Frequently, for reasons that are difficult to grasp, we know even before we have examined a person’s work that it will prove necessary and fruitful for our own private thoughts. Such, for me, was the case of the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe, whose writings my wife began to read in 2011 in connection with her work on African cinema. I should admit that before I met my wife, I had no real sense that there was such a thing as an African intellectual, and I certainly felt no obligation to acquaint myself with that continent to the same extent as I had done even with quite small European countries. It is not that I saw the people of Africa as intellectually or spiritually inferior to Americans or Europeans, but rather the reality of Africa was too tenuous to me: my awareness of it could be reduced to a short list of clichés derived from the three or four African authors I had read, what I remembered of the history of colonialism from my high school history courses, and various articles from the Economist and the New York Review of Books.
To put it in another way, at the risk of extravagance: philosophically speaking, every intentional object is already complete, irrespective of its relation to the external object it represents, and of which it is a co-attribute. The conviction that the intentional object –– for example, what I mean when I say “Africa” –– is inadequate with respect to our understanding of the world tends to arise only in concert with a kind of excitement or distress. Just as something we have ignored for years, considering it a settled content of our mind, suddenly arouses new interest if we are told that it is particularly valuable or dangerous, so the significance of a place or a group of people changes if we learn that what occurs there, or to them, or what they will do or will become, has or will have significance in relation to our bodies or souls.
At any rate, upon meeting my wife, I came to feel that my thorough ignorance of Africa was not excusable for an American of European heritage whose interests lay largely in literary modernism, but instead mere chauvinistic stupidity.
Two nights ago, I attended an event where Achille Mbembe spoke alongside the Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop, the Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and a North American poet with a comely baritone voice whose name I have forgotten. It cannot be said that the event failed the audience’s expectations: it was presented by a woman in an elaborate African costume, excerpts from each of the writers’ work were read by a similarly attired actress, and comments were made about the wisdom of elders. As is customary, they were posed a question having more or less nothing to do with the nature of their work, something to do with the importance of elders, and each tried to offer an answer that would not make him appear ludicrous. Boubacar Boris Diop cited the Senegalese proverb that when an old man dies, a library also dies; the poet spoke of Louisiana, where he had grown up, and how it had affected him more than he had assumed at an earlier stage in his life, and then he read a poem; but it was Achille Mbembe whose words interested me the most.
I am not sure, he began, that we can speak about the wisdom of elders. There has to be something more there before we can assume the presence of wisdom. He made reference to death, which has an important place in his work, and to the necessity of overcoming or making peace with one’s fear of death prior to achieving wisdom. I do not believe there is such a thing as overcoming or making peace with one’s fear of death, and yet I have a sense that there is a point to what he said and that in a certain way it is true. If we consider pillage to be the basic experience that defines Africa in the modern era, be it at the hands of the colonialists or the dictators who succeeded them, it is hard to believe that the nearly limitless avarice that lies at its base can be sustained in the face of an proper confrontation with one’s own death. The same can be said of the less obvious but no less unconscionable pleonexia of the modern-day occident, where outlandish numbers of people feign to believe that the rescission of all legal and moral barriers to greed and selfishness will give rise to just societies as an accidental byproduct. Do our plutocrats imagine that on their deathbed or senescent, their memories of hedonism past will serve as equal consolation to the kindness and generosity they foreswore?
As soon as the event began, the woman beside me, whom I later learned to be the chief figure behind a blog dealing with African culture, began playing on her phone. She would tweet short excerpts of the participants’ words, then check her so-called “tweet analytics,” often clicking on the profiles of people who had favorited or retweeted what she had posted. The majority of the profiles had emoji in the description along with phrases like “love baseball.” By the time Mbembe spoke, she seemed to have become frustrated, and wrote a long, irritated text message to a friend complaining of the age of the panelists and asking, “Where are the young voices from Africa?” She seemed oblivious to the likelihood that such voices as she longed to hear would not be found on a panel devoted to elders and wisdom. “I read a lot of African literature and I’ve never heard of any of these people,” she wrote, before deleting the foregoing and replacing it with “I’ve barely heard of any of these people.”
Later, Mbembe spoke of the rapine to which Africa had been subjected and the bond between its degraded condition and the obloquy suffered by black people the world over. The status of the black person as a sovereign subject, Mbembe stated, was inseparable from the fate of Africa: so long as large swaths of Africa were seen as a means rather than an end, black people would not be seen as the confamiliars of other races, but as a lesser kind of creature, either useful or burdensome, depending on their willingness to comply to the rules imposed on them. A similar argument was employed by Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, though with far less sophistication than Mbembe brings to the theme.
I found these words particularly moving coming from him, not only because of the intelligence with which he framed his arguments, but also because of the kind of sentimental details that might be termed novelistic, that are superficially incidental but nonetheless have a great effect on us. Mbembe was impeccably dressed; his English was precise, showing a distaste for shortcuts and generalities; and when he took notes on the other speakers’ words, he used a kind of pen of which I myself am fond, because my writing becomes quickly illegible if the ink is prone to bleeding.
We notice these things about a person and get some sense of what it might be like to live his life; we come to contemplate his life as a stretch of lived time, rife with longings and perceptions, the singularity of which is incompatible with a concept like nigger. It is strange to me that this word, and the intellectual languor at its roots, still persists. And yet it is impossible to visit friends and family in the south without hearing this word, even though the majority of the people I encounter there are, by southern standards, “liberal.” And I always come away thinking that the contempt for black flesh, the refusal to embrace black people as brothers and to welcome them, without reservations, into the fold of American society, is an ineradicable aspect of the American national character.
Indeed, it is impossible to spend more than perhaps two hours in the United States without recollecting the degradation, harassment, and contempt to which black people have been subject here since the moment of their arrival. I do not know whether what Mbembe says about the interdependence of African sovereignty and the dignity of individual black people, regardless of their place of residence, is true, but it is a very provocative idea, and I appreciate his examining the question in so earnest and rigorous a manner.