Civilisation, Black Enlightenment, and Freedom

One of my favorite television series is Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation, a landmark television series about art history that aired in 1969. Clarke subtitled this series “A Personal View” and in the accompanying book elaborates that while he is, of course, aware of the arts of other civilizational traditions around the world, he chose to focus on what he knew best: the arts and history of Europe. Even within this narrow frame, he mostly focused on Italy, England, and France, occasionally alighting in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States (yet shockingly avoiding Spain altogether).

Despite the narrow focus of his series, I have found the depth and sincere appreciation Clarke brought to his subject matter touching. The passion he applies to charting what civilization means to him and how it has been expressed through (in a conscious nod to Ruskin) the “Book of its Art.” Clarke’s vigorous defense of beauty and abhorrence of war, mechanization, and abject poverty felt like a homecoming, and in the years hence I’ve sought to retrace his steps in my own journey towards home.

For all its valedictory celebrations of the classics of Western Art, Clarke ends the series on a somber note, lamenting that the modern period has upended the many shibboleths of traditional European society. He observes that the lack of anything to take the place of the church, the state, and even ideology as the center of western society in the latter half of the twenty-first century has led to decadence, a state of civilizational exhaustion. 

Incidentally, around the time I discovered Civilisation, I also began exploring Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence which similarly charts the history of art and ideas over the last 500 years. Both Clarke and Barzun sign off their laments for a civilizational center with a nod to Yeats and his famous, oft-quoted first-stanza from his poem The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

For many years, whenever the likes of Clarke or Barzun bemoaned the decline and decadence of civilization, I couldn’t help but agree. But lately I've realized that they've been looking at civilization from a narrower lens than I first surmised. As they admit themselves, their history of civilization and the modern age is unmistakably Euro-American. It's a vision of civilization consisting of the records and artifacts of those who held power. The center they desire had never been a true center for all people.

I’ve been coming to terms with what both Civilisation and From Dawn to Decadence missed, the vibrant life and culture of those who were powerless or chose to express meaning in ways that were different, and how this oversight would have possibly given these European-American white men hope for the future of humanity and culture if they could only see it.

I made a mistake too, believing in the narrative that western civilization through its embrace of pluralism had indeed hollowed itself out. Yes, it is correct, as Yeats and Clarke lamented, that there is no center remaining at the heart of western civilization. But perhaps the truth is that the center that once existed around the church and state has merely shifted to other centers of culture and power. It isn't that our society is centerless, but rather that we have multiple centers lacking in dominant power but very much alive and vibrant.

I feel that a counter-Modernity or counter-Enlightenment culture, developed and cultivated by those who were unjustly denied power these last 500 years, has emerged to take on the mantle of humanistic values that the Enlightenment espoused but failed to uphold for all mankind. Historian Charles Mills refers to part of this counter-tradition as the Black Enlightenment. As he describes it, the Black Enlightenment:

...develops in modernity out of the experience of Atlantic slavery, which created a stigmatized, diasporic Afro-descendant population not merely in the Americas but also in Europe. And this global experience of racial subordination, lasting for over a century after the nominal emancipation of slaves in various countries (1865 in the United States; as late as 1888 in Brazil), generates what could be metaphorically seen as a “black light.”

So if the “whiteness” of Enlightenment vision has too often been self-blinding rather than illuminating, a black correction has been required to see clearly. And from this perspective, this angle of vision, the problem has never been a genuinely universalist White Enlightenment but a consistently racially particularist White Enlightenment, from the American founding father Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, proclaiming the self-evident truth of human equality to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, simultaneously the father of modern Western ethics and the inventor of modern “scientific” (biological) racism.

When we start to unknow the myth of progress and the Enlightenment, especially the parts assuming racial and gender superiority, we can see that culture overall has not descended into feckless decadence. What has descended, naturally, has been the culture of the powerful, infected by their affluence and driven further into a cave of mirrors increasingly void of meaning.

I find James Baldwin’s reflection, in Letter from a Region of my Mind, on the South Side of Chicago helpful description of this familiar decadence:

Here was the South Side—a million in captivity—stretching from this doorstep as far as the eye could see. And they didn't even read; depressed populations don't have the time or energy to spare. The affluent populations, which should have been their help, didn't as far as could be discovered, read, either—they merely bought books and devoured them, but not in order to learn: in order to learn new attitudes.

Baldwin later describes this corruption and decadence as white people’s “inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives”, and that with the constant interposition of “a labyrinth of attitudes” between themselves and reality, they find themselves in a cycle of stagnation. Baldwin concludes, “whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.”

Power shifts to those who hunger to be free, not in the sense of consumer choice many Americans default to, but in the sense of an inner and external freedom existing in grace with each other. People who have been the most restrained, either by law or by culture, are the ones who hunger the most for freedom, and those in power the ones who take freedom most for granted. So it makes sense that looking solely at the culture of the dominant and powerful would eventually yield ever-diminishing returns.

As someone who is neither white nor black, I’ve found myself less restrained yet more rudderless in navigating my place in America’s political race-based reality. As a young man, I felt like the stakes were high when it came to defining myself, because if I failed, the world would define me instead. 

Works of history and criticism, like Civilisation and From Dawn to Decadence, helped me realize who I was as a person and as a lover of the arts and humanities, even if I never felt particularly encouraged to pursue the arts or humanities. And in many ways, I now feel closer to the authors of these works, even though they failed to see people like me, because I can now see the tragic human prison they themselves were interned within.

There’s an episode of Civilisation about the 19th century Romanticism movement. In this episode, Clarke with great delight revels in describing the liberation movements of 1848 set to the prisoner chorus of Beethoven’s Fidelio. This show was my first introduction to this piece of music, and even as I continue to struggle to figure out how I fit into the world and how to do the right thing, I still find an immensely private solace in the prisoner’s chorus and its yearning for the weight and burden of freedom.