In Critique of Black Reason eminent critic Achille Mbembe offers a capacious genealogy of the category of Blackness – from the Atlantic slave trade to the present – to critically reevaluate history, racism, and the future of humanity.
Mbembe teases out the intellectual consequences of the reality that Europe is no longer the world’s center of gravity while mapping the relations between colonialism, slavery, and contemporary financial and extractive capital.
Tracing the conjunction of Blackness with the biological fiction of race, he theorizes Black reason as the collection of discourses and practices that equated Blackness with the nonhuman in order to uphold forms of oppression. Mbembe powerfully argues that this equation of Blackness with the nonhuman will serve as the template for all new forms of exclusion.
With Critique of Black Reason, Mbembe offers nothing less than a map of the world as it has been constituted through colonialism and racial thinking while providing the first glimpses of a more just future.
Here, Dr. Gabriel O Apata reviewed Critique of Black Reason for the journal Theory, Culture & Society:
Kant’s first Critique may be described as an attempt to hoist reason up out of the contamination and impurities of subjectivity and relativity onto to a transcendental plane where alone it can possess objectivity and universality. This then is pure reason, whose critique lays down the law for very basis for human knowledge, its limits and which asks whether metaphysics is at all possible. But Kant’s universality turns out not to be universal after all since it excludes or does not admit of certain groups, in particular black people on the basis that they lack reason. The question is can there be such a thing as black reason? If reason does come in colours could it ever be objective? This is the question that Achille Mbembe in his new six-chaptered book Critique of Black Reason (2017) sets out to explore. Mbembe not only believes there is such a thing as black reason but he thinks he knows what it is and what stuff it is made of.
So what is black reason? According to Mbembe ‘Black reason consists of a collection of voices, pronouncements, discourses, forms of knowledge, commentary and nonsense, whose object is things or people of “African origin” (p.27). He goes on to say that ‘Black reason names not only a collection of discourses but also practices….’ (p.28). But this will not do since this definition of black reason can equally apply to any other group. For instance if we substitute the ‘black’ and ‘African origin’ in his statement for ‘white’ and ‘European origins’ we end up with nothing to distinguish between the two except difference in cultures. But hold that thought, because that is precisely Mbembe’s point. The Western idea of reason is different from black or African idea of reason because both are products of different geographies (Europe and Africa) and also experiences. Mbembe suggests that contact between both worlds has produced two narratives: the Western Consciousness of Blackness and Black Consciousness of Blackness.
With regards to White consciousness of blackness Mbembe takes us on a historical tour, through the vicissitudes of the black experience that have shaped black consciousness, which are the three most important epoch-making events in black history: slavery, colonialism and Apartheid. This is the familiar story of conquest, oppression, subjugation, persecution and so on. Western consciousness of blackness is thus a category construct that is like a prison within which are quartered cellars and doors through which the black man passes or is let through, at will, into rooms, as though on a production line where he is shaped, boxed, stamped and eventually produced, as blackness. Like the slaves in Plato’s cave, blackness is shackled against a wall where it sees only images and not reality and where he is denied not only freedom, but also the light of reason. It cannot attain knowledge of pure forms but only copies of reality, hence it cannot be admitted into Kant’s kingdom of ends. They have no access to the realms above because, as we mentioned, they lack reason. As Mbembe points out, ‘Reason in particular confers on the human a generic identity, a universal essence, from which flows a collection of rights and values. It unites all humans…. The question …was whether blacks were human beings like all others’ (p.85). The answer for many was no. Indeed, Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative that exhorts us to treat humanity not as a means but as an end in himself did not apply to black people. The idea of absolute or intrinsic value, of ‘supreme limiting condition’ that Kant thought is the very measure of humanity also did not apply to the black man for the same reasons as stated above. Hence the justification for their use as instrumental value.
With regards to black consciousness of blackness, Mbembe points out that ‘Black – we must not forget – aspires also to be a color. The color of obscurity. In this view Black is what lives in the night. Night is its original envelope, the tissue out of which its flesh is made. It is a coat of arms, its uniform’ (p.152). Psychologically, Black is like a victim of locked-in syndrome, within a skin that the bearer never chose but within the confines of which the victim is aware of what is happening to him but remains powerless to express thoughts and feelings. In this prison only two options are open to the black man, either to acquiesce and die or struggle and survive. Out of this fight for survival ‘the struggle to the death’ emerges the narrative of black consciousness.
But Mbembe’s idea of two consciousnesses is classic Hegelian master and slave dialect, a co-dependent relationship in which both are trapped, and within which each holds up a mirror to the other and from the ensuing reflection both become conscious (aware) of each other and of themselves.
Continue reading Apata’s review here.