published by Polity,
translated by Susan Spitzer
We should definitely begin with a famous question of Jean Genet’s in the preface to his play The Blacks: “What is a Black? And first of all, what color is he?” Indeed. After demonizing black cats, the Devil’s dark powers, crows, witches in black rags, the darkness of death, and the blackness of the soul, we so-called Whites of Western Europe had to invent the fact that the majority of Africa’s inhabitants clearly constituted an inferior “race,” condemned to slavery and then to the forced labor of colonial occupation simply because this enormous population was “black.” Solely on the basis of this so-called color, millions of human beings were transported like cattle to the other side of the ocean and chained in ships’ holds, with the result that a very large number of them died during the passage. The survivors were sold to rich landowners and worked for them under conditions that were absolutely comparable to those of ancient slavery. Large French cities like Bordeaux and Nantes, which specialized in this traffic, owed their prosperity to it. In 1885, well after the superficial “abolition of slavery,” a politician like Jules Ferry, who is still revered by the “left” today, publicly stated: “I repeat that superior races have a right, because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize inferior races...” They “civilized” them all right, with lashes of the bullwhip on the plantations.
For the vast majority of colonized Africans, the most benign solution, available to only a scant minority of them, was to become a servant of the colonists. Every colonist had his “boy,” which is only logical, isn’t it? A civilizer deserves to be well served. Even today, countless Africans risk their lives trying to make it to Europe. To do what there? To be construction workers or dishwashers in restaurants, where the men are concerned, or cleaning ladies or nannies, where the women are concerned. That’s right! Either you’re “inferior” – because you’re black – or you’re not.
In the United States, the so-called democracy that still controls the West, black slavery had become so huge a phenomenon (there were more than 3,000,000 slaves in 1860) that it took a bloody civil war and more than 800,000 dead, in the middle of the nineteenth century, to achieve its legal abolition. And this abolition allowed such strong discrimination in every domain and such deeply-ingrained underlying racism to persist that, today, the “black question” remains a sort of unhealable wound in American society, even though the President is “black.” This is how “black,” precisely during the economic and military triumph of the “Whites,” became a despised epithet, an ineradicable stigma, for humanity.
This set-up, rooted in a phantasmatics of colors, was – and still is – so powerful, and it proved to be so effective as an immoral justification of the worst evil, that the Europeans and their colonialist offspring the world over undertook a hierarchical color-coding of all of humanity. At the top there was the white race, that of the colonial conquerors. Then came the Yellows, who were very inferior, of course, but more complicated, “inscrutable,” tenacious, and difficult to control. Next came the Redskins, who had been exterminated for the most part by the Yankee colonists, so forget about them. And finally there were the Blacks, the negroes, all the way at the bottom. When I was a child I used to consult an illustrated Larousse encyclopedia that dated from the 1930s, from only yesterday, in short. It contained an article accompanied by definitive illustrations “proving” that a black man’s skull was half-way between an ape’s and a white man’s.
A milestone in this whole business is surely the aptly named Black Code, drawn up by the royal administration in France in the seventeenth century to regulate slavery in France’s Caribbean possessions. Contrary to what is sometimes said, this code, which was of course a pro-slavery abomination, was nevertheless ahead, so to speak, of the republican Larousse of the 1930s. It validated slavery and its hereditary nature. But it criticized what it called the “prejudice of color,” namely, the theory of black people’s inherent inferiority. It said that once a black person was freed, he or she had the same rights as a white person. So it is clear that modern colonial racism, which is anti-slavery in principle, replaced an abhorrent form of social relations validated by color (a person, by virtue of being black, could be bought and thus become the property of someone else) by biologized social relations, racism, which to my mind is even more abhorrent (a person, by virtue of being black, is inherently, and not merely owing to his or her social status, inferior to a white person).
The revolt against the hierarchical stigmatization of part of humanity on account of its so-called color – black, in this case – can take two different forms.
The first consists in confirming the role of colors. It will be said that part of humanity is indeed black, but the hierarchy of values will be eliminated, or even reversed: blacks are strictly equal to whites, or anyone else, or even: blacks are more attractive, stronger, smarter, more in tune with nature, sexier, have more rhythm, are more graceful, more ancient, have a more complex symbolic order, are more poetic, more this or more that, than whites. In a nutshell: “Black is beautiful.”
The second consists in denying that color has any relationship whatsoever with any system of valorization or disparagement. This means that any overall judgment, whether positive or negative, of a supposed “community” of color is rationally impossible. Color is of course an objective determination, but it must have no symbolic extension.
I can suggest a more radical version of the second approach. Naturally, I accept its universalist consequences, but I go further: there is not even any objectivity to the judgment of color. In reality, no color can be assigned to a given human being, not black, of course, but not white or yellow or any color identity whatsoever either. An individual can be predicated as black and classified in the “Black people” category only through the use of a very rough and pointless approximation.
The first approach, in its most radical form, had its poets and singers, particularly between 1930 and 1980 or thereabouts. The poets sang of what was then called “negritude,” or the positive assertion of blackness, which was considered the soul of both African humanity and the portion of it that had been deported to America. Basically, they sang of black people’s greatness.
Everyone, alas, has heard about the defects, ignorance, backwardness – the barbarism, in short – that white people still have the unmitigated gall to ascribe to the so-called “black” Africans. Only a short time ago Sarkozy, that ignorant little guy, had the audacity to lecture the Africans, from the heights of his undiminished colonialist paternalism, and tell them that they’ve remained “on the margins of history”! Well, all these “obvious facts” that whites have been spouting for several hundred years about so-called blacks, all these clichés, were adopted by the negritude movement – without even bothering to discuss them or separate fact from fiction – as the basis for establishing black people’s unconditional, indeed exemplary, belonging to the past and present history of humanity. That superlative poet, Aimé Césaire, gave this vision its most intense expression:
My negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against
the clamor of the day
my negritude is not a leukoma of dead liquid over the earth’s
my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral
it takes root in the red flesh of the soil
it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky
it breaks through opaque prostration with its upright patience.
It is the “upright patience” here that makes blacks, as Negritude would have it, the most essential earthly witnesses of what it means to belong to humanity. But for others, especially in the United States, it was, on the contrary, the most extreme impatience, the hunger for immediate action and its splendid fury, that were and still are acclaimed as the means by which blacks can stand beyond the categories of the imperious West. The movements of that era were called, for example, “the Black Panther Party,” a name that was directly inscribed in the dialectics of black: the black panther is the epitome of animal beauty, but it is also the fiercest, most graceful of felines, the one that prowls by night as a terrifying, unconscious menace in white people’s dull dreams. Thus, blacks, vis-à-vis whites, assume total pride in their blackness and can lay claim to their natural superiority.
It is easy to understand these approaches: since the whites have called us blacks, why shouldn’t we turn this name against their power? The dialectic of colors is very dense here. Black, a stigmatizing category internal to white domination, is reappropriated by its victims as the banner of their revolt. The blacks are thus between two whites: the whites who invented the blacks in order to enslave and segregate them, and the whites who are the target of the blacks’ insurgent independence.
These are irreversible gains of the 1960s and 70s: those red years also reinvented the black revolutionary, who had already, in the orbit of the Revolution of 1789, created his glorious and quasi-definitive figure in the guise of Toussaint Louverture. This was the case, as we’ve just seen, in the United States, and it was also the case in Africa, where a whole generation of revolutionary leaders were able to speak about the conditions of real freedom to their subjugated peoples: Nkrumah, Lumumba, Um Nyobé, Amilcar Cabral, and so on. All of them were also either assassinated or overthrown by the colonial powers’ secret services, the armies of intervention, or the puppet leaders’ mercenaries. Nevertheless, from Toussaint Louverture to them, you could learn that “black” in any case didn’t mean slavery, servitude, or collaboration.
There is no doubt that we must go beyond this now. Or, rather, go elsewhere. Already, in fact, in political action, and notwithstanding the phrase “black power,” the dominant vision of militant American blacks, like that of Toussaint Louverture and the revolutionary leaders in Africa, wasn’t segregationist. It included, to be sure, the temporary need for an independent black organization, with no whites in it. But that was just to mark the rupture, to root out the remnants of a submissive mentality in black people, and to get them used to the tasks of leadership and thought required by the revolutionary enterprise. What’s more, united action with majority-“white” organizations was the rule for the most part. Thus, the most radical “white” organization, the Weathermen, lent a helping hand from time to time to the Black Panthers. The gradual dissolution of the whole black-white dialectic was already underway in favor of political universalism, even if that process might be a long one and include a significant period of time during which the blacks would retake possession of their capacity to exist on their own terms and no longer have to imitate the forms and rituals of white domination.
In sum, the first revolutionary approach, proud Negritude, prepared the ground for the second, namely that, while there are of course different communities, and the black community in particular, they must all have strictly the same rights. In the final analysis, equality must also be the equality of colors. This is a specifically American concern: society is a patchwork of communities – racial, sexual, differently-colored, professional, ethnic, and so on. And the best that can be hoped for is that all these communities co-exist peacefully and have the same rights. Thus, the political question ended up being a legal question. The equality of action and creation, so vibrant in the 1960s and 70s, hardened into law, under the auspices of a so-called benevolent State. And colors, under the heading of “cultural differences,” remain as the focus of paternalistic attention in academic post-colonial studies.
I think we need to take one more step and adopt the “hard” version of the second approach. The maxim would then become: to put an end to any use of so-called colors in all forms of deliberation and collective action. We need to establish once and for all that a politics of emancipation has nothing to do with colors – in terms of norms and hierarchies, of course, but also in terms of objectivity.
To Genet’s question “What color is a Black?” we must answer that, as far as humanity as a whole is concerned, there are actually no colors. And not a white’s any more than a black’s.
Try to really decide what someone’s color is. Is a white person white? Certainly not! The only white person I know of is the white clown, with his powdered head, the image of a somewhat stupid kind of common sense as compared with his sidekick Auguste, whose main feature is a big red nose. In fact, passing through an endless number of gradations of skin tone, we call someone who’s paler than a supposedly black person “white.” We thus go from certain Swedes, let’s say, to certain Mauritanians, by way of many Asians. Some Tamils are moreover much darker than many “black” Africans, without their being put in the “Black” category. Many Africans are dark-skinned without our being able to say they’re black, many Europeans are much too dark for it to be reasonable to say they’re white, some Asians, who are anything but yellow (besides, who’s yellow? Someone suffering from hepatitis, perhaps?), are often lighter-skinned than many southern Europeans, and the blackest of men, if compared with a black dye or even a lump of coal, instantly stops being visible as black.
Truth be told, the distinctive feature of human beings is doubtless to be more or less dark-skinned, with an infinite gradation of shades, but actually not to be any one specific color. And why is this so? Because people are not covered with fur or feathers or a chitinous shell. They are the only animals who are naturally naked, and their skin only has a variety of shades and no fixed color.
This is the most striking difference, in terms of pure visibility, between the human animal and the apes. Seen from a distance, a gorilla sitting and playing with a stick can look incredibly like us on account of his posture and gestures. But he is really black, because his fur, which covers his body from head to toe, is black. Likewise, an orangutan looks like an old man, except that he’s completely covered in red fur.
The clearest objective feature of the human animal is that it doesn’t have any color. And in particular it’s impossible for it to be black, really black, any more than it can be white, let alone yellow or red (except in the case of severe sunburn).
Let’s say that human beings go in an unbroken line from a somewhat mottled ultra-white light appearance to an infra-black dark appearance, and no classification is a match for the untold infinity of these skin tones.
Blacks, Yellows, Reds, and especially Whites were nothing but false “objective” bases for oppressive classifications, dubious symbolic calculations, disparaging judgments, or shameful displays of self-satisfaction.
So we need to beware of any symbolization, collective assessment, political venture, or overall judgment that would purport to include a color, of any kind, in its system.
In the universal order to which humanity aspires, neither white nor black have the slightest right to exist. Humanity, as such, is colorless.