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Africana Philosophy: The Development of the Discipline in the United States (May 2017): The Experience of Blackness: The Phenomenology of Black Suffering

By Tommy J. Curry

The Experience of Blackness: The Phenomenology of Black Suffering

The brutality of slavery and the subsequent dehumanization of black peoples the world over generated any number of responses to their impending deaths, which were seemingly associated with blackness. While so-called race-crits and Afro-pessimists have externalized these realities as an interpretive structure through which one could view the world, black existentialists have emphasized the creative and almost mystic resiliency of blackness. The profound existential question—what is the meaning or purpose of existence—resonates with some tenor of doom given the history of blackness and white supremacy. This question, when applied to the lived experience of black peoples, illuminates the paradoxical reality of black existence—the claim to blackness as humanity and the imposition of blackness as a problem that is cast to the zone of nonbeing, which implies a particular inhumanity implicated in every value and entity, even God. In 1973, William Jones addressed this issue in his provocative Is God a White Racist?: A Preamble to Black Theology. Implicating God as a racist was not without merit, given Jones’s criticism of James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power, published a few years prior. Jones asked if there was sufficient warrant to believe that God in fact sided with the liberation ideas and strategies of black folk in America, as Cone claimed in that book and, subsequently, in God of the Oppressed. What God was, what he/she/it intended for the world, the problem of evil now cast as racism—these issues prompted a generation of thinkers to explore the significance and meaning of black oppression and suffering. These philosophers and theologians felt the need to consider, perhaps for the first time, that there could be such a thing as divine racism. In Prophecy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, a young Cornel West introduced the idea of an alliance between the black theological tradition and Marxism (rather than the staunch politics of Black Power). Captivated by the work of Rev. George Washington Woodbey, West believed that social transformation could be achieved by a counter-hegemonic critique of capitalism and the prophetic tradition of Black America. He developed this notion in The American Evasion of Philosophy, which reads the prophetic black tradition as being in line with the untapped resources of American pragmatism. This marriage was necessary for West to move American Leftist radicalism beyond polemic into programs of concrete social transformation.

Laurence Thomas went on to contextualize the problem of evil within the lived experiences of black folk the world over in Vessels of Evil: American Slavery and the Holocaust, in which he argued that the tragedies of these offenses to humanity were present and enduring. Suffering, death, and poverty—the consequences of racism—conditioned how these oppressed peoples experienced the world, how they created meaning from an existence introduced to the world as nothing. Lewis Gordon took a methodological approach to these issues in Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought and in his edited collection Existence in Black: An Anthology of Black Existential Philosophy. In his introduction to the latter, Gordon writes,

“We can regard existentialism—the popularly named ideological movement—as a fundamentally European historical phenomenon. It is, in effect, the history of European literature that bears that name. On the other hand, we can regard philosophy of existence ... as philosophical questions premised upon concerns of freedom, anguish, responsibility, embodied agency, sociality, and liberation.... Philosophies of existence are marked by a centering of what is often known as the ‘situation’ of questioning or inquiry itself. Another term for situation is the lived- or meaning-context of concern. Implicit in the existential demand for recognizing the situation or lived-context of Africana people’s being-in-the-world is the question of value raised by the people who live that situation. A slave’s situation can only be understood, for instance, through recognizing the fact that a slave experiences it. It is to regard the slave as a value-laden perspective in the world.”

And in the first chapter of Existentia Africana, Gordon remarks that this theorization of blackness, or “thinking through the periphery, the underside, the subaltern,” could be “characterized as ‘Caliban studies.’” This is a telling remark, because in Caliban’s Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy Paget Henry argues for an understanding of Afro-Caribbean thought as a phenomenological rupture to modernity—theories from the underside of modernity. Gordon and Henry regard colonization as a process of negating the human presence of blackness, but a process that can be resistance through black existence actually existing.

Several recent works have explored the idea of consciousness, ethico-religious insight, and the phenomenological realizations illuminated by living within anti-blackness. Anthony Neal’s timely Common Ground: A Comparison of the Ideas of Consciousness in the Writings of Howard W. Thurman and Huey P. Newton looks at consciousness, racism, and the universal through an Afro-centric paradigm. And Dwayne Tunstall’s Doing Philosophy Personally: Thinking about Metaphysics, Theism, and Antiblack Racism makes an important contribution by examining how to do phenomenological metaphysics in an anti-black world. Tunstall claims that there is something to be said for the process by which human beings observe their physical world as a collection of objects and make meaning from that world.

Historically, ethico-religious traditions have served as a rich source of resistance and meaning making. Sometimes this insight is Christian, but not always, witness Vodou in the Haitian Experience: A Black Atlantic Perspective, edited by Celucien Joseph and Nixon Cleophat. As the editors write in the introduction, voodoo is a rich spiritual tradition, which has “shaped Haitian social ethics, sexual and gender identity, and theological discourses.” The intellectual and political traditions emerging from Haiti’s liberation in 1804 inspired black American authors throughout the nineteenth century. Joseph argues in Haitian Modernity and Liberative Interruptions: Discourse on Race, Religion, and Freedom that Haiti was not simply a liberated republic, or the catalyst for an idea that motivated revolt on the island of San Domingo. Haiti was the foundation for the belief in liberation. In his introduction, Joseph argues that the birth of Haiti was an event that signified “human progress, reason, universal emancipation, and the attempt to create a better world without slavery, colonialism, or any form of human oppression and domination.” Anti-black racism depersonalizes black people, transforming them into things. This dehumanizing phenomenon confines blackness to a problem, an evil. This ontological assertion distorts how meaning is formed and how others recognize the status of black suffering because (anti) blackness is an empathetic limit or horizon through which a common humanity is recognized. Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze’s Achieving Our Humanity: The Idea of a Postracial Future is much more optimistic. Eze took the position that black people could use the ideal of humanity to overcome the experience of racism and subpersonhood. He argues that the concept of humanity, once stripped of vestiges of race, could free black people. Eze’s book appeared in the first year of the twenty-first century, and what he proposes has yet to be realized.

Works Cited