips Andover) had the job of schmoozing the richest and most powerful, to see if we could get more money out of them. So we took one of the directors up there,” he pointed up to the room we had just visited, where the oak cabinet had been stored, “for cognac and cigars.”
We may or may not have been sipping something out of glasses ourselves at that moment, but I’m sure we were not puffing on cigars.
“So, our visitor knew who we were, what our research was. He told us, ‘You gentlemen are anthropologists, and there’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask an anthropologist.’”
I should mention that Scotty was the kind of guy who liked trouble, and I could tell by his expression that he was about to reveal something … troublesome. I had seen him go after the unprepared, the uninitiated, before. He knew then up in the room with the brandy and cigars with Byers, and I knew later as he was telling me the story, that it was going to be one of those questions that revealed a common misunderstanding about something about humans, something about evolution or human behavior or history or biology, one of those things people ask innocently about, without realizing that the question itself, the question they naively seek an answer to, reveals their own abysmal ignorance or nefarious racism or something. Indeed, I suspected as he was telling me that it was going to be about race. And it was.
“He said, and these are close to his exact words, ‘I know that Negro brains are smaller. But they seem to have the same size heads as everyone else. So, my question is…’”
At this moment, Scotty paused for effect. There were a lot of ways this could have gone, but the question was finished off, according to Scotty, this way: “‘… my question is, is the extra space filled with bone, so they have very thick skulls, or is it liquid? Or what?’”
That was a pretty stark question. Naive. Ignorant. Nefariously racist. The kind of question, though, that Doug Byers or Scotty MacNeish or me or any anthropologist would get asked a half dozen times a year back in those days, and now and then even these days. So, why was he, Scotty, telling me this story now, in 1990? This wasn’t about someone being stupid. This was about WHO was being stupid. The name at the end of this tale was going to be someone I’d know, or recognize. Someone who was older and established today, likely someone who had gone to Yale. Someone who had lived, back in the 70s or 80s, near enough to Andover Massachusetts to have been on the board of the Academy.
“What did you tell him?” I asked, wondering which of the possible stock answers they might have used, to inform the man but at the same time avoid having him dry up as a donor.
“Who the hell knows, I don’t remember. Byers gave him some mumbo jumbo. The point is, after that evening, we went to work right away on this exhibit.”
I hadn’t noticed Scotty sidling over to the wall near the base of the big central stairway, near one of the darkened exhibits. He reached up to a switch on the wall and flipped it on. The lights inside the exhibit, a diorama of sorts, sprang on and I could suddenly see a number of human brains sitting each in their own straight sided, round bowls that looked like over grown Petri dishes.
“Have a look,” Scotty said, gesturing towards the brains.
I looked. There were brains labeled “Caucasian”, “African”, “Asian”, and “Native American.” Each brain looked pretty realistic, wet, fresh, and there seemed to be fluid accumulated in each of the preternaturally large Petri dishes. All of it was fake, of course. The liquid was Lucite, and with my highly trained Biological Anthropology eye I could easily see that the brains were all molded from the same exact cast.
The text above the brains included a map and some other items but one paragraph was highlighted and foregrounded and it said, roughly, “…all humans have the same brain, the same size, with the same abilities. Race is a made up concept and is only skin deep,” or words to that effect.
“This,” Scotty resumed his story, “is ultimately how we answered the question. It didn’t matter as much to us that this guy had race all botched up, it mattered more that the students wold get it right from then on.”
He looked at me and I could see the “I’m going to cause trouble now” look setting in.
“Of course, with this particular member of the board of directors, it may have mattered more than average.”
“Who was it, Scotty?” I asked, as he expected me to ask.
“Let’s just say that among ourselves, between Doug and me, we named the exhibit after him,” Scotty said, holding his arm out, drawing my attention back to the diorama. “Behold, the George H. Bush Memorial Exhibit on Race!”
I was not even a little surprised. With this much fanfare, it had to be a president or something.
“Of course, he wasn’t President back in those days. Or even Vice President. He was still merely head of the CIA.
That would be the other CIA, of course.