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Fear of Black Consciousness

Lewis R. Gordon (Allen Lane/Penguin, 2022)

Reviewed by Gabriel Gbadamosi


Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves’ – John Milton, Samson Agonistes

Imagine Samson shaking the pillars of Western epistemology – its thinking and knowledge in the human sciences, in art, philosophy and culture over the last 500 years of white, racial supremacy; that’s the task of this seminal book, Fear of Black Consciousness, and the project of its author, Lewis Gordon, a Black, Jewish, Jamaican-American philosopher and cultural critic. 

You can feel, he says, ‘reason creeping away’ when it comes to examining race in ‘white spaces’ – racialised thinking having produced all ‘kinds of evasion’ of the truth that this race thing is just wrong. Race, in the etymology he outlines, arises out of a concept of ‘taint’ in Spanish blood (though, I would add, Iberians do still pride themselves on their drop of Arab blood and dark good looks). Whiteness, then, emerges as a world view and an identity based on a one drop rule – pathological innocence of such taint, with hygienic rules for racial exclusion, and an association of purity with otherwise unearned and unexamined privilege or ‘license’ to plunder. Such whiteness, he argues, as he experiences it in the formerly genocidal, post-slave colonies of America, is an illusion, a form of delusional narcissism, a flight from reality, an escape from responsibility, which has introduced a ‘systemic blindness’ into our accounts of ourselves, our understanding of what it is to be human.

Gordon is very good at putting this insight into its wider context and detailing its implications. Although racism is the global, systemic production of non-human status for people of colour, enjoying a twenty-first-century resurgence in the wake of other pandemics, it also reproduces ‘white consciousness’ – which doesn’t see non-white people as people and avoids seeing that denial of humanity as wrong (to ‘see’ would entail having to take responsibility for knowing what you see), and consequently is not only caught in its own lie, but compromised in its thinking by an ability to go on lying to itself – a form of bad faith which must always ‘push reflection away from awareness’. This develops into a racist form of society which is ‘anti-political, anti-intellectual, and unimaginative’.

Black consciousness sees ‘the naked truth’ of the emperor’s new clothes. Rather than allow racism to make us non-relational as human beings, cut off from one another, submerged in a dark place, Gordon proposes and enacts in this book a spirit of imaginative, creative playfulness – free flows of thought not shackled by the disciplines and distortions of Euro-modernity but, in reclaiming presence and agency in the past, visibility and voice in the present, able to imagine and politically engage in the creation of a post-racist future. What he says about ‘multi-dimensionality’ in this context – tantalisingly, and perhaps too fleetingly – is there for the reader to encounter in the text as a development on from ‘intersectionality’ as a way to reflect on human identity and possibility.

Looking back in order to go on (a move encoded in Ghana’s Sankofa symbol), Gordon reframes his thought and historical perspective – bringing us along to reclaim political and historical agency – by summoning  the language of ancient Egypt, Mdw Ntr, and bringing it back into use in the truth-seeking, reflective core of his practice as a thinker – the search for new meanings in old etymologies and myths, a renewed creativity in interpretation – and also by restoring a pre-Columbian name, Abya Yala, to the American continent. That is, he takes the long view of those short centuries of white, Western, Christian domination, for example, contrasting a 500-year history of European conquest, slavery and colonisation with the preceding 800 years of Afro-Arab rule in Moorish Spain, a non-white society now widely acknowledged as a crucial agent in the cultivation, development and transmission of human knowledge.

Human is the key word here, neither set on a pedestal nor submerged in the sub-human, but a continuous confrontation with the challenges to being human we all face – including the ‘melancholia’ of non-belonging in a white, Western geopolitical order. Everything builds in this book to an extraordinary chapter on the Blues, well worth the read, that addresses non-belonging with aesthetic and ethical maturity, opposing to it the value of defiance and dignity underscored by our ability to love.