A struggle for possession of the fairest tracts of country took place, and the more intelligent and consequently the stronger races were the victors. It was for the good of all the world that it should be so. It seems to be God’s law that man must raise himself constantly higher, and he who cannot as well as he who will not conform to that law must pass out of existence” George McCall Theal, quoted in David Chidester’s Savage Systems, p. 222.
My reading and thinking have been occupied lately by a question about religion and death. In various authors of the “French Atlantic,” I’ve noticed a recurring invocation of the Middle Passage. At crucial moments–e.g., in the opening section of Glissant’s Poetics of Relation or in Fanon’s use of Césaire’s “descent” in Black Skin, White Masks–these thinkers re-member or call upon the horrific and death-saturated passage from Africa to the Caribbean.
My own family history has a peculiar tradition of not talking about death. In fact, my mother’s parents had a pact with the wider family: they would gather the whole extended family for weddings but not for funerals. We would celebrate love but not gather in love to celebrate and mourn those who passed away. And so, for me, a white man with a history of disquietude regarding death, these passages–both the texts and the passages to which the texts refer–present both an intrigue and an obstacle. How can I place myself in them? What do they speak to me? And how do they shed light on the questions that have motivated my study, in particular, colonialism and religion?
Chidester’s Savage Systems documents how contemporary discourses on religion and religions were formed through colonial struggles of power. He carefully documents what he calls “the frontier hypothesis,” which states: “Before coming under colonial subjugation, Africans had no religion. After local control was established, however, they were found to have had a religious system after all” (20). If they fight European colonialism, they have no religion; once they are conquered and subjected to European rule, they do, in fact, have a religion.
Those with no religion were inhuman and subsequently had no right to the land and could be killed with impunity. Those with some form of religion could therefore be civilized and converted (which were seen to mutually imply each other, and thus amount to the same thing). To be converted was to be brought into another relation with death: the passing away of the native’s identity, language, culture, religion, and even according to some, their race. As another writer of the time said, “the history of colonization is the record of the dark man’s disappearance” (101). This disappearance happened both through be putting to death and through their entrance into a form of life that entailed them giving themselves death. Two forms of death, and between these two ways of giving death, the concept of religion was formed (I’m also currently reading Derrida’s book on religion, The Gift of Death).
When thinkers like Césaire, Fanon, Glissant–and a host of others outside of the French context–appeal to and re-member the disintegration and death of the Middle Passage, two things happen. First, a space for life is preserved and held intact over against Western civilization’s gift of death. When Césaire “accepts” the scourges and “descends” to the rotting seas of the French Atlantic, he displays a black consciousness that is no mere reaction to the horrors inflicted by white Christian, European civilization. His consciousness is a positive assertion of life, even life found in an acceptance and tracing of the wounds of the Middle Passage. Despite Europe’s gift of death, Césaire (or Fanon through Césaire) upholds a life and love that will not be conquered.
Secondly, the invocation of the Atlantic abyss interrupts white transcendence. As the religion/culture/civilization/race that fulfill God’s law and raises itself higher, European civilization depends on an ability to transcend what it has put to death. It can live, and must live, with a certain ignorance of the death it has given. The remembering of the Atlantic passage interrupts this transcendence. Those who were negated (sublated, to allude to the Hegelian dynamics) are, through these texts, still present. This previous stage, this earlier moment that has been left behind and put to death is presented, that is, it is both given and made present. If this moment is still present, then God’s law has been broken, and the future is not reached through the “stronger race” and the gift of death (religion). The future (of life) cannot be projected or secured by white civilization at all, for it lacks the power to give total death. Thus, the upholding of a life and love that cannot be conquered is also the (perhaps terrifying) gift of a future–and a space–that cannot controlled through the power of death. It is an unknown future (and an open space), but a future (and space) that of necessity includes and upholds all those deemed unfit for civilized life.