Black reason eludes definition. As a concept, it betrays a commonsense understanding that might seek to take meaning from either of its two constituent parts. Here, Black neither designates a particular subject of African or African-diasporic ancestry, nor does it modify reason as an adjectival indication of rational agency. As it is critically conceived by Cameroonian postcolonial political theorist and philosopher Achille Mbembe, Black reason is the animus of the fantasy of whiteness, a constellation of desires and fears that gave lie to the anti-Black cultural imaginary of modernity and therefore also to the necropolitical configurations of power in the colony, plantation, and postcolony. Black reason is a way of knowing that triangulates modern concepts of identity, humanity, and relationality by appealing to the surd of race, of Blackness as the antipode of whiteness. The conceit of Black reason has been to obfuscate its contrivance and appear as a seemingly natural ratio by which Western powers might order society, politics, life, and death. Yet as Vincent Lloyd notes, by positing the critique of Black reason in metaphysical terms, Mbembe challenges critical race studies and its subdisciplines to go beyond the register of racial “logics” as social realities to the realm of symbol and meaning.
Lloyd suggests there is much that commends the religious, especially the Christian tradition, to Mbembe’s critique. Above all, Mbembe values the critical potential of Christian epistemes to contest the symbolic power of Black reason. Yet there is an aporia in Mbembe’s thought which does not consider the mutual formation of race and religion. As a political theorist and philosopher, and not a theologian, Mbembe is hardly to be faulted. For that matter, there have been a number of recent theological works that consider the relationship between race and religion, such as Kelly Brown Douglas’ Stand Your Ground (2015).
Yet this effort can be bolstered further by elucidating the cooptation of Black reason by Christianity and its subsequent coarticulation with the white theological imaginary. I suggest that what Mbembe expresses in the Lacanian psychoanalytic registers of the imaginary and symbolic, namely, the fantasy of whiteness that animates Black reason, is akin to what James Cone named the white condition (1970) and to what Emilie Townes named the fantastic hegemonic imagination (2006). To be clear, Mbembe writes from an African-centric, postcolonial perspective, and Cone and Townes from a U.S. American, theological one. Yet I hope that by reading Mbembe, Cone, and Townes in light of one another, I can identify the intercalation of racial and religious imaginaries that constitute a necropolitical theology, what W.E.B. Du Bois called the religion of whiteness. Finally, I will make some modest suggestions as to how one might abandon the madness of Black reason for the light of Blackness.
Black Reason – Achille Mbembe
Following the global traces of half-lives lived under the aegis of necropolitical power and inscribed violently in a discursive postcolonial social imaginary leads Mbembe to the Critique of Black Reason (2017).Black reason is the tensive field of race discourse in Western modernity that subtends the officious historico-political discourse of reason, truth, and freedom inside of which a struggle over the power to narrate and administrate human existence is fought. For Mbembe, as for his interlocutor, Foucault, race canalizes the aporia of difference between oneself and the other internal to the state. The construal of the “racial” other as the polluted and polluting Other, not simply as a distinct “I” but as a perpetual Enemy who threatens the very existence of the national subject and the purity of the race, in turn legitimizes a politics of death by identifying the “raced” Other as a threat. This identification subsequently justifies their dehumanization and extermination.
Yet the critique of Black reason sharpens the blunted Foucauldian discourse of race while simultaneously ironizing the political virtues (“reason”) of modernity. Black reason narrows on Africa, white fantasy, and Blackness as primary critical loci. Against the interpretation of rationality as the singular epistemological category of Western political modernity, Mbembe’s critique of Black reason reveals the fantastical repository from which Europe, initially, drew their anti-Black racist symbols. This critique subsequently exposes the social-political imagination that thrives on the ideological aporetic that this specific race discourse constitutes. Mbembe articulates Black reason in the Lacanian psychoanalytic register of the imaginary and the symbolic as a “discourse of incantation,”a distortion of the symbolic first circulated by hegemonic colonialist powers as a shoddy rationale for African colonization. But this imaginary did not die with post-WWII postcolonial upheavals.
This racial imaginary, a tentacle-like extension of a symbolic field of meaning, has become a perennial repository from which neo-colonizing powers draw in order to justify a politics of death that, even today, inscribes Africa and Africans in a relation of enmity with the so-called First World. Black reason distorts relationality by perpetually inscribing subjectivity in the dehumanizing fantasy of whiteness, keeping anti-Blackness alive as a global social-political nomos. Black reason, one might say, is the operative surd underlying Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write About Africa” (2019), which satirizes how Africa and Africans are inscribed and reinscribed in the white imaginary. Black reason imagines Africa and Africans with simultaneous authority and perplexity, perpetually stagnant and dynamic, backwards and radical, exquisitely rich and woefully indigent, fecund and decaying.
It is a mistake to think that Black reason is autonomous. Anti-Blackness is not self-perpetuating; it does not have a life of its own, propagating itself like some monad. Instead, as Barbara and Karen Fields might argue, as an ideology Black reason is re/circulated as the animus of everyday social imaginaries, the topographies according to which one traverses quotidian existence. The fantasy of whiteness is carried along by those for whom it constitutes a propitious existence, who articulate a discourse that occults the real, white racist supremacy, and points instead to the imaginary and symbolic, to race as a primordial relation of enmity destined to eternally plague us with the force of ontological insuperability.
Black reason was reinforced in modernity through its cooptation by Christianity. This unity, I suggest, has produced a necropolitical theological imaginary. In the 15th-16th centuries, Christians bent their faith to consecrate the fantasy of whiteness, which provided a seductive raison d’être for a purportedly natural, divinely-ordained ontocratic hierarchy. The Church permitted enslavement of non-Christian “pagans” so long as these lost souls were, eventually, evangelized, and relieved from what Europeans perceived to be remediable idolatry and base instinct. Once converted, they must be freed. But as dependence on enslaved labor grew in tandem with Christian colonization of the Caribbean and the Americas, so too did the need to justify slavery as a permanent condition. Efforts at evangelization and conversion were made, if at all, in bad faith, a calculated religious compromise for geopolitical hegemony. European Christian colonizers used Black reason as an ir/rationale to maintain the transatlantic slave trade and thereby deny the intrinsic dignity of the imago Dei.
Black reason continued to shape the white Christian theological imagination, including what Charles W. Mills called the “slaveholding democracy” of the United States, even after emancipation. Racist myths of the dangerous, hypersexual Black man as a threat to white Christian womanhood thrived during Jim Crow. This patriarchal fantasy infused fears and desires with the sacred to reinforce the sovereignty of whiteness as the right of God-fearing men to exercise allegedly providential control through violent social-political liturgies like lynching. And Black reason remains regnant today in the new racial capitalism and new Jim Crow, still sheltered by a white necropolitical theological imagination that sanctifies a multiform anti-Blackness. The plasticity of Black reason means, after all, that it can be variously appropriated by white supremacy as the alleged divine will.
James H. Cone and Emilie M. Townes Contra Black Reason
Two contemporary theologians offer compelling critiques of Black reason. In 1969, James Cone published an incendiary manifesto for Black liberation and Black theology. Black Theology and Black Power irrupted white American academic theology. In this work, Cone arguably succeeded in his effort to correlate the kerygma of Jesus to what he called the Black condition, the existential, psychological, and material situation of anti-Black oppression. In his subsequent A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), Cone maintains that the gospel message is analogous to the message ofBlack power. The Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ is the divine decision for liberation and self-determination made on behalf of the poor and oppressed of the land – in the United States, for freedom for Black people now.
Cone also offered an incisive critique of the failure of white theology. The primary fault, he suggests, is the possession of Christian theology by what he names the white condition. Cone says that the white condition (whiteness), insofar as it opposes the divine will of God for the freedom of human creatures through slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation, is “demonic” (1969). Cone, like Mbembe, thus also describes anti-Blackness in metaphysical terms, albeit without subtle irony. For Cone the Black condition is a result of white racist “insanity,” a surd “inflicted by the white condition” without “rational explanation” (1970). Yet that does not mean whiteness simply took on a life of its own. Cone argues white Christianity lent sacred inviolability to the irrationality of anti-Blackness by twisting theological epistemes, like the imago Dei, to its nefarious purposes.
Emilie Townes entered a theological academy which, though still a white-dominated space in the 1980s, had been forever transformed by the scholarship of Black liberation theology. And yet, as Townes and others noted, there was a deep absence of Black women’s experience represented in either the largely androcentric texts of Black liberation theology or the white texts of feminist theology. Drawing from Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983), womanist theologians resolved to articulate God-talk in the polytonal register of Blackness, femininity, class, and sexuality.
Nearly forty years after Cone wrote his landmark works in Black liberation theology, Townes penned an equally pathbreaking text, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (2006). In it, she juxtaposes the cultural production of evil, represented by particular images at the intersection of racialized violence, gendered stereotypes, and capitalist exploitation, to the womanist “dancing mind,” a theoethical critical frame that contests such productions. The constructive genius of Townes’ work is to choreograph a theological imagination that promotes the wholeness of Black life in solidarity to dismantle the structures of heterosexism, racism, patriarchy, and capital.
Integral to Townes’ argument is her theorization of the narrative, mnemonic character of the cultural production of evil, which she articulates in a Gramscian and Foucauldian grammar as the fantastic hegemonic imagination. Townes prioritizes the particular experiences of Black women whose identities are commodified and demonized in this imaginary. This heteropatriarchal fantasy, like that in Mbembe’s Black reason, draws on a repository of symbols intended to bracket Black female being in the confines of a twisted white supremacist imaginary. Through the images of the Sapphire, Tragic Mulatta, and Mammy, the fantastic hegemonic imagination politicizes and twists historical memory in order to justify the status quo. Townes, like Cone, also recognizes that the surd of whiteness is not autonomous. She identifies white Christianity’s tendencies toward triumphalism, exceptionalism, and neoimperialism as willing harbingers of the fantastic hegemonic imagination.
Black reason is a nefarious irrationale plaguing the ruins of modernity. It is propelled by a fantastic imaginary, a changeling animus that aggregates and transmogrifies the desires and fears of whiteness. As I argued in conversation with Cone and Townes, this surd of anti-Blackness has been woven into the fabric of the Christian imaginary. But what of the critical-liberating potential of theology against necropolitical theology? Perhaps it might be found in the truth of Blackness as God’s intent for humankind revealed in Christ, as Cone argues. Or else it might be found in the countermemories of Townes’ womanist dancing mind, which imagines the fullness of divine life enfleshed in Black women’s experiences. So begins a theological critique of Black reason.
Achille Mbembe’s work is as enthralling as it is at times mystifying. His corpus, which spans nearly four decades, demonstrates a penchant for Africana decolonial studies, Francophone critical theory, postcolonial studies, postmodernist critique, political philosophy, critical race and Blackness studies, and psychoanalysis. The following selections in English provide a good introduction to his thought.
- On the Postcolony. Berkley: University of California Press, 2001. An English translation and expansion of De la postcolonie: essai l’imagination politique dans l’Afrique contemporanie (2000), which serves as a postcolonial commentary on African politics and introduces a number of Mbembe’s common interlocutors in Africana studies and political theory.
- Critique of Black Reason. Translated by Laurent Dubois. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017. A translation of Critique de la Raison Négre. Paris: La Découverte, 2013. A thorough analysis of race discourse, particularly of Blackness, as it has developed historically. Mbembe is here in conversation with Foucault and Fanon.
- Necropolitics. Translated by Steven Corcoran. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019. A translation of Politique de l’inimitié. Paris: La Découverte, 2016. An expansion of the Foucauldian notions of biopower and biopolitics on the concrete level of life and death. Mbembe is here conversant with Schmitt’s notion of sovereignty, modified by interventions from Hegel and Bataille.
The late James H. Cone (d. 2018), the father of Black liberation theology, was a prolific author. His works demonstrated an ability to respond seriously and carefully to the challenges of his peers and those of the times. The following are indispensible works for understanding his thought.
- Black Theology and Black Power. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1969. Recently released in its 50th Anniversary Edition, this originary work by Cone laid the foundation for his thought and for the project of Black theology. It argues powerfully for the correlation of God’s decisive act for the liberation of the poor and oppressed of the land to the (then) contemporary Black power movement.
- A Black Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1970. Following close on the heels of his previous work, this book produces a systematic Black theology of liberation, treating classical themes, like the doctrine of God, anthropology, revelation, Incarnation, and eschatology, from the perspective of the Black experience in America.
- The Spirituals and the Blues. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1972. In response to critique from his fellow theologians and Black religionists that he was too reliant on white theological epistemes, Cone wrote this work with an eye toward prioritizing the subordinated histories, cultures, experiences, traditions, and artforms of Black life in the United States.
- The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2010. After years of wrestling with the shortcomings of the white Christianity, in this work Cone laments the failure of the theological imagination to relate the crucifixion of Jesus to the lynchings of over 5,000 Black men, women, and children in America’s history. In conversation with Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr., and womanist theologians, Cone grapples with the meaning of the Cross in light of this obscured part of American history.
Emilie M. Townes, Dean and E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt Divinity School, is a peerless womanist theologian and ethicist. Her works focus on the intersectionality of Black womanhood with class and sexuality and engage the complications of Black life in the face of healthcare, economic, ecclesial, and social disparities. The following is a good sampling of her work.
- In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995. In this text, Townes engages the African roots that inform Black women’s spirituality as it developed and grew alongside other African American religious communities in the social context of the United States. Her analysis of Black women’s religious lives as a social witness includes analyses of gender and sexuality, colorism, and racialized violence.
- Breaking the Fine Rain of Death: African American Health Issues and a Womanist Ethic of Care. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1998. Focusing on the particular health issues that face Black Americans from a womanist perspective, Townes argues in this work for a carefully crafted ethic of care with an emphasis on healing and wholeness for the greater community in the Church and in the world.
- Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. In this work, Townes engages theorists like Foucault, Gramsci, Hardt and Negri, and Pierre Nora to theorize the fantastic hegemonic imagination and its part in the mnemonic distortion and historical oppression of Black women’s identities and lives. In response, Townes cultivates countermemories in the womanist dancing mind that seek to restore wholeness in solidarity with the Black community.