Man is alone, desperately scraping out the music of his own skeleton, without father, mother, family, love, god or society. And no living being to accompany him. And the skeleton is not of bone, but of skin, like a skin that walks.
“Black” and “white” signify their own arbitrariness, and are a deliberate way of maintaining and affirming a kind of colour-blindness. When I name myself or another as “black”, I mean “one whom others regard as “black”. I could not use the words “red” or “brown” or “yellow” in the same way unless they too had a political profile, and summarised and signified the value and effect of colour, rather than the colour itself. Black and white are therefore markers of ‘chromacity’, so to speak, designators of attitudes towards colours, rather than the colours themselves. In using the last phase, I do not mean to imply a distinction between the conventional associations of colours and the physical facts of colours themselves, for what I mean by seeing colours as colours is precisely seeing the cultural meanings they carry. The distinction I imply between chromacity and colours is not a distinction between culture and nature.
How does the world design me? Well, it depends who the ‘you’ in question is, of course. Eight years ago, the New York Times ran an article which read, “Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States, sweeping away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease.” Yet another article from the same newspaper published earlier this year paints a rather different picture: “The heavily armed sniper who gunned down police officers in downtown Dallas, leaving five of them dead, specifically set out to kill as many white officers as he could, officials said Friday.” Suddenly, James Joyce’s assertion that “modern man has an epidermis rather than a soul” is disturbingly apt.
Of the three main criteria that constitute our understanding of “race”—skin color, hair texture and facial features—it is skin color that most readily asserts “difference”. This association is not arbitrary: skin is color, and vice versa. Bleaching and tanning aside, it is not possible to separate skin from its hue. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to assume that the significance of skin color in human history exists precisely because color and what it signifies are generally regarded as one and the same thing. But what it means varies enormously across time and place. Eighteenth-century Europe marks the beginning of skin color as the overwhelming factor in theories of racial difference with which this essay is partly concerned. I say “partly” because of equal interest in “difference” is an interest in “origin”. And for the purposes of this essay at least, that’s where the thread of what it means to be human begins.
In Setswana, one of the indigenous languages of southern Africa, the word “Maropeng” means “returning to the place of origin.” Maropeng is also the name of a paleo-anthropological site of 180 square miles, located about forty miles north of Johannesburg. Known in English as the “Cradle of Humankind,” Maropeng was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. Buried deep within its geological strata lies clues as to the origins of mankind. It is a site of outstanding natural beauty—a rocky “highveld” grassland of rolling hills and frequent wildfires—and a complex of limestone caves which have yielded more than a third of all known early hominim fossils since the 1930s, some dating as far back as 3.5 million years. In October 2013, two recreational cavers, Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker, discovered fossil skeletons in the Dinaledi Chamber (“chamber of stars”). A month later, the National Geographic Society and the University of the Witwatersrand funded the Rising Star Expedition, which sent six women scientists—chosen for their combination of paleo-anthropological expertise, caving skills and small size—into the caves. Their “find” of 1,500 fossils led to the formal announcement in 2015 of the discovery of an extinct species of early hominim, which scientists, following American Lee Berger, have assigned to the genus Homo. Although the description has attracted controversy, with a number of scientists arguing that the classification of Homo naledi requires more testing, one of the key arguments from the forty-seven-member international team for its inclusion into the genus Homo is that they buried their dead, an act of “deliberate cultural deposition,” which we might also consider to be act of design.
Read the full article here.