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Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World

8 January 2021

Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World

Ezrom Legae. Chicken series (detail).1977-78. Drawing on paper. Image credit: Collection SA National Gallery

Excerpt from Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World, NYU Press, 2020.

Making Humans: Animalization as Humanization

Everything happens as if, in our culture, life were what cannot be defined, yet, precisely for this reason, must be ceaselessly articulated and divided.

— Giorgio Agamben, The Open

No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it — this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity — like yours — the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.

— Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The uncompromising nature of the Western self and its active negation of anything not itself had the counter- effect of reducing African discourse to a simple polemical reaffirmation of black humanity. However, both the asserted denial and the reaffirmation of that humanity now look like two sterile sides of the same coin.

— Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (emphasis in original)


As Achille Mbembe in On the Postcolony observes, discourse on Africa “is almost always deployed in the framework (or on the fringes) of a meta-text about the animal— to be exact, about the beast: its experience, its world, and its spectacle”. (1) During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Western philosophy’s architects, figures such as Hume, Hegel, Jefferson, and Kant, constructed a theory of blackness’s inherent animality based on either “the African’s” purported physical or mental likeness to nonhuman animals, or as a result of the underdeveloped condition of African humanity. The former relied on the establishment of “laws of nature” whereby Africans and animals found on the African continent developed similar deficiencies based largely on geographical determinants. In such a model, privileging human–animal comparison, the environment itself is black(ened), and its inferiority in turn stymies African humanity. Thus, African peoples qualify as human but only tentatively so, given their purported physical or mental similarity to nonhuman animals and vice versa. In the latter case, a developmental model, humanity is marked as an achievement and teleology. Here “the African,” while also human, is nevertheless defined by their animality. Rather than being animal-like, black people are animals occupying the human form. The two positions have different routes but the same destination: in short, black(ened) people are the living border dividing forms of life such that “the animal” is a category that may apply to animals and some humans. Thus, the category of “the animal” develops in a manner that crosses lines of species. Furthermore, in either case, in the process of animalizing “the African,” blackness would be defined as the emblematic state of animal man, as the nadir of the human. By virtue of racialization, the category of “the animal” could even potentially racialize animals in addition to animalizing blackness. The debate over whether blackness is a subspecies of the human or another type of being altogether haunted scientific debates concerning “monogenesis versus polygenesis.” However, the line between these two approaches is only partially maintained in the thinkers discussed across this book’s pages. It is not always clear, not only on what side of the border “the African” is placed, but also the total number of borders posited at any given point in this debate. What is certain, though, is that monogenesis or racially inclusive constructions of “the human” complemented rather than detracted from animalized depictions of blackness. Such debates were instrumental in codifying and institutionalizing both popular and scientific perceptions of race. There are too many examples to enumerate them all—but in the following, I have chosen what I believe are the most cited cases.

Much of this history is known; it is commonly referred to in critiques of humanism that advance a conception of “dehumanization,” in which dehumanization is treated as sufficient shorthand for humanist thought (especially Enlightenment thought) concerning blackness. Enlightenment is a multivocality with contradiction and moving parts, and thus not reducible to its more infamous ideas. However, this section re-interprets a powerful and ever-present strand of racist Enlightenment thought. (2) After careful investigation, I have come to some new conclusions that inform the chapters that follow: First, I replace the notion of “denied humanity” and “exclusion” with bestialized humanization, because the African’s humanity is not denied but appropriated, inverted, and ultimately plasticized in the methodology of abjecting animality. Universal humanity, a specific “genre of the human,” is produced by the constitutive abjection of black humanity; nevertheless, the very constitutive function of this inverted recognition reveals that this black abjection is transposing recognition, and an inclusion that masks itself as an exclusion. Second, blackness is not so much derived from a discourse on non-human animals — rather the discourse on “the animal” is formed through enslavement and the colonial encounter encompassing both human and nonhuman forms of life. Discourses on nonhuman animals and animalized humans are forged through each other; they reflect and refract each other for the purposes of producing an idealized and teleological conception of “the human.” Furthermore, antiblack animalization is not merely a symptom of speciesism; it is a relatively distinctive modality of semio-material violence that can be leveraged against humans or animals. (3) Similarly, speciesism can be mobilized to produce racial difference. Thus, the animalizations of humans and animals have contiguous and intersecting histories rather than encompassing a single narrative on “animality.” This is a crucial point, as it allows us to appreciate the irreducibility of both antiblackness and species as well as investigate the respective semio-material trajectories of black(ened) bodies and nonhuman animal bodies take in their historical and cultural specificity.

If, as Foucault maintains in The Order of Things, our current hegemonic, “universalist” conception of “man” is a mutation of prior metaphysical conceptions of being, then I would qualify this insight by insisting that this mutation was and remains an effect of slavery, conquest, and colonialism.

Hume extrapolated from his understanding of the natural environment that “inferior” climates produce “inferior nations.” He believed that if plants and “irrational” animals were influenced by degree of heat and cold, then the character of humans must also be influenced by air and climate. These environmental factors rendered minds “incapable of all the higher attainments of the human mind,” which prompted him to “suspect negroes and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites… No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences”. (4) He went as far as to infamously declare, “In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly” (5). Hume, like most Enlightenment thinkers mentioned here, accepted the Aristotelian conception of the human as an animal, but what marked human’s uniqueness, according to Aristotle, was rationality. (6) The human was a “rational animal.” Thus, humanity was not defined in strict opposition to “the animal,” but one’s humanity was determined by the nature of one’s rationality. For Hume, in the case of African rationality, it was either deficient or negligible. Therefore, the humanity of the Negro “species of men” was acknowledged, but in a hierarchical and taxonomical frame.

Kant, like Hume, looked to “the animal kingdom” as an analogue for humanity, but what is astonishing is the manner in which his articulations of “species” and “race” are interdependent and concentric epistemological constructions. Whether in the work of Carl Von Linne, Georges- Louis LeClerc, Comte de Buffon, (7) or in the following statement by Kant, animal and human “race” are co-articulations:

Among the deviations—i.e., the hereditary differences of animals belonging to a single stock— those which, when transplanted (displaced to other areas), maintain themselves over protracted generation, and which also generate hybrid young whenever they interbreed with other deviations of the same stock, are called races… In this way Negroes and Whites are not different species of humans (for they belong presumably to one stock), but they are different races, for each perpetuates itself in every area, and they generate between them children that are necessarily hybrid, or blendlings (mulattoes). (8)

In such formulations, there is much anxiety about maternity and sexual difference. It is difficult to maintain that either the logic of raciality or the animalization of blackness is merely symptomatic of attempts to domesticate “nature” or “animals” under an ordering system. Rather, the demand for taxonomical and hierarchical races is foundational to the project of assimilating newly “discovered” plants and nonhuman animals into a system, as the vastness of nature would overwhelm and exceed the limits of the time and location’s reigning epistemological frame (but not its appetite for mastery). (9) Race can only be subsidiary to the desire to animalize nonhuman animals or make “nature” knowable if one abstracts this desire from its historical context: “The Age of Discovery,” which is to say the age of slavery and conquest. (10)

If, as Foucault maintains in The Order of Things, our current hegemonic, “universalist” conception of “man” is a mutation of prior metaphysical conceptions of being, then I would qualify this insight by insisting that this mutation was and remains an effect of slavery, conquest, and colonialism. The metaphysical question of “the human,” as one of species in particular, arose through the organizational logics of racialized sexuation and the secularizing imperatives (largely economic, but not exclusively so) of an imperial paradigm that sought dominion over life, writ large. At the meeting point of natural philosophy and the so-called Age of Discovery, natural science instituted its representational logics of somatic difference in ever- increasingly secularized ontological terms. Hegel represents perhaps the most extreme articulation of “the African’s” animality, one in which animality is thought not only to be a feature, but the essence of African life. At times, from reading Hegel’s (and arguably Kant’s) geographical theories, one could conclude that his theory of nature and animals is animated by a desire to fix race as teleological hierarchy: to make race knowable and predictable. For Hegel declares:

Even the animals show the same inferiority as the human beings. The fauna of America includes lions, tigers, and crocodiles. But although they are otherwise similar to their equivalents in the Old World, they are in every respect smaller, weaker, and less powerful. (11)

In this case, it is not the native’s likeness to animals that defines human animality; instead animals’ likeness to American Indians defines animals in their animality. The quality of American Indian being becomes the term through which “nature” is defined. This is not to say that his thoughts on nonhuman animals are merely a justification for his theories of race, but rather it does demonstrate that we cannot assume that racism does not animate conceptions of some of our most foundational theories of nature and nonhuman animality. Most of the humanist thought discussed here was developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the slave trade was increasingly under scrutiny by abolitionists. Contestation had risen to unprecedented levels, and as a result, slavery increasingly required justification. (12) These justifications relied heavily on the African’s purported animality. Even Georges Leopold Cuvier’s classification of humanity into three distinct varieties — Caucasian, Mongolian, and Ethiopian — emphasized the superiority of the Caucasian and is elaborated in his book titled Animal Kingdom. (13)

In Notes on a State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson attempts to qualify the essence of black people’s humanity. What is crucial is that Jefferson defines black people as “animal” not based on a direct correlation to nonhuman animals but on the specificity of black people’s humanity, particularly with regard to black embodiment, sexuality, intelligence, and emotions: aesthetically displeasing form, bestial sexuality, and minor intelligence and feeling. Regarding the heart and mind, he states:

They are more ardent after their female; but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. (14)

Jefferson’s arguments recognize black humanity, but the question is what kind of humanity is imputed to black(ened) people? As he states, “It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications” (15).

Following Aristotle, humanity and animality are not mutually exclusive terms in much Eurocentric humanistic thought — however, there is an important qualification: the logic of conquest, slavery, and colonialism produced a linear and relational conception of human animality. Whereas Europeans are moral/rational/political animals, the recognition of black people’s humanity did not unambiguously and unidirectionally elevate black people’s ontologized status vis-à-vis nonhuman animals. “Being human” instead provided a vehicle for reinforcing a striated conception of human species. Thus, the extension and recognition of shared humanity across racial lines is neither “denied” nor mutual, reciprocal human recognition; rather, it is more accurately deemed bestializing humanization and inverted recognition. Instead of denying humanity, black people are humanized, but this humanity is burdened with the specter of abject animality. In fact, all of the thinkers above identify black people as human (however attenuated and qualified); thus, assimilation into the category of “universal humanity” should not be equated with black freedom. Assimilation into “universal humanity” is precisely this tradition’s modus operandi. But what are the methods? And what are the costs?

By virtue of racialization, the category of “the animal” could even potentially racialize animals in addition to animalizing blackness.

Too often, our conception of antiblackness is defined by the specter of “denied humanity” or “exclusion.” Yet as Saidiya Hartman has identified in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, the process of making the slave relied on the abjection and criminalization of slave humanity, rather than the denial of it. Hartman asks:

suppose that the recognition of humanity held out the promise not of liberating the flesh or redeeming one’s suffering but rather of intensifying it? Or what if this acknowledgment was little more than a pretext for punishment, dissimulation of the violence of chattel slavery and the sanction given it by the law and the state, and an instantiation of racial hierarchy? What if the endowments of man — conscience, sentiment, and reason — rather than assuring liberty or negating slavery acted to yoke slavery and freedom? Or what if the heart, the soul, and the mind were simply the inroads of discipline rather than that which confirmed the crime of slavery. (16)

Hartman contends that the recognition of the enslaved’s humanity did not redress slavery’s abuses nor the arbitrariness of the master’s power since in most instances the acknowledgment of the humanity of the enslaved was a “complement” to the arrangement of chattel property rather than its “remedy” (17). She demonstrates that recognition of the enslaved’s humanity served as a pretext for punishment, dissimulation of chattel slavery’s violence, and the sanction given it by the law and the state (18). What’s more, rather than fostering “equality,” this acknowledgment often served as an instantiation of racial hierarchy, as the slave is “recognized” but only as a lesser human in (pre)evolutionist discourse or criminalized by state discourses. In other words, objecthood and humanization were two sides of the same coin, as ties of affection could be manipulated and will was criminalized.

The enslaved bifurcated existence as both an object of property and legal person endowed with limited rights, protections, and criminal culpability produced a context where consent, reform, and protection extended the slave’s animalized status rather than ameliorated objectification. From this perspective, emancipation is less of a decisive event than a reorganization of a structure of violence, an ambivalent legacy, with gains and losses, where inclusion could arguably function as an intensification of racial subjection. Echoing Hartman, I would argue for reframing black subjection not as a matter of imperfect policy nor as evidence for a spurious commitment to black rights (which is undeniably the case) but rather as necessitating a questioning of the universal liberal human project. “The human” and “the universal” subject of rights and entitlements assumed a highly particularized subject that is held as paradigmatic, subjugating all other conceptions of being and justice. Furthermore, if the following assertion by Achille Mbembe is correct, “the obsession with hierarchy… provides the constant impetus to count, judge, classify, and eliminate, both persons and things” in the name of “humanizing” the colonized (19), I ask, how can we confidently distinguish humanization from animalization? What we have at hand is more complicated than a simple opposition such as “exclusion versus inclusion,” “the human” versus “the animal,” and “humanization versus dehumanization.” Consequently, a new epistemology and transformative approach to being is needed rather than the extension of human recognition under the state’s normative conception.

As long as “the animal” remains an intrinsic but abject feature of “the human,” black freedom will remain elusive and black lives in peril, as “the animal” and “the black” are not only interdependent representations but also entangled concepts. While there are particular Euroanthropocentric discourses about specific animals, just as there are particular forms of antiblack racialization based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and national origin, for instance, these particularizing discourses are in relation to the organizing abstraction of “the animal” as “the black.” To disaggregate “humanity” from the production of “black humanity,” the one imposed on black(ened) people, assumes one could neutralize blackness and maintain the human’s coherence. But the neutralization of blackness requires the dissolution of discourses on “the animal” and vice versa, but that is, to say the least, unlikely because “the animal” is a mode of being for which Man is at war. What is more plausible is that attempts to neutralize blackness and “the animal” will continue to be in practice, if not word, a means of discipline and eradication.

When humanization is thought to be synonymous with black freedom, or even a means to freedom, one risks inadvertently minimizing or extending the violence of “universal humanity.” The “universal” is a site of imperial imposition and constant contestation rather than simply an ideal. The ongoing process of universalization is purchased precisely through the abjection and ontologizing plasticization of “the African.” As Hegel argued, Africans are barred from universal humanity or spirit because they are not aware of themselves as conscious historical beings, a consequence of two intrinsic qualities. First, Africans worship themselves or nature rather than God. Second, Africans kill their king, which is a failure to recognize the superiority of a higher authority than themselves, whether that of God or law.

the recognition of black people’s humanity did not unambiguously and unidirectionally elevate black people’s ontologized status vis-à-vis nonhuman animals. “Being human” instead provided a vehicle for reinforcing a striated conception of human species. Thus, the extension and recognition of shared humanity across racial lines is neither “denied” nor mutual, reciprocal human recognition; rather, it is more accurately deemed bestializing humanization and inverted recognition.

The African character, according to Hegel, springs from a geographical climate hostile to the achievement of spirit. Hegel builds on earlier theories that suggest that climate is not simply fertile ground for the cultivation of nature but is also the root of a teleological human character. He believed the “torrid” and “frigid” zones, “where nature is too powerful,” do not provide the sufficient conditions for the dialectic of becoming, or the attainment of “freedom by means of internal reflection,” whereby humanity is achieved in opposition to nature (20). One achieves spirit by rising above nature, distinguishing oneself from one’s natural surroundings. Only by passing through this stage is one able to recognize the presence of God as separate from the self and above Nature. Thus, God “exists in and for itself as a completely objective and absolute being of higher power” determining the course of everything in nature and humanity. Hegel declares, “The Negro is an example of animal man in all his savagery and lawlessness” and the African’s “primitive state of nature is in fact a state of animality” (21).

The practice whereby Africans “worship the moon, the sun, and the rivers,” animating these natural forms “in their imagination, at the same time treating them as completely independent agents,” Hegel believes, ultimately makes the mistake of identifying nature’s power without identifying that nature has an eternal law or providence behind it, providing universal and permanent natural order (22). The African’s “arbitrariness” triumphs over permanent natural order. Thus, the African is not capable of the rational universality embedded in the concepts of law, ethics, and morality. As free rational laws are, for Hegel, the bases of freedom, Hegel formulates most systematically a conception of “the African” that is both of humanity but not in humanity. Thus, humanity is not strictly a biological imperative but a cultural achievement in Hegelian thought.

Hegel pronounces “the African” an animal precisely through the rejection of African political and spiritual rationality, even while denying the existence of African rational capability all together. One must ask, how can one deny the presence of African rationality through a method that acknowledges its existence? And, to what extent is black humanity “excluded” when it is central to the construction of European humanity as an achievement? Infamous pronouncements aside, Hegel’s conclusion is circular: his logic collapses against the weight of his precepts and method. This circuitous logic is one we inherit when a difference in Reason is interpreted as absence or chaos. (23)

As Mbembe notes in On the Postcolony, the problem of universal humanity shapes current conditions of ethics and justice:

Each time it came to peoples different in race, language, and culture, the idea that we have, concretely and typically, the same flesh, or that in Husserl’s word, “My flesh already has the meaning of being a flesh typical in general for us all,” became problematic. The theoretical and practical recognition of the body of “the stranger” as flesh and body just like mine, the idea of a common human nature, a humanity shared with others, long posed, and still poses, a problem for Western consciousness. (24)

Hegel’s theory of “universal humanity” has influenced the culture of rights and law, including human rights law, but at the cost of erasing competing conceptions of being and justice that are not rooted in the opposition between Man and Nature.

A conception of humanity that Hegel dismissed as “nature-worship” animates the work of famed South African artist Ezrom Legae, in particular his Chicken Series. Legae created artworks in ink and pencil as well as totemic bronze sculptures. In 1977, Legae expressed his feelings about the gunned- down child protesters during the Soweto uprising and the murder of Bantu antiapartheid leader Steve Biko at the hands of the police through chiaroscuro, a set of pencil and ink drawings. In Biko’s Ghost, Shannen Hill asserts that the Chicken Series remains among two of the best known of all works that explore Steve Biko’s death. (25) A medium that mobilizes the polarity of black:white, by mixing light and substance, according to Richard Dyer, chiaroscuro can become a key feature of the representation of white humanity as translucence: privileging the “radiant white face” and obscuring “the opaque black one,” “which is at the very least consonant with the perceptual/moral/racial slippages of western dualism” (26). Channeling Anne Hollander, Dyer argues that chiaroscuro is a technique used to “discipline, organize and fix the image, suggesting the exercise of spirit over subject matter”. (27) If, as Dyer suggests, chiaroscuro “allows the spiritual to be manifest in the material” because it selectively lets light through, Legae’s subversion, his chiaroscuro’s representation of spirit, bends the semiotics of the Christian West and black South Africa in a direction that calls for the overthrow of (state) hierarchies of race and “the human” rooted in polarities of the enlightened and benighted. (28) In the drawings, there are fragile domestic fowls and human–bird hybrids: broken bones, battered, impaled, crucified, fragmented, and swollen. Tortured bodies are alongside eggs, figures of renewal. The drawings collectively speak to the torture, sacrifice, and regeneration of South Africa’s Black Consciousness movement.

Ezrom Legae. Chicken series (detail). 1977-78. Drawing on paper. Coll. SA National Gallery

As John Peffer notes, in terms of its manifest content, the image is that of Christian martyrdom: a crucified chicken. However, the animal aspect is not simply a metaphor for the pained existence of human life under the rule of apartheid; it also illustrates the animal potential of the human. This felt conception of humanity’s animal potential is rooted in a cosmological system, a philosophy where the potency of animals may be shared with humans. Humans, especially those who are spiritually powerful, such as community leaders or healers, harness the spiritual and even physical characteristics of animals. For South Africans such as Legae, those depicted in his work are no longer simply human, as they are transformed by the taking on of the physical and psychical potential of animals. Thus, they are not merely metaphorically animals, but are altered in a physical and psychical sense. His work is a challenge to Manichean distinctions between the physical and the spiritual as well as “human versus the animal”. (29)

When the prevailing notion of (human) being becomes synonymous with “universal humanity” or “the human” in discourses of law and popular consciousness, this is an outcome of power, whereby one worldview is able to supplant another onto-epistemological system with a different set of ethical possibilities. The more “the human” declares itself “universal,” the more it imposes itself and attempts to crowd out correspondence across the fabric of being and competing conceptions of being. The insistence on the universality of “the human” allows for the multiplication and proliferation of this abstraction’s aggression. To overcome a competing model, Western humanism has historically harnessed the force of the state; not only does this take the form of direct state violence, but it is also accomplished by epistemic erasure. Attacks on indigenous forms of knowledge are essential to the process of normalizing a colonial episteme. In bids for recognition and legibility of suffering, within national and global judicial bodies, one’s legal identity and injury must speak the language of a particular philosophy of the human. This is so despite the fact that universal humanity, as defined by Hegel and taken up in liberal humanist judicial bodies, is rooted in an anti-African epistemology.

However, under the circumstances, Legae’s protest did benefit, to an extent, from its opacity and incommensurability with respect to the state’s conception of the human, as its critique was obscured from the state. Its cosmological codes, its animating conception of humanity, were rendered illegible by the same force of law that sparked his outrage and grief. However, what was opaque to the state was immediately identifiable to South Africans like himself. The current conception of universal humanity does not move beyond a Western, secularized cultural mode and thus misrecognizes and occludes African subjectivity. Thus, we cannot take universal humanity at its word that it is indeed “universal.” Hegel’s conception of universal humanity aggressively negates Legae’s conception of being and world. Namely, Hegel’s humanism disregards the rationality, reflexivity, and abstract reasoning and idiom of representation that constitute Legae’s vitalizing mode of insubordination. According to Hegel, such a considered act could never spring from “nature-worship” cosmological worldviews (30).

What we have at hand is more complicated than a simple opposition such as “exclusion versus inclusion,” “the human” versus “the animal,” and “humanization versus dehumanization.” Consequently, a new epistemology and transformative approach to being is needed rather than the extension of human recognition under the state’s normative conception.

Ironically, the manner in which “the human” announces its universality provides the occasion for Legae’s protest to slip under the radar of the apartheid South African government and elude censorship. Evoking the latent animal potential of those brutalized by the state’s violence, an alternative mode of being (human) and attendant to spirit, the Chicken Series bypasses the problem of the representationalism and its historical reification of the traumatized black body. Thus, Legae could provide powerful witness to events barred from public discourse by an apartheid government, challenging apartheid state terror overtly (opaque). His conception of being, or ontology, defends indigenous African life from the encroachment of a humanism that universalizes itself through torture and intimidation, yes, but also via imperial epistemology, ontology, and ethics. (31) Considering that much of the world does not adhere to a worldview guided by human–animal binarism nor is legible within these terms, I wonder what other modes of relating, epistemologies of being, and ethical possibilities exist beyond the horizon of “the human” and “the animal”?

Some believe, like Lewis Gordon, that black people must be humanists for the “obvious” reason, that the dominant group can “give up” humanism for the simple fact that their humanity is presumed, while other communities have struggled too long for the “humanistic prize”. (32) But what if the enslaved and colonized “no longer accept concepts as gift, nor merely purify and polish them, but first make and create them, present them and make them convincing?”. (33) The elusive “humanist prize” — the formal, symmetrical extension of European humanism — makes achieving its conception of “the human” a prerequisite of equitable recognition, yet its conception of humanity already includes the African, but as abject, as plastic. Thus, in order to become human without qualification, you must already be Man in its idealized form, yet Man, understood simultaneously as an achievement and bio-ontology, implies whiteness and specifically nonblackness.

We misdiagnose the problems of Western globalizing humanism when we take universalism at its word, seeing its failures as simply a problem of implementation or procedure. This results in a further misdiagnosis of the causes and outcomes of freedom and unfreedom. Freedom itself is an evolving practice rather than a normative ideal. (34) As an ideal, freedom is shielded from critique by alternative conceptions rooted in another order of being/knowing/feeling. That said, I also believe that we have misrecognized the refractory desires of black culture, which are commonly not to assimilate but to transform.



1. Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony trans. Steven Rendell, University of California Press, 2001, p.2.

2. For more on how this debate has been discussed from either a philosophical or historical perspective, see: Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812, Pelican Books, 1968; David Theo Goldberg, Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning, Blackwell, 1993; Lewis R. Gordon, Fanon and the Crisis of European Man: An Essay on Philosophy and the Human Sciences, Routledge, 1995; Mbembe, On the Postcolony; Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze ed., Race and Enlightenment: A Reader, Blackwell, 2008; Uday Singh Mehta, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought, University of Chicago Press, 1999. Enlightenment thinkers were not univocal in their views on imperialism. Arguably, there are many Enlightenments rather than a singular imperial modernity. For texts that highlight the anti-imperial tendency within Enlightenment see Sankar Muthu, Enlightenment Against Empire, Princeton University Press, 2003 and Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France, Princeton University Press, 2016.

3. Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classis of the Animal Movement, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009, pp.6; 18; 83.

4. David Hume, “Of National Characters”, Essays, Moral and Political. A. Millar, 1758, p.125n.

5. Ibid., p.213.

6. For an excellent introduction to Aristotelian theories of human animality, see Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues, Open Court, 2001.

7. See Carl von. Linne, The System of Nature, vol. 1, Lackington: Allen and Co., 1806; Buffon et al., A Natural History, General and Particular, T. Cadell & W. Daview, 1812.

8. Immanuel Kant, “On the Different Races of Man”, This is Race: An Anthology Selected from the International Literature on the Races of Man ed. Earl Count, Henry Shuman, 1950, p.17

9. See Sylvia Wynter “1492”, Race, Discourse, and the Origin of the Americas: A New World View, eds. Vera L. Hyatt and Rex Nettleford, Smithsonian Institute Press, 1995, p.7

10. I argue this is the case even in Aristotle’s conception of dependent and rational animals, as Aristotle developed his theory of human animality in the context, and as a justification, of his society’s practice of slavery

11. Georg W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History ed. Johannes Hoffmeister trans. H.B. Nisbet, Cambridge University Press, 1975, p.163

12. Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black, pp.27; 231– 232

13. Georges Cuvier, The Animal Kingdom: Arranged in Conformity with its Organization, G. & C. & H. Carvill, 1833, p.50

14. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Penguin Books, 1999, p.46

15. Ibid., p.151.

16. Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, Oxford University Press, 1997, p.5

17. Ibid., p.6.

18. Ibid., p.5

19. Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 192.

20. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, p.154.

21. Ibid., p.177-178.

22. Ibid.

23. Hegel critiques African rationality for its “arbitrary” nature, but this is because he conflated his conception of rationality with Reason

24. Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 2.

25. Shannen L. Hill, Biko’s Ghost: The Iconography of Black Consciousness, University of Minnesota Press, 2015, p.116

26. Richard Dyer, White, Routledge, 1997, pp.115-116.

27. Ibid., p.115.

28. See Dyer, White; Anne Hollander, Moving Pictures, Alfred Knopf, 1989

29. John Peffer, Art and the End of Apartheid, University of Minnesota Press, 2009, pp.58-59

30. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, p.133.

31. See Shannen L. Hill, “Iconic Autopsy: Postmortem Portraits of Bantu Stephen Biko”, African Arts, 38.3, September 2005. I am thankful for John Peffer’s excellent Art and the End of Apartheid for bringing my attention to Legae’s Chicken Series. My engagement with this work draws considerably from Peffer’s astute contextualization of Legae’s art practice. See Peffer’s “Becoming-Animal” for his argument that there is common ground in “Christian and African narratives of regeneration and birth”.

32. Lewis R. Gordon, Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought, Routledge, 2013, pp.39-46

33. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, Vintage Books, 1968, p.409.

34. Dorothy E. Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, Vintage Books, 1999, p.183.

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