Part I: Fanon, Cone and Carter—On Imposed Narratives, Counter-Narratives and the Christian Narrative

In the closing section of Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon emphasizes the need for the black person to be future-oriented and to actively reject the white-scripted narrative into which he was born while creatively carving out a new present and future.  For Fanon, this meant a willingness to employ violence and to risk his own life so that human beings would no longer “be enslaved on this earth”.[1] Yet, his vision also included a call to human solidarity, a call to blacks and whites and to all human beings to “move away from the inhuman voices of their respective ancestors so that a genuine communication can be born”.[2]Frantz Fanon

Does his appeal to human solidarity, his repudiation of the past and his refusal to allow the “density of History to determine” his acts mean that Fanon has no interest in his ethnic roots or that he sees no value in highlighting the distinct contributions of people of color?[3] One need not draw such conclusions.  Rather, because he is acutely aware of the power of socio-historical forces to create systematic, racialized mechanisms and eventually essential-ize a people group, Fanon understood the need for a “disalienation” to occur.[4] This disalienation requires that the black person break the bonds of his historical (white) inscription and begin to write his own narrative.  Here we should not overlook Fanon’s affirmation of human free agency even in extreme situations of oppression.  As human beings, we are not determined completely by socio-historical conditions.  However, in the colonial situation where skin color defines in advance a person’s value and his or her place in society, abstract philosophical schemata—such as Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema and Hegel’s mythological master/slave dialectic—come up short because they fail to consider the existential reality of racial difference.[5]

Among other things, Fanon’s account of his experience in a white-scripted world points to the human need to understand oneself as part of a larger narrative—a narrative in which both human freedom and cultural and ethnic diversity are valued and respected.  Though the context was slavery and not colonialism and the dissimilarities between the two should be acknowledged, it is instructive to consider the ways in which some African Americans re-constituted their identity by bringing an ancient narrative of oppression and liberation into conversation with their present circumstances.  As Rowan Williams observes, if the dominant group takes on the role of defining the out-group’s identity, we should not be astounded if the latter’s response is, “‘We don’t need you to tell us who we are’.  Certain kinds of separatism are necessary to highlight the reality of a difference that has been overridden by the powerful conscripting the powerless into their story”.[6]

In fact, such a response in the form of counter-narratives of non-white-defined identity and creative strategies of resistance was precisely how many African-American slaves chose to struggle against white oppression and the brutality of American slavery.  Given the theological and specifically Christian approach that my account will discuss, it is necessary to acknowledge that Christianity has not been faithful to its own best teachings related to the issue of slavery.  In fact, under the banner of Christianity and with the “justification” of Scripture, many proclaiming the name of Christ fought to preserve the inhumane institution of slavery.[7] Nonetheless, in spite of such oppression, the African spirit resisted a reduction to white sameness.[8]

This resistance took many forms from physical violence to seeking a new life in free territories to purposely disrupting work routines.  Whatever shape the opposition took, a common conviction driving the slaves’ subversive maneuverings was a refusal to accept the degraded, sub-human existence imposed on them by white masters, coupled with a commitment to assert a self-defined, rather than an other-defined account of black identity.[9] Another area in which resistance manifested itselfwas in what we might call the specifically religious sphere.  “Slave religion”(Cone’s term), which continually asserted the dignity of blacks because they too are created in God’s image, not only affirmed “freedom from bondage” but also “freedom-in-bondage”.[10] That is, though Christian slaves did seek an ultimate end to their sufferings in the next life, they also believed in and sang spirituals about a God who was actively involved in history now—in their history—“making right what whites had made wrong.  Just as God delivered the Children of Israel from Egyptian slavery, drowning Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, he will also deliver black people from American slavery”.[11] The spirituals are often inspired by biblical passages which emphasize God’s care for and active involvement in liberating oppressed people, as well as his willingness in the Person of Jesus Christ to enter into an exiled existence and even physically touch the untouchables.

While the black spirituals communicate an abiding trust in God’s promise to deliver his people, they also provide an avenue for the slaves to cry out in their suffering, thus creating their own version of Israel’s “How long, O Lord?”[12] Here we not only have an eschatological hope on the basis of who God is and what he has done in history and is doing in the present, but we likewise have an acknowledgment of the eschatological tension experienced now where injustice often prevails.  When the day finally came and the slaves were freed from their bonds, these African American believers experienced an “eschatological freedom grounded in the events of the historical present, affirming that even now God’s future [the eschaton] is inconsistent with the realities of slavery.  Freedom, for black slaves, […] was a historical reality that had transcendent implications”.[13] In other words, even though a form of liberation had come—a proleptic view of the eschaton—the very fact that slavery existed and thus required a decree of emancipation underscores the dislocated character of our present world.   In short, one of the central theological themes of black spirituals is the belief that God has not forsaken his people, coupled with the conviction that he will one day deliver them from their unjust human oppressors.   However, it must be stressed that the faith in view here was not a mere passive waiting for divine deliverance but involved creative strategies of active resistance to a white-defined identity.  “Resistance was the ability to create beauty and worth out of the ugliness of slave existence.  Resistance made dignity more than just a word to be analyzed philosophically”.[14]

Notwithstanding the genuine differences between Fanon’s colonial (and postcolonial) context and the African-American’s enslaved (and segregated) context, the oppressed in both situations are given an other-scripted narrative—a narrative which is one component of a socio-political, racialized apparatus that seeks to destroy difference.  Whether the narrative comes from “enlightened” Europeans or “Christian” slaveholders, the latter having more in common with the former than with the teachings of Jesus the suffering servant, the goal is domination and a reduction to white sameness.  If in fact colonialism and modern institutions of slavery are fueled by a desire to possess, destroy and re-make others in one’s own (white) image, and Christians who have supported these projects have been in grave error, is it possible to vindicate Christianity so that it might still be considered a valid option for the possibility of saving difference?  J. Kameron Carter believes it is possible and has recently made a case for rescuing Christianity from its perverse instantiations.

In part two, I shall discuss Carter’s reading of Maximus the Confessor.

Notes


[1] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 202.

[2] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 206.

[3] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 205.

[4] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 206.  This is not to deny the complicity involved in the black person’s internalization of the negative other-scripted narrative.

[5] This is not to suggest that Fanon’s critique resulted in his repudiation of all philosophical analyses and methodologies.  Rather, Fanon’s project can be seen as a needed corrective and expansion of the philosophical tradition.  On Fanon’s original contributions to the master/slave dialectic, see Nigel Gibson, ‘Dialectical Impasses:  Turning the Table on Hegel and the Black’, parallax 8 (2002), esp. pp. 33-41.  As Gibson explains, ‘[r]eciprocity in the colonial experience is not so much deformed as closed off.  The colour barrier stops the dialectic.  Fanon further maintains that the slave cannot win recognition through labour; since the master wants only work, he is not at all interested in recognition’ (p. 36).

[6] Rowan Williams, ‘Nobody Knows Who I Am Till the Judgement Morning,’ in On Christian Theology, (Oxford:  Blackwell, 2000), p. 281.

[7] See, e.g., James Cone’s discussion of slave catechisms created by white ‘Christians’ for the purpose of producing docile slaves and to attempt to convince slaves that they were in fact created to be slaves (The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation. (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972), pp. 22-23.  Here one sees more continuity with Aristotle’s notion of ‘natural slaves’ than the biblical teaching that all humans are created in the image of God and are therefore equal before God.

[8] As Cone explains, ‘[w]hen white people enslaved Africans, their intention was to dehistoricize black existence, to foreclose the possibility of a future defined by the African heritage.  White people demeaned black people’s sacred tales, ridiculing their myths and defiling the sacred rites.  Their intention was to define humanity according to European definitions so that their brutality against Africans could be characterized as civilizing the savages.  But white Europeans did not succeed; and black history is the record of their failure’ (The Spirituals and The Blues, pp. 23-24).

[9] Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 25.

[10] Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 28.  In chapter two, ‘The Black Spirituals and Black Experience’, Cone highlights the numerous ways in which African-American slaves actively resisted the white-imposed narrative and refused to accept the biblical hermeneutic of their ‘Christian’ masters.  ‘The slaves were obliged to create their own religion out of the remnants that were available and useful, both African and Christian.  These elements were woven together to provide a historical possibility for human existence.  While white religion had taught blacks to look for their reward in heaven through obedience to white masters on earth, black slaves were in fact carving out a new style of earthly freedom’ (The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 28; italics added).

[11] Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 32.

[12] Commenting on the slaves’ expression of faith in the midst of unjust suffering, Cone writes, ‘[f]aith in the righteousness of God was not easy for black people, since God’s liberating work in the world was not always when they expected it.  Their faith did not cancel the pain of enslavement’ (The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 35).

[13] Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 42.

[14] Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 27.

2 thoughts on “Part I: Fanon, Cone and Carter—On Imposed Narratives, Counter-Narratives and the Christian Narrative”

  1. Cynthia,

    First, I am fully persuaded by your claim that “…in the colonial situation where skin color defines in advance a person’s value and his or her place in society, abstract philosophical schemata—such as Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema and Hegel’s mythological master/slave dialectic—come up short because they fail to consider the existential reality of racial difference.” I think this is a good insight. Clearly MP’s corporeal schema assumes a privileged orientation and freedom of bodily comportment not afforded to African-Americans. However, I am less persuaded by your use of Cone. I wonder if Cone overstates the case when he claims that the abolition of slavery was experienced as an eschaton? Freedom was hardly achieved by the abolition of slavery. Blacks remained politically and economically disenfranchised for almost a century more. Why not acknowledge the narcotizing affect Christian theology had on slaves, where it mitigated against resistance rather than facilitated it? Was the Christian theology of the day emancipatory and subversive or does Cone read that into it anachronistically? Additionally, Cone’s statement “Resistance was the ability to create beauty and worth out of the ugliness of slave existence,” while noble and dignified, seems to bear the stain of acceptance rather than the sting of resistance. To resist is to refuse the “ugliness of slavery,” not to use it as raw materials for a more palatable existence.

    This is a really great post and you make me want to read more of Fanon. I look forward to reading more of your reflections on his work.

    John Macready

  2. Hi John,

    Cone’s point is not that the eschaton has in fact arrived with the emancipation proclamation. Rather, he is pointing to proleptic glimpses of what the eschaton will be like—i.e. no more slavery.
    Of course the situation after the “liberation” of American slaves was a complete mixed bag—the Jim Crow South is just one example. Also, Cone’s claims about resistance aren’t that different from something Foucault says about the dialectic of power. That is, power is *both limiting and en-abling. So even within oppressive structures and mechanisms, creativity can manifest from within such structures. This is Cone’s point, viz. the slaves developed their own ethical codes in contrast to the dominant group’s “ethical” practices, they subverted work routines and they developed black spirituals, thus creating beauty in the midst of the “ugliness of slave existence.” Cone is not at all sugar-coating the “Christianity” of the white slave-holders; he’s explicit that they were misguided.

    Best,
    Cynthia

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