Robbie Shilliam: Commentary on David Goldberg’s Conversation with Achille Mbembe

Indebtedness and the Curation of a Black Archive: Comments on David Goldberg’s Conversation with Achille Mbembe

Robbie Shilliam


Haiti, the empire of freedom, is called into being through a composite of agents. In January 1804, Jean Jacques Dessalines authors a Deed of Independence that commits all the generals from various nanchons (nations) to freedom or death. The commitment by Dessalines rests upon the aid of two lwa. Ogou Feray is the hero warrior and blacksmith – a quintessential agent of reconciliation; Ayizan is protector of one’s spiritual birthplace and female partner to Loco the Taino priest. The lwa are summoned from Gine, a forested island under the sea. In Haitian Vodou, Gine is a cosmological Africa whose peoples comprise many nations – African, indigenous and otherwise.

The citizens of the empire are called into being through a composite of names. Dessaline’s Deed is addressed to the Armée Indigène, a title that invokes the centuries-old history of maroonage. In these hinterland polities, enslaved escapees are inducted by indigenous Taino (under Loco’s authority) into knowledge of the island’s flora, fauna, powers and agents (see Beauvoir-Dominique 2016). In article 14 of Dessaline’s 1805 Constitution of Haiti, citizenship takes on the specific name of Noir. Article 14 is a jurisprudential dissolution of the violent and despotic paternalism provided by the colonial Code Noir. Nègre, the slave name, recalls the plantation’s genocidal segregation; Noir, the name of the citizen, incorporates the principle of indigeneity – a quotidian living together (see Casimir 2008).

Is the empire of freedom excessive to Black reason? In his critique, Achille Mbembe (2017, 25, 52) argues that “reason’s unreason” signifies Africa as that which is outside/beyond life, while the “blacks of North America and the Caribbean” come to know Africa “first as a form of difference”. Yet Gine does not lie outside/beyond life according to Haitian Vodou; Africa is a cosmological constant. Neither is Gine defined by difference, being a relational world that is home to a composite of peoples – African nations, Taino and even Europeans.

Laurent Dubois acknowledges the difficulty of translating Mbembe’s multi-faceted invocations of nègre into English (Mbembe 2017, xiv). Still, Mbembe (2017, 72) clarifies for his reader a particular disjuncture between nègre and noir: Black reason first identifies the “imaginary being” from Africa as nègrea human thing/slave – while l’homme noir designates the African yet to be subjected to slavery. In this symbolic universe, Black aspires to be the “color of obscurity” (Mbembe 2017, 152). However, Noir, for the makers of the Haitian revolution, is already the name of the humanity that repairs the genocidal wounds of slavery. This humanity is legally codified and announced to the slave-holding world in clear and unambiguous terms (see Grovogui 2011).

There is a particular sense of sequentialism in Mbembe’s departure point for Black reason, i.e., a response indebted to an imposition. Alternatively, from the departure point of the revolution, Noir is a response that is never indebted – and could not be indebted – to the imposition of nègre. Noir, via the agents of Gine, already invokes what Mbembe gleans as a way out of race – a “compositional logic”, as he usefully puts it in his interview with David Goldberg.

That said, reading the interview and reflecting upon the book that it probes, I am struck by the way in which Mbembe also apprehends Black reason as all-at-once “reason’s unreason” and the remaking-reasonable of reason. It is clear to me that Mbembe wants to dwell with a simultaneity of imposition-struggle, destruction-repair, “dessication”-“recreation”. This ethos of simultaneity is strongly resonant with the sociological, ethnographic and cosmological underpinnings of the revolution’s original Article 14 – an un-indebted response to racialized genocide.

So, I find myself struggling with a tension between the ethos of Mbembe’s critique, which implies simultaneity, and his sequential exposition of the Black archive, especially the indebtedness of the “response” by Blacks to the reasoning about Blacks. (Mindful of Goldberg and Mbembe’s discussions in the interview, I conceive of this indebtedness as expropriatory, and I glean the archive in Pan-African terms, that is, unable to be bound by imperial-national borders or colonial-languages.) I want to work through the tension, as I see it, between ethos and sequence as a way to demonstrate the richness of Mbembe’s curation of a Black archive.

Consider, to begin with, Mbembe’s (2017, 48) claim in his book that those burdened by the name “black” retained the characteristics of what made them human but only “over time” produced ways of thinking and languages of their own. I would suggest that this casual attribution of a time lag implies indebtedness: imposition first, followed later by reasoned response. I would even argue that the positing of such a profound sequentialism implicitly erases all the immediate-yet-reasoned responses authored by the enslaved on the way to the coasts, in the “slave castles”, aboard ships, and upon arrival or thereafter in the Americas.

Put another way, the Black archive, as Mbembe narrates it, appears strangely extricated from the traditions of thought and practice inherited from the “invisible institutions” of the plantations and hinterlands (see Raboteau 2004). The membrane of this archive seems to harden against the knowledge systems and practices that dare to conceive of and pursue a freedom beyond and besides – un-indebted to – the imposition of race.

In this respect, it is important to note that Mbembe identifies the generative moment of the Black archive in intellectuals who wrote publicly – and for publics – from the second half of the 19th century onwards. For Mbembe (2017, 87), intellectuals of this kind who “first took up the question of self-governance”, “inherited” the signification of blackness as either fundamental difference, non-similarity (post-abolition), and/or assimilation.

Henceforth, diasporic intellectuals encountered Black Africans through the mediation of white-authorised images of Africa, while continental intellectuals apprehended Africa in similar terms upon which they sought a “radical reversal” (Mbembe 2017, 25). That this intellectual inheritance already had “pretensions” to academic integrity (Mbembe 2017, 27) also infers that for Mbembe the Black archive is institutionally indebted to cognitive and discursive conventions removed from or denied to the Black sufferers and toilers of the plantations and hinterlands.

Paradoxically, the arc of Mbembe’s own argument rebels against any such attenuation of the Black archive to an indebted intellectualism. In conversation with Mbembe, Goldberg picks up on the pivotal turn in chapter five of Critique of Black Reason towards Amos Tutuola. Tutuola’s corpus is largely untutored by Western academia; nevertheless, it is soon endorsed for Western publication by T.S. Elliot, and subsequently maligned by much of Nigeria’s intelligentsia for its bad form. Tutuola (once a blacksmith like Ogou Feray) idiosyncratically narrates Yoruba cosmological orders. With Tutuola, Mbembe finds a strategy to “[overturn] reason when it becomes unreasonable”, as he puts it in the interview.

Such an overturning leads Mbembe to present the human condition neither pessimistically (closed), nor fugitively (separatist), nor genocidally (absolutist) but “compositionally”, thereby “[rendering] the world habitable for all, again”. (Incidentally, there is a Yoruba retention in Haitian Vodou which, to my limited understanding, presents an ethical injunction against the killing of another’s god (see Apter 2002)). Crucially, and as Goldberg insightfully points out, it is only when Tutuola is creatively channelled that we witness the “coming together” in Mbembe’s critique of the object and subject of analysis. Here is where I can palpably sense the imposition and response in Black reason becoming simultaneous, i.e., the response is not indebted to the imposition.

To consolidate this ethos of simultaneity, Mbembe must rescind his largely French-academic language of semiology and psychoanalysis to embrace what he describes in the interview as an “unbridled” and “unrestrained” way of writing. I find it telling that this redemptive moment is narrated by Mbembe as not just a breaking free but a wilful abandonment of Black reason’s expected (indebted) form for a creative cosmological framing that returns us, in some mediated way, to the invisible institutions that cultivate knowledge (often surreptitiously) besides and not for a colonially-coded public.

How does this ethos of simultaneity then interact with Mbembe’s curation of the Black archive? Uneasily. In the subsequent chapter, Mbembe animates Tutuola’s reparative logic primarily through Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon whose oeuvres promise not a “secession from the world” but a movement towards a world “freed from the burden of race [ and one that] everyone has the right to inherit” (Mbembe 2017, 157, 167).[1] Point taken. Nonetheless, I would argue that Césaire and Fanon write publicly in a register that is certainly creative but is still heavily indebted to a Francophile education. That their material is considered heretical by some in the academy does not mitigate the fact that their texts are (self-)recognizably part of the colonial call and response of blackness. They yearn to exceed, but their departure point is not already excessive.

In this regard, I want to draw attention to the way in which Mbembe also contrasts the humanisms of Césaire and Fanon to Marcus Garvey who precedes both historically and, in Mbembe’s chapter six, textually. Driven by the desire not to produce himself as a “repetition”, Garvey apparently only manages to rehumanise the “Black Man” in the form of an “indissoluble difference and absolute singularity” (Mbembe 2017, 154). That Mbembe chronologically and ethically supersedes Garvey with Césaire and Fanon is a strategy that has political import. For, more than any other Black intellectual (Fanon included), Garvey succeeded in finding a Pan-African voice that resonated with the sufferers and toilers of the plantations and hinterlands.

We could place the Black Moses somewhat differently to this sequencing. For instance, despite his Methodism-turned-Catholicism and his occasional castigation of Pocomania and Rastafari, Garvey’s religious belief was fundamentally influenced by Ethiopianism – a tradition of the invisible institutions of North American and Caribbean plantations (see Brodber 1997). Garvey himself famously advocated for the worship of God through the “spectacles of Ethiopia”. But this was no spiritual promotion of Black purification or absolute sovereign difference. Rather, Garvey (1967, 34) sought to challenge racist theology with a hermeneutics of good faith: “…our God has no color, yet it is human to see everything through one’s own spectacles.” Garvey’s pursuit of Black reparation was neither pessimistic, fugitive, nor genocidal; perhaps its humanist intent was not so far removed from that of Césaire and Fanon.

Might the sources of these excessive humanisms of Césaire, Fanon and Garvey be more capacious than Mbembe’s narration and sequencing of the Black archive admits? In the conclusion to the same chapter, Mbembe (2017, 173) effectively endorses such a suggestion by acknowledging that the “prophetic religions of the descendants of slaves” have “deeply shaped political praxis”. In fact, Mbembe goes so far as to claim that the “metaphysical and aesthetic envelope of these traditions have often provided a “final defense against the forces of dehumanisation and death”. Nevertheless, in the actual presentation of his critique, these traditions never quite pass through the membrane of the Black archive.

So, I am struggling with a tension in the Critique of Black Reason between the simultaneity of its ethos and its indebted sequentialism. No doubt, any curation of the Black archive has to confront the fact that some of its responses are indeed indebted to the imposition of blackness. And, incidentally, I have no desire to “quarantine” the archive from “contaminants” of a putatively Western academic discourse and method. Rather, I am trying to take inspiration from Mbembe’s commitment to pluralise that archive.

To this end, I think we could do more to engage curatorially with the invisible institutions that lie beyond/besides the form, format and forum of (post/neo)colonial publics. But for this venture, the ethos of Black critique and the narration of the Black archive would need to be apprehended in terms of simultaneity: there have always been and still are responses to/of blackness that have never been indebted to the imposition.

We are living through an era where the pretensions of liberalism have been cast aside even in the West, and now pettiness, mendaciousness, viciousness and vindictiveness unabashedly articulate the unreason of global politics. In my opinion, one of the most valuable contributions of Mbembe’s critique is its recollection of the excessive generosity of spirit, thought and action that enlivens the Black archive. As the world “becomes black”, Mbembe suggests that humanity’s repair might be guided by the archives of those who have been most blackened yet who have relentlessly committed themselves to an excessive reasoning on freedom.

So, what of that commitment to justice arising from the invisible institutions of the plantations and hinterlands – the reparations agenda? Full of uplift and downpression, tenaciously generous, despairingly hopeful, this Pan-African tradition has never waited upon reason’s unreason. Our intellectual politics cannot be disentangled from these commitments and their fates. We are still struggling for article 14 of the 1805 Haitian constitution to be universalised.


 [1] Mbembe’s engagement with Nelson Mandela in this chapter seems to be an existential demonstration of the arguments formulated by Césaire and Fanon.



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Beauvoir-Dominique, Rachel. 2016. “Reclaiming Indigenous Heritage in Haiti: Our Taino Culture Is Alive and Well.” Taino Legacies. April 2016.

Brodber, Erna. 1997. “Re-Engineering Blackspace.” Caribbean Quarterly 43 (1/2): 70–81.

Casimir, Jean. 2008. “Haïti et Ses Élites: L’Interminable Dialogue de Sourds.” Worlds and Knowledges Otherwise, no. Fall: 1–27.

Garvey, Marcus. 1967. Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey or Africa for the Africans; Two Vols in One. Edited by Amy Jacques Garvey. London: Frank Cass.

Grovogui, Siba N. 2011. “‘To the Orphaned, Dispossessed, and Illegitimate Children’: Human Rights Beyond Republican and Liberal Traditions.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 18 (1): 41–63.

Jenson, Deborah. 2012. “Jean-Jacques Dessalines and the African Character of the Haitian Revolution.” The William and Mary Quarterly 69 (3): 615–38.

Mbembe, Achille. 2017. Critique of Black Reason. Djurham: Duke University Press.

Raboteau, Albert J. 2004. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robbie Shilliam is Professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University. He is author of Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit (Agenda, 2018), and co-editor with Olivia Rutazibwa of the Routledge Handbook of Postcolonial Politics (2018).