Blackness as a Pedagogic Tool Against the Dishonesty of a Post-Racial Teleology.

Author:Graves, Kelisha B.
Position:Critical essay


The nineteenth century is best summarized as the era in which Black thinkers defined their lives according to the idea that race could be a positive value in human relationships while also simultaneously condemning racism and advocating for racial equality. The idea that race was a value that could be positively conserved in human relationships was understood in the nineteenth century as race conservation (Curry, 2009a; DuBois, 1995[1897]). Under this logic, it was believed that each race (or folk) had its own unique soul (Dubois, 1903, 1995[1897]). However, nineteenth century white thinkers and Black thinkers deployed the discourse of race conservation toward disparate agendas. Whereas nineteenth century white thinkers like Samuel Morton, Herbert Spencer, and Louis Agassiz saw the conservation of race as white supremacy and maintained that it was the global duty of the white race to guide the darker races of the world into a more civilized existence (Jackson and Weidman, 2005/2006; Menand, 2001/2002), African American thinkers like Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Delany, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Alexander Crummell offered an alternative race theory that defined the conservation of race as equality. In other words, since historical events had fragmented human beings into various nation-groups and since each nation-group developed different traits and gifts, each group, therefore, had something unique to offer and as such were equals. In other words, the contributions that Asians offered would be fundamentally different from the contributions that Africans offered, and so on.

The works of Anna Julia Cooper and W.E.B. Du Bois perhaps best typify the conservationist race theory generated by nineteenth century Black thinkers. Cooper (1998[1892a]) maintained that each race had what she called "sui generis" (134) or a uniqueness. She wrote: "Each race has its badge, its exponent, its message, branded in the forehead by the great Master's hand which is its own peculiar keynote, and its contribution to the harmony of nations" (Cooper, 1998[1892b], 122). W.E.B. Du Bois maintained that each race (or folk) had its own distinct spirit or soul, which he defined as its special message to the world. It was the responsibility of each race, Du Bois (1995[1897]) wrote, "to develop for civilization its particular message, its particular ideal, which shall help to guide the world nearer and nearer to that perfection of human life for which we all long... This has been the function of race differences up to the present time." (23). The conservationist race theory of Cooper and Du Bois reveal that Black thinkers did not presuppose that American progress necessitated the elimination of race, race pride, or racial identification. In other words, progress did not signify a movement toward the death of race. To the contrary, progress meant both the conservation of race as a positive value in human relationships and the eradication of racism as evidence of society's maturity toward equality.

The idea that race must be eliminated from contemporary parlance is exclusively the obsession of the twenty-first century's post-structuralist trend toward anti-essentialism. As previously noted, whereas the prevailing consensus of nineteenth century intellectuals was toward to the conservation of race, their twenty-first century successors are heavily inclined toward the opinion that race is an anachronism that prevents human beings from harmonizing into a utopian form of non-racial living. The movement to eliminate race is known as racial eliminativism (Curry, 2009b). Racial eliminativism, in its utopian form, is the state of non-racial being and living (Curry, 2009b; Appiah, 2005; 2006). The state of non-racial being and living will be defined in this study as the post-racial. The idealized hope toward that ideal is what this author refers to the dishonesty of a post-racial teleology.

Kwame Antony Appiah (2005; 2006) is most notable for his liberal humanism and his idea that race as the pretext for identity is both apocryphal and anachronistic. In Appiah's view, the very concept of race nullifies the potential for individuals to understand themselves as global citizens in a world community (Appiah 2005, 2006). Appiah's argument that human beings must discard the concept of race in deference to cosmopolitanism as the moral teleology of humanism (while recognizing that there are different ways of being human) is grounded in the fact that race is a social construct, and therefore irrelevant as a biological or scientific justification for identity (Appiah 2005, 2006; Sussman, 2016). Even if we recognize that race is a social construct, there can be no gainsaying of the fact that race and the reality of racism have real material implications on the lives of people labelled as non-white.

To define racism as merely a system of prejudice or discrimination would prove too narrow. This author defines racism as the systematic movement of non-white peoples toward nonexistence (otherwise codified as death, disposal, and inferiority). Race, or the ethnological organization of people groups into hierarchies that privilege whiteness and its intermediaries over Blackness and its variations, has been the existential anxiety of darker people since the conquest of the New World.

To attempt to discuss the issue of race and racism is to both grapple with an ideological value and an existential question. Even if American Revolutionists like Thomas Jefferson regarded equality as fundamental to constitutional writ, as George Frederickson (2002) states, "social inequality based on birth was the general rule among Europeans themselves" (54). Considering the fact that Europeans arrived to the New World with established notions of natural inequality based on birth, it is not difficult to understand how displaced African people and indigenous folks were inevitably labelled as what Sylvia Wynter (1994, 2003) referred to as the non-human Other in contrast to the European Man. The author maintains, then, that the obsession with the post-racial represents the urgency to exorcise the lexicon of race from contemporary parlance. Under this logic, post-racialism is taken to not only be a philosophy of reconciliation, but the prioritization of racial amelioration as the moral obligation of the present era. The ameliorationist trend (the extreme embodiment of which is racial eliminativism) relies on a certain historiography of progress to justify the idea of America as inevitably progressive and by default no longer racist. James Loewen's texts, Lies My Teacher Told Me (2007) and Teaching What Really Happened (2009) expertly demonstrate how K-12 history textbooks include both the facts and fictions necessary to induce uncritical patriotism and notions of Western exceptionalism.

The assumption that the past events we study are merely the series of events...

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