Black and Light

Sometimes I allow myself to just read what comes along on the internet, through some reference, it might be coincidental, and read. Read, click, read. So this was the string of events: three days ago I met my nice colleague from the history section, Dienke Hondius, whom I had not seen for some time, so we talk about what’s new. Not much earlier I had seen that there would be a presentation of her new book on Blackness in Europe, which I hope to attend. She told me she was also one of the initiators, or organizers, I don’t remember it exactly, of the ‘slavery history walks’ in Amsterdam of which I had heard. On these guided tours one is taken along places in our capital that mark the Netherlands’ involvement in the slave trade and the slave business in general. And she said something about a map.

So I googled the map. It shows where in Amsterdam slave owners lived. These were only owners, mostly, who had their investments overseas and reaped the benefits, without their own physical involvement. I must say I could not repress the urge to look if there were any of my ancestors on the list of names on the side, as those from father’s side were living right there, in the Amsterdam centre, back then, and were involved in trade. They were not, but some were in financial business, so they most probably benefited from the colonial situation anyway. Then, following some link somewhere, I landed on that blog which you might have seen some time, or not, where it is claimed that Beethoven was black. After reading the article I continued with reading the discussion below the several year old post, which had persisted through the years. The discussion got my interest.

It showed a perfect and deep confusion over the terms of debate. Mostly between European readers and Americans. These groups of readers, say from the ‘public’ (no specialists in critical race studies or in black history or other relevant fields) insist on exclusive conceptions of ethnicity or ‘race’. They went on, comment after comment, endlessly, without reaching any common ground. The ‘Europeans’ would stress the mixed ancestry of all their peoples, with large influx of Huns, Moorish Spaniards, Turks, and other, say, ‘non-blond’ peoples, and wouldn’t want to bother about Beethoven being black or anything. Race doesn’t exist, biologically, so socially it is not important either, was their bottom line. The Americans referred of course to practices from slavery times, especially after the slave trade had come to an end, when mixed offspring would always be named black, to ensure the procreation of new slaves (when necessary ‘produced’ by slave masters raping their female slaves themselves). To Jim Crow (segregation) laws, which categorized anyone with ‘one drop’ of African blood as black.

In the end, the ‘American’ discourse is, referring always to history, politically inspired. The European one sees itself as more ‘scientific’, objective, and neutral in a political sense. Here, however, it becomes interesting. As the work of a historian like Dienke Hondius aims to show, the traces of the same history lie also on European soil. Looking into them might help to understand some of the blind spots in European culture. We do not share the American history in the sense that ‘our’ slave owners just did their jobs over here, or drank their tea with friends, with most of them not coming into contact with the ugly details of the business. This might explain the bewilderment of so many Dutch when outsiders consider their ‘blackface Pete’ a racist phenomenon. There is much resistance to enter a common ground for debate, as it showed in the ‘Beethoven’ commentaries.

Still there is, to my view, a lot to learn for the European side. Not just with respect to our present society, and the silent racism that disturbs many social relations, but also with respect to the self-understanding of European culture. Michel Foucault is the one who did much groundbreaking work to this respect, especially in his longstanding dialogue with Kantian philosophy. In his Birth of the Clinic he writes that the medicinal gaze that took hold in the late eigtheenth century meant a revolution over against the belief in Enlightenment, for the concreteness which with bodies were now studied showed ‘powers of truth that they owe not to light, but to the slowness of the gaze that passes over them, around them, and gradually into them.’ The gaze thus bestows light, instead of believing in it as an independent faculty of reason.

In another sense this gaze characterizes the social and political history that Foucault exercised himself. In an essay on Kant’s essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’, Foucault’s approach to the program of light, which he called an ethos of permanent criticique of our historical era, shows there in his definition of critical research. It is ‘no longer going to be practiced in the search for formal structures with universal value, but rather as a historical investigation into the events that have led us to constitute ourselves and to recognize ourselves as subjects of what we are doing, thinking, saying. In that sense, this criticism is not transcendental, and its goal is not that of making a metaphysics possible: it is genealogical in its design and archaeological in its method.’ Research into Europe’s relation to blackness is one of the significant instances of the search for light in the 21st centure.

  1. Hi Angela, that was really interesting! Thanks! I think you are absolutely right that there is a lot of confusion through different and overlapping discourses (especially if you compare the US and Europe). I think it is helpful to distinguish at least two confusions:

    First, it is important to recognize different uses of “race” as a social and as a biological concept. For example, in Germany you can’t claim that races exist without outing yourself as a racist or as conceptually confused. The reason is that “Rasse” means “groups of humans with important biological differences” and you simply cannot use “Rasse” in a non-biological way. In the US, race as a social reality is ubiquitous. As the saying goes: “Tell a black man who is trying to hail a cab that race isn’t real” I completely agree with your point that Europeans have something to learn here. Even if the attempt eliminate race talk in many European languages is motivated by an anti-racist stance, there is the real danger of silencing racialized experiences due to linguistic norms. I think it is instructive for Europeans to look at US debates about “color-blindness” and attempts of the American right to claim that race “doesn’t matter anymore”

    Second, there is also a lot of confusion about “race” as biological concept. When I moved to the US, I was really confused that some American scientists (and philosophers) are willing to treat race as a biological reality even if they have strong anti-racist beliefs. These “race realists” argue that there is real human biological variation even if the differences in geno- & phenotype are much more superficial than assumed in the tradition of “European race science”. An interesting comparative study (biomedical researchers in the U.S. vs Israel) on this has been published by Snait Gissis Here, I share the intuition of most contemporary European and Israeli (and also many American) scientists that we are not going to gain anything from calling fuzzy and biologically rather superficial populations “races”. By conceptualizing human biological variation in terms of “races” we simply seem to create an unnecessary space for misunderstanding & misuse.

    PS have you been to the ‘slavery history walks’? I’m really interested in them
    PPS When is the presentation of Dienke Hondius’ book or have I already missed it?

  2. Thanks, David, for your knowledgeable and interesting comment! Your taking part in the research on that topic in those two countries adds valuable information. Thanks again.

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