Race And Racism From Rousseau To Negritude Term Paper

Length: 5 pages Sources: 5 Subject: Race Type: Term Paper Paper: #91861501 Related Topics: Jean Jacques Rousseau, Souls Of Black Folk, Racism In America, Racism
Excerpt from Term Paper :

Firmin / Gobineau etc.

Is race a construct of the Enlightenment? Obviously the European encounter with a racially-constructed "other" begins a long time before the Enlightenment, with Montaigne's cannibals and Shakespeare's Caliban. But the Enlightenment facilitated a kind of scientism in thought that not only gave rise to new disciplines (like anthropology) but also permitted pseudo-science, like the so-called "scientific racism" of the Comte de Gobineau. I would like to examine how the question of race is first framed by Enlightenment thinkers, but then is later transformed in the twentieth century by thinkers like W.E.B. DuBois. If indeed DuBois was correct that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line," I will also show how those in the Negritude movement sought to overturn the assumptions of racism while essentially upholding the abstract values of the Enlightenment.

Diderot's Encyclopedie and Rousseau's Discours are both central documents in the history of the Enlightenment, and therefore share to some extent the Enlightenment tendency toward universalism and scientism in thought. The Encyclopedie lacks an entry for "race" as a concept, interestingly, but does include an entry for "Negro" (written by JHS Formey). The assumptions about race as a concept in the entry for "Negro," however, are largely scientific in their general approach. Yet of course the scientific discoveries that might explain the physical differences between an African and a European were many years away from Diderot's time, so the science is necessarily speculative:

Did all these peoples that we have just run through, so many diverse men, come from a single mother? We are not permitted to doubt it. What remains for us to examine is how so many different species can have been born from a single individual… It is not impossible that one day, when the series of white eggs that peoples our regions runs out, all the European nations will change color or that Ethiopia will only have white inhabitants. It is thus that in a deep quarry, once the vein of white marble is exhausted, one finds only rocks of one color after another. It is in this way that new races of men may appear on the earth and that old ones may be extinguished. (Encyclopedie, s.v. "Negro")

What is interesting here is that race is considered (however fancifully) as a mutable category. The authors of the Encyclopedie are not speculating on why Europeans are white and Ethiopians are black, except to suggest that it might just as easily be reversed in the future. In other words, considering the question seems to invite a general attitude of relativism. Except that this tactic in the Enlightenment of reversing the valences on racial questions seems to be found elsewhere. We might consider Rousseau in his Discours, where he basically inverts his distinction between the free "noble savage" and the slave, by essentially suggesting that all men, even masters, are essentially slaves to each other under the structure of early capitalism:

…Free and independent as men were before, they were now, in consequence of a multiplicity of new wants, brought into subjection, as it were, to all nature, and particularly to one another; and each became in some degree a slave even in becoming the master of other men: if rich, they stood in need of the services of others; if poor, of their assistance; and even a middle condition did not enable them to do without one another… All these evils were the first effects of property, and the inseparable attendants of growing inequality. (Rousseau)

Now obviously this is rhetorical on Rousseau's part -- just as when he says that men are "everywhere in chains" he does not mean that all men are literally slaves, instead he is making a rhetorical point, by pointing out that in a capitalist system even slaveowners are themselves "enslaved" metaphorically to the idea of ownership. This may be a valid point, but we also are tempted to ask if Rousseau should really be permitted such rhetorical flourishes when an actual real slave trade did exist in his own lifetime, a trade which was organized along racial lines.

Indeed the biggest problem here is that, despite the broad and expansive claims made in the Enlightenment for a new intellectual basis of society, the actual institution of slavery in the eighteenth century got a free pass from most thinkers -- presumably because of the heavy influence of Greece and Rome on the European intellectuals of this period, which simply takes slavery for...


This is where the Comte de Gobineau and his great antagonist Antenor Firmin enter the history. These are nineteenth century figures, and they both purport to be extending the scientific inquiries of the Enlightenment. Yet Gobineau is essentially attempting to justify things like slavery as the natural consequence of the racial distinctions involved, rather than a system of tyranny imposed by violence and the threat of violence. What is fascinating, however, is that Gobineau is capable of the same rhetorical maneuver that we also see in Rousseau and Diderot, and which we can arguably trace back to Montaigne: defending against the charge of racism in beholding the "other" by making it clear that one's identification with one's own race is not assured to begin with. Montaigne's cannibals are ethically superior to the Frenchmen who fight civil wars over religion; Rousseau's slaveowner is himself a slave to a monstrous system of thought; the Encyclopedie thinks it possible that one day Ethiopians will be white and Europeans black. All of these are different ways of accommodating relativism in the face of cultural encounter, but even Gobineau is able to perform this same cognitive maneuver:

As to the question of intellectual merit, I absolutely refuse to make use of the argument "every negro is a fool." My main reason for avoiding it is that I should have to recognize for the sake of balance that every European is intelligent: and heaven keep me from such a paradox! I will not wait for the friends of equality to show me such and such passages in books written by missionaries or sea-captains, who declare that some Yolof is a carpenter, some Hottentot a good servant, that some Kaffir dances and plays the violin, and some Bambara knows arithmetic. I am ready to admit without proof all the marvels of this kind that anyone can tell me, even about the most degraded savages. (Gobineau 180).

This is, of course, racism dressed up to seem like anti-racism (or at least principled misanthropy). As Firmin will note -- regarding Gobineau's faintly snide faith that "some Bambara knows arithmetic" -- "besides, the honor of having invented the science of numbers and surface measurement does not belong to the White race. The origin of mathematics goes back to Black Egypt, the land of the Pharaohs" (Firmin 168). However, the quarrel between Firmin and Gobineau is, in essence, predictable by what Rousseau seems to intuit -- the issue of property (and particularly of turning human beings into chattel property) establishes itself, and then warps the discourse around it. Essentially what Gobineau and Firmin are arguing, from different perspectives, is about whether slavery is justifiable: the fact that Firmin comes from Haiti, where Toussaint L'Ouverture was serious enough about the universalist ideals of the "Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen" that he led Haiti to its own democratic revolution, surely gives him the impetus to fight back against Gobineau, whose point-of-view is essentially to use and debase the views of the Enlightenment in an attempt make slavery justifiable on pseudo-scientific grounds just as public morality has begun to deem it unjustifiable.

However, by the twentieth century, slavery had become abolished more or less everywhere -- the great hold-outs in the nineteenth century had been the United States (where the issue was settled by civil war) and Brazil (which abolished slavery without civil war later in the century) and arguably Russia (where serfdom, a condition analogous to slavery but without a racial component, had persisted into the nineteenth century) -- and it becomes clear that Firmin's route is the one that must be taken. The paradox here is that Firmin's worldview is one which takes for granted the persistence of racism in order to assert against it. But in some sense we can locate in the relativistic rhetorical maneuver of the Enlightenment the source for WEB DuBois's famous concept of "double consciousness" described in his first chapter as "this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, -- an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." (DuBois 1). In some sense, the relativism encouraged by Enlightenment scientism has now become inward, and the black American…

Sources Used in Documents:

Works Cited

Cesaire, Aime. Discourse on Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000. Print.

DuBois, WEB. The Souls of Black Folk. Web. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/408/408-h/408-h.htm

Firmin, Antenor. The Equality of the Human Races. Trans. Asselin Charles. Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Print.

Formey, J.H.S. "Negro." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Pamela Cheek. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2003. Web. <http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0000.026>. Trans. Of "Negre," Encyclopedie ou Dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts et des metiers, vol. 1. Paris, 1751.
Gobineau, Arthur de. The Inequality of the Human Races. Trans. Adrian Collins. New York: Putnam, 1915. https://archive.org/stream/inequalityhuman00gobigoog#page/n206/mode/2up
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse on Inequality. 1754. Trans. GDH Cole. Web. Constitution Society. http://www.constitution.org/jjr/ineq.txt

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