Achille Mbembe is Research Professor in History and Politics at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He is coeditor of
Laurent Dubois is Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History and Director of the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke University.
The Well of Fantasies
Across modernity, Africa and the Black Man (le Nègre) became signs of an alterity impossible to assimilate. The terms became linked as early capitalism transformed enslaved Africans into Blacks, and Blacks into commodities. “Africa” designated less a geography than a racial condition of the unhuman, impotent and empty. The twin concepts of Blackness and Whiteness nourished European imperial and colonial projects to colonize, segregate, dehumanize, and partition. In France the formation of a racist consciousness underpinned by a biological discourse on race was developed deliberately in the context of nineteenth-century imperialism and the nation-state. Colonial racism marked a refusal to see, a reassignation of the Black Man as entertainment, and an exoticization. The politics of friendship that emerged during slavery was at heart a politics of condescendence. Likewise, avant-garde and anticolonial movements appropriated the racial signifier to mark a return to authenticity and vitalism within a degenerating Europe.