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Being Black and Dealing With Postcolonialism in a Postmodern World

Editors note: This is probably going to be one of my longer posts, maybe not, depends on how quickly I work it out. But if I go over my standard 1,500 characters so be it.  So go get get the tea, coffee or print this bad boy out because I’m here until it’s done.

A Journey from Athens to Rome to Paris

As anyone who’s followed this blog for any length of time knows that I have just completed seminary which means that my primary field of study is theology.  I can tell you pretty much basic approaches to systematic theology and the various disciplines that earned me my red hood.  So admittedly this assessment in the field of philosophy is strictly from my armchair position.  And particularly seeing as how this is a blog and not a dissertation nor a book, I’m sure there are holes in my argument. But be that as it may I’ve promised myself to do this blog and some others are on the look out for it, so here goes.

I took a crash course in philosophy, and I do mean crash course this last semester as a TA’d for a class entitled “Biblical Preaching in the Postmodern World” and the first few classes the professor tried his best to lay a framework for understanding the progression of thought from classical philosophy to modern philosophy and now this idea of postmodernity.  The long and short of it is that classical philosophy (think Aristotle, Plato et. al.) had its epistemology rooted in the rejection of mythology (the gods) in favor of reason and logic.  For the sake of Christianity, this new movement of reason and logic gave birth to the notion of scholasticism that used reason and logic to solve these conundrums that the early church fathers were stumbling upon.  Finally somewhere around the Renaissance period give or take some years, we have this new thought concerning rationalism and empiricism entering Western thought.  Rationalism was the basic “I think, therefore I am” approach to epistemology and empiricism that rested on the idea of knowledge beginning with sensory experience.

Finally, postmodernity.

Jacques Derrida

Let me add another disclaimer that my definition of postmodernity is my definition and based on what wikipedia says or other famous postmodern philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard or even Michel Foucault have ephemerally written. For me, and the purposes of this blog and based on what I got from the class, postmodernity rests in the notions surrounding deconstructionist theory and ideas surrounding reader-response.  Its a basic rejection of metanarratives and favors the subjective over that of the objective, with the caveat of relativism.

Too heavy for you? Let me try another way in terms of religion.

Agnostics, who are skeptics, have deconstructed Christianity (for example), and the idea that God is sovereign as a metanarrative.  They still believe that for one to fully believe in Christianity as a religion is fine, but don’t want others to castigate them for their beliefs, and they won’t persecute others for their beliefs.

Postmodernity also engenders the whole notion of reader-response and the philosophy of semiotics–signs and symbols (such as words) that point to something greater.  Example: the grass is green because we say that it is green.  Postmodernity would come and ask “what is green?” or even better yet “what is grass?”

In postmodernity, there are no absolutes.

Personally, I take a stand point of relativism, which irks one of my friends to no end.  For me there is no master truth that waits for us to seek in all of is objectivity.  I think religion plays a heavy role in providing us with a metanarrative that points toward an objective truth that fits for all.  Many major religions do this, even some of the eastern ones.  Whether its the truth of inner-light or inner spiritual awareness or a truth that rests in a deity in the metaphysical realm.  To me, there are many truths: all subject to the lived reality of the individual and the community in which they reside.

That’s why I reject this social justice platform of “speaking truth to power” which I still don’t fully understand, and always begs the question “what is truth.”  But rather I’d opt for a phrase saying “speaking truths that empower.”  I think I halfway arrived at this point because after going to a school that was a purporter of black liberation theology specifically, and was home to womanist theologian Jacqueline Grant, and I heard all of this great rhetoric which technically I agree with, however, I had some questions at its pragmatic future. For me, liberation theology only operates in the retribution stage of existence, but seems to almost never deal with reconciliation.  Generally, what I hear almost supports the notion of “the oppressed becoming the oppressor” which tells me truth is relative.  Too often humans are interested in a brand of truth that supports their personal point of view and will go so far as to impose that truth and that point of view on others even if it is deleterious to their human existence!

Where I stand personally on the issue engages broad views of relativism.  For me truth is relative. Where it gets sticky, admittedly, is how do we allow for those that live in the nether regions of human communal existence?  For example those that commit crimes against human existence such as murderers, rapists, those that support genocide and other forms of racial and ethnic superiority because clearly their understanding of truth should be heard and listened to according to my original logic, should it not?

No it shouldn’t and here’s why not.

First of all, anyone that commits any of those human atrocities and anything along those lines, has allowed their version of truth to impose its will upon another’s free will to live and exist in this earth realm, thereby violating my main argument against metanarratives; they want their narrative to dominate so much that they would restrict human existence in favor of one over the other.  Secondly, I believe that anytime we feel that one “truth” or one form of enlightenment supersedes another just because, then we’ve begun the slippery slope toward devolution.

The main pushback against fundamental postmodern beliefs is that a) postmodernity really doesn’t exist, and at best is a perfection of modern thought or b) that the ideals of deconstruction and relativism (reader response) ultimately lead to no boundaries and therefore anarachy.  I’ll address the second one first.

Its the same argument that many have about religion, that without rules then we’ll head down the proverbial slippery slope toward anarchy and chaos.  And my main rebuttal is who is to say that we’re not already there?  That is to say, even with the rules it is MORE than easy to point toward vast examples of people gone amok of the system, which means to me the system is not a sure-fire way of preventing this alleged anarchy.  Corruption in big business and in politics still occurs despite laws on the books and persons still murder one another and governments still sanction war and genocide against other ethnic groups.  Frankly, I’m more concerned about the current Nevada GOP frontrunner in the primary Sharron Angle who wants to get rid of the Department of Education and do away almost completely with the IRS tax code–and replace it with what?

Secondly, some are making the argument that postmodern philosopher are doing nothing more than chasing the wind because of its elusive nature that which it claims to believe doesn’t really exist.  Even just a wikipedia search provided a decent enough quote from Kalle Lasn that seems to probably capture what many feel:

Post-modernism is arguably the most depressing philosophy ever to spring from the western mind. It is difficult to talk about post-modernism because nobody really understands it. It’s allusive to the point of being impossible to articulate. But what this philosophy basically says is that we’ve reached an endpoint in human history. That the modernist tradition of progress and ceaseless extension of the frontiers of innovation are now dead. Originality is dead. The avant-garde artistic tradition is dead. All religions and utopian visions are dead and resistance to the status quo is impossible because revolution too is now dead. Like it or not, we humans are stuck in a permanent crisis of meaning, a dark room from which we can never escape.

If I can move into the metaphysical before I broach the subject of postcolonialism, for me, Lasn’s quote falls magnanimously bankrupt because I believe in progressive (continuous) revelation as embodied by the United Church of Christ’s most famous quote “God is still speaking” with a comma and not a period.  I fully believe that metaphysically we receive revelation through the ages and I think a simple glimpse into human history shows that.  From linguistics, to technology, to human interactions we’ve all seen a progression.  Things that used to be considered pure fact has now been considered easy superstition; our perceptions of race and ethnicity have morphed; our technology went into warp speed in the short time of one century after crawling at a comparatively snails pace for such a long time.

This understanding of metaphysical progressive revelation was inspired by one of my professors who wrecked my little world when he went off into a rabbit hole in astrology one day in class and I heard about the Great Year and the Year of Precession and he linked it to the final verse of Matthew in chapter 28, verse 20 when Jesus says “I will be with you until the end of age” and not “world” which some really believe it means.  If you get where I’m going with this, then bravo.  But yes, I believe that there will be another–another messiah and savior for the next age.  That, according to Greco Great Year, we’re now leaving the Age of Pisces and entering the Age of Aquarius.  I’m basing this on the idea of the astrological Great Year, that does provide a 24,000-26,000 (approx.) earth year cycle for human thought and progression, and right now, according to calculations, we’re on the upswing.  I did a whole monster blog post on it a while back, and here’s the link for it here.

The aforementioned paragraph was really just to hold out hope that there is more to be seen and more to be heard concerning what’s already here.  I think those that take the near nihilistic approach that Lasn captured in his quote are falling victim to classic cynicism that’s really not afraid of death because of it’s certainty, but more afraid to live.

Now to Post-colonialism.

I know even less about this field of thought. So when in doubt, go to Wikipedia right? But I really don’t need to. This one is easy enough to understand.  I first came across an entry on postcolonial thought when doing an exegesis paper on one of the parables.  And yes, even as a black male who grew up in a church that openly practised black liberation theology and fully aware of basic tenets of liberation theology, it is still a shocker at the level in which we, as black Americans approach the biblical text with a view of empire, or should I say postcolonial lens.

We rarely read a biblical text siding with the loser in the text.  This professor for whom this class I was doing the exegesis paper loves to read Matthew 25 and the parable of the talents from the perspective of the last slave who buried the talents.  He chooses to interpret it as the slave was really telling the slaveowner to take the money that had been made on the backs of oppressed people and to shove it where the sun don’t shine. And that Jesus, in telling this story was really using the parables as subversive speech, ultimately leading to him being a political prisoner that was attempting to upset the Roman Empire.  The prof uses this logic by asking did he not die a death of a political prisoner who had challenged the Roman government?  It was common practice to kill dissidents by hanging them on a cross of wooden beams.  However,tcolonial thought, or rather, the philosophical lens of those living after colonialism has taken place and the hegemony has done its damage, has taught us to image the slaveowner as God, and the good slaves as good Christians, but the one who rejects the slaveowner as bad Christians not worthy of God, or the slaveowners praise.

Frantz Fanon

Postcolonialism seeks to rectify the domination of colonial thought, or for the uses of this blog, empire speak.  It attempts to give voice to the voiceless and provide a platform for those who are marginalized.  Many famous black writers fall under that category such as Frantz Fanon and his premier work The Wretched of the Earth and bell hooks (pick almost any of her writings) or most certainly Cornel West.

This postcolonialism is probably much more tangible for people to grasp than what I wrote concerning postmodernity, however, as I said with my thoughts on postmodernity, I have a fundamental problem with metanarratives. As I critiqued liberation theology and all of its offshoots, I stand prepared to critique postcolonialism with the same response: while I’m in favor of one shaping a narrative to fit one’s own social location and political agenda, it runs the risk of one doing to others what was done to them.  Seriously, I want to ask liberation theologians what would their world look like if suddenly white folks apologized for slavery, and as a culture changed their ways and began the healing process?

I dare say that general thought of liberation theology and those that fall well within the postcolonial extent (which is nearly 100% of black political pundits we see on television, and almost all of liberal black intellectuals as we know them and a wide range of non-black liberals ranging across the ethnic spectrum) has not tangibly worked out what life after the revolution looks like.

What Does Paris have to do with Harlem?

Me and my friend, The Critical Cleric have had this conversation as to where do black folks lie in this whole millieu of esoterical philosophical discourse.  So, as I suffered from my own self created disease of Black-man-who-read-a-book syndrome coming out of this postmodern and preaching class, I was convinced that black folks suffered, yes, suffered from tragic modernity: locked into religion and strict and rigid ideas of morals and ethics, overall going to lead to their demise.  So, The Critical Cleric informed me about the nature of postcolonialism, which naturally I said yes.  He was convinced that blacks would be much more affected by postcolonialism, or rather the effects of colonialism than postmodernity and modernity.  And then we kind of went down the rabbit hole discussing one of our favorite Princeton professors Eddie Glaude who wrote In A Shade of Blue that discussed pragmatism and black Americans, however, as Tavis asked him, what does John Dewey have to do with black folk in America?  Essentially, The Critical Cleric was asking me the same thing, what does Derrida, Lyotard or Foucault have to do with black folk in America.

And this was my answer:

For me its not been a “this or that” dichotomy that dominant culture a la conservatives, the Tea Party movement and certainly the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity would have you believe, but much more of a “both/and” situation.  Black folks historically have always talked in terms of “both/and” however we don’t recognize it.  From early black intelligentsia from W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington to Alain Locke and E. Franklin Frazier who had published works, they all spoke of the plethora of issues the plagued the black community from intrinsic to extrinsic ones, but yet and still they all attempted to synthesize these issues into one succinct issue that needed to be addressed.  Granted these are all pre-modern Civil Rights era examples, but the same holds true for current writings from between the 1970s to current.  Still the discourse within the black community understands and speaks pluralities, but still looks for a monolithic answer.

I believe we understand the basics of postmodernity and natures of relativism and plurality.  Black folks know how to be tolerant of the “other.”  Probably because we’ve been the “other” before for far too long.  Don’t get me wrong, we still have a long way to go in some respects, but one of the current mantras in the black community has been this idea of “going back” or “getting back to…” usually referring to a much more stricter set of morals and social ethics surrounding many aesthetic values which some people think will translate into a different mindset.  For example: by not wearing a hat indoors or not sagging my pants will give me better self esteem.  That’s a FAIL in my book if there ever was one, but I think that’s indicative of colonial thought, which is where postcolonialism should enter and reify the colonial thought–but in which direction? Toward conservative values or those of liberalism.

Personally I think religion, specifically the “old time religion” associated with many mainline black churches, and even still those a part of the neo-Black Church all err comfortably on the side of conservative values which would align them more with the likes of evangelical Christendom than they would probably like.  I’m not convinced that postcolonialism is here to aid black folks to move into the 21st century.  Is it helpful? Yes.  Am I in favor of it?  Good God yes.  However, I think we need to bring postmodernity into the conversation.

After reading M.K. Asante’s Its Bigger Than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip Hop Generation and taking into account Cornel West’s notions behind nihilism in the black community out of his book Race Matters, really, on some level blacks are spinning their wheels philosophically.  Granted, on the surface the question what does Athens have to do with Harlem (yeah, I know it’s not all black anymore, but you get the question) doesn’t really generate much thought, but I do believe that humanity does operate in the zeitgeist of philosophical thought.

The general thought of the time is locked into a certain pattern, and we look for answers based on perhaps faulty assumptions.  We, us, in the black community operate from certain foundations that we do not question.  Primary among those is that God is real and that God is sovereign; God does what God wants to when God wants to and how God wants to.  And this means that either God cause events to happen or God allows them to happen–no ifs, ands or buts about it.

This is where I think postmodernity can come in and help.

It provides a framework to step outside of the comfortable boundaries of current thought.  Even if deconstruction doesn’t take place, it provides a plurality of voices.  We, as a collective people are afraid to ask questions, due to the effects of colonialism and still trying to break the chains of psychological slavery.  It is my opinion that taking a postmodern approach, incoporating the both/and strategy to the everyday lives of black people we can move forward.  If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times, “we are not a monolithic people” and that statement is never truer, so we should stop acting like it.

We act like it on talk radio programs such as The Al Sharpton Show or the bastion of mediocrity that is the Warren “I call People Porch Monkey’s on National Television” Ballentine Show most when one caller calls in as if they are now the person that has the proper answer to the problems.  Or God forbid we bring in a preacher or some church person who brings God and religious doctrine and dogma into the situation completely oblivious and ignorant of other religions and faith communities.  I’ll be the first to say that blacks, as a whole need to back off of the hardline that we take when we have these discussions.  Contrary to popular opinion, I am really not interested in converting anyone to my specific point of view per se, but I am interested in being able to sit down at a table and have a dialogue with others of differing opinions.

So what’s you agenda Uppity?

Well, yes, I do have an agenda.  The main agenda is that we sit down and have dialogue, and not a dialogue that calls names or accuses the other of narrow-mindedness, but rather one that engages each other on a basic human level.

Usually I don’t make the following statement, but since I’ve written all of this I might as well say it: I do believe in a superior moral and ethical right.  One can see where I stand just through this blog series that somewhat engenders secular humanist ideals, and I’m an unapologetic Christian universalist at my core Carlton Pearson style and I’m sure this post will come and bite me in the ass when I try and get ordained.

That’s it, been wanting to work all of this out for a long time, so here it goes.

What say ye?

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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6 thoughts on “Being Black and Dealing With Postcolonialism in a Postmodern World

  1. I’m glad to see that somebody’s seminary education was a good investment because clearly you learned much! Congrats my friend and keep enlightening us.

    And as someone (I guess) who suffers from “black man who read a book syndrome” as you call it, I must respond to your post (especially since you called me out).

    I basically agree with your basic premise that blacks should embrace both post-modernity and post-colonialism (taking into consideration your qualifications) as guiding philosophies for faith and life. However, though African Americans are certainly affected by postmodernism or late modernity, I maintain that post-colonialism is a more adequate approach, mainly because the vices that have plagued modernity (like excessive human confidence, scientific deification, and rugged individualism) and have given birth to the current so-called post-modern moment are not dominate features of Black life. Instead, the effects of colonialism (as victims of European modernity) are more pervasive in the African American community. For this reason, I prefer post-colonialism over post-modernisms as a guiding philosophy for colonized people.

    But this is just my viewpoint….I guess I’ll have to respond in a post of my own.

  2. Uppity and @The Critical Cleric also,

    What neither of you addresses is the extent to which postcolonialism critiques African-American involvement in the grand colonialist and neo-colonialist enterprise overseas. The role of African Americans (and Latinos and Arabs and Asians) in the US not-really-post-colonization of “the Middle East” is epic; and the continuing impact of the US colonization of Japan post-war (you had a classmate who was converted by US black soldiers singing gospel) is ongoing.

    If we are going to use postcolonialism to understand the black experience in the US (as I think we must), we must also understand and be willing to name the way in which we, as beneficiaries and victims of US global neo-colonialism, perpetuate that same colonial enterprise.

    • @ Uppity Prof

      Thanks to Lomax and the reading of God and Empire I can’t help but look at the global imperialism of the United States and how we, even as black Americans are beneficiaries to living in the empire. And I came under much fire when I said that the current leader of the empire looks a lot like us-folk.

    • @UppityProf,
      The complicity of African Americans in grand colonialist and neo-colonialist enterprises (at home and abroad) is a reality that I would never deny. However, I view the role of African Americans in global colonization as further justification that postcolonialism is a more productive interpretive framework for engaging contemporary black life than postmodernity.

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