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Black Radical Humanism and the Problem of Freedom

October 18, 2019 - 4:00pm

President's Room in Memorial Student Union

Public Lecture:

Since the inception of Atlantic slave system, the degree of systemic violence that Western societies have perpetrated upon African and Afro-descended peoples is astonishing. Its staggering scope, intensity, and chronicity have been intrinsic to the making of the modern world. Attention is often called to how this violence has been mediated by European conceptions of humanism, humanity, and the human. Yet central to many of this community’s most important radical thinkers -- inseparable from their reflections on racism, domination, and emancipation -- is a commitment to what can only be called radical humanism. Scholars often treat this as a puzzle to be solved or problem to be explained. In contrast, I am interested in examining precisely the humanism of their radicalism and the radicalism of their humanism. Doing so, I believe, will illuminate a particular current or tradition of 20th century black radicalism that developed in the U.S., the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa, in both Anglophone and Francophone contexts. It may help us to better engage the issues with which they grappled – not only the color bar, racial capitalism, and colonial imperialism, but the very problem of freedom, the meaning of emancipation, and the possibility of a good life under modern conditions. 

Running through this study is an argument about the parallels, intersections, and productive tensions between this form of black radical humanism and 20th century heterodox Marxism. Central to the project are close readings of W.E.B. Dubois, CLR James, Aimé Césaire, Édouard Glissant, Stuart Hall, and Paul Gilroy in relation to their insurgent or maroon predecessors and their feminist, postcolonial, or Afro-Pessimist successors.


Gary Wilder is a Professor in the Ph.D. Programs of Anthropology and History and Director of the Committee on Globalization and Social Change at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World (Duke University Press, 2015) and The French Imperial Nation-State: Negritude and Colonial Humanism Between the World Wars (University of Chicago Press, 2005). In Spring 2018 he co-authored Theses on Theory and History, an open source digital publication, with Ethan Kleinberg and Joan Wallach Scott. He is currently completing a book entitled “Untimely History, Unhomely Times: On the Politics of Temporality and Solidarity” and working on another about black radical humanism in the Atlantic world provisionally entitled “After the Revolution, or More Abundant Life.”