Ex Africa aliquid novi

Notes on Hybridity and Diaspora

Justin E. H. Smith


B1_658s200x200_2 Perhaps it was the flood of reggae and calypso and Afrobeat videos cheering Obama on in the final weeks. Or perhaps it was the Haitian man I saw in October at the Lake Champlain border crossing just north of Plattsburgh, waiting to have his digital fingerprints taken, along with those of his wife and two small children, by some DHS agents who seemed right at home under the portraits of Bush and Cheney still hanging in that dreary, fluorescently lit place. The Haitian was wearing a brightly colored shirt with an oversized image of Obama’s face on it. The Americans made a point of taking their sweet time.

I could hear them talking about their fishing boats, and could easily imagine eight of them getting together and painting the letters m-a-v-e-r-i-c-k on their flabby bellies, displaying them proudly while shouting at a Palin rally as though it were some kind of sports event. The era of their proud dominance was drawing to a close, and the downtrodden Haitian family appeared to be being punished for it, if only in a mild, bureaucratic way. The Obama t-shirt signalled: however much we depend on you to let us cross the border, however little we fit with your image of America, we, Caribbean blacks, have a shared history with you former colonies, and it’s about to be recognized. 

Obama was just trying to get elected president, but knowingly or not he was making pan-African history.

Haiti was the first black republic, founded in 1804 through the audacious struggle of former slaves, led by François-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture, against the British who had brought them there as free labor.  Toussaint’s revolution was both an extension and an inversion of the French and American revolutions that immediately preceded it. An extension, insofar as it clearly appropriated the Enlightenment values of liberty, equality, and fraternity in rallying the slaves against injustice; an inversion to the extent that no theorist of political equality, not Rousseau, not Kant, not Jefferson, had ever said that equality must needs be extended to unequals.

The Enlightenment was understood to be local, and presupposed a vast surrounding globe of perpetual and unchanging darkness. Thus Kant, once hearing the report of something seemingly reasonable uttered by an African, entertained that possibility for a moment and quickly concluded that the man “was quite black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.” In metaphysics Kant was able to produce an a priori deduction of the pure concepts of the understanding, but confronted with a potential sign of the intellectual equality of blacks and whites he was unable to avoid a simple non sequitur.

How, one might ask, could a country born of Enlightenment ideals, and built on slavery, be, as Obama has said it is, perfectible?  And why do so many have the sense that he is the one to finally set us along this path, that, as has been grandiosely claimed, the Civil War finally ended on November 4, 2008, and Reconstruction finally began?


My Bulgarian friend said, watching McCain’s dignified concession speech, and then the rousing announcement from Obama that followed: “In the absence of other information, just watching these two speeches, I would have preferred McCain.” I insisted that the waves of rhetoric, the geographical shout-outs, the call-and-response invocation to declare “Yes we can!” in unison, were just Obama tapping into a style, one that extends back through Martin Luther King (“Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado,” etc.), and that is a deep and venerable tradition of preacherly oratory.

I knew what she meant, though. I’ve always hated audience participation of any sort, and would no doubt feel most awkward in a South Side church service, and that for nothing having to do with the color of my skin. This is just not my register of speech. I like irony, and the shading of even the most sincere claims with a hint of detachment. And when I’m speaking in front of a crowd, I certainly don’t want to be interrupted by any enthusiastic shouts of agreement. In this respect, I especially liked McCain’s visible relief at being done with the whole damned thing, and his visible annoyance at having to hear one last round of jeers from the by-now completely marginalized ‘base’.

Yet nothing could have made me happier that night than to hear Obama doing his best to channel MLK to the new base of American politics, a base that can’t possibly share in any of the nativist bullshit of the Palinites because it, unlike so many of us Europeans who find ourselves in the New World, has not forgotten that it is a diaspora.


‘Black’ is not a natural kind, a real subset of homo sapiens, and does not appear to be, in all cultural contexts, even a phenomenally salient kind. That is, there are well-documented cases of interactions between people we would identify as black and white, in which the supposed blackness and whiteness of the different parties do not even seem to have been noticed. 

A quick survey of the history of slavery shows that the 18th century’s preoccupation with supposed racial differences between Europeans and Africans emerges not from the perception of context-free physiological or behavioral differences, but rather as a sort of ad hoc and a posteriori rationalization of an economic institution that could easily have seemed ineliminable, even if in its West African and trans-Atlantic form it had only existed since the 16th century. Prior to that, the majority of slaves bought and sold by Europeans were traded in cities like Venice, Genoa, and Constantinople, and were captured and transported mostly from Eastern Europe.

Slave-traders, then, did not go to Western Africa out of any a priori commitment to the subhuman status of Africans, and thus to their eligibility for a life of slavery. Rather, it seems, an economic necessity compelled the traders to look to Africa for the natural resource that sustained their already deeply entrenched industry, and in consequence, over time, first an Atlantic, and then a global racial order emerged in which the subordination of Africans came to seem written into the natural scheme of things. The people being sold and sent off to the New World were not, at least initially, undifferentiated blacks. Rather, they were simply prisoners, sold like the poor Crimean Slavs before them, by dint of bad luck and according to ancient rules of warfare. Whiteness seems to have been constructed over the course of the 18th century, when slavery was already in full swing, as a side-project of the Enlightenment’s focus upon Europe’s purportedly unique political and moral achievements, a focus which coincided with an unprecedented rise of interest among natural historians in taxonomizing the kinds to which nature gives rise.

Soon enough, it was inevitable that the European would come to be conceived as a kind, like the polar bear, in contrast with the other related but different regional varieties of the same family. It was inevitable also that, in an era of intense anatomical curiosity and experimental precision, the temperamental and intellectual differences between kinds would be conceived not as rooted fundamentally in a difference between souls, but rather as written into the features of the body. Thus from Diderot’s Encyclopédie we learn that “Malpighi, Ruysch, Litre, Sanctorini, Heister and Albinus have conducted curious researches on the skin of negroes.” There was no shortage of treatises bearing titles such as Dissertation sur la cause physique de la couleur des nègres, incorporating the latest discoveries from Newtonian physics and optics in the quest for an answer to this natural enigma. Of all the great Enlightenment thinkers, Johann Gottfried Herder appears to have stood alone when he observed that we might just as well ask after the ‘physical cause’ of our skin’s whiteness, as after the cause of the blackness of theirs.


Ex Africa semper aliquid novi— out of Africa there is always something new. In antiquity this motto was meant to express the widespread belief that Africa, subject to a sort of inversion of normal natural laws, was a place where wanton mating between animals of separate species perpetually gives rise to new and exotic forms. In the ancient world, nothing out of Africa had a fixed essence. It was the land of perpetual flux, where the heat and humidity alone could generate new creatures out of bubbles in the slime of the Nile, where, in stark opposition to static Greece, like must not always beget like.

How many times over the past two years have we been reminded that Obama’s father was black, while his mother was white? Why is this so remarkable? We know that there has been a persistent tendency in natural history to conceive the mixed-race child as a problem, as a curiosity, a rupture in the ordinary course of like’s begetting like. 18th-century natural historians were surprised to hear reported back from the plantations that “mulatto” children, unlike the mules from which they have their name, are in turn able to have children of their own. With mules, nature had ensured by making them sterile that the process of generating monstrosities through hybridization would come to an end after just one generation, whereas human mulattoes were evidently capable of generating infinitely many new combinations of racial types.  New categories had to be invented to try to keep up with these new combinations –quadroons, octoroons, etc.– but eventually our finite minds lose count and we shift the hybrids into one natural category or other.

My copy of the Lehrbuch der Rassenkunde und Rassenhygiene, by some long-dead Herr Professor Doktor, features several pages of color photographs, impressive in their verisimilitude for a book published in 1941, of various faces thought to exemplify various racial types. The pure types enjoy pride of place in the scheme– with few modifications, Nazi racial science continued to offer variations on the theme, already in place with Blumenbach’s De generis humani varietate nativa [On the Native Variety of the Human Race] of 1795, of a handful of elementary races (in Blumenbach’s version the European, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay), from which all the other groups that do not quite match the specifications for any of these five may be derived. 

These other groups, the Mischlinge, make a mess of the effort to treat races as kinds analogous to species –again, if there were any real analogy then Obama, among others, would have come out sterile– and with each page of photographic plates, identifying, e.g., the Mongol-Slav Mischling, or the Near-Eastern-Mediterranean Mischling with substantial Alpine admixture, Nazi racial science seems to be creating new Porphyrian epicycles: complications of the system, meant to keep it adequate to the phenomena, but in the end only weighing it down to the point of collapse.


It was moreover inevitable that, by the end of the 19th-century, the descendants of New World slaves would internalize and echo the language of racial difference that a century earlier had served as a naturalization of the global order of racial inequality. Marcus Garvey, and later the early enthusiasts of the Rastafari movement, set out to construct an ancient and naturalized pedigree for pan-African unity. Many adopted the ancient Hellenic habit, resurrected by Blumenbach, of synecdochically making ‘Ethiopia’ stand in for the entire continent (‘Ethiopian’, as used by Aristotle, seems to derive from aithiops— ‘burnt face’). 

Now Ethiopia works well as a synecdoche of Africa for any modern spiritual movement loosely rooted in Abrahamic monotheism, since that distinguished nation is one of the most ancient bastions of Orthodox Christianity, and even has its own holy text, the Kebra Nagast, most widely circulated in Ge’ez but apparently written first in Arabic, dating from the 14th century and explaining how the emperors of Ethiopia descend directly from the Solomonic line. Early translations of this text appear to be the source of the legend in the late middle ages of ‘Prester John’, the great Christian king of a faraway Eastern land.  (In the sundry versions of the legend, it is always Prester John’s ‘Orientalness’, and not his blackness, that is held remarkable.) In a world dominated by Christian powers, it seems a natural tendency among the dominated to seek to understand their history as something unfolding from, and written into, the scripture of the rulers. Everyone wants to be in the Book.

Emperor Haile Selassie managed in 1930 to become the only African ruler of a country not dominated by a European colonial power. This was an impressive stature, and it inspired more than civic, and more than local, loyalty. By mid-century, he was hailed as far away as the Caribbean as the reincarnation of Christ and as ‘the conquering lion of Judah’. Who does not know the story of the emperor’s ecstatic welcome at  Kingston airport by tens of thousands of admirers? It is said that the sky cleared up after months of flooding the very moment he stepped out of the plane.

Some who would like a cult of personality cannot manage to generate one, and some who never ask for it find a cult sprouting up around them quite spontaneously. Bob Avakian, whose Revolutionary Communist Party is just about the only remnant of the unreconstructed Left too surly to catch even a trace of Obama fever, would attest that mass political movements cannot happen without them, so naturally he is working hard at having one constructed around himself. Avakian thinks Mao did the cult-of-personality thing best, and that the Chinese example shows that, if done correctly, the personality at the center can move the masses without having to take recourse to any claims about some magical connection to the divine order beyond this worldly political one.

In the end, in the grip of cruel famine, the massively incompetent and indifferent conquering lion of Judah was routed, in 1974, by Mengistu Haile Mariam, the leader of a communist military junta that would rule until 1987, apparently without any of Mao’s charisma or any perceived need to cultivate it. Rule by force worked just fine, for a while, though today no one smokes any ganja or sings of ‘one love’ in honor of the dreaded Derg.

Obama for his part could not have been elected without a sort of cult of his own. When the Reverend Raphael Warnock of the Ebenezer Baptist Church declares that “Barack Obama stood against the fierce tide of history and achieved the unimaginable. But he did not get here by himself. Give God some credit. He is the Lord,” we may be forgiven for losing track of which name binds which pronoun. Obama is already being cast in a Biblical light, as the fulfillment of something ancient.

All this could perhaps be a cause for some concern for those of us who have in common with Mao and Avakian, if nothing else, the belief that politics is about this world. But Obama certainly could not do any worse than Haile Selassie. The Ethiopian emperor seems to have basked in his unearned glory. Obama, if the early bubblings of such a cult eventually come to full boil, will, one hopes, play the role of a saint malgré lui, depicted on icons and exalted in hymns even as he goes about the ordinary daily business of running a country, an unmoved mover of diasporic fantasies. 

Ethiopia may have been an important node in the premodern, Arab-dominated slave-trade, but it was entirely peripheral to the trans-Atlantic trade that took off in the 16th century under the control of the Spanish, Portuguese, and British. Why then did Jamaicans look to Haile Selassie, as if he had anything to do with their own history, and as if he could offer them any hope for amelioration of their plight?  (At some point, he had to kindly ask them to try to work out their problems at home, rather than to keep their hearts set on what he indulgently referred to as ‘repatriation’). One might just as well ask why a Haitian invests his hope for the future in a half-Kansan, half-Kenyan American. A new community was brought into existence, was forced into existence, by the Enlightenment European invention of race. Obama’s election could be the first time in history that that community has a real leader, and a real reason for hope, if not a promise that that hope will be fulfilled.

For an extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.