Since the Black Lives Matter summer of 2020, there has been a tsunami of books, documentaries and commentary on racism. But the problem with the deluge of content (to use the modern lingo) is that it inevitably means a lack of quality and focus. If someone had nothing to add to our understanding of racism before the death of George Floyd, there is likely a good reason.
Philosopher Lewis Gordon, long one of the most prominent scholars of racism, tries to enrich our knowledge with his unique brand of intellectual precision and analysis. Fear of Black Consciousness is in the tradition of his fellow Jamaican-born intellectual, the late Stuart Hall, who pioneered engaging with popular culture to understand the world. Using his own experiences and a tour through films and music, Gordon offers an explanation of why Black protest is such a dangerous prospect to the white power structure.
Gordon reminds us that Black bodies have never been a problem. The reason there are so many of us in the west is because we were used as beasts of burden to build the modern world. But the idea that those bodies had minds and were fully human has sparked terror ever since we were shackled to ships. The enslaved were not permitted to read, write or to think, for fear that they would rise up and overthrow their so-called masters.
Gordon explains that the same relationship to blackness exists today, when the Black body is fetishised but only if the mind is subdued. The obsession with the Black athlete or tanning beds, lip-fillers and Brazilian butt-lifts makes sense once we understand that it is only the body that is wanted. His use of Get Out!, Jordan Peele’s film about white people snatching African Americans, is the perfect avenue for this discussion.
Following in a long Black intellectual tradition, Gordon distinguishes between lowercase black consciousness – recognising that you are a victim of racism – and uppercase Black consciousness, in which you are committed to fighting oppression.
For anyone still questioning whether the US can be racist because of the election of Obama, Gordon explains that having a Black body is not the ultimate barrier to the presidency. The fear lay in electing a Black body with a Black consciousness. Once Obama demonstrated he posed no danger to whiteness, his body became an empty symbol of progress.
Gordon uses this to offer a warning that “neoliberal racism doesn’t at first appear racist” because of the number of “people of colour” supposedly defending individual rights while enacting racist policies around migration, policing and removal of welfare protections. If ever a nation needed that reminder it is Britain, with the most diverse government in history pursuing the most racist social policy agenda in a generation.
Gordon supplies an excellent critique of anti-Black societies, and puts the killing of George Floyd in context by explaining that the “police are structurally agents of social asphyxiation”, choking off resistance. He counters the backlash – from reactionary governments and rightwing alarmists – against the term “white privilege” by proposing “white licence” as a better way to capture how whiteness is a permit to be “above ethics, morality law and politics”. From lynchings to the recent attack on the US Capitol, we can see how this licence works.
He does fail to explain, though, that uppercase Black consciousness is not solely defined in response to white racism. Blackness is more than a commitment to anti-racism; the colour of our skin is meant to link us back to Africa and is a political statement that we are a collective. It is not simply about struggling against whiteness. By only seeing Blackness as a by product of racism, Gordon theorises himself down the rabbit hole of defending (or at least explaining) Rachel Dolezal’s (the US activist who was, and still is, pretending to be African American) blackface as a genuine commitment to so-called transracial overcoming.
Gordon also offers the movie Black Panther as an example of Black consciousness, which is an interesting choice because the movie is a case study of the kind of political identity we don’t need. An African kingdom that could have ended slavery, colonialism and the current plight of the continent but decided to sit it out to protect itself.
When Wakanda finally does engage with the world, it does so with the help of the CIA and the UN, two of the best representatives of modern-day African oppression. None of this should be a surprise given that Black Panther was created by two white authors and the comics have a history of grotesque racist depictions (Gordon even acknowledges that M’Baku’s character seemed apelike because he got his powers from killing, eating and bathing in the blood of a gorilla).
Fear of Black Consciousness provides an important critique and a powerful message to embrace Black consciousness. But the politics we need won’t be found on the big movie screens; it exists in the centuries of struggle that have produced the current moment.
Kehinde Andrews’s most recent book, The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World, is out in paperback in June (Penguin)