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Prenatal and Hereditary Influences

MAY 25-26, 1897 — 2nd Conference for the Study of Problems Concerning Negro City Life, Atlanta University, Atlanta GA


The boy takes his large nose from his grandmother, the small mouth from his father, and a quick temper from his mother. This is natural, for children always inherit the characteristics of their ancestors. But where does he get red hair? No one in the family has hair of that color. And how is it that the young man seems prone to the social sin? His father has always seemed upright, and his mother is regarded as a model of purity. To be sure, the grandfather sowed wild oats, and it is charged that a great-great-grandmother was born out of wedlock, but that was generations ago and this young man has never heard those family scandals of a hundred years past.

It is well, if his ears have never listened to such unhappy stories. His parents were wise in withholding them from his knowledge. Alas! while they could easily keep the family skeleton in the closet and spare their son the humiliation of such ugly tales they could not so easily purify and change the blood that coursed in their veins; hence we see the son, in spite of fine precept and example, on the downward grade in his social tendencies.

Again, they say this young man is not very strong. His mother fears he is going into consumption. The father says: Have no fears along that line, my dear, for there is no consumption in my family nor in yours. No danger of that, although somehow our son is rather frail!

That red hair is hard to account for, but, no doubt, this head is an exact reproduction of one in the same family generations age. It may be so far back, indeed, that no living person remembers having heard of the peculiarity. In the same silent way influences which affect the morals and the health of the boy have been handed down.

How rarely in the every day ordering of our lives do we give any attention to that silent, but powerful, thing known as heredity! Although its power cannot be confined in time to the earthly life of man, nor in social contact to any one race, as long as we are not reminded in some very forcible or unpleasant way of its effects, we  scarcely think of its operations. At any rate, the thought expended upon it rarely ripens into such action as will regulate its influence.

In respect to time the force of heredity cannot be checked by a generation. We are to-day reaping what was sown, not by our fathers alone, but by their fathers and grandfathers. Unto the third and fourth generation of them was the decree thundered from Mt. Sinai by the voice of Almighty God.

There can be no suspending of the influences of heredity until the human soul has had sufficient development to appreciate responsibilities; until it wills to be shaped by this or by that influence. No, there is no choice! Before the body is ready to begin life as a separate being, as a new personality, it is molded and cast by the combined traits of the father and the mother from whom this new creature must draw its individual existence. And the intellectual and ethical cast will follow as closely the law, Like begets like, as will the physical. We do not expect to find the children of white parentage having black faces or kinky hair, nor the children of black ancestry having fair brows, blue eyes, and flaxen locks. It would be just as unreasonable to expect the intellectual and the ethical characteristics of children to be radically unlike those of their ancestors as it would be to expect their physical features to be radically different.

‘Tis true that the progeny of some very good parents are very bad specimens of humanity, but such cases must be like our boy’s red hair which fell to him despite the fact that no other such head had ever been seen in that family. In both cases the results came through blood. Both the red hair and the weak or vicious character were transmitted. Probably through a long stream of blood, but we must know that neither came as a matter of chance. The one was just as much a legacy as the other.

Placing an inheritance is often difficult for the reason that it may be the result of complex causes and combined forces.

Possibly no one in the preceding generations had red hair, but there must have been sufficient in the aggregate of that kind of pigment to produce one such head in the family. This same principle of transmission applies to the health, the brain and the morals of the descendants. The exact ailment of body or malady of mind may not be traceable to any one source, but it has been handed down.

Legacies of money seem to fall in most cases to those who are already fortunate. This may be on the theory that To him that hath shall be given. Not so with the more enduring legacies of body and soul. Whether we will or no they come, and, like the dreaded bacteria, fix themselves in the most fertile soil. Where there is one weakness of body or mind another is the more apt to locate; hence, instead of having a general distribution of evil, it falls much more heavily in some places than in others.

To no one source more than the conditions attendant upon pregnant women can the cause of physical or moral evil be traced. The unborn child draws its physical and in large measure its intellectual and ethical make-up from its father and its mother. Not from the mother alone, as many suppose, but from both.

Both parents contribute to the possibilities for health, good or bad, and furnish the germs for character creation and development just as certainly as they together originate the physical life.

These are solemn truths! Yet how few people understand or regard them! The awful sacredness of procreation has never yet dawned upon any considerable proportion of mankind.

Sadly enough, the gratification of passion is too often the only thought, while the result is given little or no consideration. Too many children come into life as mere accidents. The father is irritated at the thought of an additional one to work for. He feels his present family to be quite as much as he can decently support. His moroseness is communicated to the already regretful mother, who reasons that she is not strong enough, that children worry her so she cannot do justice to those she already has, that her time and strength are too much divided, as she in many cases is also a bread-winner. Sad plight, we see, for there is reason in the objections offered. But prudential considerations come too late to be availing. Just think how the innocent offspring must reap the evil effects of these unholy feelings and expressions, and all the sympathy that you might have felt for the parents turns into disgust, and you exclaim: In Heaven’s name, call your will to the rescue and say, God helping me, I will not thus prejudice the cause of my own child!

Few women seem to appreciate the fact that the sensitive embryo receives the impressions made upon the mind of the mother. Very strange thoughtlessness, as the most ignorant believe in birthmarks and everything that affects the body. How is it that they do not realize that a mind also is being created?

All parents love their children and most love them to the very best of their understanding. Because of this love, which we believe to be the strongest known to the human breast, most parents are willing to be taught what is best for their offspring.

In making effort to give uplift to the vitality of the Negro race the best work needs to be put into the enlightenment of present and prospective parenthood. Not necessarily into general and extended learning,–that is more or less impracticable, — but the claims of prenatal and hereditary influences need to be brought to the direct and intelligent consideration of all classes.

In the women’s meetings and in the men’s meetings equally there should be set forth in a plain way the important teachings of science on this important subject. This instruction may be set forth in such language as the occasion demands and the instructor chooses to employ, but, above all, let it be distinctly understood that the development of germ life depends upon the original germ and equally upon the culture and treatment of that germ: — in short, teach that the prenatal development of a child depends largely upon whatever affects the mother. If the pregnant woman is constantly wishing that her unborn child were dead or that the man who has given her this burden, — as she has learned in her chagrin to regard the child — were dead: who can wonder that out of such murderous thought there should come in very truth a murderer!

Should the material wants of the mother be denied her to such an extent that she feels the necessity and yields to the temptation of supplying them by theft or by prostitution who shall think it strange that her child should be a thief or prostitute? If the father is a drunkard the son is apt to be a drunkard.

Criminals are often made years and years before they are sentenced to prison. Alas! too often made criminal before they are born.

The body may come into life as sorely doomed as the mind, unable to resist the ordinary diseases incident to childlife, because of the many neglects and abuses of the bodies of parents. This is very wrong: very unfair to the child and in many ways very hard on parents.

The creation of a strong public sentiment on these subjects seems to be an imperative necessity.



Source: Social and Physical Condition of Negroes in Cities,  (Atlanta: Atlanta University Publications, 1897), pp. 37-40.