Becoming Black: Creating Identity in the African Diaspora / Edition 1

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Becoming Black is a powerful theorization of Black subjectivity throughout the African diaspora. In this unique comparative study, Michelle M. Wright discusses the commonalties and differences in how Black writers and thinkers from the United States, the Caribbean, Africa, France, Great Britain, and Germany have responded to white European and American claims about Black consciousness. As Wright traces more than a century of debate on Black subjectivity between intellectuals of African descent and white philosophers, she also highlights how feminist writers have challenged patriarchal theories of Black identity.

Wright argues that three nineteenth-century American and European works addressing race-Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, G. W. F. Hegel's Philosophy of History, and Count Arthur de Gobineau's Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races-were particularly influential in shaping twentieth-century ideas about Black subjectivity. She considers these treatises in depth and describes how the revolutionary Black thinkers W. E. B. Du Bois, Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Frantz Fanon countered the theories they promulgated. She explains that while Du Bois, Césaire, Senghor, and Fanon rejected the racist ideologies of Jefferson, Hegel, and Gobineau, for the most part they did so within what remained a nationalist, patriarchal framework. Such persistent nationalist and sexist ideologies were later subverted, Wright shows, in the work of Black women writers including Carolyn Rodgers and Audre Lorde and, more recently, the British novelists Joan Riley, Naomi King, Jo Hodges, and Andrea Levy. By considering diasporic writing ranging from Du Bois to Lorde to the contemporary African novelists Simon Njami and Daniel Biyaoula, Wright reveals Black subjectivity as rich, varied, and always evolving.

Michelle M. Wright is an associate professor at Macalaster College, where she teaches African diasporic literature and theory. She is a coeditor of Domain Errors! Cyberfeminist Practices.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“An important book for scholars of the African diaspora, Becoming Black puts the word ‘diaspora’ back into African American studies. There are bold new conversations here.”—Sharon Holland, author of Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity

“Becoming Black yields a complex and differentiated understanding of Enlightenment discourses on race and offers a framework for comparing the different models of subjecthood that underwrote the varying histories of colonialism and slavery. It is unique in that it brings Afro-German and Afro-French writings into dialogue with Afro-British and African American texts. There is no existing study of the African diaspora that brings such a range of national traditions together.”—Madhu Dubey, author of Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822332886
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 5.76 (w) x 9.16 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Michelle M. Wright is Associate Professor of English at the University of Minnesota. She is a coeditor of Domain Errors! Cyberfeminist Practices.

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Read an Excerpt

Becoming Black

Creating identity in the African diaspora
By Michelle M. Wright

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3288-4

Chapter One

The European and American Invention of the Black Other


Over two hundred years before Jacques Derrida became celebrated for his theory of deconstruction, Blacks in the Americas were deconstructing white Western nationalist discourses celebrating the dawn of democracy. Texts such as David Walker's Appeal and John Marrant's Sermon offered counterdiscourses that asked whether the West could indeed claim racial superiority in societies so dependent, in so many ways, on Black slaves. Today, sexual, racial, and ethnic-minority scholars and activists are still deconstructing this discourse that refuses to understand democracy and Black chattel slavery as inherently incompatible with one another. Old habits die hard. Despite a dizzying number of technological, social, and political advancements, Western discourses on the Black (not to mention the woman, the queer, almost any other ethnic and/or racial minority, and the non-Christian, among others) remain as antiquated, fantastical-and central-as ever. By "central" I mean the way in which most Western mainstream (and even some academic) depictions of Africa, Africans, and those of African descent cling to their fantasies of a primitive, homogeneous peoples who are "undeveloped" in more than an economic sense. For the West, the image ofthe Black Other is as vibrant as ever, reminding us that the belief in Black inferiority is the result not of objective observation but instead the need for self-definition. In order to posit itself as civilized, advanced, and superior, Western discourse must endlessly reify Africa and the Black as its binary opposite.

While there are many Others in Western discourse (the phallicized female, the lecherous homosexual, the inscrutable Asian, the noble savage), it is the Black Other that is used most often in discourses of self-actualized agency, or subjectivity. The modern white subject, some two hundred years old, is exactly as old as the Black Other on which he relies. Although this book is concerned with the theoretical development of Black subjectivities in the African diaspora, we must first begin with the Black Other, that figure from late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western philosophy without whom the white subject could not have come into being.

One cannot divorce the Black Other and Black subject that follows from the specific historical, cultural, and even philosophical discourses through which s/he is interpellated. By intersecting the sociohistorical with a theoretical analysis to fully understand how that Black Other came into being, this chapter will show not only the logical fallacy that allows the production of that Black Other for the white subject but also how different Black Others were produced to theorize and/or justify the specific relationship with the Black envisioned by that specific discourse.

The concept of identity is inextricably intertwined with the concept of the nation, a link established toward the end of the eighteenth century, when absolute monarchies collapsed in Europe and the thirteen colonies rebelled against the British crown. Suddenly territories were no longer defined by which ruling family owned them, nor were the inhabitants of the territories identified simply as the subjects of the sovereign. Spurred by and spurring this development was the Enlightenment, in which European philosophers placed man at the center of their philosophical discourses. The nature and notion of man-specifically the European man-became a central question. This question was posed not only internally; even as the infrastructure of European countries became increasingly chaotic, the new trade routes established in the latter part of the sixteenth and earlier part of the seventeenth century to Africa and the Americas had also redefined the European continent. Explorers were now discovering that Europe was a relatively small landmass with a relatively small number of people. At the same time, the methods by which precious metals, raw materials, and slaves were enriching countries such as Spain, France, and Britain contradicted (or at least questioned) the humanist tenets developed by the philosophes. Therefore, the ontological and epistemological concerns underscoring the question "Who and what was the European man?" were qualified by questions regarding the geographical, political, and moral aspects of the "new" European.

Of course, no concrete answers or agreements were forthcoming. The Enlightenment, although loosely united by its humanist impulse, was composed of diverse spirits, from the royalist, anti-Semitic humanism of Voltaire to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's anticolonialist, antimonarchical humanism. Nonetheless, the Enlightenment did produce discourses that became dominant in European and American theses on progress and civilization: Europe was posited as its center, European man as its highest achievement. More importantly, these assertions were based on the role European and American thinkers had relegated to the lands that lay outside their borders and the inhabitants of those lands. The aggressive and xenophobic biases that produce Black Others to the Western nation and the Western subject are the direct descendant of these early discourses on European and American national identity.

While there are a range of these discourses to choose from and, indeed, one would be hard put to discover an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century European or American philosopher who did not talk about Black inferiority relative to the white, some discourses have achieved greater influence than others, both in mainstream discourses and African diasporic counterdiscourses. Of all nineteenth-century figures, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel ranks as one of, if not the, most prolific, influential, and wide-ranging thinkers of his age. Hegel's theories of the nation state, the citizen, property, rights, history, and phenomenology are still largely operative today, even if we are not always aware that it is Hegel's formulation we are referencing. It is not surprising, then, that Hegel's theory of the white subject and Black Other is also one of his most influential formulations.

All theories of the modern subject in the West are dialectically structured, and Hegel's deployment of various dialectics through which he arranged the Black Other and the white subject is the "granddaddy" of those structures.= In the ensuing analysis, I show how Hegel's text on the Black Other, found in the introduction to his Philosophy of History, actually has two dialectics at work. One, explicitly defined in the text, famously locates the Black outside analytical history, mired in a developmental stasis from which only Western civilization can rescue him. The other, while not explicitly defined, implicitly posits the Black as the antithesis of the white: where the white is civilized, the Black is primitive; where the white loves freedom, the Black enjoys servitude; whereas the white loves order, the Black embraces chaos, and so on. By placing the Black both within and without his dialectic, ultimately a contradictory position, Hegel's text allowed the Black Other to come into being-an inferior species that "just happened" to be in need of Western influence when the West just happened to need that African's exploited labor, land, and natural resources. While Hegel's introduction makes clear its agenda is not an apologia for colonialism or slavery, the justification for these practices is nonetheless put in place.

Yet this is only one type of Black Other, one who is located outside the West in the Land Analytical History Forgot and, although dialectic in structure, is actually produced by one type of dialectic-that which argues that the West is ever moving forward toward a more enlightened state of being. There is another type of Black Other, as famous as it is confused and contradictory, based on a dialectic structure that argues that the West, in becoming less monarchical and more democratic, is actually moving backward. This Black Other belongs to Count Arthur de Gobineau, a nineteenth-century French writer and diplomat who is also known as the "Father of Modern Racism" and whose Essai sur l'inegalite des races humaines offered the first extensive secular argument for racial hierarchies that influenced Adolf Hitler, among others. Ironically, Gobineau was more interested in using racial difference as a metaphor for innate class differences, allowing him to argue that without the leadership of those born to rule-the aristocracy-those whom nature had deemed fit only to serve would now lead his beloved France into decay and decline.

Gobineau's use of the Black as an inferior species of human being produces an Other deemed an immediate threat to the nation. Gobineau does not talk about the Black as physically within French borders (although the Black presence was neither rare nor recent), but his obsession with pure bloodlines and the looming threat of miscegenation has him argue that the Black is a direct threat to pure Aryan bloodlines. While Hegel's Other is outside the nation, Gobineau's is, at least metaphorically, in the nation. Yet because Gobineau is more (or at least equally) concerned with class than he is with race, his Black Other cannot speak to the one Western nation that has the dubious distinction of having brought the Black into its "home space," the United States. Although Thomas Jeverson's Notes on the State of Virginia predates both Hegel and Gobineau, its own production of the Black Other serves as a useful and necessary contrast to them, especially when one considers the particular obstacles facing African American counterdiscourses on the Black subject.

Whereas Gobineau is infamous for racist views that he actually undercuts with his polemic against the French peasantry and bourgeoisie, Jefferson embraced his reputation as an antislavery activist-a reputation he still enjoys today-despite being a slave owner who was against emancipation and who legislated harsher measures for both slaves and those whites who treated them as more than animals. Jefferson scholars often point to the section titled "Manners" in Notes on the State of Virginia to support their idealized view of this most famous Founding Father. Yet while this section bewails the evils of slavery, its sole focus is on the deleterious effects this system has on whites, not those who were forced to serve as their chattel. A more extensive (and often overlooked) section in the same text produces a Black Other whom nature has made a slave, and yet who nonetheless poses a threat to the nation because he resents this inferior station. While, like Gobineau's Black Other, this Other is also located within the nation, and, like Hegel's Other, understood as primitive, Jefferson goes further in arguing that, as a separate species (prone to mating with apes when in Africa), this Black Other is intrinsically and eternally backward and can never become part of the Western nation.

The ensuing analysis of these discourses and their respective productions of different Others is not a wholly new concept. Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein in Race, Nation, Class base their analysis of Western nationalism on its troubling dichotomy of the nonwhite Other to the white subject. More specifically, in his chapter "Racism and Nationalism" Etienne Balibar argues that different Others result from different racisms-internal versus external-practiced on different racial groups. While the various Black Others analyzed in this chapter cohere with Balibar's general distinction, I also argue that these Others are conflated rather than discretely defined and, most importantly, that one racial group can have different types of alterity placed on it depending on which textual agenda locates it as Other. As this book focuses on theories of subjectivity rather than racisms, Balibar's distinctions can be translated here into two main variations of the Black Other: the Other-from-within and the Other-from-without. The Other-from-without is what we find in Hegel's text: located outside the West yet nonetheless brought in as oppositional and best understood as a void who has the potential to be taught Western values and culture. The Other-from-within is the Other we find in Gobineau and Jefferson in, as we see, two slight variations (which achieve greater importance in the counter-discourses they inspire). Gobineau's Other-from-within, deployed as a target against the peasant, need not be physically located in the nation in order to be an intrinsic threat to the racial integrity of that nation. Yet, as we will also see, Gobineau argues this Black Other occupies a certain position in the Western world and in Western civilization, something Hegel entertains as a future possibility but not a current or past actuality. Gobineau's suggestion that this Other can (with controls) be mixed into the white population to positive effect separates him from Jefferson's Black American Other-from-within. Although not used outside the United States, Jeverson's Other is key to understanding African American counterdiscourses on the subject, as this Black American Other is defined as both predestined for servitude under whites and a physical, unwelcome, threatening presence in the nation.


In his introduction to the Philosophy of History, Hegel explains that the world is ruled by reason, which functions as the "Infinite Power," its own "Infinite Material" and consequently the "Substance" and "Infinite Energy" of "the Universe": "It is the infinite complex of things, their entire Essence and Truth." Reason, he argues, is the energy and substance that comprises and guides philosophy because the latter is a reflective mode of thought based on inherently logical principles that necessarily produce a clarity and truth of the world that other modes of thought cannot achieve. Locating the origins of philosophical thought in ancient Greece, Hegel determines Europe to be both the birthplace of this eminently reasonable methodology and the only geographical region that is propelled and dominated by reason. In his view, reason alone is the guiding element by which man can come into sentience and thus achieve his full potential, his subjectivity, for it conjoins the material with the spiritual, man's desires with their realization, and consequently makes him free. At the same time, this "free subject" can only be realized within a communal organization-but not any communal organization, only the state, because "the subjective will also has a substantial life, a reality which moves itself as an essence, and in which the object of the essential itself is its own being. This essential is itself the union of the subjective and rational will: it is the moral Whole-the State, which is that reality where the individual has and enjoys his freedom, albeit only when the individual's knowledge, belief and desire corresponds to the universal."

Without this structure, man remains in or reverts to "his primary animal existence" where he is not in fact free, because freedom "as the ideal of that which is original and natural, does not exist as original and natural. Rather it must be first sought out and won; and that by an incalculable medial discipline of the intellectual and moral powers." Even further, "the state of Nature is, therefore, predominantly that of injustice and violence, of untamed natural impulses, of inhuman deeds and feelings." The implications of this binary (state/nature) are clear: those who live outside the "moral Whole" of the state are inferior to those who live within (and wholeheartedly support) the state in that the former lack consciousness and therefore all those qualities that would make them subjects. Briefly put, those qualities are morality, intelligence, and, most importantly, the awareness of the transcendental principle that guides and makes the analytical history that, according to Western norms, alone produces subjects: reason.

Hegel begins his construction of the subject under reason as the transcendental a priori signifier that he defines within specifically European parameters, attaching subjective values to a supposedly objective (universal) dynamic. Reason is produced as synonymous with European values and standards, and, consequently, that which he determines as irrational is simultaneously determined as non-European. Sentience is also essential to the Hegelian subject, but this sentience is in fact a secondary principle, legitimate only when constructed within the specific parameters of Hegel's "reason"-and, of course, these parameters are distinctly European. Therefore, only Europeans can reach sentience, and only Europeans can be subjects. Hegel makes this clear when he writes that Blacks are wild beings and that "Dieser Zustand ist keiner Entwicklung und Bildung fahig, und wie wir [die Negern] heute sehen, so sind sie immer gewesen" (No development or culture is capable out of this state, and as we see [Negroes] today, so have they always been).8= And on Africa he writes, "What we actually understand by Africa is that absence of history and unfolding, still wholly in the prejudiced mind of nature, and that here had to be displayed as it is, merely at the threshold of world history." To paraphrase Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's critique of the idealist dialectic, the process has been decided from the start: because Africa is not Europe and, in Hegel's determination, not the least bit European, it is not reasonable, it is irrational. The relation between race and the nation is made clear. The former is in fact the determining factor for the latter, which is in itself synonymous with subjectivity; only Europeans are subjects, because only Europeans are socially organized within the state.


Excerpted from Becoming Black by Michelle M. Wright Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Being and Becoming Black in the West
1. The European and American Invention of the Black Other
2. The Trope of Masking in the Works of W. E. B. Du Bois, Leopold Sedar Senghor, and Aime Cesaire
3. Some Women Disappear: Frantz Fanon's Legacy in Black Nationalist Thought and the Black (Male) Subject
4. How I Got Ovah: Masking to Motherhood and the Diasporic Black Female Subject
5. The Urban Diaspora: Black Subjectivities in Berlin, London, and Paris Epilogue: If the Black Is a Subject, Can the Subaltern Speak?
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