I know nothing about birds but was of course aware of the name John James Audubon who became famous for his books containing detailed and lavish color paintings of the birds of America. His name has been adopted by various ornithological societies and one hears references to his name all the time. For some reason, I had thought that he was Black and was thus surprised when I read this news item that the Audubon Naturalist Society is dropping the name because of Audubon’s unsavory history and racist attitudes that, among other things, involved slave trading. They are making this move as part of a nationwide trend of not honoring people who have been guilty of deplorable acts.
Originally called the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia, ANS was set up in 1897 as part of a wave of such groups seeking to protect bird species then under threat from hunters.
Audubon achieved lasting fame for his detailed studies and illustrations of American birds, made in the early 19th century.
More recently, he has come under scrutiny for his buying and selling of enslaved people in the 1820s; for his objections to the abolitionist movement; and for writings that portrayed black and indigenous people as inferior to whites.
Audubon, who was born in modern-day Haiti but moved to the US before dying in New York in 1851, took five human skulls from a battlefield in Texas and sent them to Samuel Morton, a doctor who attempted to determine differences that he claimed showed varying intelligence levels between races.
So how did I come to have the belief that he was Black? It turns out that his ancestry is unclear.
It’s fair to describe John James Audubon as a genius, a pioneer, a fabulist, and a man whose actions reflected a dominant white view of the pursuit of scientific knowledge. His contributions to ornithology, art, and culture are enormous, but he was a complex and troubling character who did despicable things even by the standards of his day. He was contemporaneously and posthumously accused of—and most certainly committed—both academic fraud and plagiarism. But far worse, he enslaved Black people and wrote critically about emancipation. He stole human remains and sent the skulls to a colleague who used them to assert that whites were superior to non-whites.
Complicating this history is his ambiguous background: Some researchers have credibly argued that Audubon was born to a woman of mixed race, which would mean that the most famous American bird artist was a man of color. [My italics-MS] Others insist that Audubon’s mother was white. Audubon himself lied about the circumstances of his birth, claiming to have been born in Louisiana. Whatever his circumstances of his birth, his beliefs and actions speak for themselves.
John James Audubon was born in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) in 1785, the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and sugar plantation owner. The identity of his mother is in dispute; she could have been a French chambermaid named Jeanne Rabine, but there is compelling evidence that she was a mixed-race housekeeper named Catherine “Sanitte” Bouffard. At the age of 5—which coincided with the beginnings of the Haitian Revolution—Audubon was sent to Nantes, France and was raised by his father’s wife, Anne. There, John James Audubon took an interest in birds, nature, drawing, and music.
So it is possible that I casually read such a news item somewhere along the way about his ancestry and it stuck in my mind. But I have the nagging feeling that may not be the reason, that I am confusing Audubon with a Black naturalist whose name has slipped my mind.