As part of our ongoing events series with The Philosopher, Nathalie Etoke, Associate Professor of Francophone and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, sat down with philosopher Lewis Gordon to discuss Etoke’s new book, Black Existential Freedom. Over their wide-ranging conversation, they discuss the meaning of freedom, the nature of struggles against oppression, the limitations of Afropessimism, the work of Black existentialism, and much more. Below is a transcript of their conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

Learn more about our Fall 2022 philosophy event series.


Anthony Morgan: This is the latest in the Philosophy Today series, which is co-hosted by The Philosopher and Boston Review. This conversation between Nathalie Etoke and Lewis Gordon asks, what is Black existentialism, and why is freedom such a central theme in that area of thought? How is Black existential freedom different from other existential approaches, all of which avow commitments to freedom? The context of this conversation is the publication this month of Nathalie’s new book, Black Existential Freedom, published by Rowman & Littlefield. 

Black freedom is not something that is given. It is fought for.

Lewis Gordon: Now, Nathalie, to kick things off, I’ve got to tell you something. You know I am always playing music. When I logged on, I just randomly asked my computer to play something. And would you believe what came on. It was Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.”


Nathalie Etoke: To be free.


LG: Performed by Nina Simone.


NE: Alright.


LG: I was like, yo, the ancestors and life, what’s going on here? What’s going on here? So, I think that already says something. The ancestors approve. They approve.


NE: Ashay.


LG: Ashay. So I’m going to begin also by saying to you, Nathalie, basically, congratulations. Your book comes out tomorrow. I’m looking forward. And I should say that I also have enjoyed teaching your work over the years. I’m teaching, I teach it in my mega course in global existentialism and on non-Western philosophy, and a variety of others, Africana philosophy. And I’ve got to tell you, the students just love, and they share the love I have, both for your writing, and for your thought. So I just figure I’d give you a little shout out there.


NE: Thank you.


LG: To kick things off, those who pick up the book will see that I also wrote an endorsement of the book. This endorsement says a lot about how this book had an impact on me. I wrote:

Against the death fetishism, Eurocentrism, and de facto political conservatism of Afropessimism, Nathalie Etoke offers through meticulous scholarship and poetic insight the existential dimensions from the global perspective of Black political struggles to the practices of joy and pleasure in everyday life across the African diaspora of Blackness as an affirmation of life. She exposes “the banality of white supremacy,” which attacks human agency, dignity, and freedom, and argues that humanity of Black people extends beyond moral and political forms of resistance. It is, as Etoke beautifully demonstrates in the lived reality of Black people’s affirmation of life in contingency in making meaning beyond the quagmire of despair. Black Existential Freedom reminds us that no better world can emerge without active, fought-for freedom. She counsels us to be inspired and learn from those who rose to the occasion of that responsibility and draw upon the resources of our creativity in every aspect of existence, which, we should remember, also means life. Yes, this book is at birth a classic work in Black existential thought. Read it. Learn from it. And share it, as I plan to, far and wide.

And I’m not kidding. I plan to be teaching it next semester. Nathalie, I’d like you to kick things off and just say why you wrote this book. What are you trying to say in it?


NE: First, I would like to thank you for your support throughout the years. It means a lot to me.

Why did I write this book? You know, it’s a very interesting question. I don’t know where I read this, but someone once said that we keep on writing the same book over and over again. I think I was looking at the ways we understand freedom, usually in political terms. But I was also grappling with this issue of the human relation with regards to people of African descent, whether they’re from the diaspora or the continent. Because I think the ways we engage the question of freedom goes beyond what I call the legality of freedom or the issue of rights. There’s something about the legacy of sub-humanity that we constantly have to resurrect, but then, at the same time, we have to decenter the white gaze. We have to decenter aspects of violence and center on ourselves.

I was also interested in—I think you’ve talked about this, Lewis—this idea of the inner lives of Black people. Oppression has been around for centuries. But people still exist and appear in the world. Yes, Fanon wrote that the Black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man. But then at the same time, you see that it exists on ontological subjectivity that manifests itself in the practices of everyday life. Of course, in academia these days, there is a conversation about Afropessimism that is very trendy. But I didn’t really try to write a response to Afropessimism. I was just trying to problematize the way that, if we look at Black life through the lens of white supremacy or social death, in many ways we are erasing and silencing the ways Blackness has to do with this affirmation of life in the context of oppression for the sake of freedom, and the fact that maybe Black freedom is not something that is given. It is fought for. Yes, from this perspective of human rights, but also from this existential perspective in terms of your humanity. How do you define yourself in your own terms? And how do you practice existence in the context of oppression? So, you constantly have this tension there. And I think that’s what I observed. I don’t know if it’s a blessing, but I’ve been “Black” on three different continents.


LG: So you’re Black, Black, Black.


NE: I don’t know. People talk about global Blackness these days. I don’t know what that means. But I know that I was born in Paris, and I was raised in Cameroon. And that, you know, when I lived in Cameroon, my racial identity didn’t matter, because in Africa everybody is Black, therefore no one is. It doesn’t mean that white supremacy is not present in terms of how our education system was shaped, some of the education and the teaching that we got. But all I’m trying to say is, I see other people as human beings first. Fast forward, I moved to France, I’m eighteen, to go to college. That is when I become “Black.”

But what does that mean? It really has to do with becoming a minority, the white gaze, and also epistemic violence, this idea of constantly engaging the idea that the white world has of you, which has nothing to do with who you are. I read Fanon in my early twenties. But fast forward, I moved to the United States and I discovered something else in terms of Blackness in the context of America. I also discovered this rich library with all these Black thinkers talking about Blackness, not just in terms of this antagonizing of yourself with the white world, but really constantly focusing on who you are, not from a narcissistic standpoint but because you’re trying to touch this freedom that at first seems too abstract and out of touch but is part of who you are, although you’re excluded from it. I look at cultural productions to look at it.

You cannot dehumanize that which is not human: the root of dehumanization is humanization.

Take the spirituals. The spiritual is not just about God. It’s about liberation and assessing your humanity, saying that you’re a child of God when people say you’re not. Then I look at civil rights songs. Or I look at how people talk about slavery in global terms. But I’m like, slavery, what does that mean? What happens when we shed the conversation, and we talk about an individual? Going to an experience? An individual who at the time knew his name, knew who he was, was somebody’s mother, was somebody’s father, was somebody’s sister, has a language, but found himself or herself in the hold of that slave ship, unable to communicate with other people, but then realizes that, oh, all of us down here are Black. What does that mean? All these questions kind of inform my perspective.

But then I am also interested in this question of the human because I think what makes Black existentialism very unique is really this legacy of sub-humanity, this situation of despair and tragedy and ontological catastrophe that you constantly have to engage, not only from an existentialist standpoint, but in the material conditions of your life. So, when I look at the ways Black immigrants are treated, whether we’re talking about Europe today, or America today, what is there that makes their exclusion unique? What is the problem with this idea of Blackness and being human in this world? How do we straddle that fence?


LG: Before I get to the next question, your response made me think about a few things. The first thing is, when you said minority, there’s also a view about minoritization. For instance, if we think of South Africa, Black people are the majority, but anti-Black racism and white supremacy, at the level of power structure, create a sense of being minoritized.

The other thing I was thinking: it’s really striking, because in many African languages—there is a Bavarian philosopher who talks about this in an interesting way—the word “individual” is something that comes from a particular metaphysics that comes out of Greek and Latin philosophy, rather Roman philosophy, and the individual was just the Roman way, the Latin way of saying basically ousia, substance, but human communities are connected. We’re dividual. In other words, we’re related, and in many African languages, a person is not a thing. A person is a relationship. And this comes out a lot in your work.

The other thing I was thinking is that the Afropessimists completely distort what Fanon actually said, because it’s just a phrase in the French, but he doesn’t say that Black people lack ontological resistance. They confuse the title. You see, the title is, Black Skin, which is to be sealed in your skin, and White Masks, which is the lie that many white people wear. In that part of the analysis, he was talking about the lie. The lie is that many white people need to believe that Black people have no ontological resistance. That’s why he said, in the eyes of the white. But the eyes of Black people among one another, we know we have a lot of ontological resistance, which you beautifully talk about in the book. I just wanted to throw that in, because it’s a good segue for us to get to this part. Because right now, it’s really shocking how this stuff has taken a form, where there are people actually acting like the human was created by white people. Which is just bizarre.

So why don’t we start there? Because, first of all, why existentialism? And that connects to the question of how we talk about this notion of the human. And that’s a little distorted, too. To say “the human” is a very unnatural form of speech.


NE: I think it goes back to the type of epistemic framework we use to even analyze our own existence. Because I can totally understand what the Afropessimists are saying in the context of human rights and citizenship. In the Western world, there are ways in which, if something is not written and acknowledged by the powers that be, it does not exist. Coming from that perspective, this idea of struggle for Black freedom and Black humanity has been understood through that unique framework of rights. But we see that this issue is deeper than rights because you can be a citizen, an American citizen, and you’re still Black. What becomes of your right in that moment? You need to have another way of looking at who you are that goes beyond this dehumanization.

I also say in my work that you cannot dehumanize that which is not human. I know that sounds very basic. But I always tell my students, you cannot dehumanize a chair. You cannot dehumanize, I don’t know, a door. We need to reverse the paradigm to understand that the root of dehumanization is humanization. Once you understand that you cannot dehumanize that which is not human, what conversation are we going to have at that point when it comes down to humanity? And I think that’s where the confusion occurs, because, and I understand this question of human rights, it’s not enough. Thank God, historically, people of African descent understood who they were and still understand who they are, outside of that framework. Because if we were only to define ourselves through the legal language that tells you that you’re part of this world, we would not exist. That’s where you can have a certain kind of nihilistic approach to Black humanity, because if you only look at the ways in which we are mistreated by the powers that be, yes, we’re not human. But again, is that the only way to look at a construct?

Historically, when you look at the lives that these people have lived, you know they were way beyond their circumstances, although they were constantly engaging the struggle. I think that’s the tension I’m trying to address. The ways in which you have to define the value of your life, although it is constantly being devalued. That’s why I start the book by bringing up George Floyd. I say, what’s the point of talking about Black existential freedom when you’re constantly bombarded with images that remind you that you’re not free? What do you do with that?


LG: I talk about this often, but I would love to hear you talk about it: Why Black existentialism? And what is Black existentialism?


NE: Honestly, if I were to give you an honest response, Lewis, it’s very simple. I always look at the ways Black people of African descent have to exist in this world. I don’t know why. It’s an obsession of mine, whether I’m talking about post-colonial Africa, or the diaspora, there’s just something about the ways in which we become part of this world. We’re part of it, but we’re also excluded from it. The ways in which, even when you think about trade and borders, even in the context of Africa, we live in a reality that we did not necessarily create. We engage an epistemic world that was not necessarily ours. But there we are. We have to exist. And we have to find a way to exist and be free.

How do we create a world where my existence is there to build a world with you—a relation with you?

And then you have the human condition. Being human is hard. I don’t care what your racial background is. We’re all going to die one day. We’re all going to experience illness, death, despair, anxiety. There are just certain things about the human condition that we all share. But I think racism is like the icing on the cake, like unnecessary suffering that you didn’t choose. You know, you don’t choose your skin color. You don’t choose the historical and political circumstances under which you’re born. But you were born here, and you have to do something about it. And that’s why I come to this idea of existence. You know, it’s like, I am out here in this world, knowing that there is a struggle, there is a fight. And it can be tiring. You can feel that it’s not fair. But you’re here. What are you going to do about it? So that’s how I look at it. And I look at the history of people who are deported, people who are enslaved, people for whom “hope unborn had died,” but they were still hopeful. So I think there’s something else about freedom that brought us here. But then at the same time, we’re constantly engaging the materialistic, the material conditions of our lives that can bring us down in many ways, not because of our own doing, but because of this struggle. Which is also political, philosophical, economic. Many issues, as I have said, overlap. That’s why I’m also very wary of those ontologizing Blackness, just talking about Blackness. I think we also have to talk about the material conditions of our lives.


LG: The first thing that comes to mind is that one of the problems with that icing is that they’ve peed and crapped in it. But there are several other things, too. When I say you’re a philosopher, Nathalie, I always say I’m also a philosopher. I don’t think someone is better if they are a philosopher. Because you’re an excellent literary theorist, filmmaker, many things. But you are also a philosopher. I mean, Wittgenstein was an engineer and a nurse and an architect. Russell was a mathematician. Husserl was a mathematician. Fanon was a psychiatrist. William James was a psychiatrist. Anna Julia Cooper, she did literary theory. The list of people who are the greatest philosophers in history, physicians, all the way through William James, Karl Jaspers. You don’t have to have a degree in philosophy to be an excellent philosopher. You have to bring excellent ideas. And your ideas are excellent. For me, that’s all that matters.


NE: I realize that I didn’t really answer your question. What is Black existentialism? To me, Black existentialism means a lot of things, but if I were to use one sentence: it’s hard to be human in the world that dehumanizes you. What does humanity in Black skin mean? Because we have this legacy of sub-humanity, but we still have to exist. When I think about Black existentialism, I can also talk about certain thinkers that really inform my understanding—people like Du Bois, you know, and the idea of double consciousness; people like Fanon and particularly the lived experience of the Black, l’expérience vécue du Noir. But at the same time, there’s this question of the human. The last sentence in Black Skin, White Masks speaks of the effort to “build the world of the You,” this interrelationality that you’re talking about, which even transcends Blackness. How do we create a world where my existence is there to build a world with you—a relation with you? Because at the end of the day, some of the key issues in Black existentialism address this failure to connect with yourself, if you internalize racism, and also with the outside world, which really works at cutting up that connection.

I don’t speak Haitian Creole, but I will never forget when I found out that, in Haitian Creole, the word nèg does not mean Black. It means man. It means human. And I was thinking, these people have something that we lost—because you know, in Haiti, you can be a nègre blanc. You’re just a human who happens to be white. This idea that these people who were enslaved created a language where nèg means human really turned my world upside down. Once you start thinking that way about that word, the condition of being human from that perspective, it really changes the conversation, I think.


LG: One of the things I’d add to that is that whenever I talk about Black existentialism, I usually point that out, too. I thought what you just said was beautiful. That really summarized it beautifully. It also resists reductionism.

For instance, there are multiple challenges raised by the emergence of the category of Blacks, because a lot of the people we called Blacks were not historically Black, or the people we call white, they were not historically white. They became such. And so, that led to the question of, what does it mean to be human? Which you’re addressing. Obviously with enslavement and colonialism, the question was what does it mean to be free? The third question, of course, is how science, philosophy, literature—in other words, the whole resources of how we communicate and try and think about the world—were rallied in support of dehumanization and unfreedom. So it creates a crisis of justification. The next thing it raises is the problem of redemption. This connects to your first work, Melancholia Africana, the idea that they lie to us that our existence has no redemptive value whatsoever.

But there’s something else in Black existentialism that’s really cool that links to the question of freedom. This is what a lot of Afropessimists miss, and a lot of critics miss. The existential critique is also a critique of ontology. When you ontologize people, you turn people into things. The whole point about humanity is to transcend being things. And there are others who talk about this, like the Japanese philosopher Keiji Nishitani. You’ll see it in Ali Shariati, the Iranian philosopher. It’s all over the place. You see it in a lot of African thought. And the argument is that ontology covers reality. Reality is not simply about things. It’s more than that. And I think that links a lot to the question, “why freedom?”


NE: What you said about commodification is very important. And I think that’s something that sometimes gets me a little weary when I think about how we engage the issue of identity today—who you are, not in terms of the relationship you have with other people. It doesn’t mean that the relationship is easy. There could be conflict. But how do you go about building the relationship, instead of just talking about who you are from this perspective that commodifies you as a subject. I think it’s very important.

I will never forget when I found out that, in Haitian Creole, the word nèg does not mean Black: it means man, it means human.

Then, this notion of freedom. In my work, I talk about colonial freedom, because I think we need to complete the conversation about freedom, because when the Western world is pondering this issue of freedom, and you have all these philosophers talking about freedom, you have other people who are not free. I talk about “colonial freedom” because you cannot address that freedom without discussing dispossession of land, the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of people of African descent. But we have this idea of self-redemption. The Western narrative is self-redemptive. Some people we excluded, but now they can become part of it. I think it’s much more complicated than that because the rules of that freedom are colonial rules. So maybe we need to decolonize freedom to really come up with something else. And I think that’s why Fanon is also very useful when he talks about inventivity. You know, what we need to create.


LG: I agree with you wholeheartedly. In fact, I often make the distinction between liberty and freedom. To turn to questions from the audience, I think it would be great if we take three at a time.


AM: One person asks: What does ontological resistance mean? And another: Who are Black people without the whites in our head? And I suppose you could read that however you want: internalization, subjectivization, racialization, etc. One more: I don’t know if Fred Moten is of interest to either of you, but an audience member noted his idea about asserting subjectivity when historically objectified. Those are three questions. Is there anything in any of those that you’d like to pick up on?


LG: Well, I’ll start with the first one, and be very short. It can be elaborated elsewhere. But if we’re going to talk about ontological resistance, we’re talking about the question of everyday life. And Fanon is very explicit that all over the world, Black people live everyday life among one another perfectly fine. That’s one of the reasons why, in a lot of our books, Nathalie and I, begin with the experience of being Black people from Black countries. And we’re able to do that perfectly well. And when we’re in situations where there are white people trying to tell us that we’re not people, it’s almost laughable to us. So the short answer is, the problem when people try to think ontologically, is they think it’s complete. But the reality is that even under conditions of enslavement, enslaved people were finding ways to live their humanity, and they found ways to experience value and joy, and assert dignity. We know that because it is by their actions that many of us are still here. There’s a longer answer to that, but the short answer is, we are able to articulate lives for ourselves worth living. Nathalie may want to take over.


NE: Just to add to what you said, another way to talk about it, if you don’t want to use the word ontological resistance, is by using what Sylvia Wynter calls ontological sovereignty. This is the idea that we have to move completely outside of our present conception of the human. It goes back to what Lewis was trying to say, I think.

With regard to Moten, I’m familiar with that approach, but also in my own work, I talk about active subjectivity versus passive subjectivity. Passive subjectivity is like living with white people in your head, basically, defining yourself in the context of white supremacy, and internalizing a degrading image of who you are. Not because it’s your fault, but because you’re bombarded with this idea that you’re lesser than. But then you have active subjectivity, which to me is the ways in which you resist, not necessarily because you’re trying to challenge or dismantle white supremacy, but just like what Lewis just said, because you know you’re a human being, and you’re going about your life on a regular basis. That’s what I mean. So, it’s more active. The external forces of oppression are still there, you’re still confronting them, but it doesn’t mean that you surrender or are surrendering to them. Whereas in passive subjectivity, it’s just, you just buy into that image, and you find yourself in a state of paralysis which starts psychologically and internally. What the world tried to do to you is one thing, but then what you do with what the world is trying to do to you is something else. That’s why I separate passive subjectivity from active subjectivity, but they’re not mutually exclusive.


LG: One of the things that’s often overlooked is that narrative of ontological closure is a lie to make us think liberation and freedom are not possible. And the very fact that it’s a lie already tells you that it’s undermined with the assertion that it’s complete. The other thing is, is it’s very strange that we always make the neurotic stand for Black people. Neurotics are people who suffer a form of ego collapse through which they are not able to articulate their relationship to the world. And there are many Black people who don’t have white people in our heads. We see white people out there. What we have in our heads are our mothers, our fathers, our brothers, our sisters, our loved ones. And it’s very strange that there’s a tendency, particularly in academic literature, to throw Black people always into the category of the pathological, the psychotic, the neurotic. But the fact of the matter is that most Black people spend a lot of our lives not walking around asking ourselves, are we white enough? We don’t even ask if we’re Black enough. We ask stuff like: Are we going to get enough food today? How’re our friends doing? How are our neighbors? Am I going to get a job? And we need to get away from these very distorted, ultimately neurotic bourgeois ways of thinking about Blackness.


NE: I think Fanon talks about this, and Baldwin also. There is a class component to it. I think it’s Fanon in the last chapter of Peau Noire, Masques Blancs, he talks about the fact that maybe the Black bourgeois is the most alienated person, because you’re constantly engaging white spaces, white structures of thinking, and the type of alienation that you constantly have to deal with puts you in a very unique space. I think you were talking about maybe working class. The class component also informs the way we have these conversations.


LG: Yeah, maybe because I was poor. You know what I mean? Maybe because I was a poor kid, I was actually rich with a healthy family. My family, my relatives, even in the Bronx growing up, we weren’t running around trying to figure out if we could be like white people. We saw the beauty in one another.


AM: Another question: the notion of authenticity has been at the center of existential thought in relation to freedom. How does the idea of authenticity fan out within, or fan out from, Black Existential Freedom?

The next two questions kind of link; they relate to Afropessimism, which Lewis brought up at the beginning. One gives a little preamble about Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth—there’s no returning to some previous state of wholeness for a colonized people, and there is a becoming-new in the decolonizing process, which involves taking forward and collectively working through that visceral pain of being overwritten. The question is, does Afropessimism miss the mark in taking this forward and working through, assuming that there’s different ways people work through their histories. Is this merely bad faith? And then a related question, is there any usefulness in Afropessimism? For instance, what about the idea that Black people function solely, not entirely as slaves?


NE: When you get to Afropessimism, just listen to the language. For instance, I notice this shift in academia, and Lewis, you talked about it. People talk about “Black bodies” these days. I’d rather talk about Black people. I think there is a shift there in terms of understanding who you are once you start to talk about Black people instead of just talking about Black bodies. But I understand why the focus could be on Black bodies. When you think about violence and police brutality, or how people respond to the physicality of the Black being, it’s all about the body. But then at the same time, what happens when we shift the conversation, and instead of talking about Black people, we just focus on the body, because of the ways the body has been historically abused and mistreated. I think that’s the question that I would have for the Afropessimist. What are the consequence of that epistemic shift? What happens when we stop talking about Black people, but just talk about Black bodies. I understand why there is a focus on the body in the context of oppression.

You cannot address freedom without discussing dispossession of land, the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of people of African descent.

In my work, we didn’t really talk about that. I also talk about the condition of queer people in Sub-Saharan Africa, specifically in Uganda and South Africa, to also complicate this question of the human and dehumanization, because there are ways in which we have this tendency of focusing on dehumanization in the context of white supremacy. But what happens when we look at the ways in which we also devalue each other or choose to exclude each other in whatever epistemic or religious framework we use. In the context of the brutalizing of queer subjects in Africa, I really focus on the influence of the evangelical far-right in promoting homophobia in Africa and sponsoring homophobia. I focus also on state-sponsored homophobia. But at the same time, I look at the backlash queer people have to endure when you also have the Western world—like Obama going to Senegal, and the first thing he talks about is giving people gay rights. Then there’s backlash after he leaves. The same occurs when he goes to Kenya. So also complicating the question about dehumanization in that context, particularly pertaining to queer folks in Sub-Saharan Africa. I just wanted to bring that up in the context of the conversation. But Lewis, I’ll let you deal with authenticity.


LG: Thank you, Nathalie. I’ll be brief. I am one of those people who absolutely reject authenticity discourses. Authenticity discourses, first of all, often have a tendency to make the person who’s asserting authenticity make themselves the standard of authenticity and close off others. A human being is basically not a complete notion, but an open possibility. But the problem with authenticity, is that what one finds is that many people are never authentic enough. It’s a nowhere discourse that leads people into a form of self-asserted purity through which they ultimately begin to dominate others. And I could put my cards on the table. I see humanity as fundamentally actually queer, but that what goes on is an ongoing project to de-queer or to close off the possibilities of humanity in such a way that they could fit into these authenticity paradigms.

If you find all the homophobic and anti-this and anti-that stuff, not only in Africa, but across the Caribbean and other places, they all ultimately come down to some notion that to be an authentic African or an authentic Caribbean is to be something that’s a complete stereotype. The truth of the matter is that many of us don’t know what in the world we are until we live and we realize those possibilities. This is a crucial element that’s linked into understanding freedom.

In terms of the Afropessimist, their narrative buys into this kind of ontological reductionism in which one deals with an individual in such a way that the individual eventually becomes like a God. It becomes, if I can’t have my freedom, it’s because freedom is impossible, which is BS. The reality is that nobody can have their freedom by themselves. That whole point we were saying before about a relational understanding of people means that one has to understand how power works. And power is fundamentally political. So this means, then, if we’re going to deal with a political problem, such as colonialism, anti-Black racism, all the way through even the way we’re talking about the effort to de-queer humanity, we’re going to have to develop political solutions to them. And I don’t see how they work through dealing with notions of ontological closure. The moment we have openness, it patently begins to transcend the ontological.


NE: Just to add on authenticity, you also have to think about the ways in which, at least in post-colonial Sub-Saharan Africa, the idea of authenticity has been used and abused in the context of oppression and dictatorship. You have Mobutu Sese Seko, in what they call now the DRC, but used to be called Zaire. Remember, it changed and it created a situation where people had to change their names to reject Christian names. You have to take native names. It changed the name of the country and made that up. It changed the name of the currency. Everything was Zaire, Zaire. And it was supposed to be about authenticity and about being African.

So when people would bring up conversation about democracy or freedom, they would say, no, we are Africans, we believe in chiefs. So there are also ways this language about authenticity is very repressive and reactionary in the African context, and in the context of their subjectivity, people would claim the Christian narrative and the African identity discourse. But if you really think about it, you know, Christianity, I mean, we’re dealing with the legacy of colonial sodomy laws, whether we’re talking about the Caribbean or Sub-Saharan Africa, you know, African people never sat down somewhere to decide that, you know, to be gay was a crime. So we don’t even understand the ways we keep the repressive legacy of colonialism and take the lie in the name of identity, African identity or Christianity, pertaining to queer folks. But you see that all of that has to do with repressing freedom and dehumanizing the people and disciplining and controlling queer bodies, in the context of a post-colonial crisis. So the queer subject becomes a scapegoat. I do not understand why people who cannot have jobs, countries where you have civil wars, where the elite is corrupt, all those people come together to chastize the gay and to come up with more repressive bills. So in a very strange and dramatic kind of way, homophobia creates a connection and a link in the context of nationalism, and all of that is bounded on some type of discourse regarding authenticity and African identity.


LG: Hear, hear.


AM: I have a question addressed to Nathalie, but obviously Lewis might well have his own take on it. I wonder if you could talk a bit more about your critique of legal language and what speaking of “the legality of freedom,” allows us to see, think, or do differently? The second question asks whether you want to say anything about whether white people ought to try to see ourselves through the Black gaze? And the final is: Do you have any thoughts on violence being used in order for Black people to secure their freedoms? Over to you, Nathalie.


NE: Lewis, I will let you deal with violence. But I have to say, I’m not sure when it comes down to the ways we have to engage this idea of Blackness, per se, in the legality of language. Everything starts with language. We talk about epistemic violence. There are words that have been constructed in the Western narrative to justify oppression and subjugation. Think about the treaties that Native Americans had to “sign” to give up their lands. Did they know what they were signing? Did we, did they, ask for their agreement or negotiation? There’s just something about the legality of that language that can support and justify any kind of wrongdoing. I think that’s the problem.

What the world tried to do to you is one thing, but then what you do with what the world is trying to do to you is something else.

Think about the Berlin Conference in 1884. You didn’t have a single African person sitting around that table. But people made up, came up with, decisions and they signed some kind of paperwork that gave them right to balkanize Africa. Germany loses World War I. The same people decided, well, Germany has to give up their colonies. So they give Togo and Cameroon to the French and the British. And Cameroon technically was never a colony but a protectorate. Again, it’s the legality of language. What difference does that make for the Cameroon person, whether it’s a colony or a protectorate. I think there are ways we use language, even the language of crimes against humanity. I always talk about this concept with my students. Even the word “genocide.” There’s a language regarding a crime against humanity and genocide that comes out of the Holocaust and World War II. Does that mean that crimes of genocide did not occur before? Or crime wasn’t committed against a human before? Césaire asked that question in Discourse on Colonialism. Are we, he said, talking about crime against man? Or crime against the white man? What he was trying to say is that the issue is not the wording; it’s the recognition you get. Once recognition of your suffering is acknowledged within a certain kind of framework, there is reparation. There is a certain kind of acknowledgment that comes out of that, what I call legality of freedom, of legal language. You can talk about the Native Americans. You can talk about the Africans. You can talk about Armenians. We know there are a lot of genocides that occurred before. But the difference is the lack of recognition.


LG: The term genocide came from Raphael Lemkin when he was analyzing the Armenian situation. He was a Polish Jew, and he didn’t expect it to actually be a situation that would come upon him. He did give a rather great gift by naming the phenomenon. One of the reasons Lemkin did it was because, when he was studying international law, international law in his times basically said that a country could do whatever it wants to its people. As long as a country’s doing it to its own people, people within its jurisdiction, it was legal. Lemkin knew that was ridiculous. So he lobbied to actually push the idea of a crime against humanity, in terms of genocide.

In terms of law, because we have little time, I encourage everyone to look up this word: law fear. It’s the use of law as war. This is very crucial because that’s what the right is doing all across the world. This is exactly what’s happening in the Supreme Court of the United States right now. It’s exactly what’s being done to disenfranchise Black votes. It’s the use of law as a form of war. This gets into a more complicated question about how to make law accountable to something beyond the idea of mere force.

In terms of the question of the Black gaze, the truth is that this is what Fanon noticed that a lot of people missed in Black Skin, White Masks. They thought he was talking about Black people wearing white masks. But he wasn’t. His argument is that white supremacy is white people wearing a mask, the mask of supremacy. It’s a fraud. It’s a lie. In other words, there’s something ridiculous in any human being saying I’m intrinsically superior to any other human being. There’s a reason why Black people were lynched, killed, and all other kinds of killed—things done for looking into the eyes of white, because in those eyes is truth. It reveals the fraud, the lie of white supremacy. This is one of the reasons why there is the fear of Black consciousness—why there are people fighting against critical race theory and all these things. They’re fighting against truth. And truth, as you know, is linked to reality.

One of the biggest fears, and not only in American society, but in any society that is conditioned by white supremacy, is that the society is built upon a lie. In terms of violence, there’s a double standard. Black people are always being asked to be nonviolent for things that white people at the snap of a finger would use violence for. White people don’t stand up for their indignity. But the thing that we have to bear in mind is that colonialism and racism are ongoing systems of violence. The problem is, if you don’t question those systems, if you don’t challenge them, then you’re complicit with violence. The problem is that when you stand up against those systems, you are the one called violence, because that system is treated as legitimate. What Fanon pointed out, and I agree with him, is it’s a waste of time to demonstrate you’re nonviolent. What you should do is be actional. Do something about the violence. Otherwise, violence, dehumanization, will continue.


NE: I’d just like to add something on violence. As I said before sarcastically, I’ve been Black on three different continents. When I think about violence, I just don’t think about white violence against Black bodies. I think about post-colonial violence and dictatorship, the type of violence African dictators inflicted on their own people to repress freedom and the lack of accountability as well. Then I think about coup d’état that keeps on happening in Burkina Faso, in Mali, Guinea, and the ways, at least from the Sub-Saharan post-colonial context, that the question of violence in relation to freedom is very complicated. At first, the people are always happy to see the dictator being removed or disappear. But then they realize that there is a military police state that is also very repressive. Then you have an oligarchy and the creation of a caste system that is also very oppressive.

In the context of Sub-Saharan Africa—and I’m not talking about the nationalist struggle with people like Amílcar Cabral or what happened in Algeria with the FLN, I’m talking about now—the role that violence plays in the context of freedom and oppression is really complicated. It’s shifting from one oppressive government to another. And what happens when military are in power and they’re the ones who can use the violence? They use it in the name of the people, but do they actually free the people? Do they create the condition of freedom? It’s complicated.

But I agree with Lewis. The whole argument about violence is just ridiculous to me. I think that’s a way of silencing Black freedom, because people have moral conversations about violence only when oppressed people want to free themselves. But when they want to take over some other countries because of oil, or even come up with fictious wars, they creative a narrative around it—because they have the power to create a narrative. It’s a lie. It’s also a form of bad faith. But I always say that history, at least from the Western perspective, is built on a lie that becomes the truth only because of violence, epistemic violence, physical violence, and the fact that if you’re trying to challenge it, they will try to repress it. We’re living a lie, but that lie becomes the truth because of violence. I think that’s the problem we have to deal with.