Global Blackness: A Group of “Think Pieces”

Black and white photo of man on balcony.
Photo from Donato Ndongo’s website; used by permission.www.donato-ndongo.com.

Global blackness has been the subject of a number of the “think pieces” that we have published on the Humanities Futures website. Now we have assembled them as the first in a series of curated sets that will highlight important interdisciplinary themes in the collection.  The six think pieces in this set represent a wide array of topics, from African writers to Latinidad in Italy; they also share with the reader a fascinating variety of theories and approaches, from Afro-Pessimism, which finds intellectual freedom in escaping a tired redemption narrative, to the exploratory, cooperative form of study practiced by the Black Outdoors working group as they seek a new way of being in and with the earth. Together these essays propose important changes to the humanities canon and the way that the humanities are taught and studied.

The think pieces in this curated set are:  (1) Dontao Ndongo, “African Intellectuals in the Face of the Phenomenon of Dictatorship” (also published on the site in its original Spanish); (2)  Edward E. Curtis IV, “Black History, Islam, and the Future of Humanities Beyond White Supremacy”; (3) J. Kameron Carter and Sarah Jane Cervenak, “The Black Outdoors:  Humanities Futures After Property and Possession”; (4) Frank Wilderson, “Afro-Pessimism and the End of Redemption”; (5) Patricia Northover, “Thinking ‘Global Blackness’ Through the Frame of Angelus Novus: An Exploration of Racial Aporias and the Politics of Modern Power, Sovereignty, and Temporality,” and (6) García Peña, “Almost Citizens: Racial Translations, National Belonging, and the Global ‘Immigration Crisis.”

Following is a brief tour of the six essays.

“African Intellectuals in the Face of the Phenomenon of Dictatorship,” by Donato Ndongo

Donato Ndongo Bidyogo-Makina, in “African Intellectuals in the Face of the Phenomenon of Dictatorship,” powerfully insists that we recognize the work of twentieth-century African thinkers, writers, and artists who strove to counter totalitarianism, dedicating themselves to resistance in the form of creative production.  Based on aesthetics, ethics, and utilitarianism, the work of African intellectuals in international conversation originated important concepts such as multiculturalism, the dialogue of civilizations, diversity, and interculturality.  Introducing the reader to several courageous and accomplished writers, he calls for ongoing meeting of African, American, and European minds to continue humanity’s necessary fight against intolerance, particularly in Africa, where today, beneath a charitable discourse, a voracious neocolonialism prevails.

“Black History, Islam, and the Future of Humanities Beyond White Supremacy,” by Edward E. Curtis IV

In “Black History, Islam, and the Future of Humanities Beyond White Supremacy,” Edward E. Curtis IV calls for interpreting Islam as a form of Black history, in order to construct a scholarly framework for reimagining the humanities beyond the white supremacist narratives that have continue to dominate philosophy, comparative religion, and general education courses on Western civilization.  Hegel argued that Africa, especially south of the Sahara, could be omitted from the study of philosophy because there were no texts or sources to study.  Today, there is no excuse to accept such racist assertions, Curtis argues.  From the very beginning of Islamic history in seventh-century Arabia, people who today are recognized and identified as Black played an irreplaceable role in the project of Islamicate civilization, including its literatures, cultural institutions, economies, and polities.

A new canon will recognize this and take into account how people on the African continent participated in translocal exchanges, not only in Africa itself but also across the entire span of Afro-Eurasia.  How Africans became Muslim is a long and complex history, driven by indigenous forces represented by an enormous and rich archive of art, architecture, music, and literature.

“Looking beyond the African continent,” Curtis adds, “There is ample opportunity for scholars of the Asian, European, and American humanities to incorporate Black contributions to human culture.” He shares a fascinating examples from around the world, turning finally to the US, where making sure that Islam is read as a Black tradition is especially important in the context of contemporary Islamophobia. In conclusion, Curtis looks to the future: “When the humanities finally embrace Africa, it will affirm the values not only of Black lives but of all lives” and prepare us all for a future in which the “myth of white normativity” does not govern our lives.

“The Black Outdoors:  Humanities Futures After Property and Possession,” by J. Kameron Carter and Sarah Jane Cervenak

In “The Black Outdoors:  Humanities Futures After Property and Possession,” J. Kameron Carter and Sarah Jane Cervenak (“C2“) remember and reflect on the activities of a working group that sought a new ecology and a concomitant reorientation of the practice of study; to interrogate questions of propertied personhood and racialized, sexualized, ecological enclosure, they aspired to another kind of environmental ethos, seeking “intellectual, ecological, and aesthetic innovations.” Meeting in a church with sunny windows, “a space that makes and unmakes the outdoors,” the group found insights in metaphors of music and air as they discussed the Black tradition of producing the outside while inside, finding a way where there is no way: a way out into the “black out,” “outside the normative gaze of the white man.” To deepen their “study against enclosure,” they devised a set of events with scholars working across the fields of Black studies, Black feminist theory, Native studies, theology, queer studies, critical urban studies/ecologies, postcolonial theory, and law.

Their essay is like several essays wrapped into one as they share the insights of the various speakers; some of the mulitfaceted and evocative topics introduced are maps that lie, prison-cities, the concept of maroonage (the always-unfinished reach for connection that is also “a mysticism of sociality”), juxtapositional conjunction (a kind of irreducibility), Blackpentecostal noisemaking as a noise uprising, endurance and its connection to faith, the concept of “Mu” (outness, outsideness, outsiderness), and the ocean as black outside.  Three esteemed poets, M. NourbeSe Philip, Ed Roberson, and Nathaniel Mackey, whose poems “illumine the earth in a way that tells us of the wreckage and the other ecologies that sing and bloom alongside,” concluded the series with a set of readings in which “blackness’s ecological unfetteredness was poeticized as a form of sacred practice.”

“Afro-Pessimism and the End of Redemption,” by Frank Wilderson III

In “Afro-Pessimism and the End of Redemption,” Frank Wilderson identifies “a largely unconscious consensus that Blackness is a locus of abjection to be instrumentalized on a whim, often by so-called allies for postcolonial, immigrant, feminist, LGBT, and workers’ redemption narratives,” whereas Blacks are barred from redemption and even from having their own narrative.  In this view, Blackness is not an ensemble of identities, cultural practices, or anthropological accoutrements but rather a paradigmatic position inseparable from slavery, with no before and after; Wilderson calls this state “social death.”  Social death is larger than any particular story of enslavement or manumission; violence and dishonor result, with no identifiable causal event in the past and no therapeutic remedy.

Wilderson compares two poems, Simon Ortiz’s Sand Creek, on Native American genocide, with his own, “Law Abiding,” on the killing of Oscar Grant. In the latter, the reciprocity, utility, contingency, and ultimate humanity that Ortiz’s poem takes for granted are absent.  When writing the poem, he explains, “I unconsciously realized the futility of asserting something within Blackness that is prior to the devastation that defines Blackness.”

Afro-Pessimism offers a corrective to “Humanist assumptive logic,” providing a theory that “allows Black people to not have to be burdened by the ruse of analogy—because analogy mystifies, rather than clarifies, Black suffering.”  Wilderson offers a tinge of hope that outside the confines of the tired redemption narrative might lie a new landscape of intellectual freedom.

“Thinking ‘Global Blackness’ Through the Frame of Angelus Novus: An Exploration of Racial Aporias and the Politics of Modern Power, Sovereignty, and Temporality,” by Patricia Northover

In her “Thinking ‘Global Blackness’ Through the Frame of Angelus Novus: An Exploration of Racial Aporias and the Politics of Modern Power, Sovereignty, and Temporality,” Patricia Northover explores a “globalizing ‘blackness,'” a “race assemblage” generated via “a stitching together of a certain timespace—a when and where” of contradictory forces, especially power and sovereignty.

Using Walter Benjamin’s reflections on Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus as a guide to thinking about global blackness, Northover asks why “the world remains beset by terrible scenes of racial haunting and an unraveling of political settlements.”  In a conclusion that is both profound and alarming, she suggests that the generative processes that assemble a globalizing blackness constitute a gale force that continues and even gains momentum into the future.

“Almost Citizens:  Racial Translations, National Belonging, and the Global ‘Immigration Crisis'” by Lorgia García Peña

The terms that define blackness in Italy (negraneradi colore) are part of a complex national identity narrative that includes the internal northern-southern dynamic, Lorgia García Peña tells us in “Almost Citizens:  Racial Translations, National Belonging, and the Global ‘Immigration Crisis’.”  Founded on the turn-of-the-twentieth-century eugenicist theory used also to justify fascism, Italianness (Italianità) can never be acquired; it can only be inherited.  She reminds us that Italy has its own history of colonization that informs its notions of citizenship and national identity.  Citizenship by bloodline maintains the exclusion of racialized citizens; as we learn through an anecdote about the filmmaker Medhin Paolos and a street vendor, “racialized people can neither be uninhibitedly transnational nor securely national.”

Taking into account the relationship of the 2015 “immigration crisis” and twentieth-century colonialism of the global South, García Peña proposes to expand the definition of Latinidad beyond Latin America to Italy and Spain, arguing that it is important to broaden our comparative approaches to race, ethnicity, and migration. Black Latin American migrants grapple with different—and often oppositional—racial systems to assert belonging and representation within the nation(s) that excludes them, she observes. Interestingly, hegemonic U.S.-mediated concepts of race are shaping the experiences of racialized people across the world; for example, while Dreamers in the U.S. use the language of civil rights, a young activist in Italy appeals for italianità but also claims Latinidad and blackness, categories produced and disseminated by the United States.

The Humanities Futures Project

Over the past five years, the Humanities Futures project has invited Duke Humanities departments and interdisciplinary working groups to bring speakers from all over the US and the world to Duke to reflect on the present and future of the humanities in all of their facets–traditions, trends, topics, and theories.  To record and preserve the events and presentations for future reference and continued conversation, we have posted videos and published papers based on the talks on the Humanities Futures website.  Currently there are more than 100 papers and videos on the site, and we continue to add to the collection. The project is generously funded by a grant to the Franklin Humanities Institute from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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