Emancipation from Mental Slavery: Color Line and Empire

The would-be black savant was confronted by the paradox that the knowledge his people needed was a twice-told tale to his white neighbors, while the knowledge which would teach the white world was Greek to his own flesh and blood. The innate love of harmony and beauty that set the ruder souls of his people a-dancing and a-singing raised but confusion and doubt in the soul of the black artist; for the beauty revealed to him was the soul-beauty of a race which his larger audience despised, and he could not articulate the message of another people. This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten thousand thousand people,—has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed about to make them ashamed of themselves. (W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 5)

The color line may seem like an odd thing for a gnostic and spiritualist blog to talk about, but the veil that defines the color line is one of the many that separates us from understanding and enlightenment. And, like Du Bois said, it isn’t just any old veil, but one of the defining veils of our era.

(Have I said this before? If not: while the obstacles to (human) gnosis are common to people regardless of place and time, the degree to which this or that obstacle manifests depends on the historical situation of the gnostic. That includes the gnostic’s personal history, their autobiography if you will, and the network of historical situations from which that autobiography is woven.)

Du Bois defines the color line simply enough as

the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. (Souls of Black Folk, 1)

This relationship is defined by the dramatic military and economic might of one set of peoples (the whites of Europe and America) over another. This sounds simple, even simplistic, but it isn’t.

At the root of the color line is a historical accident. Some of that accident has to do with the confluence of technical, demographic, geological, and economic factors in Europe that gave its population the opportunity to develop the tools for world supremacy. There is also a vital social and cultural shift that makes Europeans able to view this confluence as something to be exploited and provides a framework for that exploitation.

That socio-cultural shift takes place around what Max Weber called the ‘Protestant ethic.’ Ideas about efficiency, profit, labor, capital, discipline, experimentation, and innovation all play key roles in creating the kinds of social structures (from colleges to workhouses, armies to colonial offices, plantations to offices) that motivate and support technical development.

(Protestantism makes more sense to me against the backdrop of early modern Islam. While Protestantism provided the opportunity for a political break with Rome, the scientific and technical features of the shift depend upon the sciences as they flourished under Islam.

Similarly, too, the religious and economic pluralism at the heart of the new ethic owes more than a little to the sort of pluralism fostered under early modern Islam. More than a few Protestants spent time in the more tolerant Islamic world during the early phases of the Reformation when Rome still had a lot of political muscle throughout Europe; the Protestants seemed to have appreciated what they found. Then there is the radical opposition to idolatry… Anyway, this is a tangent.)

I tend to think of the Protestantism as somewhat incidental to the ethic, but there is at least one point where Protestantism’s theological attitudes were central to the development of the ethic. The criticism of Catholic idolatry encompassed Catholic ritual, including not just Church ritual but the network of popular festivals integrated within local Church life.

Roman Catholicism’s power manifested in a complex network of rituals that occupied and structured the time of European communities. The reform of the ritual world that Protestantism demanded thus brought with it a dramatic change in the daily life that ritual world structured. The Counter-Reformation within the Catholic Church wrought some of these changes within the Catholic world, too, though not to the extent the Protestant break made possible.

The time that went into ritual obligations in the Catholic world could go elsewhere. That elsewhere could have been all manner of things, but what it ended up being was business and production. In this way, the new ethic is less ‘Protestant’ than ‘industrial,’ though it was entangled tightly with the historical moment of Protestantism.

Okay, yeah, so color line, right? The differentiation between Protestants and Catholics is one of the first manfiestations of it, prior to it becoming ‘colored.’ The ritual world that Protestantism turns away from is identified with superstition proper to ‘ruder’ souls. I recall reading through letters written by British travelers to Africa in the 18th century in which the Catholic rites and the rites of African peoples were both identified as appealing to simpler and superstitious minds. Compare, too, the parallel development of the plantation in Ireland and the New World.

As this new ethic develops, it helps spur the various industrial revolutions that form the basis of Europe’s emergence as a global force. As Europeans jockey amongst themselves, they are drawing upon an increasingly global network of resources. The various peoples associated with those networks are not kin, though. Oftentimes, they are all-but-faceless sources of wealth. That they live according to principles alien to the industrial ethic makes them even easier to dismiss. What they do seem to have in common with each other is that they aren’t white; they look different.

That visible difference becomes the aesthetic anchor for the emergence of the color line. While Islamic law made a distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim when it came to taking slaves, Europeans came to make a distinction between white and non-white. The centrality of Africa as a source of this labor helped to solidify this into a sense of white and black, with a fringe of other ethnic groups who were often seen as alien, though not quite as inhuman as blacks.

While the color line begins with historical accident, it gets incorporated into ideological conceptions about what makes Europe special. With their newfound and expanding power, Europeans are able to impose this distinction on the world. They are able to actively oppress Africans and force them into situations, like slavery, that make it impossible for them to develop an equal response to European society.

(I realize ‘European’ is an imprecise term and elides some of the complexities of the historical situation. The color line developed most intensely within the British colonies, which is no surprise given the confluence of Protestantism and industrialism there. However, it wasn’t absent from Spanish and Portuguese colonies, but developed subtler hierarchies, shades of gray between the black and white. Pardon the generalization–there are limits to the blog post medium and to my capacity to well-describe these differences.)

The color line also has a preservative effect on the sensibility of the oppressed peoples. Because those on the other side of the line are largely excluded from the realm of European power, they are also largely excluded from the new industrial ethic. They continue to live their lives in accordance with non-industrial principles. Pay attention to who gets called lazy in the modern world–that term usually gets pointed at people who have been excluded, in part or totally, from the opportunities of the industrial ethic.

Don’t get too romantic about that preservation, though. Europeans are attempting to extract labor from these peoples and so are interfering with their capacity to engage with their traditions according to their proper temporal logic. This forms the basis for the double-consciousness Du Bois talks about. The laborer has to adapt to the demands of industrial time even if they aren’t able to participate fully in its institutions. The beauty and harmony for which they reach is damaged by the demands of industry and is forced to limp more than dance.

The rub? We seem to be designed to respond to the world in symbolic and ritual terms. The sense of beauty and harmony Du Bois talks reach more than just the ‘ruder souls.’ The industrial ethic develops a culture of entertainment in part to provide some outlet for this. Entertainment doesn’t have the same force as tradition, though, and inevitably there develops a margin of people within the industrial world that look upon the people they have exploited with envy. Those ‘rude’ people seem more ‘authentic’ or ‘spiritual’ or what have you.

This isn’t the same thing as the double consciousness that a black person (or Native American or Indian, etc.) develops in the face of exploitation. The black person usually has to live in both worlds, whereas the average white person only has to live in one. The experience of the white is Romantic, a fantasy of a liberatory existence on the other side of the color line. The promise lacks the bite of reality.

(That parenthetical “or Native America or Indian, etc.” can’t be taken as a set of equivalences. The structures of power that divide Europeans (‘whites’) from others is rooted in a hierarchical conception of humanity. That partly mirrors the reflex toward structure and efficiency within the industrial ethic, but it means that conceptually there are a series of less ‘black’ peoples, like Native Americans or like Indians, that are more appealing to play at.)

One hundred years on from Du Bois, the situation is better, but it has yet to be undone. While it is now more acceptable to play at ‘black’ magic like hoodoo, troubling preconceptions muddy that engagement. This is no place more apparent than with the eagerness on some fronts to avoid ‘appropriating’ other people’s magical and ritual practices and to seek out ‘your own roots.’

The problem is that those white roots are largely a matter of imagination and not reality. While there are groups we tend to think of as ‘white’ that have had to engage in some form of double consciousness and have preserved some element of their ‘rude’ humanity, most have not. When someone embedded in the industrial ethic turns to uncover their roots, what they most often do (consiously or unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly) is model a sense of roots on the ideas they derive of them from their fantasies of people on the other side of the color line.

Which means that most people embedded in the industrial ethic trying to cultivate their authentic culture are still playing at being colored people. It also means that they are still preserving the color line and the structures of power that keep it functioning. The double consciousness makes this a problem not just for them but for those on the other side of the color line. This dull image of culture becomes the model they hold up and valorize, the model they ask the ‘colored people’ to endorse and perform.

Frantz Fanon’s observation about the toxic underpinnings of colonialist charity applies here. When a colonial power encourages a people to preserve their culture, they are seeking to preserve that culture as-if in amber and prevent it from confronting the present moment on its own terms. It seeks a a museum-piece version of the native culture that they can comfortably consume to satisfy an intellectual and aesthetic curiosity. It goes without saying that such a culture will be denied access to much of the resources they would need to determine their own direction in the industrial world.

The romantic member of white industrial culture seeking their own ‘rude’ humanity nowadays tends to to bring with them a somewhat gentler but insidious version of this. Why, they ask, would these people want to have more involvement with the industrial world? Aren’t there ways purer, don’t I wish I could live here rather than in the industrial world I do live in? Well, they seem to answer the question clearly enough when they get back on the plane and fly back to the city.

No, the color line can only be challenged by dissolving it from both sides at once.

The good news is that folks on both sides of the color line have been doing just this for a while now. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that we can suddenly come together and sing a rousing chorus of Kumbaya (though it is worth paying attention to the origin of that song). There are many decades of work ahead of us, at the very least, before the color line starts to become a line in the sand rather than a trench gouged into the earth.

That challenge begins and ends with the direct confrontation with double consciousness–the inculcation of it among those who comfortably sit in the world of the white industrial ethic and the undoing of the presumption of the industrial ethic’s superiority so that those on the other side of the color line may take hold of the resources they need to make for themselves a world both harmonious and beautiful.

For those embedded in the industrial ethic, that means looking, seriously and respectfully, toward the lives of people on the black side of the color line. It means respecting that their forms of understanding and living are distinct from those of the industrial ethic without being divorced from it.

More than anything else, it means realizing that you can’t summon roots for yourself out of thin air, that it requires a long apprenticeship that can’t be contained in books and weekend workshops. It requires remaking your life in response to the rhythms of the world and its spirits, a radically new way of experiencing time.

The future isn’t a turn away from all of these ‘black’ roots toward roots of our own, but a turn toward them. The roots are on the other side of the actual color line and if we don’t find a way to break through that line, transform our way of life, there won’t be much of a spiritual future.

This isn’t a call for everyone to jump ship into some ‘colored’ faith, but a call to realize that what makes harmonious and beautiful society possible has been genuinely lost to industrial society. That the tools for understanding that the industrial ethic cultivates are alien to the spiritual world that animates beauty and harmony. The only way to reclaim those is by appreciating how necessary other ways of living are, not merely as supplements to industrial life but as the stuff of an new form of life.

Heck, read The Souls of Black Folk. Hopefully it will bite:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (The Souls of Black Folk, 3)

The warring ideals? Well, that’s the work of the present. The more we can find our way to the frontline, the more hope we have of tearing the veil.

I think there is a world that lies beyond this specific struggle, a way beyond the dualism of industrial values and spiritual connection. It’s going to take a lot of work to get there, though, and we can’t cut corners. The future lies in the dissolution of industrial ethic and the coming into being of a new ethic from the worlds the industrial ethic stifled and stymied.

Whew, okay, this post is long. I have been trying to get at this for a long while and I can tell it is still imperfectly relayed. Still, it’s closer than I have been able to manage before, so I am going to post this. As a thank you bearing with me thorough this one:

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