Teaching the Enlightenment and race

Hello all,

This is just a quick post to talk about my experiences teaching the Enlightenment today. We actually had some carryover from last week on the early modern era, since we only got through life in courtly society but not to Anton Wilhelm Amo, a story that I really think is worth getting into in detail because we have an uncommonly large source base on him. And since today was going to be about philosophy, I thought that having the students think about the meaning of “blackness” (in which I was consciously eliding 1) physical appearance, 2) African origin, 3) a sense of assumed identity) for Amo’s life and experiences would be a good way to lead into “what’s new” with the Enlightenment.

So we opened today with Amo, and it’s a shame really that more students hadn’t really done the readings on him, since there’s so much to talk about if you can get into details. What significance does his legal status play in his opportunities, his choice to go into education rather than courtly service, his relationship with his patron, and so on? Was his status as a “Moor” significant in his opportunities and advancement within the academy? Jumping ahead, it’s useful to ask why he went back to West Africa in the end. You can look ahead to Enlightenment commentary on him and argue that his blackness made him a target, but challenging this idea means examining the testimonials that praised Amo as one in a long line of great African philosophers. But this also requires engaging with the fact of his failed romantic relationship with a white German woman, and an amazing poem mocking the two for the impossibility of their relationship, he a Mohr and she a woman of high status. Was this about the impossibility of an interracial marriage (“modern racial prejudice is here”) or was this about Mohr as merely a descriptive category containing individuals who were no more likely to be high-born than a knight (“not yet, not yet, give it time…”)?

Another angle worth exploring is the meaning of Amo’s blackness for himself. After all, his dissertation was an attack on the legality of enslaving Africans, and he did sign his work with the appellation “An African.” To me this suggests a consciousness of himself as having a particular relationship defined by his African heritage and the experience of slavery that we might consider more modern.

From here we continued into the Enlightenment. I broke them into two groups and assigned them opposing propositions: The Enlightenment was/wasn’t responsible for inventing modern ideas of race. Then I had them do one-on-one debates for 5-10 minutes, and once that was completed I put them back in their groups and asked them to formulate, as a group, the opposite proposition to the one they had just been arguing for. Then the two groups had a general debate.

In this they seemed relatively unable to articulate a clear idea of why the Enlightenment was not simply racist, period. This despite the fact that they had Smith’s NYT article as well as Kenan Malik’s really engaging and thought-provoking (I find, anyway) response. Even those trying to take Malik’s side found they couldn’t make a case. Partly they may not have read very closely–it’s longer than Smith’s and much more nuanced and also full of miscellaneous names. But because they couldn’t really articulate the case, I spent the last quarter of an hour or so trying to get them to understand what Malik is saying.

I think this debate is important because it gets at what, to my mind, is the fundamental question about the Enlightenment and race. Is the aspiration to universality, however nobly intended, inherently oppressive because it must necessarily depend on some standard that can be infused with contemporary prejudices/hierarchies? Or is it rather that we need to take seriously Enlightenment thinkers’ insistence on the unity and equality of the human race–even in the face of their clear eurocentrism–precisely because it led them to effort to understand distant peoples on their own terms and even a forceful critique of the oppression of their day?

For my own part I lean toward the latter, not because it absolves the Enlightenment thinkers for their racist prejudice (it doesn’t–Kant et al. had lots of really offensive ideas). But what it does do is put the “blame” squarely on thinkers of the 19th century and also preserves the possibility of talking about human unity/difference in ways that can challenge existing systems of oppression. Anyway, that’s what I was trying to get my students to think about, whether or not they interpret Kant’s “On the different Human Races” or “On Perpetual Peace” or Herder’s “Neger-Idyllen” along these lines.


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