Lecture Notes: On Modernity

A student query sparked the following thoughts. A rough transcription of it: “How did you come to study the phenomena that were not actually about the diaspora, given that your Ph.D. is in Africana Studies?” It was a great segue into our discussion of the text we are currently studying: Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983).

Significations of “modern” tend to operate as shorthand for a sense of the now, the current, the present. These ideas stand in for a philosophy of history that renders all movement as progressive. Together, these thoughts render the modern as progressive. And in so doing, they obscure the fact of the modernity; what Cedric Robinson calls the “process” of “Africa’s transmutation” and the creation of the Negro. The destruction of Africa’s past required the Negro—what Aime Cesaire characterized as thingification.[1] European modernity needed things. And “things,” they therefore believed, were required to generate them from the grounds, from the oceans— from the enclosures they called the “New World.”

Robinson’s Black Marxism also shows that this rendering of the African, this conception of the Negro was not always a feature of the consciousness of those who inhabited the West Asian peninsula. It is reminder that everything that we think is normal, has a historical process, one that we have to comprehend in order to really make sense of the quotidian: “…one’s sense of the past is so often conceptually distorted by a consciousness whose natural world of things and relationships is the present…” (82).

“Race” connoted both a historical process and a characteristic feature of European consciousness. It is modernity’s epistemology. “Europe” was the manifestation of a racial logic that was now being transported. For the African, Robinson argues, their transmutation occurred over a thousand year period, featuring the creation of the idea of Portugal, the religious wars that organized European identities as “Christian,” the labor shortages which required the use of both Christian and non-Christian others, the development of Western philosophy from Arabic translations, and the Age of Discovery (see Chapters 4-5). Each of these moments attached “fictive” racial meanings to progress. They quickly hardened into realities. In order to produce the Negro, her history, culture, and civilization were negated. She became a thing.

These imaginations were produced by those also responsible for the project of Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and other developments that fed the flowering of the modern. Today, modern may stand in for progress, but its hidden meaning is that Europe—a real fiction—sets that standard that guides what is, and what can be: “The architects of European consciousness had begun the construction of that worldview that presumed the basic structure of other than European societies was at its foundation a European structure, that the moral, ideological, and spiritual scaffold of these societies was the same bottom structure discernible in European culture, that the measure of mankind was indeed European” (99). As the Negro was imagined, the world beyond Europe—perhaps most pertinently, inclusive of the “New World”—became understood in “Eurocentric terms” (98).

So it would seem that modernity cannot be deracialized. Colorblindness is a useful fiction that obscures the racial normativity at the heart of the national projects of the West.[2] Enslavement was not an immoral blot, on an otherwise moral system. The entire system that structured and benefitted from enslavement—that is, the modern world—was perhaps immoral. At least that was what the fact of Black resistance implied. For Robinson and other thinkers, Black freedom was the total rejection of the entirety of the modern world system—the system that had tried, but was unsuccessful, in creating the Negro. Africans resisted. Richard Iton asks: “If modernity, that bundle of cultural, political, philosophical, and technological, iterations and reiterations of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, “requires an alterity,” as Michel-Rolph Trouillot suggests, if it implies and requires antonymic and problematic others—if it, to put it bluntly, needs “the nigger”—can those constituted and marginalized in this manner viably challenge their circumstances without questioning the logic and language of their exclusion?”[3]

Perhaps the “historical archaeology of the Black radical tradition” can offer the best answer.




[1] See his Discourse on Colonialism (Monthly Review Press, 2001).

[2] See Nikhil Pal Singh, Black is a Country (Harvard, 2005).

[3] In Search of the Black Fantastic (Oxford, 2008), 13.


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