This episode’s guest is Lewis Gordon who is an author, Philosophy Department Head and Professor at University of Connecticut, Storrs. In this episode, we are in conversation with Lewis about his book Fear of Black Consciousness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022). Lewis discusses the differences he sees between black consciousness with a lowercase “b” and Black Consciousness with an uppercase “B”. He shares about Black Consciousness as a commitment to life, radical love, and to building a better world and discusses how he sees that playing out in the world.
Episode Transcription available here
Host: Ry O. Siggelkow
Producer: Adam Pfuhl
Podcast Engineer: Michael Moua
Music: Kavyesh Kaviraj
Episode Recorded on October 17th, 2022
You can find out more about the Leadership Center for Social Justice on our website and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
In Conversation with Lewis Gordon
Ry Siggelkow [00:00:00] Hi. I'm Ry Siggelkow and I direct the Leadership Center for Social Justice at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Today, I'm very excited to be in conversation with Lewis Gordon, an Afro Jewish philosopher, political thinker, educator and musician. Lewis is head of the Philosophy Department at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. Lewis has written particularly extensively on Africana and Black existentialism, postcolonial phenomenology, race and racism and on the work and thought of W.E.B. Dubois and Frantz Fanon. His most recent book, which is quite expansive and wide ranging in its scope and depth of analysis, is titled Fear of Black Consciousness. Lewis, thanks so much for joining me today.
Lewis Gordon [00:00:56] Oh, thank you for inviting me. I'm delighted to be here.
Ry Siggelkow [00:01:01] You begin your most recent book, Fear of Black Consciousness, with an extended reflection on the struggle for breath in the face of the multiple social threats of asphyxiation. I can't breathe were, of course, the final words of both Eric Garner and George Floyd. You draw a connection between these words and long standing collective struggles to breathe, which, as you say, have been the mark of all black rebellions from the Haitian Revolution to the anti-colonial struggles in Africa and the revolts in North America and South America.
Of course, the COVID 19 virus also attacks the lungs, making it difficult and at times impossible to breathe. COVID 19 and the murder of George Floyd, you argue, brought to the fore the reality of asphyxiation, making it emblematic of a failure to address the several converging, often invisible pandemics that we face with the police functioning as the structural agents of social asphyxiation. In response to these threats, you highlight that the masked people who have taken to the streets against the violence of the police bring to the fore the significance of breath. Their protests are social masks against a contagion.
I wonder if we could begin by having you share a bit more about how you understand the significance of breath in this time of converging pandemics, as well as the significance of the collective struggles against social asphyxiation that we see today.
Lewis Gordon [00:02:52] I would be delighted to reflect on that. Indeed, when we think about it, the goal of all forms of oppression, of dehumanization, of attacks on the spirit of freedom and dignity; they ultimately boil down to a goal of disempowerment, which includes our ability to relate to the world. And if we think of the logical conclusion of disempowerment, it reaches a point in which one cannot even breathe. Breath and life are connected. Sure, there could be other forms of life out there in the universe that don't breathe. I can't even imagine how they would relate to their reality. But breath ultimately is about what works for us. We know that trees breathe carbon dioxide and we breathe oxygen. So once we understand the importance of breath, then we are connected to it. This is an insight that goes all the way back to antiquity.
You know, it's funny when some people look at some of those ancient African sculptures or statues or artifacts like the Sphinx and many others, some people don't realize why when tombs are raided, the nose is broken off. And the reason was because concepts such as mai from which you get the concept of myet – and I talk about that in the book – are connected to breath and life. And so the thieves don't want those who have been robbed to have the life to secure justice, well-being, etc. This is something that has been informed throughout the ages. In Frantz Fanon's, Year Five of the Algerian Revolution, he, for instance, brings up the importance of oxygen. That, ultimately, to transform the world is a struggle to breathe.
And right now, we are seeing a profound global conflict between agents of asphyxiation – those who would like to treat us as if we are dead or locked in a mausoleum, those who would like to treat the past as if the past intrinsically had things right, which means there's no way to grow, nowhere to go – and those who would like to look into possibility. Possibility and breath are related. It connects us. They connect us to the world. So even though I'm starting off with something more grand from antiquity, etc., on a very concrete level, we have seen this in terms of the holds of slave ships in which breath was hindered.
We know this in the chosen method of terror that was unleashed on people of African descent. At first it was against all enslaved peoples because, as we know, in the early periods of these forms of terroristic attacks that were done on people who were, for instance, Irish indentured servants. It was done against Jews, Italians or groups who were not "white" enough. But eventually the main marker, the symbol of it, became blacks. And lynching breaks the neck, makes it impossible to breathe, and functions not only as a concrete material act, but it's also an allegory. It's a statement, a message that's being sent to people who are struggling for their humanity and dignity, which is the idea that they don't have a right to the basic elements of what we need to live with dignity as human beings.
Ry Siggelkow [00:07:01] You begin the prologue of your book by saying that you were not born with a black consciousness. You write about your personal experiences growing up in Jamaica in the wake of legal independence from the British Empire. And then you move to the Bronx at the age of nine. In these pages, you provide us with the narration of your family life and what you call the rude awakening of coming into Black consciousness. But you also make a distinction between black consciousness with a lowercase b, the consciousness that comes as a result of experiencing racist abuse in one form or another, and Black consciousness with an uppercase B, which is, as you put it, a political consciousness that addresses the choking contradictions of anti-black societies. I wonder if you could say more about this distinction and why you think it is important for us to understand today?
Lewis Gordon [00:07:55] Sure. First, nobody is born with a racial consciousness. And in fact, it's really striking because in that part of the book, I also bring up the white children I met, the ones who weren't initially brought into that rude awakening as well. And it's not only they, you know, it applies also to a variety of other categories. I was speaking in a large lecture class the other day where I was pointing out that there are a lot of things little boys and little girls like to do that are not actually gender based. That there are times little boys may like light bright colors, which are stereotypes imposed upon girls, and there are little girls who might like action figures. And at a basic level, unless you're going to be an added anatomical reductionist, they don't even live their bodies in that way. So we're socialized into a certain way of organizing the world around our identities. Now we can develop those in ways that are loving, but as we know, there are ways that are also brutal.
In my case, as a child, the thing about my family, I mentioned in the book, is that there wasn't a reductionistic way of looking at a person through skin color. So in today's parlance or in adult parlance, say, my paternal grandmother, who was Chinese, my maternal side were Palestinians and Irish Jews. And, you know, the Palestinians were Jews from Jerusalem and mixed in with Ethiopians and Egyptians. There were also Tamil Indians. And I'm among those black people who actually know where in Africa my family, my African family members were from: that would be Ethiopia and Liberia.
So in that framework and if you can see them all together, you don't have this notion that there's something intrinsic in you that would make you materially and absolutely different from your relatives of what would be called another race. And especially at the intimate family level, you smell each other, you see them in the bathroom. You eat together, you know, in other words, the very intimate, concrete, and I can add erotic elements of their humanity. And this is something children reach out to one another for. You know, little boys will hug each other. They embrace one another. Little girls do the same. So there's not an intrinsic homophobic element there because they're not thinking of themselves in that way. And in some cases, there is pleasure in the flesh. There are ways in which children love to be in one another's arms and things like that. And the truth is, adults, too. However, the policing of that, the locking it off. This now begins to transform it.
And I brought up that in my childhood when I was referred to by the N-word and what was involved in learning about the N-word. But I also brought up something in that part of the story, which is that my response was not one of shame. My response wasn't one of what is wrong with me? My response was actually a rather healthy one, which is what's wrong with people who do this to people? I can remember when I was a child and kid, I was so happy. We were poor, but I was so happy. My mother brought me some skips. And today's audiences may not know this but skips are very cheap sneakers. And I just thought they were so clean and beautiful. I went to school and kids walked up and teased me and they said "Skips". The joke was for a 1.49, Skips make your mother feel fine. And I realized I was being teased for being poor. And that was just weird to me. Why? Why should someone be teased for being poor? Why should someone be attacked for not having access to all kinds of material things?
Well, similarly, the thing that was strange to me was this idea, and it was pretty clear that the little white boy who was sitting next to me was doing this to degrade me because I was so happy to be this immigrant kid in this country in a classroom. And there are a lot of complicated things because prior to that, I was not in school for nearly two years. And I loved learning. I did everything. I just so loved learning. So my enthusiasm, this was an effort to rip the joy and dignity of learning out of me. But my response, as I mentioned, was to, well, because again, I was a nine year old kid. I beat the crap out of them. And I didn't realize that blacks were being socialized into being afraid of whites. In fact, to this day, even in my adult life, white people freak out when they meet black people who are not afraid of them. It terrifies so many white people who are not afraid of black people. And when they see black people not afraid of them, it's no biggie, no big deal. But it's striking, especially in academic settings, the only way they could imagine a black man or a black woman who's not afraid of white people is somehow that person being arrogant or uppity. But you could already see the problems in that logic.
And so I mentioned in that part of the book that with the teacher, when I was dragged to the principal's office, the teacher was very shocked and very disappointed at me. My response to it, which was a very healthy one, is that you should be shocked and actually correct that student who was referring to me in that way. In other words, I took full responsibility for my actions of beating the crap out of him. But he needed to have some accountability for being part of that ritual of degradation. And I mentioned that after that, at the end of the day, when he was out there, he had a bunch of white boys come up to fight me. But again because part of my family is white, I had no reason to be afraid of white people. So it didn't occur to me that this was like a white gang, a racial thing. I just pushed them out of the way, beat the crap out of them again. And they were just so dumbfounded. They didn't know what to do because they were used to just the very idea that they were threatening which would lead to me running away and being chased.
But what I said in the beginning of the book, though, is that it's really healthy because you see this society pummels into black people over and over the idea that there is something wrong with us when we stand up for ourselves, when we know damn well that most white people would never tolerate for 2 seconds the kind of things that are done to black people. And we know this because the actual history of this country is of so much white violence, so many white actions. There are white people who have not even dealt with something as close as that, who have attacked black people for just simply looking them in the eye.
So the reality of the matter is that there's a double standard. And what we need to have is a more concerted effort on what it is to be what Frantz Fanon called “actional.” Now I do mention that being active does not always have to take the form of your knuckles to a person's face or your hands on a person's neck. Being actional can take the form of expanding the capacity to affect the world. And that is what politics is about.
If black consciousness, being aware of one's blackness, is to be locked in immobility, to be stratified by fear, to believe that there is no option for a black person except all things negative, then there's no possibility. In effect, the anti-black racists have won. However, if one is able to understand that one can affect the world and that one is not a god, that one is not all powerful, but that one must work with one’s fellow human beings to make the world a better place. Then that is actually what power is about in the positive sense. I define power as the ability to make things happen with access to the conditions of doing so. Well as an ability, the conditions in this case would be the social world and political power.
And this is one of the reasons why there was such a fear of the conjunction of the word Black with the word Power. Because Black with Power means empowerment. It means the ability to have an impact on or transform the world around us. And that one shifts from the lowercase diminutive b- black into the upper case actional B Black. And that form of Black is one that's not only active, but also exemplifies becoming agents of history. And I should add that because it's not actually reactive, if it were one in which it was premised upon an idea of a zero sum game. In other words, the diminishing of the lives of people who are not black, then that is ultimately complicity with a form of reactive consciousness that would ultimately not be human. So implicit in the upper case, B Black consciousness is an affirmation of humanity. It's relational. So it's not saying Black is better than; it's actually saying that Blackness has a stake in the game that is part of the ever growing process of humanity. And it doesn't follow that it's the end all be all of the story. But it's an important part.
Ry Siggelkow [00:18:56] So Black consciousness with a capital B is a political consciousness. Is it fair to say that that Black consciousness with a capital B is sort of rooted in a commitment to a politics of life, a politics of breath that you talked about earlier?
Lewis Gordon [00:19:17] Absolutely. And indeed, you notice because I say it's relational. I don't only link it to politics. For me, they're not really separate worlds. I also link it to the aesthetic world of the blues and spirituals. I link it to the two activities that affirm life. So, for instance, later in the book I talk about different forms of what's called arts, whether it's spiritual to blues to hip hop to samba to reggae, many kinds.
The way I read art is this: Let us imagine that we have confirmation that there's absolutely nothing out there that gives a hoot about any of us. There's absolutely the whole nihilistic view, right? There's nothing. We're just an absolute contingent. We're just an absolutely accidental development that every human being realizes there's no reason for reality to care about us. Now what's striking is that nevertheless, we human beings produce a world of meaning. And in that world , what a lot of us human beings do most of the time is engage in something that gives back to us a livable human world. And that livable human world can be a form of, it may sound odd to say this, positive narcissism, which is reaching out at a world in which we see it is inhabitable for humanity. Negative narcissism is when one wants to hoard that world and only make it humane to some of humanity and excluded from the rest.
Well, art. Art basically says to us that we belong. It gives us a home. Even in art what is ugly is recognizable in human terms. And so I examined that upper case Black consciousness through the profound creativity it offers about responsibility. Because if we think of something like the blues. In blues music, it's not that it says we're special. It says that we are free and responsible. And that's why if you listen to a lot of blues music and, you know, the artists in the lyrics would often with irony talk about their mistakes. But think about it, if we are incapable of having responsibility for our actions, we would never be what's called adults. And a lot of what racism does to any group is to try to block their capacity for growth, is to have them locked permanently in a form of childhood. And this is one of the reasons, as you already know, in ordinary language, grown black people were referred to as boys and girls, etc.. And so, yes, that uppercase B is life affirming.
But we have to understand that when we talk about what it is to be alive as a human being, it also is connected to growth, to adulthood, to maturity. And it doesn't mean that we have to be serious all the time, because ironically, even humor is a form of maturity, because it reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.
Ry Siggelkow [00:23:17] I recently spoke with David Goldberg about a new book that he just completed, which examines the ongoing appeal of color blindness among conservatives who claim that we are now post-racial. And so any invocation of race or racism in political discourse is itself a racist gesture. He argues that colorblind ideology lies at the heart of the right's recent fabrication of the threat of so-called critical race theory. You also discuss colorblindness in your book, statements like, I don't see race or I don't see color. You discuss them as a form of what you call bad faith. I wonder if you could speak more about what you mean by this expression “bad faith” and how it is deployed in appeals to color blindness in particular, and racism more generally.
Lewis Gordon [00:24:10] Well, bad faith is multilayered. We don't really have the right word in the English language for it because we have the word bad there, right? There's legal bad faith where somebody knowingly signs a contract without wanting to fulfill it. But that's not the kind of bad faith I'm talking about. I'm talking about the kind of bad faith in which we evade or we try to avoid a displeasing truth through leaping into the arms of a pleasing falsehood.
So, for example, a pleasing falsehood would be it's not that there is racism in the society, it's just that black people are ultimately not that smart, that black people actually are more disposed to criminality. The list is long. So if all those things were true, then the lie would be that black people should be liberated. The lie would be that there is a structure or a system that puts more resources in the hands of people who are white than people who are black. The lie would be all of those things. In other words, racism would just be not an abomination. It would just be a statement about facts.
The problem with it is that we have so many easy analogies. You could imagine somebody looking over a fence and saying, Gee, look how tall I am. But it turns out that person is actually short, there's just somebody else holding that person up and then there's another person below trying to jump up to see over the fence, the person says, well, you know, the problem is you're short. In other words, there's a whole system of invisible hands holding up a whole lot of people who are held by actually a lower standard than the people who are struggling to go up. And Anna Julia Cooper in the 19th century, she brought that out. She said there are people in whom less is invested, but they give more. And there are people in whom more is invested and they give so little, yet they receive so many rewards.
So the displeasing truths are many. The displeasing truths could be not only the injustice of the economic system. The displeasing truth could be that no human being really does things alone. Some people like to believe that they can by themselves get everything. People say it all the time. I did it all on my own. No, not really. You got to live in a world of possibilities.
So one of the things about bad faith is that bad faith involves taking a certain attitude towards evidence. It attempts to disarm evidence of its ability to make the evidential appear. Some people would do it by making grandiose claims. For instance, here's a bad faith statement. Everybody's racist. The truth is if everybody is racist then nobody is racist in any consequential way. So it's an effort to escape responsibility for one's racism. I was in a room once where a man sat with his legs spread open and leaned back and said, "Everybody is sexist" in front of a group of women. Just the very gesture there already exemplifies the bad faith there. So the thing about it with bad faith is that we changed the script. We changed the goalpost. But it also helps us hide from truth.
Now sure, if in the beginning of- if we go back nearly a thousand years of efforts to differentiate people. If people were to just look at the humanity of people, they may not see race. But the reality is, we live in a society that sees race all the time. We see it evidentially in the United States right now. All people are arguing about all kinds of things. But one thing we know with certainty, one thing is very clear that the differentiation between the right and the left is overwhelmingly in this country around issues of race. You're seeing that in Brazil. You see that in many other countries. And whoever represents racial designation. In India, you could see it between Hindus and non Hindus. You could see it in countries where there are religious demarcations.
So those things are there, so to say one doesn't see it. What one could say is one sees it, but the investment in it one doesn't have. That's a different claim. For instance, I saw that my paternal grandmother was Chinese, but I also could see in her that she was my grandmother. She could see in me that I was her grandson. I could see the elements in her face that are mine. So simultaneously we can see both our differences and our similarities. It is possible to see our differences and in those differences, see our humanity. There are many examples of this.
If a man looks at a woman – I'll just use a heteronormative term here just for now – and he can see that she's a woman, for him to respect her through not seeing she's a woman only makes sense if he's a misogynist. He has to be able to respect women if he's going to respect her humanity, because human beings exemplify different forms. So the appeal at first of saying one doesn't see race, it sounds good or you don't see color, but the problem is it will require lying to oneself. Even if we didn't have the race concept. We do see light and dark. We see all kinds of things. What is different in the world before is what we attach to them. So this comes back to that issue of power. If we're going to have unequal access to the conditions through which we can act in our abilities on the basis of the color; that is the problem. But if we can see the color and disentangle and separate those disparities from that, now we can begin to deal with something else, which is the richness and beauty and complexity of who we are.
You know, there's an old philosophical example. You know, if your spouse turns to you and you ask “why do you love me?” And your spouse says, “oh, I love you because I love what you share with every other human being." Then at that moment, your partner says, I think that means I'm replaceable.
Ry Siggelkow [00:31:07] Right.
Lewis Gordon [00:31:08] However, if you say, “While I respect all of humanity, my heart would be broken if I lost you because you're unique. There's no other like you." That is tapping into something very different. That is now tapping into the fact that you are now a question mark. True relationships require learning each day what life offers one another, and it expands out. Although I'm giving an intimate example.
On a social example, when you live in a society with citizens and when I use citizens here, by the way, I don't mean the legal term. I just mean people living together actively to build a world. Or if we think about on a planetary level, our species. Every day, because there's so many people with possibilities, there's so much to learn, and that is different from what I call epistemic closure or knowledge closure. That's the stereotypes, the racism, sexism, all those things. Knowledge closure says by virtue of your identity, I know all I need to know. And now there's no longer a possibility. Well, that is not relating to a fellow human being as a human being. A fellow human being as a human being means you don't actually know where it will go. There will be possibilities. In fact, the only certainty you have is that you can engage in a communicative practice, communicability. And that is something when you have a spouse or a partner, whatever you may call it, is one of the joys. It enables you to grow. This is what happens also with other human activities, such as your disciplines, your job, your sports team, your wider friend circle. It could be a religious community, etc. They, in their humanity, are possibilities.
Ry Siggelkow [00:33:03] In one of your chapters, you reflect on transness in relation to gender identity as an example of human beings in the making. The efforts of trans people who negotiate their appearance, social norms and their lived experience. You discuss a controversial article entitled "In Defense of Transracialism" by the philosopher Rebecca Tuvel, in which she argues that proponents of transracialism offer the same kinds of defense for their position as those who support trans identities premised on sex and gender. Her provocation, at least as I understand it, is that arguments in support of transracial identity are formally similar to arguments in support of transgender identity, and that support for the latter should entail support for the former. Just as gender is socially constructed, so too race is socially constructed.
Now I know that this paper created quite a bit of controversy, and you decided to weigh in with your thoughts about it online, which I'm sure also stirred up some controversy. But as I thought about these ideas and these debates, I couldn't help but think of the late James Cone, whom I noticed you actually listed among the many names in your acknowledgments in the book. The reason why I thought of Cone is because, you know, he made a controversial theological argument throughout his long career, beginning with Black Theology and Black Power in the late sixties and really all the way through The Cross and The Lynching Tree. That for him, conversion or grace entailed becoming black, that it was not enough for whites to remain white, but that whites must become traitors, we might say, to whiteness by becoming black, which for Cone meant a concrete form of lived identification, perhaps a Black consciousness, to use your words, with the oppressed. I'm also reminded of James Baldwin's quip: "As long as you think of yourself as white, there is no hope for you."
Now, Cone faced severe criticisms for saying this, not least among black scholars, but he continued to maintain this position over the course of his career. Of course, I would imagine that he would want to carefully distinguish his ideas from certain forms of transracialism or certain notions of the transracial. But it does raise some important theological questions about social identity and forms of identification, and perhaps the necessity to break up, as it were, the fixity and rigidity of the bad faith entailed in racial classifications that are sustained by the violence of racial regimes. That's a lot. But I wonder what you think of all that. I don't know if Cone was in your mind as you were writing this chapter, as you were wrestling with these ideas, and if you could share a bit about this controversy and how you were drawn to it and what your intervention was all about.
Lewis Gordon [00:36:12] Sure. Cone has had a profound effect on me throughout my career. I knew him very well and his ideas were connected at the end of the day, first and foremost, to love. And you may notice I distinguish between narcissistic love in the book where you could only love those who are like you, a projection of yourself, and radical love, which is the ability to love those who are not like you, those who are so different. But at the same time, you can affirm their value.
And in fact, one of the most radical examples of this would be in Judaism’s God. Because in Judaism, you're not even supposed to name God. But at the same time, you're supposed to love God. So think about this. You're supposed to love the unnamable. Baruch Hashem! I'm Jewish. What we say is Blessed the name, but we don't name God. And Judaism is radically against idolatry. And Cone is also against idolatry, but it's complex for him because he's working in Christology and in theology. So how is he able to now be a Christian but be anti idolatry?
It's through de-ontologizing, in other words, de hyphen ontology, of not making ontological the idea of the identity, right, of the Imago Dei. In other words, God is not a thing. God fundamentally must exceed any effort to contain God. Now, this means that God could be manifested in many forms, and that means already there is not what I call in some of my writings a decadent view of God. I talk about disciplinary decadence in my writings as well, a decadent view of a discipline which is closed as the answers to everything but an open view, a transdisciplinary view. So there is already a trans argument in Cone.
Now, the thing about blackness that makes it even more complicated and by the way, just a little backtrack Rebecca Tuvelt is Jewish and her argument was in saying that they were the same. Her argument was saying that those arguments compel the same. She's saying if you're going to say they're different, you need better kinds of arguments. That's what she was really saying. So, for instance, in some of her other writings, she brings up the fact that in Judaism there are people who convert to become Jews, okay? Now they are fully Jews, but it doesn't follow that the converts are the historical Ashkenazi Jews who were placed in death camps, or the historic Sephardic Jews in the Inquisition or the historic beta Israel. You see there are so many Jewish communities. I also teach in Jewish studies. They're not necessarily the Kaifeng Jews, but that shouldn't diminish their value in Judaism. You see my point, and that was her point.
Her point was not that if someone is trans racially black, that that person is the historic person group who are in the Middle Passage or is the historic group of Africans who are on the other side of the Atlantic. It means that they are part of an ongoing story of what black people are. Just like for instance, there are people who want to have an exclusive claim on blackness, but they don't look at the Korri or other indigenous peoples of Australia, the Māori people of New Zealand, the Dalits of India. There are even African Americans who have argued that Africans south of the Sahara are not black people because they have created such a narrow definition of what it is to be black, that they are erasing the larger experience of people designated black. And the fact of the matter is, there are some people who used to be called black who later were no longer called black. Some of the initial indigenous peoples of the Americas were at first called black. They were also called the N-word. But the fact is, their specificity historically unfolded.
So if we come back to this example, the thing that is implicit in the anti idolatry argument is that one should not fetishize and exclusively own oppression. One should struggle against oppression. And in that struggle, it means moving from a closed concept to an open one. I think Frantz Fanon said it very elegantly. A lot of people misunderstand a passage in his book Black Skin White Mask, when he brings up the zone of Nonbeing. And what they miss is this: what he says in the book is that euro modern colonialism produced a way of looking at the human being that is highly problematic. His actual language is it murders humanity. And here's the problem. If you create a category of people who are superior, then they are above humanity. If you create a category of people who are inferior, then they are below humanity. If there is a group above humanity, in other words, that's idolatrous. So for him, whiteness is idolatry. And you have a group of people below humanity, right? Which is the idea of saying they lack a being, they lack being. Then what happens to the human being? And for him, that very movement is the murder and attempted murder of humanity.
Now we make the next step. And this is the part many people miss, particularly Afropessimists, because they use ontological terms, they say being, they say the black is not a being, black is not a human being. But they miss the point. The white is not a human being either, because to be above humanity is not a human being. And indeed what a human being properly is is not an “is” because if being is closed, it doesn't have possibility. The moment there is possibility, there's existence which goes beyond being. So in effect, the irony of anti-black racism is that black people are being punished for not being beings, which means that black people are being punished for exemplifying, going beyond being, which is what a human being is supposed to be. In other words, we're being punished for our humanity.
So if we bring it back to James Cone's argument, black identification is to reach into the project of human existence. And the historical story reveals unfortunately, for many whites, historically not individual whites, but structurally whites, it reveals a very terrible, terrible reality, which is not being on the right side of ethics and human existence. Ultimately, it's not right to have done not only to black people, but to Native American peoples and so many peoples across the planet what has been done through Euro Modern colonialism. And I should add, you may notice in the book I also talk about the history of how this was formed in Europe, because there were white people in Europe before that was constructed. There were many people who were just simply, whether it's Visigoths, Celts, Irish, all the way through to Franks, you know, many groups upon whom whiteness was imposed.
And so this whiteness thing, the moment it's linked to the notion of superiority, is going to be ultimately anti-human. And Cone, I think, had an insight into that. And in my first book, Bad Faith and anti-Black Racism, I actually talked about that because you see if you have black identification, it raises the question-- not black identification as a fetish-- that's a whole other matter. If it's all about stereotypes, it's different. But if you have that political consciousness Black identification, think about what it requires. It requires fighting against inequality. It requires fighting for breath, addressing ecological issues, addressing issues of poverty. It requires addressing epidemiological issues. It requires addressing issues of greed. So, for instance, it means taking seriously what we really need to live. You know, why should there be people hoarding all the resources? It makes us realize the fragility of our planet. Now, again, even if we don't put the word Black before that, those are really good values. And it's not that every individual black person has it. I don't want to fetishize, romanticize or exoticize black people. And I talk about that in the book. I'm against the exoticization of black people. What Cone is basically saying is that when we embrace the open commitment to responsibility, that is how he's interpreting blackness. Which interestingly enough, is how certain Jews interpret Jewishness.
Ry Siggelkow [00:46:31] Yeah. That is very interesting. And I mean, I think it's important to hold on to black as a political category. Black consciousness, you know, historically has been just that. Think of struggles in Britain under the slogan of Black Power, which connected people from South Asia, people from formerly colonized places of the British Empire around this common term of blackness.
Lewis Gordon [00:46:58] Yeah. In fact, in the South African context, this was done. But, you know, one of the things is I don't limit it to the political. And the reason is, remember when I talked about bad faith? Bad faith is an effort to avoid reality. The fact of the matter is, on the island of Jamaica, but not just there, there are many places in the world where there are people who just because they landed in one port instead of another became black people. So in other words, there are a lot of my relatives, now I'm talking about my Irish Jewish relatives or some of my lighter Palestinian relatives. I also have dark Jewish relatives. But let's say the lighter ones, if they landed in Boston instead of in St Andrew's in Jamaica or in Kingston they would have been white people today. Right now, they're the same people, genetically, everything in them. And here's the thing. Their consciousness was of black people because Jamaican national identity was black. When they think of themselves, when they say they're black people, they're telling the truth. They're not in bad faith. They're not lying.
My stepfather, when my wife met him, because you know, he was just a black man all his life. Well, when my wife met him she was shocked. He just looks like a German Jew to her. But it turned out at my mother's funeral, he said he is from German Jews. But they went to Jamaica and his entire consciousness, who he is, and nobody in the family, nobody on the island would have said that he was not a black man. And frankly, he looked like you. And the thing about it is, he was telling the truth. So what? This is another twist. You see what I'm getting at? There's the political side. True. But I'm saying that there can be people who are absolutely telling the truth. And there are all kinds of people across the United States, for instance, who discover that their great grandparents, whom they just knew was a light skinned black person, turned out to just be an Eastern European who migrated to the United States. And so again, it's not that those people are being deceptive or anything. But there's more to the human story. What I'm saying is I do think there's a form of bigotry in not being open to the possibility of new relationships with others. I'm not threatened if there are people who are living. And a lot of people, by the way, expected me to be one of these gung ho attacking the notion of transraciality. But I take the position and this is the convergence of my Blackness and Jewishness and many other -ness, that we're not the end story of humanity. There are more kinds of human beings to come. And we're going to live through those transitions. And I've also taken the position that our species is fundamentally queer and transitive. And this is because we live in a world of meaning, and there are more meanings to come.
Ry Siggelkow [00:50:07] In the last chapter of the book, you tell the story of Frederick Douglass and his mother, Harriet Bailey. You talk about how he writes about his mother in different ways throughout his life. You quote an incredibly moving passage from Douglass, his final account of his mother, which speaks of the great lengths she took to see him walking 12 miles at night through rural Maryland. Reflecting on his mother after her death, Douglass wrote "To me, It has ever been a grief that I knew my mother so little and have so few of her words treasured in my remembrance. I have since learned that she was the only one of all the colored people of Tuckahoe who could read. How she acquired this knowledge, I know not. For Tuckahoe was the last place in the world where she would have been likely to find facilities for learning. I can therefore fondly and proudly ascribe to her an earnest love of knowledge. That a field hand should learn to read in any slave state is remarkable. But the achievements of my mother, considering the place and circumstances, were very extraordinary. In view of this fact, I am happy to attribute any love of letters I may have not to my presumed Anglo-Saxon paternity, but to the native genius of my sable, unprotected and uncultivated mother, a woman who belonged to a race whose mental endowments are still disparaged and despised". In your reflections on this letter, you write "Harriet Bailey in her efforts, introduced something empowering into the young Frederick's consciousness: love. As far as he knew, even when he was a child, he had worth only as a commodity. Love, however, offers a different kind of value. It is a judgment on existence beyond being. It says that existence is worth immeasurably less without the beloved". Lewis, you say that Harriet Bailey's love for her son, and Frederick's value of that love became like a spark that created a flame that nurtured a revolutionary spirit. This story of Harriet Bailey and Frederick Douglass, this story of the power and the possibility of life and of love powerfully exemplifies the journey that you chart throughout this book. This journey from enslaved to black lowercase to Black uppercase consciousness, and its message is clear. You write "The movement to Black consciousness with a capital B requires that one value being valued by the damned of the earth". For you, this seems to entail a radical commitment to the future. It involves taking risks beyond the ordinary for the sake of a future that is not guaranteed, but one that is worth struggling for. Perhaps it's because I'm a theologian. You have to forgive me. But to me, this sounds a lot like what I would call faith. A faith born along by love and by hope. And I wonder if you could elaborate a bit more on this story and maybe if you're open to moving into kind of a theological mode of thinking. Why do you think it's so important for us to hear this story today?
Lewis Gordon [00:53:28] Well, to everything you just say, I add Amen.
Ry Siggelkow [00:53:32] I'm also a preacher, so.
Lewis Gordon [00:53:34] Well, you're absolutely correct. It is faith. And the problem is a lot of people don't understand faith. A lot of people, unfortunately. I agree with people such as Kierkegaard, Ali Shariati, Sri Aurobindo. I agree with people such as Patrick Henry, James Cone. I agree with all of those people all the way through to Keiji Nishitani. That you see, the Paradox of faith is that it transcends to self. Simone Webb also talked about this, that one of the biggest evils is if we become full of ourselves. It's when we're so full of our ego that there's no room for others, no room for possibility. But possibility has fragility with it because we don't control all the conditions. And so if we get up and we reach out, it's without asserted certainty, it's without any guarantees. And it has all the structures of a leap of faith. And here's the thing. I link it through Douglass's mother to the concept of radical love.
Because you see, the thing about radical love is that difference, it does not have the bridge. It doesn't have the mediation. It does with similitude. You can have the analogue. You could say that's a projection of you. But without that, it means what are you left with if you're going to reach out? And the answer is commitment, but the commitment, that commitment is not simply formal. If we do go through political action, one of the things we have to take very seriously is that a lot of people demand guarantees in order to address and transform power. But here is the paradox and ironic situation. You notice a lot of my examples are of people who historically, who did not have, as far as they knew any power whatsoever. This is Christian nihilism and political nihilism. It says, why are you bothered? All the systems are against you. What you're doing is impossible. And it creates a sense of failure that's narcissistic because it makes you say, if I can't do it, it cannot be done. But what if the issue isn't about what I can do or can't do? What if the issue is just about what needs to be done? And that ultimately, whether it's me or someone else, is irrelevant. As long as anyone sees it, they should act.
The fact of the matter is, I brought up that Douglass's mother, Harriet Bailey, and Douglass was Frederick Bailey. She had no reason to believe that child would love her. She had no reason to expect to see the fruits of the love she showed him. But the fact is for Douglass; had Douglass just simply taken that love to affirm himself as a better enslaved person than others because he was loved, he would miss the entire point. The fact that Douglass could have when he escaped, went into oblivion and just looked out for himself. What compelled him to be politically active? To reach out for others and to face persecution? All those dangers are that kind of love that meets faith. It's not, in other words, a purely epistemological or cognitive point. It's something that's simultaneously effective and powerful.
And one of the things we have to take seriously is when we're trying to build a better world, we must take seriously that those of us who are trying to do it are ultimately making ourselves the conditions of a possibility of a world in which we may not live. And if we try to project ourselves into that world, we may impose upon that world something that's unlivable for those who inherit our actions. So the thing I also argue is that if we act from love, radical love and commitment, the world that emerges from that should be a world in which those who inherited it can live in it in such a way that they look back at us and they only think the words, Thank you. Even though for us it may be incoherent, or in some cases it may be something that we may not accept. And we see that today because a lot of people who preceded us, who in fact, fought to the death for us, may not have the values we have today. When we think of trans communities and we think of our mores on everything from homosexuality to the questions of interfaith relationships, etc., but they did have a commitment to our humanity. And if we do it properly, it means that we have inherited something very special. And that thing is called freedom.
Ry Siggelkow [00:59:10] Well, now it sounds like you're talking about prayer in a way.
Lewis Gordon [00:59:15] Well, you know, one of the funny things about prayer that's complicated is Jewish prayer; you don't necessarily ask for something, okay? Because so much is in God's hands, so to speak. A lot of Jewish prayer is acknowledging something. So, for instance, if you're going to drink a glass of wine, you say, Baruch atah Adonai, Elehenyu Melech ha'olam, borey p'ri ha'gafen. And that comes down to basically you thank what brings goodness and beauty in the world for the fruits of the vine? Okay, now you see the big difference there. Even when you think about the Mourners Kaddish, you're not at all really talking about the dead. You just acknowledge that there are things you don't have control of. And so prayer is a very complex phenomenon, but implicit in everyday life. And this is the more radical conception of spirituality. There is ongoing prayer. There really is. Love is a form of prayer, because in the elation, when you look at whether it's a child, a sibling, a parent, a spouse, the love is an elation and a simultaneous meditation into how much for you the world is better with that person in it. And in some ways we transfer that to another group of people, a group of people who will always be for every one of us today, anonymous. If we think about acting from good political motives it means that those we'll never know will benefit from our actions. Bad political motives require exclusively, selfishly, only those with whom we can personally connect.
Ry Siggelkow [01:01:21] Lewis, I'm very grateful to you for taking the time to speak with me today, it has been an inspiring conversation. And your work is so creative and inspiring and so important in these challenging days.
Lewis Gordon [01:01:33] Oh, well, thank you. And I say to the listeners and to you; continue being safe and healthy and do find joy. Joy reminds us of our humanity. It has always been profound to me that in the midst of profound suffering, there are people who find a moment to look at another human being or to look at a flower, or to just simply look at an insect and say, I appreciate you. Find the joy.
Ry Siggelkow [01:02:02] Joy and laughter.
Lewis Gordon [01:02:04] Yeah. Yeah.
Ry Siggelkow [01:02:07] Thanks so much.
Lewis Gordon [01:02:08] Thank you.