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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Black existentialism and the battle to be free


The historical past of philosophy is usually the historical past of assorted colleges arguing with one another about what’s good or true. The Epicureans, the Empiricists, the Stoics, the Skeptics, the Positivists, the Pragmatists — you get the purpose.

I’m not an official member of any of those golf equipment, however in case you requested me to choose one, I’d go along with the Existentialists. For me, existentialism was the final nice philosophical motion. A part of the rationale for that’s purely historic. Existentialism emerged within the early- to mid-Twentieth century, towards the backdrop of two devastating world wars, and most of the existentialists have been responding to that.

Another excuse for the motion’s attraction is that its main proponents didn’t simply write arcane tutorial treatises; they wrote novels and performs and standard essays, and their concepts crossed over into the tradition. In addition they engaged with concrete questions on freedom and duty and authenticity, and people concepts will all the time resonate as a result of the human situation hasn’t actually modified.

However each historic second is exclusive and so the query is all the time how does this custom deal with the world we inhabit at present?

Nathalie Etoke is a professor on the CUNY Graduate Middle and the creator of the e-book Black Existential Freedom. It’s an exploration of Black existence by way of the lens of existentialist thought, and it finally makes a case for one thing like tragic optimism. It’s each a critique of “Afro-pessimism” — extra on this concept under — and an affirmation of political realism, and that makes it a particular contribution to the discourse.

I invited Etoke on The Grey Space to speak in regards to the e-book and the distinctive perspective she brings to this dialog. As all the time, there’s far more within the full podcast, so pay attention and observe The Grey Space on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pandora, or wherever you discover podcasts. New episodes drop each Monday.

This dialog has been edited for size and readability.

Earlier than we get to the story you wish to inform on this e-book, I might love to do just a bit philosophical table-setting for the viewers. What does existentialism imply to you? How do you method this custom of thought?

Nicely, I come from a Francophone education background, so I used to be uncovered to philosophy in highschool. Instantly, I discovered the questions that philosophers have been asking very fascinating.

I learn Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness. I learn some Kierkegaard; I learn Camus. Questions of existence have been all the time a part of my pondering course of, however there’s one thing about present as a Black individual within the context of white supremacist capitalist society and the entire thought of the dehumanization of Black folks, which thinkers like Du Bois, Fanon, Ralph Ellison additionally helped me take into consideration.

So you have got the standard existentialist faculty when you concentrate on the white thinkers, however truthfully when you concentrate on African writers and diasporic African writers who didn’t current themselves as philosophers, you constantly have them participating the query of present as a Black individual. These writers do not must label themselves existentialists.

Is there one thing in regards to the historic Black expertise that informs or expands existentialist philosophy?

Sure. The query that I ask is: What does it imply to be human once you’ve been traditionally dehumanized? And no matter the place you end up on this globe, you will note that folks with darker pores and skin are on the backside. So there’s one thing about this legacy of dehumanization that creates an existential stress. After all, it manifests in another way relying on the place you end up.

I used to be born in Paris, France, however I used to be raised in Cameroon, Central Africa, and I grew up there. I by no means considered myself as being non-human or as being Black.

However as soon as you progress to an area the place the bulk inhabitants is white and the interactions you have got with folks make you notice that you’re “the opposite,” though you by no means actually see your self as being “the opposite,” you notice that though race is a assemble, it is a lived expertise. For no matter cause, even on this nation, citizenship shouldn’t be sufficient to be a part of the nation. As soon as you’ve got been outlined as non-human, what are you able to inform those that assume that they are human what it means to be human?

As a result of what they do not notice is that they too have finished one thing to their humanity. [Frantz] Fanon wrote about it, the query of dehumanization/being human remains to be on the core of Black existential thought.

Once I first began your e-book, I used to be pondering, as a result of existentialism is in regards to the common human expertise, what does it even imply to say Black existentialism?

However then your e-book in a short time drives house the reminder that now we have this custom of Western thought, and a part of the historical past of that custom is the devaluing of Black humanity, and that dehumanization is a part of the historic Black expertise, that sense of exile is a part of the expertise within the West, and so there’s simply no approach to have interaction with a convention like this one with out additionally coping with that historical past.

Precisely. Even within the African context, we’re conditioned to consider the query of the human and racism solely in racial phrases. Cameroon, the best way we spell it at present got here from “camaroes” as a result of the Portuguese have been the primary to point out up there, and so they noticed lots of large shrimps.

To me, that is the start of dehumanization: Folks declare a land and so they act as if the folks they discover on that land are of no worth. They rename the place, they balkanize it, and we’re nonetheless making an attempt to make sense of these areas.

There is a time period you employ within the e-book: “Afro-pessimism.” What does that discuss with? And is the argument you make on this e-book against this, or is the connection extra difficult?

Afro-pessimism says that there’s a steady and ongoing technique of dehumanization that folks of African descent undergo. And in some ways, there isn’t any method we may be absolutely human as a result of we make all people else human. In different phrases, it’s the dehumanization of individuals of African descent that makes different folks human.

I give attention to the continued battle for freedom. I am not dismissing the truth of white supremacy. I am not dismissing the truth of the dehumanization of Black folks. I am not dismissing the fabric situations of our lives. However I am taking a look at it from the attitude of those that, for a really very long time, needed to struggle with a purpose to exist.

On the very starting of the e-book, you say explicitly that Blackness shouldn’t be synonymous with victimhood. Why was it essential to state that so clearly?

Nicely, as a result of I believe traditionally, folks of African descent have been victimized, in order that they’re victims. However on the identical time, the opposite aspect of the story is that they all the time attempt to discover a approach to free themselves. I can not separate the 2, in order that’s the place I draw the road between being traditionally victimized and being a sufferer and the state of victimhood. And it is not even simply within the US or in France.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the dictatorships and the numerous methods wherein neocolonialism and the organising of an influence construction that also oppresses Africans is going on in the meanwhile. Individuals are nonetheless making an attempt to be free. And to me, I am not being pessimistic. It is simply the info of Black life. It is the way you cope with it and the way constantly you’re nonetheless making an attempt to enhance the situations of your lives. Whereas the Afro-pessimists will say that there isn’t any level speaking in regards to the battle as a result of why do you have to even be struggling within the first place?

There’s a sure pessimism, to only follow that phrase, that I really feel in a lot of the race discourse in America, and I simply do not know what to do with it. So I am a white man who grew up within the deep South. That is only a truth about me. And I am not saying that in some performative method. I am simply acknowledging that that is my expertise.

I additionally imagine within the universality of the human situation and the ability of language and concepts to bridge variations. And when the pessimism goes too far or after we turn out to be trapped in our given identities, we sacrifice our company on some degree. We sacrifice our means to outline ourselves within the right here and now and venture ourselves into a greater future. However on the identical time, we’re merchandise of fabric and historic forces. How can we settle for the all too actual constraints imposed on us by historical past with out, on the identical time, lowering ourselves to historic props?

I all the time return to the lived expertise as a result of African folks or folks of African descent should not ideas. I truthfully imagine that each day when somebody wakes up, they struggle to determine what they must do, the right way to go about it. It’s not a tutorial matter. It’s totally concrete. It does not imply that you simply’re not going to be dealing with difficulties, challenges, issues, however you continue to go about your life as a result of that is the life you got to dwell.

However I additionally assume, to paraphrase Gramsci, that you must strike a stability between the pessimism of the mind and the optimism of the desire. You want to have the ability to cope with actuality; in any other case it is a flight from duty. When you’re ready to have a look at a state of affairs for what it’s and you do not mislead your self, you’ll be able to cope with it.

And this isn’t some grandiose philosophical assertion. I see that each time I’m going again to Cameroon. Coming from a perspective of anyone who has lived most of her life abroad, you’ll be able to come and be like, “Oh my God, these individuals are struggling. They do not have this. They do not have that.” You’ll be able to take a look at their day by day lives from a perspective of lack and deficiency, however that’s not how they’re residing their lives. They’re nonetheless making an attempt to work no matter job they’ll do. They’re nonetheless having youngsters, they’re nonetheless having a sure form of pleasure. Horrible issues occur to them, however they do not sit in a state of pessimism and paralysis.

I can not afford to be pessimistic as a result of all of the individuals who got here earlier than me needed to endure and struggle when it appeared like all the pieces was darkish and there was no hope. Had these folks not believed, and had they not fought, the place would I be at present? In order that’s the place I additionally discover a sure hope.

A few of this will get on the ambivalence I felt studying somebody like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes superbly and in a method that helped me perceive his expertise. What I wrestled with was the philosophy of hopelessness that appeared to undergird his work. I believe it yields an excessive amount of to the forces of oppression. Do you assume I am misunderstanding the purpose there?

Nicely, sure and no. Keep in mind that folks of African descent in the USA, and — I am paraphrasing Baldwin right here — they’re the one individuals who by no means wished to return right here. So that they did not come right here as a result of that they had a dream or they tried to enhance their residing situations. They have been by way of hell and so they’re nonetheless going by way of hell. We’re speaking about no less than 250 years of free labor. We’re speaking about Jim Crow legal guidelines. We’re speaking about lynching. So I can not say that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a preacher of hopelessness per se, as a result of in the USA, there’s additionally this obsession with hope and pleased endings, which I do not need as a result of I come from a French background.

That is why I like the blues, as a result of the blues is an African-American artwork kind that helps you cope with the dissonance of your existence. And also you can’t be in denial of your actuality, however you must be accountable about it. You may be humorous about it. You’ll be able to have a way of irony. And once you hearken to some blue songs, you’ll be able to see that the lyrics may be unhappy or tragic, however the melody is upbeat. What’s the blues singer expressing? Pleasure, happiness, hope? He is expressing an existential battle.

I ponder what you assume is the principal battle at present, and the place freedom is to be present in that, for Black folks on this nation?

When you concentrate on the ’60s and the ’70s, the Black battle was not only for Black folks. It was common. Most of these Black leaders have been Marxist or leftist. They have been additionally anti-capitalist. It wasn’t simply anti-racism.

I believe the issue at present shouldn’t be essentially only a query of freedom, it is the truth that leftist politics is split. You will have the cultural left after which you have got the left that focuses on class, but in addition there may be this neoliberalization of identification discourse.

The query I’ve is, are we framing freedom when it comes to turning into a part of a system, which by definition will produce inequality? If that is what we’re claiming, you are going to create a minority elite class after which they are going to be a part of this world as it’s. Or do you wish to create a world that’s troublesome to truly create as a result of all of us must lose and threat all the pieces, and that features the Black bourgeois?

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