Monday, May 5, 2008

Professor Eze: A Belated Tribute to a Postracial Philosopher

It came as a shock, nay, a blow to discover that the person I was trying to contact passed away five months ago, just a month after what happened to be our last email exchange. In the so-called highly globalizing world of Information Communication Technology, where news travels so fast through the digital highway, it is ironic that the news of the tragedy reached me in such a slow and crude way. After attending a lively International Conference on African Culture and Development (ICACD) I instinctively felt my former visiting professor of African philosophy at the Center for African Studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT) will be interested in reading my conference paper on 'Engendering Sustainable Development through Struggles for Cultural Liberty' especially its section on 'African Cultural Identity as Double Consciousness'. So, I emailed him. But the email bounced. I couldn't understand why it did so given the fact that such a reliable email server always allow my email to go through. As usual http://www.google.com/ was just a click away with its quick answers. That is when and how I learnt of the untimely death of Professor Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (1963-2007).

I first met Professor Eze at UCT in 2003 when I was doing my postgraduate Honors degree in African Studies. As a distinguished visiting Professor, he came to introduce African Philosophy as a part of a Masters course on 'Problematizing the Study of Africa'. After glancing at the course outline, I felt the 'opportunist' urge to take the course and learn firsthand from one of the then emerging gurus of African Philosophy for in moments like those/these a student in this side of Africa can hardly learn directly 'at the feet' of the established gurus such as Paulin J. Hountondji, Valentin Y. Mudimbe, Kwasi Wiredu or even Ernest Wamba dia Wamba. I almost lost that opportunity just because I was an Honors student and the course was meant for 'Masters' students. Thanks to academic reasonableness after some serious negotiations CAS allowed me to take the course which has proved to be an eye opener in my intellectual life.

On the first day of the course there he was, holding a book with an image that has stuck in my mind. It is an image of a man facing the horizon. You don't get to see his face. You only see his back and the vast landscape in front of him - the object of his gaze. As our discussion with Professor Eze on the challenges of 'Historicizing Africa' revealed, it is an image that captures the complexities of observing the elusive past with respect to the present and the future. By the way, the title of the book is The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past by John Lewis Gaddis. In the book the author asserts that in a sense the past is something we can never have as in relive, retrieve or rerun because by the time we have become aware of what has happened it is already inaccessible. Therefore we can only represent it by portraying it as a near or distance landscape. In other words, the "best you can do, whether with a prince or a landscape or the past, is to represent reality: to smooth over the details, to look for larger patterns, to consider how you can use what you see for your own purposes." (Gaddis 2002: 7)

Indeed this is what Professor Eze attempted to teach us, to represent the African reality for our own (African) purposes. As his own work attest, he made this his lifelong endeavor given the fact that Africa and Africans have been misrepresented for quite a long time. We had a glimpse of this endeavour on a session he rhetorically titled 'Deracializing or Multiracializing Africa?' in which he introduced us to his edited book on Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader. Here he collected/selected key works of European philosophers of humanity as a way of unmasking their misrepresentation of humanity in general and Africans in particular. Concerning Professor Eze's endeavour, Ngugi wa Thiong'o had this to say in his keynote address on Europhone or African Memory: The Challenge of the Pan-Africanist Intellectual in the Era of Globalization :

Wherever Europe went in the globe, it planted its memory. It did so first on the landscape: Europe mapped, surveyed the lay of the land, and then named it...The result is really the subjection of the colonized to Europe's memory (to paraphrase Sylver Winter), its conceptualization of the world, including its notions of democracy, its conception of the state in the form of the nation state, or its conception of rationality, epistemology, say its organization of knowledge, including methods of organizing and coding that knowledge. Here it is not a question of whether those notions are right or wrong, just or unjust, enlightening or not, but they are the results of the colonizer's gaze, shaped by his field of experience and expectations. It is knowledge shaped by the colonial context of its acquisition...Note how even the thinking about the world by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, the whole lot, including later, the great dissector of rationality, Hegel himself, is shaped by their years of reading explorer and missionary narratives of other places. The work of the Nigerian philosopher-scholar Eze, particularly his piece on the color of reason, should be a must for studies of genealogies of Western rationality and epistemology.

I found Professor Eze's session intellectually stimulating to the extent that I wrote my examination paper on it in which I attempted to 'represent' African identity with respect to the then ongoing bitter quarrels on the subject that was insinuated by Achilles Mbembe's controversial Africa's Modes of Self-Writing , Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s Wonders of the African World and Garvin Kitching's Why I gave up African Studies.

In the Ubuntu/Ujamaa spirit of nurturing potential upcoming African Philosophers, Professor Eze asked me to jointly write some entries for The Edinburgh Dictionary of Continent Philosophy. However, after I linked up with the editor, John Protevi, Professor Eze encouraged me to write the entries on African Socialism, Negritude, Frantz Fanon and Aime Cesaire single-handedly while he went ahead to write an entry on Race Theory. In this entry his endeavour to theorize a postracial future is evident. He traces the evolution of what he describes as a polyvalent category of 'race', unmasking how it could inconsistently be used to describe a religious group as in the case of the Jews, a national group as in the case of the Nazi, a linguistic group as in the case of the Ibo, a political economic class as in the case of the Indian Aryan's castes, and ethnic or ethnic/ethnographic identity as in Enoch Powell's idea of the English, a cohort of alleles as in population studies and a universal as in the 'human race'. He thus distinguishes 3 different conceptions of race i.e. the myth of race, the modern science of race and a critical theory of race. After refuting the illusions and biases of the first two conceptions, he puts his weight on the third notion which denies the biological foundation of race. Professor Eze saw this conceptualization of race as a social construction used to propagate certain social practices as the most serviceable theory of race. He thus concluded that to "transcend race through critical understanding is thus to unmask its claims to normative legitimacy and to contain the damaging and unjust effects of its social currency."

The last time I heard from Professor Eze was when he wrote an email to me in November 2007, confirming his acceptance to write a reference letter for my application for a PhD program. Even though there was a waiver to allow me to read it, I didn't get to read it. Oh how I wish I could have read it then. All in all it is my hope that the new generation of African philosophers will endeavour to carry forward his work of Achieving Our Humanity. Concerning this unfinished project, he wrote this timely advice in his CAS seminar presentation at UCT on 'The Language of History as an Epistemological Problem' in 2003 way back when he had no idea that one of - if not - the greatest threats to humanity will rob him his dear life at a tender intellectual age of 44:

In Achieving Our Humanity: The Idea of the Postracial Future...I mentioned that I would develop a model of historical reason that could escape a racialization of reason. Hence the 'postracial' reason I had in mind, not necessarily - though this, too, would be desirable - postracial peoples and cultures. Whether or not this larger anthropological and cultural project is at all possible - and I happen to think that it is: that, I believe, is the New Project of Enlightenment for our time, and perhaps for all times, and I say this for the benefit of anyone looking for "big" projects in which to engage one's life work. But whether or not such a New Project of Enlightenment is merely a utopia, it is a question separate and apart from the first, more modest, one: the possibility of conceptualising a form of a historical reason, reasonableness, and rationality not tied to race. They would not be tied to race not because racial experiences do not at this time matter, but because of the power of the rational potential of history itself. If what is called historical experience becomes increasingly more rational and ethical, I have no doubt that identities (I do not mean merely the differences in our appearances) based on racialism could disappear altogether, freeing culture and social institutions to become more of what they should be: shared, communicative, spaces of temporality on the basis of which peoples and nations and groups of interests and sensibilities may make themselves in greater and greater freedom. This, certainly, is my own hope for peoples in places like Africa and the rest of the poorer parts of the planet that have very little to loose in the current orders of social and cultural realities marked, in too many places still, with racial, religious, and market fundamentalism.

Let us achieve our Humanity for after all Humanity was originally made in the image of Divinity!


Anonymous September 3, 2009 at 5:19 AM  

I was just thinking about your work and I said to myself- I really like you. You are a true intellectual. Keep going, there is a lot of work to be done.

Karibu kwenye ulingo wa kutafakari kuhusu tunapotoka,tulipo,tuendako na namna ambavyo tutafika huko tuendako/Welcome to a platform for reflecting on where we are coming from, where we are, where we are going and how we will get there

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