This conversation appears in print in Reclaiming Freedom.
Nathalie Etoke’s Black Existential Freedom (2022) begins with a challenge. “Does the continuous destruction of Black life,” she asks, “invalidate the possibility of freedom?” She finds it difficult to imagine a liberatory politics arising from an “agonizing fixation on oppression.” In her book, she insists there is a different path—one that can imagine collective freedom in the face of domination. To get there, she draws on the Black existentialist tradition, which carries a deep appreciation of the creative power of Black life.
In this recent conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Etoke and Lewis Gordon, professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, discuss Etoke’s book, the distinctiveness of Black existentialist thought, and the necessity of asserting one’s humanity in the face of dehumanization.
Lewis Gordon: To kick things off, Nathalie, can you talk about what you are trying to say in the book?
Nathalie Etoke: I look at the ways we understand freedom, which is usually in political terms. But I think the question goes beyond what I call the “legality of freedom” or the issue of rights. I am also interested in this idea of the inner lives of Black people. I try to point out that if we only look—as Afropessimists do—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 an affirmation of life in the context of oppression for the sake of freedom.
Black freedom is not something that is given; it is fought for—yes, from the perspective of human rights, but also from an existential perspective. How do you define yourself in your own terms? And how do you practice existence in the context of oppression? You constantly have this tension. That’s what I observed—and I’ve been “Black” on three different continents.
LG: So, you’re Black, Black, Black.
NE: I was born in Paris, and I was raised in Cameroon. In Cameroon my racial identity didn’t matter, because everybody is Black—and therefore no one is. That doesn’t mean white supremacy isn’t present in the education and teaching we got, but I saw other people as human beings first.
Fast forward: I moved to France, I’m eighteen and go to college—that is when I become “Black.” But what does that mean? It means becoming a minority: encountering the white gaze, and also epistemic violence. I started to read Frantz Fanon in my early twenties and was struck by his writings on the burden of constantly engaging the idea that the white world has of you, which has nothing to do with who you are.
But fast forward again: I moved to the United States in July 2001, and I discovered this rich library with all these Black thinkers talking about Blackness, not just in terms of an antagonizing of yourself with the white world, but also 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.
Take the spirituals, which are not just about God. They are about liberation and assessing your humanity, declaring that you’re a child of God when people say you’re not. Or look at how people talk about slavery. Often it’s theorized in global, somewhat abstract, terms. But I’m interested in thinking about slavery as an experience a human being goes through. 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, had 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 inform my perspective.
What makes Black existentialism very unique, I think, is 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 or America today, I ask: What is there that makes their exclusion unique?
LG: I think the Afropessimists completely distort what Fanon actually said—that “the Black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man.” He is not saying that Black people lack ontological resistance at all. They confuse the title of his book. 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 how white people need to believe that Black people have no ontological resistance. That’s why he said, “in the eyes of the white man.” 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.
NE: That’s why I start my 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? To me, this is the fundamental tension we need to address: that you must define the value of your life despite its being constantly devalued. You need to have another way of looking at who you are that goes beyond the dehumanization you encounter.
LG: Why Black existentialism? How does Black existentialism get at these questions?
NE: It’s very simple. Black people of African descent are part of the world, but we’re also excluded from it. We live in a reality that we did not create. But there we are; we have to exist. And we have to find a way to exist and be free.
Of course, this is also the human condition. You don’t choose the historical and political circumstances under which you’re born, no matter your racial background. But I think racism is like the icing on the cake—an unnecessary suffering that you didn’t choose. And that’s why I come to this idea of existence. 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? This struggle is both existential and material; it is political, philosophical, economic. Many issues 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.
At the end of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon asks the following question: “Was my freedom not given to me then in order to build the world of the You?” This entails a kind of interrelationality that 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 the language, 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, and the condition of being human from that perspective, it really changes the conversation.
LG: I think that really summarizes it beautifully. It also resists reductionism. There are multiple challenges raised by the emergence of the category of Black, because a lot of the people we called Black were not historically Black—and the people we call white, they were not historically white. They became such.
But there’s something else in Black existentialism 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. Or Ali Shariati, the Iranian philosopher. You also see it in a lot of African thought. The point of all this critique is that reality is not simply about things. It’s more than that.
NE: What you say about commodification is very important. Think about how we engage the issue of identity today—it’s who you are, instead of the relationship you have with other people. It doesn’t mean that the relationship is easy. But we need to go about building the relationship, instead of just talking about who you are from this perspective that commodifies you as a subject.
Then, this notion of freedom. The Western narrative of freedom is self-redemptive. Some people were 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. You cannot address that freedom without discussing the dispossession of land, the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of people of African descent. So maybe we need to decolonize freedom to come up with something else. I think that’s why Fanon is very useful when he talks about “inventivity”—what we need to create.
LG: We’re talking about the question of everyday life, right? 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 here.
NE: In my 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 is the ways you resist white supremacy, not necessarily because you’re trying to challenge or dismantle it, but because you know you’re a human being, and you’re going about your life on a regular basis. Those two forces are not mutually exclusive.
LG: There are many Black people who don’t have white people in our heads. 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. We need to get away from these very distorted, ultimately bourgeois ways of thinking about Blackness.
The fact is that most Black people do not spend a lot of our lives 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? Even in the Bronx growing up, my family, my relatives, and I, we weren’t running around trying to figure out if we could be like white people. We saw the beauty in one another.
NE: I think you are maybe also talking about the working class. Class informs the way we have these conversations. In the last chapter of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon talks about the fact that intellectual alienation is a creation of middle-class society. He calls the middle class “a closed society in which life has no taste, in which the air is tainted, in which ideas and men are corrupt.”
Also, when we talk about Afropessimism, especially in academia, just listen to the language. People talk about “Black bodies.” Of course, I understand why the focus could be on bodies—when you think about violence and police brutality, or how people respond to the physicality of Black being. But then at the same time, what happens when we shift the conversation, and instead talk about Black people? That’s what I would rather do.
A related tendency is to assume there is some kind of essential Blackness. I am one of those people who absolutely reject authenticity discourses. A human being is basically not a complete notion, but an open possibility. 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 queer, but what goes on is a project to de-queer or to close off the possibilities of humanity in such a way that people can fit into paradigms of authenticity.
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.
You also have to think about the ways the idea of authenticity has been used and abused in the context of oppression and dictatorship. I study this in my work on sub-Saharan Africa. Take Mobutu Sese Seko, the former president of what is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He called the country Zaire. He changed the name of the currency to the Zaire as well. People had to change their names to reject Christian names. You had to take native names. And it was all supposed to be about authenticity and about being African.
But when people would bring up conversations about democracy or freedom, Mobutu would say, no, we are Africans, we believe in chiefs. So, there are also ways this language about authenticity can be very repressive and reactionary in the African context. If you really think about it, postcolonial African identity has incorporated the legacy of colonial sodomy laws, whether we’re talking about the Caribbean or sub-Saharan Africa. African people never sat down somewhere to decide that being gay was a crime—it was installed by their countries’ respective colonial governments.
We don’t even understand the ways we keep the repressive legacy of colonialism and take the lie in the name of African identity or Christianity. But all of that has to do with repressing freedom and dehumanizing the people and disciplining and controlling queer bodies, in the context of a postcolonial crisis. The queer subject becomes a scapegoat. In a very strange and tragic kind of way, homophobia creates a connection between the oppressive ruling class, the clergy, and pauperized populations, in the context of nationalism.
LG: Hear, hear. I have one last thought for you, on the relationship between freedom and violence. One of the biggest fears in any society conditioned by white supremacy is that the society will be exposed as being built upon a lie: the double standard of violence. Black people are always being asked to be nonviolent for things that white people at the snap of a finger would use violence for. We have to bear in mind that colonialism and racism, too, 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. But when you stand up against those systems, you are the one called violent, because that system is treated as legitimate. Fanon pointed out—and I agree with him here—that it’s a waste of time to demonstrate that you’re nonviolent. Do something about the violence. Otherwise, violence and dehumanization will continue.
NE: When I think about violence, I don’t just think about white violence against Black people. I think about postcolonial 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 coups d’état that keep on happening in Burkina Faso, in Mali, in Guinea, and the ways, at least from the sub-Saharan postcolonial 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 National Liberation Front, 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 the military is 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?
But I agree with you. The whole argument about violence is just a way of silencing freedom, because people have moral conversations about violence only when oppressed people want to free themselves. But when the powerful want to take over some other countries because of oil, or even come up with fictitious wars, they create a narrative around the violence they use to realize their interests—because they have the power to do so. It’s a lie. It’s also a form of bad faith. We’re living a lie, but that lie becomes the truth because of violence. If you try to challenge it—if you try to break free of the lie—they will try to repress the truth. I think that’s the problem we have to deal with.
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