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Fear of Black Consciousness

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Member Reviews

This is a completely transformative and essential text that transcends the genre of philosophy. It is the best book I have read since Isabel Wilkerson's Caste and is just as accessible. Gordon has the best take on Intersectionality I have encountered and his idea of 'white license' has so much clarity for me.
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Beautifully written book about the author growing up in Jamaica and the Bronx, developing “radicalized black consciousness,” and his analysis of the “collective struggle to breathe, which is the mark of all black rebellions…” and white narcissism.   

Weaves philosophical insights (drawing on Franz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre, W.E.B. Du Bois, Sojourner Truth & others) with popular culture (films such as Black Panther, Get Out) and personal anecdotes, making it a compelling read - albeit heartbreaking in its discussion of the devastating effects of racism. The academic language is delivered without pretension.  At times, it feels as if you were chatting with the author in person.
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Thanks to Netgalley and FSG for the ebook. The author walks you through where Black consciousness is today and where it’s been through history and how it has evolved. He pulls from ancient texts, novels and philosophers, music from the blues to rap to hip hop and movies that touch on these issues like Get Out, Black Panther and Sorry to Bother You. A fascinating, and tortured history, is intelligently pulled apart in discussed in a manner that will shine lights into areas where some are afraid to look.
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Fear of Black Consciousness is about Black racial identity and points of view in antiblack societies around the world. 

At times I felt it a little obscure and the chapters unfocused. It was easier to understand them when approaching them as a set of separate essays. He says that the first section will focus on white narcissism but only the first part of the first chapter does. He often spends time going through the origins of different words in ways that don't strengthen his argument or in a way that seems especially rigorous.

Some chapters I enjoyed such as the chapter on the five types of invisibility and privilege, luxury, and license. But others were not very interesting to me such as the long chapter on Black Panther (I remain unconvinced that Marvel movies challenge white supremacy) and trans identity (in which is poses a question and never delivers an answer).

While there were some interesting thoughts, I had a difficult time reading this book and found myself struggling to sort through the academic language for a some snippets of an interesting idea.
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Fearing Black Consciousness should be a fearsome, focused book.  Lewis Gordon is a philosopher, a teacher, and an Afro-Caribbean Jew who was born in Jamaica but raised in the Bronx. He should have some remarkably acerbic, direct and profound things to add to the discussion of race. But he does not.

His book is instead a collection of stories drawn from (mostly) American pop culture. There are his takes on many films, as well as hiphop. He loves to list names of black Americans who took a stand, made an impression, or helped usher in change.  Mostly, he dissects fictional characters to make them make his point, and does the same with words. He loves to pick a word and trace its origins back - somewhere, anywhere. It's mostly to Ancient Greece, of course, but also a lot of Ancient Egypt. And when those don't come through for him, he will find a similar-sounding word in Arabic or Marathi or Estonian, as if it makes any difference to the discussion of where we are today. It feels like he does this a hundred times in the book. Readers will find themselves skipping past them as both unmemorable and unimportant to 21st century America and the neverending discrimination against The Other.

The two most involved analyses are of the Jordan Peele horror film Get Out! and, almost inevitably, Black Panther. I was particularly annoyed with his take on Black Panther because I had read so very much analysis of it when it came out. But now, four years later, it has become tiresome. Worse, Gordon looks at it from a white Jewish perspective. Marvell Comics' Stan Lee was Jewish, and so was his business partner, Jack Kirby. And despite the lack of Jewish connections among all the other comic book heroes in the superhero universe, Black Panther appears to be where they cashed their Jewish credentials. It starts with T'Challa himself. His name, if you drop the T and add an H to the end, becomes Challah, the Jewish sweet egg bread of the Sabbath. Gordon also notes a child blowing a ram's horn, a Shofar in Hebrew, further reinforcing the Jewishness of Wakanda. It's downhill from there. General Okoye has his name parsed too. Gordon found no Jewish connection, but Okoye means "born on Orie Market Day" in Igbo (Nigeria). What difference this makes to anything is out of scope.

I first encountered this trick as a child. People were up in arms over the defect-prone Chevy Nova car. Someone managed to trace the word Nova to modern Spanish, where Chevrolet Nova means Chevrolet does not go. Cute, no? It more or less stuck. Taking it to extremes, Woody Allen claimed to see anti-semitism everywhere, even the words  did-you-see, or juicy which he claimed were actually the (hitherto unknown) slur Jew-see. I would have hoped this level of analysis and argument was beneath Gordon, but I was wrong. 

The Black Panther chapter goes on interminably, adding nothing new to the debate over black consciousness. But worse, at least to me, is Gordon's reliance on fiction to make his case. Fiction can be written to come out any way you want. It can also be criticized from any angle. Relying on fiction to determine the level of consciousness of American blacks is not a basis I can take satisfaction from.

Then there is Black consciousness itself. In a very dense paragraph, he defines the book this way: “Consciousness is always of something, whether experienced or imagined. It always involves something of which one is conscious. Without anything, consciousness disappears. There is, in other words, no such ‘thing’ as consciousness itself. It is a relationship with reality. This relational activity I call intentionality. The something of which consciousness is intended is that which appears. Things of which we are not conscious come into consciousness. Things stand out.” (Gordon's italics)

“This book is an exploration of black consciousness and Black consciousness. Briefly, black consciousness is mostly affected and sometimes immobile; Black consciousness is effective and always active. Both are feared in antiblack societies, although the second is more so than the first.“ 

But doesn't that mean black consciousness is totally in terms of whites? That blacks do not and cannot drive the discussion on their own?  Later, he does say that blacks should rise above making their lives restricted to complaints about whites. But that is really what the book is about.

To prove it, Gordon then immediately launches into a tirade against whites. The generalizations come fast and furiously. Whites are universally and irredeemably evil to blacks. But like so many others who have written similar books, Gordon ignores the whole rest of the world. People discriminate against The Other, no matter what race or color they might be. For example, Malaysia makes Chinese Malaysians second class citizens, right in the Constitution. Doesn't matter if their families have been Malaysian for a thousand years. The Japanese are so superior and pure, they can't even allow a hundred foreigners to immigrate per year. And the men treat the women as if they were annoying interlopers as well. Irish Catholics and Protestants are as vicious to each other as any two groups can be. And not to be too obtuse, but when American blacks landed in Liberia in the mid 1800s, they lorded it over the native blacks, keeping them out of government, out of education, and totally subservient. This business of discrimination is not local, and not restricted to (white) Europeans. An American-only solution is ignorance.

On occasion, Gordon comes through with a memorable statement: "The police, as many have come to see, are structurally agents of social asphyxiation. Humanity existed for 300,000 years without police forces.” Yet he doesn't put it into context, that since the rise of the nation-state in the 1700s, there has been a monopoly on violence by the state, as administered by its police. This too is a global plague. It's all about crowd control, worldwide, not just white American cops.

He also says “Black people were fabricated from the forces and trepidations that created white people,” which looks like something deeply profound. But what this really shows is that he has missed the larger point.

Gordon, being Jewish, has some sympathy for white Jews who have fared at least as badly as blacks, from slavery to ghettos to genocide, and not just for 400 years. More like 4000. But he frames it according to their whiteness: “These are groups who were once not white enough – and as European Jews often discover, are still not white enough in many places- but who over time, often through joining the project of identifying with the prime representatives of whiteness and, in doing so, acquiring white license, were eventually brought into the fold, often by joining the white project of dehumanizing black, brown, and red peoples.” And there you have it: whites will find a way to bond. And Jews have managed to migrate to the problem side of the equation.

I wish I could tell you that Gordon pulls out all the stops for a powerful conclusion. But he doesn't. Instead he says things like “All racist societies eventually become anti-political, anti-intellectual, and unimaginative.” This in no way explains, aids or colors the need for, lack of or future impact of black consciousness.

David Wineberg
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Fear of Black Consciousness by Lewis R Gordon is a compelling analysis of racism in its many forms as well as what is largely at the core of those manifestations, from overt racism to those who claim not to be racist. Gordon also distinguishes between black consciousness (prescribed by the anti-Black society) and Black consciousness which is liberatory.

While an accessible read it also demands attention to detail. The arguments are presented clearly and in an order that makes sense. That said, the reader will still want to take time to digest what is being said. Depending on the reader, this includes dealing with any discomfort you may feel if you recognize some of yourself in a few passages. This is not an attack, so don't get defensive, take a breath, reread that passage and consider what is being said. Self-reflection is a good thing.

I am someone who will often reread a book. If I know on completing my first read that I will read it again, it is usually for one of two reasons. One is that I just felt I didn't understand enough of it and need another pass through the book. The second is less about how much I understood the first time and more about wanting to better understand the nuance of the arguments. This book falls into the second category, which means while I probably do need to reread it, I mostly want to reread it.

A word or two about why I am compelled to read books that fall under the popular term social justice. One obvious reason is because I want to learn and understand better the things I haven't experienced or, if I have experienced them, only a few times. If this was the only reason then this would be less about my wanting to make change and more just a selfish exercise in making myself feel like I am a better person. I'm not sure learning these things and not wanting to actively make change qualifies as being a better person, but so it goes. The main reason, though, is that I want to have as many perspectives as possible so I can make whatever change I can. I do a lot less marching and protesting than I did in the past but catching myself when I start to think or do something that would have some effect on another person is making micro changes. Knowing enough to have conversations with friends, family, and neighbors that might help them to see more perspectives is making change. And, of course, when the times arise, knowing why I am willing to enter the street makes me more effective there as well. This book helped, and will continue to help, me to make more of the smaller interpersonal changes as well as engage with others to make larger changes.

One thing that makes this a particularly interesting read, in addition to the arguments themselves, are the analyses of cultural texts. From literature and movies through to music. Because of my personal interests, I found his walk through the blues and through rap/hip hop to be quite eye-opening. These sections, while part of the argument in which they are embedded, can almost be read as forms of literary criticism on their own.

I would recommend this to any readers who want to work toward a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what has happened, is happening, and could happen in the future. It is not for the faint of heart, I think most readers will have at least a few moments when they recognize a toxic way of thinking about something that didn't seem so toxic on its surface. 

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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