On "A problem of thought"

Virgil Slade
Assistant Professor of History

At its most basic, the craft of the historian is to construct a narrative that assigns meaning to time. This seemingly simple process is often associated with objectivity, accuracy and is supposedly bereft of a political agenda. The French philosopher Voltaire complicated these assumptions when he defined history as “the lie that everyone agrees on.” What did he mean? When any group of people agree to a “lie,” the implication is that some consensus has been reached — whether tacitly or overtly — about a perceived benefit in such complicity. Voltaire, therefore, dismisses notions of “objectivity” and draws attention to the inherently political nature of “creating history.” Put differently, the manner in which dominant accounts of the past (those versions of history that enjoy the widest acceptance in a given society) have been constructed is always in service of particular political, social and economic agendas.

These dominant accounts draw on core assumptions that almost necessarily require forms of historical amnesia and strategic exclusions, and are of the utmost importance in articulating which communities properly belong within any given national space. It is precisely this process of conjuring notions of belonging that directly impacts how communities experience a society. And it is here that the stories of people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others give insight into the consequences of America’s dominant historical discourse for those identified as Black.

Most of the courses I teach at HWS, rather than attempting to insert more “accuracy” into accounts of the past, explore how constructed in the first place. As a point of departure, my classes deconstruct the core assumptions of any given master narrative, as the most effective way to undermine any argument is to destroy its very foundation. My area of regional specialization is Africa, and I largely focus on representations of the continent and its peoples within the West, both historically and in our present, as a space of “lack” that disavows our shared humanity. By extension, those who live in, or are regarded as descendant from Africa, are similarly depicted as lacking humanity. This supposed lack justified the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism and, of course, apartheid. In America, this supposed lack has justified slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and the manner in which African American communities continue to encounter law enforcement and the justice system. These representations already assume the supposed superiority of those regarded as “white.” What is important here is not ideas of racial difference but rather how this difference is analyzed. Within this framework, any form of alterity to whiteness is equated with inferiority.

While I use mostly African case studies (depending on the course) to demonstrate to my students how this process functions, I actively encourage them to apply the same intellectual exercise to explore dominant discourses circulating in America. What then becomes apparent is that while legislation has changed regarding the position of the formerly enslaved within the United States, notions of racial inferiority have persisted. Therefore, when we analyze the murders of people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we encounter, first and foremost, a “problem of thought.” Before you treat someone inhumanely, you have to think them “inhuman.” The genealogy of this form of racialized “knowledge” owes its genesis to the transatlantic slave trade, and it has not been eradicated but rather it has evolved. As a problem of thought, it is the responsibility of educators everywhere to actively destabilize any discourse that equates difference with inferiority.

To be remiss in this regard is to be complicit in the inequalities that plague our present...