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Race and the Foundations of KnowledgeCultural Amnesia in the Academy
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2006 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
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IntroductionCultural Amnesia and the Academy-Why the Problem of the Twenty-first Century Is Still the "Problem of the Color Line"
Joseph Young and Jana Evans Braziel
We begin by evoking the words of the prescient W. E. B. Du Bois, who first wrote that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line" in an article entitled "The Freedmen's Bureau," which was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1901 and republished as "The Forethought" of The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. Echoing Du Bois's words and sentiments in 2005, a little more than one hundred years after the publication of The Souls of Black Folk, we assert (yet are disheartened that we must) that the problem of the twenty-first century remains the "problem of the color line": moreover, the institutionalized foundations of race and racialized ways of knowing and the resolute cultural amnesia within the academy, even from within the most unexpected halls of that institution, have perpetuated, not solved, resolved, or even tepidly confronted this centuries-old problem. Cultural amnesia about the structuring forces of race, racialization, and even overt racism within the academy thus make itimpossible to imagine "political culture beyond the color line," though some have admonished those who refuse to surrender that battle. We thus also borrow and echo sentiments from Charles W. Mills, who pointedly critiques the often vapid intellectual gymnastics of postmodernity in the concluding chapter of The Racial Contract: while we are sympathetic to some of the political ends of postmodernism, "ultimately, [we] see it as an epistemological and theoretical dead end, itself symptomatic rather than diagnostic of the problems of the globe as we [have] enter[ed] the new millennium" (129).
Race and the Foundations of Knowledge: Cultural Amnesia in the Academy offers both deliberate critical resistance to the historical erasures of public memory-most profoundly, perhaps, in the academy itself-and revisionist attempts to restore what has been erased within the cultural memory of the Americas. More specifically, it addresses race and the multitude of roles that race and racialization have played in the formation of academic disciplines and knowledge. Of all social sectors and public institutions, the academy most resolutely perpetuates a core set of ideas and foundations of knowledge (indeed, many hold this aspect to be its very principle and defining mission), and while it is a malleable, evolving body, it remains intractable in its racialized foundations, witnessed perhaps most visibly in recent debates and Supreme Court decisions about affirmative action, but no less palpably in its formation of disciplines and its constructions of knowledge. The modernist era, as Mills pointedly reveals in his contribution to this volume, has been plagued by contradictions of equality and disparity, personhood and subpersonhood, revolution and enslavement; rather than being exceptional to modernity, these contradictions are rather constitutive of it. One of the most devastating effects and consequences of dominant forms of cultural experience in the Americas has been the political subordination and cultural erasures experienced by African diasporic subjects in the so-called "New World." For African Americans hemispherically, Edouard Glissant explains, "There was the drawn-out damnation of the loss of family heritage, the erasure of collective memory, the initial trauma of the Middle Passage, the belly of the slave ship, the agonizing obliteration of old and familiar objects, and the need to master a plethora of new and frustrating tools.... And then there were all the forbidden tools: guns and other weapons, books, pencils, and notebooks" (Faulkner, Mississippi 162). Glissant's passage reveals the active forms of political subjugation and the pervasive forms of historical erasure that were part and parcel of the African diasporic experiences in the "New World." In this sentiment, Glissant echoes an earlier anticolonialist writer also from Martinique, Frantz Fanon, who wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, "Colonization is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native's brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures and destroys it" (170). Likewise, the Americas have distorted or erased their own Africanist presences.
The Americas still suffer from historical amnesia, a deep unwillingness to face and confront the inflicted wounds of the past: the legacies of genocide, slavery, and colonialism committed against indigenous or native Americans and enslaved Africans. And these wounds have been academic, intellectual, and ontological as well as material or physical. To heal, we must remember, we must never forget. Above all, this is why reparations and debates over reparations are so vital to the present and the future, as much as they historically redress the violences of the past. African American scholars such as Robert O'Meally, Genevieve Fabre, David Blight, and others (in History and Memory in African-American Culture) have theorized the importance of historical memory, and their efforts parallel the work of Caribbean scholars Edouard Glissant, Edward Baugh, Derek Walcott, Stuart Hall, and others who have entered into Antillean "quarrels with history" (particularly history as defined within a Hegelian worldview). The work of historical remembrance, however, though clearly about the wounds of the past, is also about the present and the future. As Hall rhetorically asks in his essay "Cultural Identity and Diaspora": "Is it only a matter of unearthing that which the colonial experience buried and overlaid, bringing to light the hidden communities it suppressed? Or is a quite different practice entailed-not the rediscovery but the production of identity? Not an identity grounded in the archeology, but in the retelling of the past?" (235). Within Hall's diasporic framework, historical remembrance is present- and future-, as well as past-, oriented; it remembers the past-however fractured, fragmented, or impartial-as an act of survival in the present and for the future.
History and memory are entangled ideas, not separate ones with the first belonging ostensibly to public culture and the second to individual psyche; both are interwoven in the African "American" imagination as it reflects on nature and remembers subterranean and submarine histories. This interweaving is a genesis of future spaces and times, as well as the creative remembrance of past spaces and times. Memory, Glissant muses, "is not a calendar memory; our experience of time does not keep company with the rhythms of month and year alone; it is aggravated by the void, the final sentence of the Plantation" (Poetics 72). But this touching upon the void, this experience of the abyss that is the inheritance of the Middle Passage (or "the final sentence of the Plantation") is also genesis, creation-"the infinite abyss, in the end became knowledge" (Poetics 8). To counter the erasures of History (capital H), it is necessary to unravel other submerged histories through an imaginative, if not literal, "effort of memory."
Regrettably, the historical erasures of public memory persist in many critical domains that should resist: notably in poststructuralist approaches to African American studies that deconstruct race and ignore the perpetuation of racism, despite their theoretical disavowals of the analytical category of race. In contrast to this willful denial of race and racialization historically-itself a form of cultural amnesia that merely perpetuates racist historical elision-the contributors to Race and the Foundations of Knowledge seek to understand and probe the ways in which race has been formative in thought itself, structurally inherent to the formation of knowledge and academic disciplines. As a preface to those aims, this introduction offers three specific arguments: first, that poststructuralist deconstructions of race are merely apolitical intellectual exercises-mental gymnastics, if you will-if they do not also offer solid ground for eradicating the political, material consequences of race and racism; second, that critical race theorists, whose interventions have had profound and radical effects on the fields of legal studies and political science, and more recently (and surprisingly) philosophy, offer a more viable critical approach for thinking through the legacies of race within the Americas, not only in legal studies but also within academic fields of study; and third, that our very understanding of modes and methods (i.e., disciplines) for understanding have been, and continue to be, racially inflected.
This book, then, is unapologetically about race. This book is about race and the role that race has played in the formation of knowledge, generally, and the role (or myriad and nuanced, often contradictory, roles) it has played in the construction of humanistic disciplines, specifically: their content of study, as well as methods, methodologies, theoretical presuppositions, disciplinary boundaries, the exclusions such boundaries enact, and the inclusions these boundaries are predicated and built upon. We understand, of course, that in foregrounding race and its multiple locations in the humanities, this book and our focus run counter to most contemporary discursive formations around race in the humanities. Many scholars will resolutely and emphatically state that "race does not exist." For many, perhaps most saliently those who rely on poststructuralist (by now pedestrian) dismissals of race, the idea of a "color-blind" world is stressed without any attention to history, historical injustice, or continued forms of racial oppression. As Tony Zaragoza reminds us in his contribution, however, "colorblind" rhetorics inflect, and often determine, racialized and racist practices and, more disconcertingly, public policies. Similarly, Matthew Abraham trenchantly examines the racialized cultures of academic and judicial institutions-as well as their mutual sustenance through law schools-wherein institutional forms of socialization perpetuate white privilege and race-biased interpretations of the law and legal discourses. Derrick E. White further explores how public policies become race-inflected and addresses the detrimental impact of these policies on minority communities. All these scholars pointedly reveal how the rhetoric of color blindness places us squarely in the vise of an insidious racial bind. For individuals who insist on color blindness, it remains an uninterrogated common knowledge that "race does not exist." Yes, race is a cultural construct. Yet why insist on and persist in thinking that cultural constructs "do not exist"? Not only do they exist, but they are encoded with real material, political, and social forms of power. This anthology not only argues that race exists but also examines the centuries-long and multiply coded manifestations of race in the humanities: as ground of possibility, as a priori concept, as a point of differential knowledge, or even as a mark of foundational exclusion. We therefore agree with Howard Winant in his assessment of race in a contemporary cultural context:
Today the theory of race has been utterly transformed. The socially constructed status of the concept of race, which I have labeled the racial formation process, is widely recognized (Omi and Winant 1986), so much so that it is now often conservatives who argue that race is an illusion. The main task facing racial theory today, in fact, is no longer to critique the seemingly "natural" or "commonsense" concept of race-although that effort has not by any means been entirely completed. Rather, the central task is to focus attention on the continuing significance and changing meaning of race. It is to argue against the recent discovery of the illusory nature of race; against the supposed contemporary transcendence of race; against the widely reported death of the concept of race; and against the replacement of the category of race by other, supposedly more objective, categories like ethnicity, nationality, or class. All these initiatives are mistaken at best, and intellectually dishonest at worst. (181-82)
To theorize alternative ways of knowing and being, we must probe and rigorously analyze (think through, not over, if you will) the deeply embedded structures of race and racialization-manifest in myriad, even contradictory, forms-in academic disciplines and knowledge, as well as in societal, political, or other cultural terrains. What Winant identifies as the dangerous "'natural' or 'commonsense' concept of race" becomes the primary focus of the chapter in this volume by Alexis Shotwell, who examines the mechanisms by which race and racism are propagated by uninterrogated notions of "common sense" and everyday practices of racial privilege.
That being said, we do not define race, though we recognize that historically it has been defined in such ways, as any of the following: an ontological category, a biological or psychological essence, a fixed or unchanging category of uncomplicated belonging, a genetically determined classification with presumed intrinsic epistemological interpretations. Like the scholars who insist that race does not (or should not) exist (Anthony Kwame Appiah, Houston Baker Jr., Henry Louis Gates Jr., Paul Gilroy, and others), we too recognize race as a historical category defined through biologistic reductivism, a political classification intended to define individuals through difference in oppressive ways, a social and cultural construct, a discursive formation. It is not, however, an "empty" category or a "free-floating signifier," as some would have it. If nothing else, history proves, and regrettably, contemporary forms of racist and racial oppression demonstrate, that race exists; it has real material, political, social, and, we would argue, intellectual and academic consequences; it continues to occupy numerous (and perhaps even unconscious and systemic) places in our social imaginary; and it remains embedded within our ways of knowing, thinking, learning, and producing knowledge. To deconstruct race does not render it nonexistent in its social and political forms, will never erase its historical and even humanistic legacies, nor will it undo its effects or legibility. This book intends to examine the effects (the afterlife, if you will) of race (in all its legible forms) within the humanities. By so doing, it also rethinks and renegotiates the innumerable roles race has played not only in forming the object, but also, and more significantly, in formulating (and severely delimiting) the subjects of academic disciplines and knowledge-based enterprises (intending, of course, the full resonances, including the capitalistic ones, of that word). As Lewis Gordon suggests (Existentia Africana 102), it would be a mistake "to claim that social phenomena are invalid because of their 'social' status"; or as Mills pointedly writes, "race is sociopolitical rather than biological, but it is nonetheless real" (Racial Contract 126).
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