Rowman and Littlefield International

Nathalie Etoke on For/giving and Other Existential Challenges from Melancholia Africana

Published on Wednesday 03 Jul 2019 by Lewis R. Gordon


Nathalie Etoke’s Melancholia Africana, translated by Bill Hamlett, came to print last month through Rowman & Littlefield International’s Creolizing the Canon series.


To say that this award-winning book is a testament to Frantz Fanon’s famous inaugural work Black Skin, White Masks is without exaggeration.   It is, after all, the work of a Francophone theorist and artist who challenges the boundaries of art, thought, and politics.  Like Fanon, Etoke’s pre-university education was in her homeland and then in France.  Unlike Fanon, her homeland, the Republic of Cameroon, is a country in which her Indigenous identity is evident. Also unlike him, she completed her highest degree in the United States, in what Fanon once called “a nation of lynchers.” 


Fanon was not entirely off the mark with his assessment.  After all, the United States is the place in which #BlackLivesMatter, the hashtag posted as a love letter by Alicia Garza as one police officer after another was acquitted for the ongoing slaughter—state-supported lynchings—of Black people by such representatives of law and supposed order came about.   In the title of his study of this phenomenon, the sociologist Noël Cazenave simply called it what it is: Killing African Americans.


"Etoke looks into the face of the perverse commitment to not-seeing and not-hearing[...]"


There is an extent to which American national identity, from as far north as Canada to the southern countries of Argentina and Chile, is invested in the ongoing suffering and death of Black people.  Its history of settler colonialism offered the same for Indigenous peoples.  These are the people who, for the sake of delusions of national integrity and justice, are contradictorily legitimate only when not visible.


Etoke looks into the face of this perverse commitment to not-seeing and not-hearing and draws forth a paradox:  Productions of death are also conditions for new forms of life. She, after all, is not only Black but also, in Africa, Indigenous.  As she moved from one colonial center to another, the contradictions brought forth reflection, and to all that she examines the contradictions of limited options in the face of existential choice.   Even where apparently futile, one must choose, and in doing so encounters, always, what is to be done—or at least a sense of it.


For a theorist, what is to be done is to theorize the situation.  Where theorists are rebuked for theorizing, a response is to call that neurotic.  After all, if they abandoned theorizing and took to the streets, complaints would emerge on the absence of reflective understanding of various struggles.  For a theorist whose humanity is questioned, all theoretical efforts are saturated with exigency.   Their work raises the familiar critical reflection: How is such work possible?


This path of making possible what is avowedly impossible—or at least highly improbable—is a task born of what the African American philosopher Leonard Harris calls “philosophy born of struggle.”  The issue is not one of preconceived notions of what can be done but instead of the urgency about what must be done.  That, however, is a calling without guarantees of success.  With all actions political—indeed, all actions worthwhile—there is that element of risk.  Failure is always the prevailing promise.


"The value of becoming ancestors only makes sense in a world committed to descendants."


An Afro-existential movement that is not on Etoke’s mind in these reflections, in light of the challenges of failure, is Afropessimism.  The debates in that line of thought often conclude with black designation as absolute negation.  The black, and even that agent of history known as the Black, they claim is an “ontological” negation of all positivity, a lack of being.   This means, in effect, that the historical efforts to collapse black life into death become faits accomplis.  


Etoke’s response, without having worked out her argument with this critique in mind, is twofold. 


First, she looks into the radicality of death and reminds us of what it means to examine such from points of view outside of the logic of what has become known as “western civilization.”  In the sub-Saharan communities from which she came, death is part of a continuum that affects actions of the living.   Ancestors from this perspective live through descendants by virtue of whom they are able to have the identity of ancestors in the first place.  This means, then, that the value of becoming ancestors only makes sense in a world committed to descendants.   To erase both history and future through a form of fetishized presentism—“if it is not for me, it loses value”—elides other possibilities of action and life.  Where death is part of a continuum, it is not exclusively about what others have done.  It is what we are to do.


Etoke offers a poem from the African American singer, actor, and poet Jill Scott, a stanza from which offers much to consider: 


Oh, if our ancestors could walk in the dark

Barefoot, afraid in the dark, for miles and miles,

And miles and miles and miles and miles and miles


I am often asked about my ritual of taking my shoes off when I speak, teach, and eat.  My response includes fidelity to the ancestors.  We stand on our bare feet before them as custodians of truth.  They are witnesses across time.  This means that, in our willingness to become ancestors, we join a stream of accountability through to descendants.  The nakedness of flesh on ground, of standing bare, acknowledges a form of humility born of responsibility.  The last point about dining is connected to basic gratitude, for we inherit their wisdom for our continued nourishment.


This double symbol of removing in the inauguration of letting go harkens to what, despite the distortion and at times elision of history, must be done.  This brings us to the second point.  Despite her criticisms of Afrocentrists in this book, she shares with at least those who identify as Africologists—those who study the logic and value of practices African and throughout its diaspora in their own right—an important insight: We harm ourselves when we fail to account for ourselves, as African or Black people, as agents of history.


Joining Fanon, Etoke asks at least the theorist to take responsibility for the task of developing new concepts by which to bring forth new and freer modes of life. 


"If evil and injustice exist, why does the Divine not intervene?"


Melancholia Africana offers a few such concepts.  On one hand, there is the identification of melancholia with which to begin.   The term takes on varieties of significance in different genres and approaches to human study.   The psychoanalytical one is most prevalent.  It involves the production of a self or subject born of loss.   For Black people, the loss is patent.   The organizations of power through which Christendom took to the seas and became Modern Europe as a global imperial force brought forth upheavals resulting in the genocide of many Indigenous peoples and the forced enslavement of others.  The largest groups kidnapped into forced servitude were sub-Saharans.


People who had no reason to consider their dark complexion negative were transformed, through brutal processes of commodification and violence, into racially inferior dark peoples alien to their ancestry.   They became a new kind of Indigenous people—those born of Euromodernity.  That temporal location from which they were born is, however, also one that rejects them.  They thus paradoxically belong where they do not belong.  This rejected belonging forces onto these subjects an ambivalent relationship to time and possibility.  Their past, after all, is one in which they did not exist as a people before colonialism.  As rejected in the colonial world they inhabit, there is a form of secular theodicean judgment of reality being better off without them. 


Looking to the skies, so many asked, “Why us?”  “Why me?”


Theodicy involves accounting for the goodness of an all-powerful and all-knowing Divinity.  If evil and injustice exist, why does the Divine not intervene?   


The proffered answers are that we as finite beings fail to see the greater good of this non-intervention on one hand and that the gift of free will makes us the ultimate source of evil on the other.  In either formulation the problem is not with the deity but with human beings.   This logic brought to societies has the same rationalization.  If injustice and inequity are in a society, the ultimate fault is in those who suffer from it, not the society whose power mechanisms govern access. 


This logic is hurled against the downtrodden in Euromodern societies.   They are the problem, not the societies.  What could one conclude but that the society would be better off without them?   This means their present is haunted by the logic of their elimination.  In effect, this means it is not only that they do not belong to the future but also that they should not belong there.  Their present is thus retroactively delegitimated.


We stand here in the realm of double consciousness.  It is where, as W.E.B. Du Bois and others observed, black people could only see ourselves through hostile eyes of those who reject us.   I use the lower case “b” in black here since it signifies diminished status.   There is, however, another position to which to appeal.  This initial double consciousness offers black people as a blight from which the society must sterilize itself.  Black people, under this view, are problems.  Our removal becomes, as J. Reid Miller points out in his aptly titled Stain Removal, a stain to be removed.   Achieving such, however, would produce the stain of removing the stain. 


"This does not mean the elimination of white people."


Those long erased through butchery, nevertheless haunt the present in the ongoing denied memory of genocide.  For those of us who accept the logic of our illegitimacy, the counsel is as Fanon stated in 1952:  Become white.   For those of us who reject that path, our demand is for dialectical possibility.  Looking at the system’s contradictions, we seek alternatives.   If racist societies produce problem people, why not build different societies?   If elimination must occur, why not destroy factories of dehumanization?


An imaginative act of faith is required here.  One must imagine belonging to the future, which would transform the present.  But as that belonging would require becoming a being other than those depending upon their exclusion, the result would be a transformation from the affected black to the effective Black.  This is nothing short of a commitment to Afro-modernity through which Euromodernity is pushed to the wayside as a particular modernity among other modernities.  In short, the challenge for Black agents of history is White irrelevance.  


This does not mean the elimination of white people.  It means realizing that white as White does not function the same as black as Black.   Beneath the contemporary white is, after all, a White power structure that promises only one future without which there is the supposed “end of the world.”  Yet the question of Black belonging as agents of history means simply a commitment to life.  As irrelevance and elimination are not identical, the point is that particularized whiteness requires whites learning to live among instead of over others.  The logic of the system means blacks standing up as Blacks become a path from below to among.


Melancholia, then, is a socio-historical diagnosis but not a forestalled or ontological predicament.  It is our condition but not our fate.


"Rituals of having through giving remind us of the profound undercurrent of existence."


Etoke offers another conceptual tool to consider in the midst of this predicament.  Her concept of “for/giving” addresses the tensions and failures of “forgiving.”  The latter is a concept saturated with bad faith since it is often demanded of those without power to bestow upon those with fantasies of guilt-free theft.   It is the gift of deferred responsibility.   There is, however, as with stains, a form of haunting through which such a gift is also a debt.  Thus, it invites abuse since the owner of such a debt would ultimately like to be released from it.  What, however, would that entail other than not being forgiven? 


The slash in “for/giving” brings the tension to the fore through the grammatical openness of the preposition “for.”  By itself, the term becomes “for-.”  It beckons a relation that is open.   “Giving,” however, is also relational.  It could be “for” or stand without a specific object in ethical openness. 


Although Etoke offers this concept in contexts of harm, it struck me that its significance reaches beyond the corrective.   What if for/giving were not the dreaded gift of forgiving but instead the act of letting go as a productive practice?   


I am thinking here of the complicated notion of political responsibility as acts of love.   There is on one hand narcissistic love, which constrains others into the ongoing production and repetition of the self.    


There is, however, another kind of love premised on the freedom of others.  The radicality of that freedom requires sufficient epistemic openness to the point of the anonymous without guarantee.   In short, it is that open “for” in which there is neither for-itself  (self-consciousness) nor in-itself (being a thing).   It is selfless giving of a future to those who, freed, cannot be “us” despite being in relation to us across time.  


This is ironic giving.  It is gaining through letting go.   The spiritual resonance of this idea, though well known in western philosophy in the thought of Søren Kierkegaard and Simone Weil, extends back to African antiquity in the thought of Ptahhotep and Ani (among others).   Rituals of having through giving remind us of the profound undercurrent of existence—namely, that reality would have been perfectly fine without us.  In true existential insight, then, for/giving is also a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously.  Achieving such, we may very well learn to live.


"To perform the self is also an effort to produce what one is to become."


Not regarding ourselves as custodians of a gift for whites—forgiving—enables us to look at each other in acts of for/giving.  Recall that Alycia Garza’s tweet #BlackLivesMatter was, as she relates it, a love letter to those being bullied into believing they are not only unloved but also unlovable.   This act of love could not be possible if one rejects Garza, a queer Black woman, as a source of value.  In effect, her act of love requires the people to whom it is offered not forgetting themselves as sources of value.  Valuing her love is an act of love through which for/giving is made manifest.  In effect, it means becoming sources of value and thus transcending the immediate into those not yet born.  What is that but also a transition from black (affected) to Black (affective and affecting)?


Etoke brings these insights to the fore in her poetic reflections on contemporary African struggles with genocide, Eurocentric epistemic claustrophobia, and global projects of White supremacy.   She also interrogates these elements through unusual play on the feminine and the masculine, and she brings all together in a meditation on critical self-reference in performance.  To perform the self is also an effort to produce what one is to become.  Etoke rightly sees this through Black aesthetic production from the spirituals through to the blues and jazz. 


Although there are many forms of Black music, spirituals and jazz articulate the poles of melancholia and for/giving of these mediations.  The spirituals are born of the suffering of nonbelonging and the prayer of redemption.   Demanding improvisation, jazz is quintessentially a musical performance of freedom.  Improvisation is not, however, the narcissistic performance of the self at the price of others.   In jazz performance, each musician seeks the best performance of the other.  That is why the accompanying musicians drive the soloist for her best performance and in turn others receive such when it is their turn.  They do not, however, improvise on the expectation of receiving such but instead on offering the possibility—of for/giving—through which there is room for others to for/give. 


Put differently, this performance of freedom raises questions of what may be possible if societies were premised not only on everyone doing their best but also on everyone being committed to providing the conditions for others to do their best.   At the heart of jazz, then, is a political message that does not subordinate aesthetic life.  The human world is, after all, a human-produced one, which makes art also one of its modus operandi of livability.


For this poetic theoretical contribution from Nathalie Etoke, then, we proverbially give thanks and I encourage the reader to seek out her book, open it, and swim in the waters it offers for our thirst for, in life better lived, for/giving.



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Melancholia Africana, written by Nathalie Etoke, translated by Bill Hamlett and featuring a foreword from Lewis R. Gordon, is available in all formats now.