Last year, long before covid happened, for the first time I taught the bachelor course designed to ‘diversify’ Philosophy. I posted about the experience here. This year the first group (we have two language programs in Philosophy at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) had its classes in November and December. Its format, with presentations, self study assignments and paper writing, seemed to balance some of the loss of direct contact, and it was amazing how most students remained active during the long sessions with discussions. But maybe it was not my course design, but just their passion for learning, or their talent, that made this course so wonderful to teach.
The end papers generally were of a very high quality too. A few of them stood out by the fact that they were not only well-written, showed independent research in combination with a good grasp of the study material, but also an original focus. I asked these students if I could give their paper a bit more exposure on my blog, and all agreed. So the coming weeks you will find their papers here, a longer read than my usual blog post, but I think worthwhile.
The first piece is by Anastasia Khairova. The minimal requirements were for the students to refer to one or two of the texts read in the course and add their own questions and further readings and combine them to an essay of max. 3000 words. The course texts here mentioned were of Charles Mills and Frantz Fanon. Anastasia focused however mainly on the recent, French language work of Norman Ajari, thus introducing its content to an English language audience. Here is her essay:
Conceptualising a Black Ontology (by Anastasia Khairova)
But African, or more precisely, Blackness, refers to an individual who is by definition always already void of relationality. Thus modernity marks the emergence of a new ontology because it is an era in which an entire race appears, people who, a priori, that is prior to the contingency of the ‘transgressive act’ … stand as socially dead in relation to the rest of the world. — Frank B. Wilderson, 2010
Racism and anti-blackness shape the dominant Western culture on such profound levels that it would be impossible to discuss in just one essay. Instead, this essay will attempt to focus on the most dire consequences of white supremacy on the inner condition of black people, and discuss how white supremacy through its three prongs — the political, moral and epistemological hegemony perpetually stunts self-actualisation of non-white people and limits the understanding of oneself as a relational being, both inside black communities and in relation to white people. A black ontology would then serve as a unified body of philosophical thought aimed at decolonising the current understanding of being, analyse the impacts of white supremacy on self-development of non-white people and encourage self-actualisation in a white supremacist system, ultimately leading to its overthrow. Such an ontology is in need of constant reworking and supplementation, as it would rely on deconstruction of the false epistemology of white supremacy and therefore be heavily based on revising history as well as unlearning the effects of racism. A project by francophone philosopher Norman Ajari undertakes a similar, although not nearly as extensive task of decolonising philosophy in order to understand the problem of recognition, which he sees as central for a black ontology; he draws upon African philosophy to create a political and ethical system of black thought as a counterbalance to white supremacy.
The system responsible for the need for a black ontology in the first place is that of white supremacy. Charles Mills discusses the composition of the system of white supremacy in depth, describing how the white race came to dominate and impose a political, moral and epistemological hegemony which not only subjugated and dehumanised non-white people, but also stunted the growth of their culture and prevented self-actualisation in a way that was allowed for whites (Mills 16). Mills introduces a philosophical concept of a social contract between whites, titled the Racial Contract, which encompasses different ways of white supremacy operating in a society. The political aspect of the contract concerns itself with the origins of government and the political obligations of citizens (Mills 9). The moral contract is a foundation of the moral code established for a society, and the epistemological aspect of the contract prescribes an inverted epistemology characterised by ignorance and cognitive dysfunctions (Mills 10). Mills writes that white misunderstanding and self-deceptions on the matters of race is a pervasive mental phenomena that tries to hold together the system of white supremacy. To conceive of a black ontology, there needs to be a new outlook on the political, moral and epistemological aspects of white supremacist reality as to challenge the established view created by the Racial Contract.
Norman Ajari, in his work La dignité ou la mort: Ethique et politique de la race aims at adopting an afro-decolonial perspective in order to “make it the starting point of a new ethical approach inspired by the Africana philosophy” (Ajari 20). At the heart of Africana philosophy and the decolonial project is the reality of struggle for recognition of black people — Ajari identifies the struggle for or in dignity as the central issue to address. He chooses to discuss three notions of dignity that marked their times — Giovanni Pico della Mirandola of the Renaissance, Immanuel Kant who shaped the German Enlightenment and contemporary Jürgen Habermas. Ajari sees dignity as the image that Europe wanted to give itself, and therefore finds it essential to study how the concept of dignity developed.
While in the classical era, dignitas referred to the social standing of an individual, the Renaissance presented a new humanist outlook on dignity as self actualisation in autonomy and ontological solitude. The Romans viewed dignitas as a societal function — although the word does not have a direct English translation, it referred to the amount of influence and reputation a Roman citizen acquired throughout his life. Humanism radically transformed the concept of dignity, encouraging individuals to pursue the goal of enlightenment, and the Church reappropriated the Latin dignitas to be associated with Christian celestial hierarchy found in Heaven. Mirandola in his book Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) draws a distinction between the concept of dignity and the Latin notion of dignitas — Ajari believes that through discussing dignity, Mirandola radicalised the hierarchy entailed in dignitas, thus enforcing the opposition between the human and the inhuman. Through this division, Mirandola unknowingly introduced anthropological foundations of colonisation through making a distinction between divine humans and animal beings. Ajari gives an example of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which the face of humanism, the mage Prospero, is contrasted with his slave Caliban, a savage monster. The distinction between human and non-human resulting from Mirandola’s analysis will give power to the white man over others in a colonial context.
Deification of European humans allowed thinkers like Kant to introduce philosophical systems which discussed dignity without including Africans in his idea of personhood. Although Kant did not have a Manichean view of opposition between the demonic and the divine, he instead thought of a minority, characterised by laziness and cowardice opposed to a majority characterised by reason. This is a harsh juxtaposition with Kantian ethics, which aim to protect the inherent worth of every human and are against using anyone as a means instead of an end in itself. And yet, it is in the name of the dignity that Europe judged the black existence abject, desired the disappearance of their lifestyles and insisted on a civilizing mission (Ajari 54).
Habermas takes a less abstract position on dignity and advocates for regaining an ethical dimension of dignity in addition of a legal one in the framework of a state. He argues that contemporary liberal democracies should guarantee dignity through norms and institutions of European nations, and ensure dignity for all members of said state through constitutionally enshrined rights. Ajari identifies a tension here between those who see European liberalism as the right arena to express that dignity and those who are threatened by that framework — state monopolisation of dignity cannot protect those on the margins or stifle human suffering.
Ajari rounds off by discussing the dark side of modernity that has been glazed over by Western philosophers — although philosophers such as Horkheimer and Adorno wrote extensively on the negative consequences of the Enlightenment, they did not reflect on the consequences of colonisation or slavery. Ajari also uses the example of Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero who studied the subject of contemporary violence and, inspired by Arendt, developed the concept of ‘horrorism’ as a negation of human dignity. In her work, the example of Auschwitz is used as the epitome of the crimes of Europe and as the main paradigm of horrorism. The use of Auschwitz as the culmination of radical political violence is common, and Ajari highlights how the massacres of Native Americans or the transatlantic slave trade are hidden from the public eye and hardly discussed.
After addressing the ethical and historical aspects of white supremacy through the notion of dignity, Ajari addresses the political side of the system. As asserted by several black thinkers, most notably Fanon, life without dignity leads to a necessary politicisation of being. In his work Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon analyses the life of black people in a system of white supremacy, a colonised world — a life confined to a system that has through generations shaped the mode of thinking in black people. For the most ardent racists, the mere existence of a black person is a provocation: it follows then that in such a world, all of black existence is politicised. Ajari echoed Fanon’s statements: “Unworthy is black life, in the form of death, imposed by a world founded on white supremacy; the Negro philosopher himself can only appear as a learned monkey” (Ajari 100). Ajari highlights with this quote how his work as a contemporary philosopher is undervalued and ignored. He understands that only the decolonial approach can showcase the variety of experiences and political constructions of the marginalised, which is why he engages with many primary sources of slaves and black revolutionaries in European colonies of the 19th century. Drawing inspiration from many forgotten texts of historical figures, Ajari showcases his commitment to the complex process of decolonisation.
Ajari elaborates on the space between life and death which he sees as characterising the black experience — he uses the term ‘forme-de-mort’ which could best be translated as a form-in-death, an existence on the borderline. This parallels the thinking of American philosopher Jared Sexton, who asserts that ‘black life is lived in social death’ (Sexton 24). Walcott sees black social death as a necessary criterion for European project of modernity — humanness has been consistently defined against black people, excluding them from the category of ‘a life’ and creating an existence marked by social death (Walcott 93). Only through what Walcott calls a pure decolonial project can black existence leave the liminal space between life and death and bring an end to European rule (Walcott 104). Ajari asserts that through politicisation of suffering that the struggle for dignity was first established: the next step is the implementation of an ethics of dignity.
Ajari discusses black theology and music as an external politicisation of the struggle for dignity — black Christianity and black churches have provided gathering spaces, information, and a space to express desire for emancipation. Fanon chastises the missionaries who went on pilgrimages in Africa and affirms them as (cultural) colonisers, but in many places in Africa or later, in the United States, Christian churches have been a privileged place for the affirmation of black dignity (Fanon 7). Christianity was the religion of the masters, legitimising the ‘civilizing mission’ of Europe, but it also became the religion of the oppressed, that which called for revolt and independence. Ajari shows how a black theology was built in order to “awaken the dignity of Afro-descendants, to restore their confidence in their individual being in their collective struggle against oppression”. Another instance of external politicisation is seen in black musical practices of jazz, blues and more recently, genres such as hip-hop. Musical expression helped testify to the racial oppression and struggle while the blues and soul music became inseparable from the Church, as it combined self expression with prayer.
After analysing the historical and political aspects of white supremacy, Ajari finally turns to introduce a new moral outlook and an ethical philosophy crucial for the establishment of a black ontology. He aims to revive African philosophical theories to introduce a new concept of dignity, separate from Western thought, which would allow for the liberation of the black race. Ajari draws from Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, a Cameroonian philosopher who worked on the hermeneutics of Muntu, and from Desmond Tutu, a South African theologian who popularised Ubuntu philosophy. The concept of Muntu, meaning ‘human being’ in Bantu languages, highlights the relationality of the individual. This relationality of humanness is seen in the term Ubuntu, also a Bantu concept meaning ‘humanity’, which could alternatively be translated as ‘I am because we are’. For Ajari, this undermines Kant’s conception of dignity — dignity is not found in an individual, it is not a sovereign subject without external relations. Dignity of Ubuntu is not abstract, and instead is found in relationships between individuals and their histories. The ethics that Ajari is proposing is based on community and respect, as well as understanding the deeper connectedness of all individuals. Ajari writes: “to restore the dignity of a human being, to reestablish it in Ubuntu, to allow him to regain his quality of Muntu, is to allow him to deploy and weave again all the reports that terrible violence suffered or committed made impossible.” (Ajari 227).
After carefully considering three prongs of the system of white supremacy, Ajari can turn to the creation of a black political ontology, which he sees as the exit of the black being from the non-being zone in which he is confined. Fanon spoke how every ontology is made unattainable in a colonised society — the colonised are seen as a flaw that does not have an ontological explanation. Ontology does not permit the understanding of a black man; he can only be black in relation to the white (Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 110). This creates the life suspended in death that Ajari has referenced throughout his work, and now turns to reform. He returns to the question of recognition and applies it to the current treatment of migrants in Europe, which he sees to be enduring comparable treatment to the postcolonial migrants from the former Caribbean colonies. The migrant is stripped of all dignity, their life is seen as ‘disposable’ — Ajari believes that European treatment of migrants stems from a racialised conception of nationality. Negrophobia has become the universal language of racism, and thus black struggle can become a universal refuge for all victims of xenophobia (Ajari 281).
A black political ontology needs to show the opposition between being and non-being, between life and death, between White and Black. To think of a black political ontology is to conceive of a subject originally constituted by violence, born in dehumanisation and inscribed in a history of exclusion. In colonialism, the black being was perceived as a slave, devoid of freedom and dignity — it was an experience of negation. The phrase ‘black dignity’ marks an exit to defy this negation. “Black dignity is not the rejection of death, but the power of survival which springs from the very bottom of death, and the power of the dead which affects life” (Ajari 304). The importance of Ajari’s philosophical work lies in the fact that the sees the black condition, as a form of unworthiness, not only through purely theoretical elements, but incorporates lived experiences as well. Dignity cannot be purely theoretical. Through the relational understanding of Ubuntu, the newly created black ontology can surpass the dichotomy of Black and White and move towards a world of shared dignity.
In trying to find a way to the creation of a new ontology that is egalitarian and anti-racist, this essay has retraced the necessary steps of decolonisation of the most important aspects of white supremacy, namely its historical, ethical, epistemological and political hegemony which has perpetually stunted the growth and development of black cultures and communities. Through the lens of dignity, philosopher Norman Ajari analysed the false epistemology and history of white supremacy, the impacts of its political dominion and the generational changes to the inner lifeworld of black people. By creating a basic framework of what a black ontology should contain, Ajari opens up the path to self-actualisation and breaking away from the chains of white supremacy, as well as a fresh vision of what a post-racist world should strive towards.
Ajari, Norman. La Dignité Ou La Mort: Éthique Et Politique De La Race. La Découverte, 2019.
Cavarero, Adriana, and William McCuaig. Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence. Columbia University Press, 2011.
Fanon, Frantz. “The Fact of Blackness.” Black Skin, White Masks, Grove Press, 2008, pp. 109–40.
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Mills, Charles W. “Overview.” The Racial Contract, Cornell University Press, 1997, pp. 1–19.
Sexton, Jared. “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism.” InTensions, 2011, http://www.yorku.ca/intent/issue5/articles/jaredsexton.php.
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Walcott, Rinaldo. “The Problem of the Human: Black Ontologies and ‘the Coloniality of Our Being’.” Postcoloniality – Decoloniality – Black Critique: Joints and Fissures, edited by Sabine Broeck and Carsten Junker, Campus Verlag, 2015, pp. 93–105.
Zoungrana, Jean. “Norman Ajari, La Dignité Ou La Mort. Éthique Et Politique De La Race.” Questions De Communication, Presses Universitaires De Nancy, 15 Nov. 2020, journals.openedition.org/questionsdecommunication/22683.