The Case for Blackness

Alejandra Padín-Dujon

Achille Mbembe (translated and with an introduction by Laurent Dubois), Critique of Black Reason
Duke University Press, 240 pages, $24.95

TOMI LAHREN, the twenty-five-year-old conservative media darling, claimed in a 2016 interview with comedy show host Trevor Noah that she does not ‘see color.’[1] Presumably, she meant that she does not discriminate on the basis of race. In an age of racial reckoning from Charlottesville to DACA — from Black Lives Matter to All Lives Matter—many wonder whether the world wouldn’t be simpler if we abandoned racial labels once and for all. Others contend that socioeconomic class is the driving force behind inequity and oppression, while race has no intrinsic significance. Given the divisiveness of racial classifications and their susceptibility to abuse by racists, why retain racial discourse at all? Suppose Tomi Lahren truly has managed to live her life completely blind to race. Is this approach ideal?

These are the questions at the heart of Critique of Black Reason by French-Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe. Drawing upon theoretical frameworks from African literature, Frantz Fanon’s discourse on colonialism, and Michel Foucault’s theories of power, Mbembe argues that racial discourse is defensible only as a metaphor for diversity in the fight to liberate the world’s racialized and exploited peoples. To understand why, we must follow Mbembe into the tangled origin story of Blackness.

Racial categories, observes Mbembe, are created by historical actors and codified through law and practice. They divide the world into more and less privileged classes. The concept of Blackness made its debut in the fantastical histories of the ancient Greeks, Arabs, Egyptians, and Chinese, which introduced the Black Man as a dark-skinned figure symbolizing all things savage, mysterious, and occult. Centuries later, the transatlantic African slave trade transformed the history of Blackness and race in a ‘gregarious moment of Western thinking.’ Reinforced by colonialist motives, legends, and rumors about dark-skinned Africans became theories dividing humanity into genders, species, and races. This trade marked the birth of racial categories.

In the Americas, colonial policy reimagined slavery as a hereditary condition: children of female slaves became slaves themselves. Although indigenous peoples were the first victims of slavery, Black Africans soon replaced them in bondage. Blackness and enslavement became nearly synonymous. To justify slavery, Europeans invented stories about African people: they were childlike, dependent, malicious, lazy, or stupid. To enshrine the hierarchy of races, European colonists passed laws banning miscegenation and imposing the logic of hypodescent, assigning mixed-race individuals the race of their African parent.

Blackness, then, bears the dubious distinction of being one of the first idioms through which the colonizer learned to talk about race. In fact, the term ‘Blackness’ recalls actual Black people and abstract racial metaphors simultaneously. On a racial color scale from white to non-white, Blackness symbolizes the alien. On the racial hierarchy, Blackness represents the lowest status. Mbembe contends that Blackness is both a stigma and a source of pride, a cloud of anti-Black myths and their Black nationalist antitheses, the general condition of racial capitalism and a condition unique to Black Africans themselves. Blackness contains multitudes.

The question of whether racial discourse is worth retaining can be reduced to the relative merits of these competing narratives. Mbembe himself doubts that racial labels devised by the colonizer can benefit Black people. In Critique of Black Reason, he disavows racial classification except in the sense that it acknowledges pluralism. He does not recognize Blackness as a social reality. He does not recognize Blackness as its own good.

Yet to account for Black consciousness in modern society and the indelible historical mark it has made, we must adopt a less radical approach. We must ask not, ‘Should there be Blackness?’ — a useless question, for there will be Blackness—but rather, ‘Which Blackness should there be?’ Which definitions of Blackness empower Black people? By offering a number of definitions, Mbembe supplies his reader with the tools to formulate a response.

If Black reason is ‘a collection of voices, pronouncements, discourses, forms of knowledge, commentary, and nonsense, whose object is things or people “of African origin”’ then Western consciousness of Blackness (Mbembe’s italics) is the share of this reason that has furnished justifications for the ‘arithmetic of racial domination.’ It is the notorious one-drop rule, and the American Black Codes; it is South African apartheid, and the pro-slavery logic of John C. Calhoun. Western consciousness of Blackness is, at its core, a way to identify, isolate, and exploit people of African origin as invented by European colonizers.

Race here functions both as a stigma and a cognitive process. Race-as-stigma is the top-down imposition of demeaning racial labels by the colonizer on the colonized. ‘The racial theater,’ writes Mbembe, ‘is a space of systematic stigmatization.’ In this sense, race is neither natural nor elective. It is a weapon wielded by those in power against the heirs to a legacy of racial slavery. Race-as-cognition is the cognitive process underlying racism in which race is an ‘operation of the imagination’ that maps visual cues such as skin color or facial features onto a collection of preconceived myths about Black people. Just as a rhyme pairs similar-sounding words, race exists in doubles and associations. Racism, then, is the process of pairing visual and social cues with a cache of myths. In its false pairings it is a form of ‘psychic derangement.’

Finally, Mbembe argues that Western consciousness of Blackness has also dictated the logic of racial capitalism. Global capitalist exploitation has turned the postcolonial racialized ‘Global South’ into the laboring class for the Western world. And it has engendered patterns of economic exploitation in the West that claim Black or other racialized subjects as their primary victims. Hence Mbembe’s declaration that ‘the systematic risks experienced specifically by Black slaves during early capitalism have now become the norm for, or at least the lot of, all of subaltern humanity.’ Mbembe calls this the ‘Becoming-Black-of-the-World.’ This phenomenon exists in tension with the specificity of Blackness, which will forever be associated with people of African descent. The concept of Blackness will forever be tied to its birth in the transatlantic slave trade.

All of this stands in contrast with Black consciousness of Blackness. Black consciousness attempts the daunting task of defining itself not in opposition to European racial logic, but independently of it. To conjure up this independent vision, Black consciousness seeks recourse in the ‘original experience’ of Black tradition. Yet ‘very early,’ writes Mbembe, ‘it becomes clear that the history of Black people exists in fragments.’ The Black Man is a member of a ‘pointillist people struggling to define itself’ as a single entity united by a bloody history. Black consciousness of Blackness is a cultural and political identity that people of African descent — grouped artificially by Europeans into a single category — have claimed for themselves.

Mbembe’s great shortcoming in Critique of Black Reason is his failure to give due credit to the Black community for converting Blackness — once a demeaning colonial mode of Classification—into source of pride and unity.Though he acknowledges in passing that ‘some’ have transformed Blackness into a ‘symbol of beauty and pride’ or a ‘sign of radical defiance,’ he spends the majority of his discussion of Black community issuing warnings against the dangers of Black nationalism.

Mbembe alleges that those who posit the existence of a ‘Black community’ replicate colonial methods of domination by assuming that Black people possess innate characteristics and affinities. Black nationalists have simply replaced narratives of Black inferiority with narratives of Black excellence. But codifying norms of Blackness, Mbembe warns, may lead to the zealous persecution of those Black people who fail to embody them. And the territorialization of Blackness — the association of Blackness and Black people with the African continent, to the exclusion of other races — can only damage African civil society. Such territorialization insinuates that the citizen gains her status not through her ability to exercise reason (in the Aristotelian sense), but through her Blackness.

Mbembe’s critiques of Black nationalism are valid. Yet his anxiety about the tyranny of Black nationalist majorities has no place in the Western context. In the United States, color- blindness and analogous refusals to acknowledge the real and irreversible history of race threaten one of the greatest Black cultural innovations: the Black community.

Mbembe is wrong to contest the validity of Black community as its own good — an unfortunate consequence of his righteous horror at the colonial roots of modern Black consciousness. It is this community — this social good — that forms the backbone of resistance movements that fight against racial oppression. In minimizing the positive aspects of Blackness, Mbembe inadvertently antagonizes standard-bearers of the very movements for collective liberation he claims to support.

Black Lives Matter, for example, arose in response to police brutality against African-American communities in particular, but has crafted an ideology to oppose the brutality of the police state in general. The movement’s project aligns perfectly with Achille Mbembe’s goal of collective liberation for capitalism’s racialized subjects. Yet contrary to Mbembe’s contention that the only construction of Blackness with positive implications is ‘Blackness’ as ‘humanity in all its stripes,’ Black Lives Matter does not restrict its understanding of Blackness to a politically expedient metaphor for diversity. Under the theoretical frameworks advanced by real social movements such as Black Lives Matter, Black people are Black in an empirical, tangible sense. The premise underlying the statement ‘Black lives matter’ is the recognition that ‘Black lives exist.’ Black Lives Matter accepts that race functions as an intrinsic characteristic — a lie made true by slavery and colonialism—because this horrific trade led to the creation of the Black community through the ingenuity and resilience of Africans and their descendants. This does not vindicate the colonizer. Nor does it suggest that the cultural production and political consciousness of the Black community were produced inevitably by history and trauma, as though Black creativity existed only as a mechanical reflex in the face of oppression. Rather, Black Lives Matter accepts the label of ‘Blackness’ because the social implications of Blackness as a hereditary characteristic have been altered. Blackness has acquired positive connotations, such as solidarity and resistance, that trace their origins not to a Black caste system but to the Black community.

In a country with disproportionate concentrations of wealth and power in the hands of white citizens, Blackness is a form of strength in unity for the diverse populations of African- Americans, Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, and Afro-Latinos to which it refers. In a country with a rich African-American cultural tradition that extends to music, dance, film, fashion, scholarship, activism, religion, and sports, Blackness epito- mizes the resilience and creativity of a marginalized community. In a country that has lived through the strict regulation of African bloodlines and the segregation tactics of slavery, Jim Crow, and ‘urban renewal’ (read: ‘Negro removal’), Blackness has become just as vital a marker of social organization as it was once an explicit stigma.

Achille Mbembe interprets this about-face as Black people’s capitulation to colonial desires unless it is redeemed by a struggle for liberation that includes all the world’s marginalized and racialized peoples. But the reality is more complex. Those who were once imprinted with the label of ‘Black people’ have altered the course of Blackness. They have imbued the label with a power and agency that did not stem from colonial domination, but rather arose in repudiation of it. While Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason brilliantly formalizes the contours of race and racism, his decision to define Blackness through the lens of subjugation produces an incomplete vision. A movement for the collective liberation of all racialized subjects is not the only way to rehabilitate the concept of Blackness or race.

[1] Tomi Lahren, interview by Trevor Noah, The Daily Show, November 30, 2016.