At the boundary 2 blog, Adrian Nathan West reviews the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe's recently translated book Critique of Black Reason. Calling it Mbembe's "most accomplished book to date," West praises the book for its effort to expand Blackness from a racial designation to a philosophical category of liberation. Here's an excerpt from the review:
Mbembe defines race as a system of images tailored to the demands of rapacity that forestalls any encounter with an authentic subject. The briefest glance at the early literature of African exploration, from Jobson to Olfert Dapper, shows the extent to which fantasy superseded reality and public desire for the salacious and hair-raising left little room for ethnographic rigor. These accounts dished up the archetypes of those tropes of sloth, intellectual inferiority, wiliness, and concupiscence that remain in vigor even today and that would provide eventual justification for colonialism and enslavement. “To produce Blackness is to produce a social link of subjection and a body of extraction,” Mbembe affirms, and, being constituted far in advance of any earnest investigation of African history, sociology, or folkways, these primitive notions of Black life responded less to enlightened curiosity than to the question of “how to deploy large numbers of laborers within a commercial enterprise that spanned great distances” as a “racial subsidy” to the expanding plantation system (Mbembe 2017, 20).
The question of Black reason proposed by the book pertains, first of all, to the body of knowledge concerning things and people “of African origin” that came to stand in for primary experience thereof and served as “the reservoir that provided the justifications for the arithmetic of racial domination” (Mbembe 2017, 27). Black reason categorized its more or less willfully misunderstood African subjects through a series of exemptions to normalcy that mutated in conformity with the scientific reasoning of successive eras, leaving them morally and juridically illegitimate, unfit for human endeavor, suited only to forced labor. The traces of Black reason, according to Mbembe, persist in the search for Black self-consciousness, the founding gesture of which is the question: “Am I, in truth, what people say I am?” (Mbembe 2017, 28). Against this grappling with the oppressive image of Blackness, Mbembe will propose, in the book’s later chapters, an engagement with tradition for the sake of a “truth of the self no longer outside the self,” with Aimé Césaire, Amos Tutuola, Frantz Fanon, and others as his guides (Mbembe 2017, 29).
Image of Achille Mbembe via the European Graduate School.