Race & Slavery in America
Transcript for Student Voices
Anthony Bogues/Felicia Denaud
You’re listening to Student Voices, a podcast featuring student-led interviews of Brown University faculty based on the Race & in America panel discussion series, curated by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America in partnership with the Office of the Provost.
Felicia Denaud: I'm Felicia Denaud, a Ph.D. student in Africana Studies, and I'm speaking with Professor Anthony Bogues, Director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, about the recent panel discussion on Race & Slavery in America. Welcome, Dr. Bogues.
Professor Anthony Bogues: Thank you very much, Felicia. I'm really thankful for you agreeing to do this.
Felicia Denaud: My pleasure. So in your remarks, Dr. Bogues, you offer three propositions and one provocation. I'd like to start with the first proposition, which appropriately concerns foundations. You said “racial slavery, and the dispossession of the Indigenous and their genocide are the foundations of America, the Americas, the new world, the modern world.” In my own work, I've been concerned with the founding violence, founding question, and founding heresy, drawing from [Sylvia] Wynter, of a given political order.
I'm wondering if you can talk about your own thinking around the structural bedrock of the modern world. How did you arrive at the particular account that you have? I was particularly interested, for example, in how the settler colony figured into your understanding of racial slavery in your remarks. And how has your own thinking about foundations changed over the course of your career? What's at stake in the various ways we as Black thinkers have approached foundation?
Professor Anthony Bogues: Thank you very much, Felicia. That was really a good cluster of questions. Let me just say that I begin thinking about foundations, not as a table, grounds in which originary things happen, and we can always find out exactly what those originary things are. I think foundations are always unstable. And I think our understanding of foundations [is] always shaped by asking a set of questions about the times in which we live.
Secondly, in trying to think through the question of “foundations,” I'm trying to think about what are the kind[s] of historical logics that shaped the modern world that we...that have not been paid attention to in conventional historiography, but also very importantly in the history of political ideas, political thought, and political philosophy. And what are the structures of knowledge that were created in the time of this “foundation?”
And it therefore seems to me, in trying to think about these questions, that one has to come back to the European colonial empire, and you have to come back to the Colombian voyage, and, therefore, you have to come back to 1492. In fact, since appearing on that panel, I've been thinking more and more that 1492 is really a historical marker for the human species itself. It is a historical marker because it brings Europe and Africa and the Americas into contact, into asymmetrical encounters. And as that happens, then a whole set of logics, new logics, are opened up, not just for Europe, not just for the Americas, and not just for continental Africa, singularly, but it actually opens up a global terrain in which we have to now begin to think differently. In thinking about that, one of the things that struck me is that the ways in which the asymmetrical encounter happens -- because it is a colonial encounter -- is that it essentially begins to think about human classification because people are seeing people for the first time. And as they are seeing people for the first time, particularly in European thinking, in the visual imaginary of European thinking, the people they see are actually going against some of the ideas that they have, particularly Europeans, as they draw from the Renaissance. The Africans also have another set of ideas about these people because they are white people, they seem to have no skin, this is how some people think about it. And the Indigenous people are thinking these are strange beings as well. So there's all of this strangeness that is happening. And what happens in this asymmetrical encounter is that because the dominant position is that of the Europeans, over time, then they actually set up schemas of classification, of human classification based upon questions of race.
And so that's what I mean by it opens up a different human logic. The logic it opens up is not a logic about commonality and resemblances. The logic it opens up is that of differences and domination. And once it opens up that logic, the questions of race, the questions of inferiority, the questions of superiority, questions of whiteness, all of these things begin to emerge and become calcified, ossified, and become systems, which then become social systems, which then become ingrained in the societies that that created.
The other point I would want to make is that this colonial encounter also opens up not just human classificators, schemas of hierarchy and difference, but also a sort of economic life. It is the engine of capitalism. What is important is, therefore, it is part and parcel of a transformation of how human societies used to work, where commerce was not seen as the most valued thing, where honor or religion or something else was seen as most honorable; in Muslims, in Islam, in Christianity, and so on, but already it was in African religions. What became over time the most valued thing was commerce. And as questions of commerce became the most valued thing, profit became the most valued thing. And the business of the human kind of moved down the totem pole in terms of a certain hierarchy of values. There are two things, two logics that open: the logic of racial differences, which lead to racial slavery or which creates anti-Black racism, which also then leads to the genocide of the Indigenous population, both on the American continent and the South American continent and the Caribbean. Then the logic of capitalism.
[Karl] Marx says that the primitive accumulation begins with the Atlantic slave trade. I would want to argue that primitive accumulation actually begins with the opening up of the colonial encounter and the ways in which, in fact, whether you're Spanish or Dutch or French at the beginning, you are looking for gold, and the way in which, for example, in Latin America, some of the single largest silver mines were constructed even just as the slave trade was also beginning to happen. So that you begin to say this logic of capitalism that is opened up really begins to prepare the system. And then you also begin to see the system of classification, which is reinscribed through anti-Black racism. And in that reinscription of anti-Black racism, Indigenous people are also low on the totem pole. That’s the foundation. So then I would argue the logics of what we are now comes out of that.
The third thing, quite frankly, as the historical process proceeds, is the way people begin to think about their environment; the transformation of how we think about ecology and the natural world happens also at the same time. That transformation, therefore, if you think about domination, anti-Black racism, if you think about capitalism, think about environmental degradation, think about the natural world, all of those things, mind you, opens up with the European colonial adventure, which the Colombian voyage, essentially, is a signal moment for.
Felicia Denaud: Thank you. That was rich, and also actually stages the next question perfectly as it relates to classification and visuality. So in your second proposition, you talked about plantation slavery or racial slavery as a distinctive form of domination, and you outlined that argument just now, but in so doing, you specifically use this term of the visual grammar of race as central; it congeals in a way that is central to anti-Black racism.
I want to depart a little bit and talk about visuality, but its relationship to your role as a curator, which to me seems related if not impacted by this sensitivity that you have to the visual grammar of race. So I'm wondering if you can broadly talk about your experience collaborating with Black visual artists and, perhaps, how their work compels your own, or, more broadly on this connection between visual capture and the ways that we create through it?
Professor Anthony Bogues: Thanks so much, Felicia, that's really an interesting question because my work with visual artists, particularly Haitian artists, has led me to a position that says that seeing is knowing, to put it very simply. Because there's a way in which we as scholars think about knowledge as coming from...if you're doing history or history of thought that knowledge can be found in the book; if you are doing sociology, knowledge can be found within society, what is called a “structures of society,” etc.; and if you're in politics, you know, knowledge is about studying political systems, etc. In working with artists, I began to realize that, actually, the visual is also a form of knowledge, and, therefore, what I say: seeing is also knowing. And then when I began to think about a visual grammar, what I was beginning to talk about was the ways in which the questions of Blackness are seen by folks, and [Frantz] Fanon says it, you know, look at Negro in Black Skin, White Masks. If you begin to see a Black person, you already have in your head what constitutes that person. You don't have to know them. There are no individual Blacks. Blacks do not have individuality. They are a collective because they are marked by a phenotype. They are marked by their skin, which is a marker that comes out of racial slavery. And so to think about this visual grammar is to really say that when whiteness, and whiteness is also part of that visual grammar, when Black folks see you, you immediately trigger in somebody something emotional, or it triggers in somebody's mind what [constitutes] that person.
I'll give you a real concrete example. I had a very progressive white professor confess to me one day that she had young Black men in her class who wore their pants in a certain way and dressed a certain way. And that when they came up to her to ask a question, she felt a certain hostility inside her body. And she wanted to know what to do about it, right?
I mean she's progressive. She does really good work on urban poverty and so on, but it confirmed to me that when people see somebody, they have knowledge of that person. And then what that evokes is a certain ‘imaginary’ about this person. So that there is a way in which, I try to argue in my work, we might want to think about anti-Black racism as also a fantasy because it has no scientific basis. But because it’s been going on for so long, you know, over 500 years, and because it has portrayed Black individuals in a certain way and gives a certain knowledge to other people, false knowledge about what Black folks are, then it is actually a structural fantasy, which is invoked, which becomes, to use a Gramscian phrase, a kind of common sense. So you see the person you already know. Working with visual artists has made me realize that.
Working with visual artisans, particularly from Haiti, as you will know, because you have Haitian antecedents, it made me begin to realize that the visual grammar is not just a question of race, but there's also a visual grammar that is linked to language, particularly for ordinary people. Within the art world, particularly popular art in Haiti and in the Caribbean, and I would argue in places like the Congo and other parts of Africa, this is not just a vernacular art or an exotic art; this is actually a popular art in which people are trying to tell historical stories, trying to tell stories about themselves as well.
I was in Haiti this weekend, I was talking to somebody who was there right after the fall of [Jean-Claude] Duvalier. And he took out a book that showed me all the artwork on the walls right through the entire country right after the fall of Duvalier. And they don't exist anymore, but the extraordinary outbursts of art on the walls, the murals on every single wall space that was available through the entire country. Then this guy photographed them, and the photographs were shown to me on the weekend. It was extraordinary. So what that then told me, it actually confirmed, was that the visual art, particularly coming out of the human Black experience, not just the Black experience, but the human Black experience, is actually a certain language. It's a language about possibilities. It's a language about the real. It's a language about the present. It is a language in which ordinary people are trying to grapple with their specific lives at a specific moment. That's how I think about the visual, and therefore to think about the visual is also to think about Black life.
Felicia Denaud: Thank you, Dr. Bogues.
Student Voices is a feature of the Race & in America digital publication series developed by the Brown University Library. Our theme music is “see the unseen” by Butter. Explore the series at DigitalPublications.Brown.edu