The Year of Immanuel Kant and Black Enlightenment

Image by Egor Myznik.

Just recently, Shoshana Liessmann and Antje Herzog wrote about Immanuel Kant in honor of his 300th birthday and explained how the celebrated “revolutionary thinker and one of the most prominent philosophers of the Enlightenment” could also be placed under “critical scrutiny.”

They write, with “His overt racism, anti-Judaism, and disparaging remarks about women …. How is it possible that Kant – a man hailed as a pioneer of universal human rights – could develop such attitudes?” In the 18th century he carelessly stated, “Africans have no feeling that rises above the ridiculous.”

Surya Parekh is an Associate Professor of English, General Literature and Rhetoric at Binghamton University. He is the author of Black Enlightenment (Duke University Press, 2023). In this book, Parekh re-envisions the Enlightenment project from a Black perspective. He investigates Black authors such as Francis Williams, Ignatius Sancho, and Phillis Wheatley, and juxtaposes them with western thinkers like Immanuel Kant and David Hume. Parekh argues that literature allows us to imagine other people, enter other universes and other spaces that are unlike our own. One of the things we must try to do is imagine these spaces, asserts Parekh.

By challenging the traditional Enlightenment orthodoxy through the lens of Black writers, Parekh sets out to cite the complexities of Enlightenment history and tenets. His book pays special attention and points to the apprehension of race by philosophers such as Hume (the most skeptical of his day), and Kant, (perhaps the most critical). Parekh gets the reader to deliberate on how Black writers shaped their own agency only to see a society unreceptive to their rights and liberty. In examining Kant’s passages on race, Parekh is interested in Kant’s “strange kinds of distortions,” but at the same time wishes to complicate the story.

I recently spoke with Parekh. He reminds us that we must illuminate Black perspectives of the past to understand the present.

Daniel Falcone: What do you want readers to take away from the book? What was your aim with writing the book?

Surya Parekh: I wanted people to reread these historical figures (Francis WilliamsIgnatius Sancho, and Phillis Wheatley). Phillis Wheatley is timely for us today. I think about how literary works call out towards different kinds of futures. As we read from our moment, it’s not necessarily that we want to make her contemporary; it’s how we can learn from her. How does the kind of future she imagines resonate for us today? So, the aim is to reread figures who are too quickly read or not read at all. I say in the Introduction that we tend to read early Black thinkers based on what we’ve now come to term as slave narratives; Olaudah EquianoFrederick DouglassHarriet Jacobs, and others — there’s a clear kind of goal of freedom in those narratives.

There is also the tremendous rhetoric of these narratives. They’re each very different. But the rhetoric of these narratives is pointing us towards certain kinds of subjects for whom the theme of freedom is the most important.

When we read folks like Wheatley, Sancho, or Francis Williams, or one of the other figures I look at briefly, Jupiter Hammon, who writes the first text in the thirteen colonies, directed towards other people in slavery — we think of them as having assimilated. We don’t think of them as radical, and so they don’t seem particularly useful in the way that a Frederick Douglass might, or that a Harriet Jacobs might. So, my desire for the book is to encourage my reader to go back to these works and start to read them anew.

I wanted to ask, ‘What happens if I reimagine the Enlightenment from the position of the Black subject?’ The general argument of the book is twofold: if we look at the canonical Enlightenment thinkers, generally white enlightenment thinkers, we see that most of them at some point, had to think about the Black subject in some way or another. Sometimes it comes as anxiety. So, for instance with David Hume, it comes in as a footnote, an odd footnote that seems to go against everything he’s writing in his essay “Of National Characters.” Why does he have to put this footnote in?

Or Immanuel Kant in passages on race. And in one of his more minor essays, he puts in page numbers. He hardly ever puts in page numbers when he cites. Kant also makes strange kinds of distortions on the stuff that he’s reading. And again, what we see is this anxiety popping up. I was trying to write not so much against (what would now be seen as racism), but in a way to complicate the story.

Kant certainly shapes the discourse on race. But scholars either try to save these thinkers from the accusation of race or the other way around, just say, look, they’re racist. My approach in the book is to really try to read the contradictions. Why, on the one hand, there’s something that seems to speak to something like a universal human and at the same time there’s often a kind of fierce racism in their work. What you see is real Black enlightenment subjects called forth. In the case of Hume, he says, oh, look! There’s a man in Jamaica, and that man in Jamaica was Francis Williams. He was a poet; he wrote in Latin. It looks like he went to England to study.

Of his poems we have only one left. Sadly, he may have been born into a less racist time than the one he dies. There was a brief two-week moment in Jamaica when the Assembly approved petitions for citizenship by Black and Jewish petitioners. Francis Williams’s father petitioned, and as a result they had a status other people did not. I set out to understand from their own normality what they were up to, and how they were trying to shape a certain kind of enlightenment.

Daniel Falcone: How does the book fit into the overall historiographical coverage of the Enlightenment? And could you comment on how the Enlightenment is studied in the present?

Surya Parekh: We don’t think of it as a solely Western European phenomena anymore. There’s been all kinds of stuff about the enlightenment and the colonies. And how we think of French India, how we think of Dutch India, and Indonesia – how we think of parts of Africa as contributing to the general story that we give of enlightenment. There has been a good deal of scholarship on the relationship of enlightenment to the Haitian revolution.

There has certainly been some on Eastern Europe and the Enlightenment. I’m a graduate of a department called History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. It’s an interdisciplinary department and so I’m certainly part of that move to try to complicate the enlightenment. And I think I’m also part of the move to say that we think of the Enlightenment as an unfinished project.

Daniel Falcone: Can you talk about the archive you accessed to address the interdisciplinary components covered in the book?

Surya Parekh: I looked up all the sources of the people that I was reading. That’s really my method; much more like a literary scholar. I also read Peter Kolb’s work on the Cape of Good Hope. Kolb’s account formed the basis for both Jean Jacques Rousseau’s idea of the noble savage and Kant’s denigration of Black as lazy. They both were reading and impacted by Kolb.

Daniel Falcone: Since Kant and Hume were two thinkers that were carrying out the Enlightenment project, did they try to change the meaning of Enlightenment once they were aware of the “Black genius?”

Surya Parekh: By the time that Hume is writing in the 1730s, 1740s, and 1750s, there have been a couple of Black men who’ve gotten PhDs in Europe. This fact circulated throughout Europe. What I looked at was, why does Hume feel the need to exclude the Black subject? It’s not clear to me still, why, exactly he does. And to some degree I was looking at what that work was allowing Kant to do. It’s not fully clear. Kant’s one of the first people to teach geography in German, and because he doesn’t have a textbook he’s given permission to write his own. In his 1764 Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and SublimeKant says that Africans have “no feeling that rises above the ridiculous.”

Daniel Falcone: Your book obviously explains the significance of race, but can you comment on how material interests and class factored into the lives of Sancho, Williams, and Wheatley?

Surya Parekh: One of my regrets is not discussing class more. It is a complicated question because the figures I’m looking at had unusual circumstances. In Sancho’s case, a rich benefactor in the Duke of Montague, in Wheatley’s case a family that treated her differently for reasons that we can only conjecture, (compared to others enslaved). We know that Boston by and large, had, relatively speaking, a smaller enslaved population in terms of chattel slavery.

Wheatley and Williams died in rather impoverished kinds of circumstances. Certainly, Wheatley did, and her husband, who was a free Black man, at one point owned a home in a rather decent neighborhood, but because he was a Black man, ended up being put in and out of debtors’ prison along the way, and Wheatley never published her second book of poetry.

The only book of poetry she published was while she was enslaved, when she was 19 years old, with the support of her master and her mistress, and folks like Selina Hastings, in England.

One of the extraordinary things for me is that Wheatley tried to be a poetess as a free person. In fact, most of her letters to her correspondents after she gains manumission are all about this. She asks her American correspondents: Can you sell more of my books? Can you send me money for the books? And so, what you are calling material interests are never far from the surface for her.

Jupiter Hammon, at the age of 76, writes in his book “I’m too old to be free,” but he also advocates freedom for the younger enslaved people. He asks who will take care of him if he’s freed. Hammon points to the difference between political freedom and economic freedom. He asks, what will the consequences of my freedom be?

In terms of social class, Kant himself, who comes from a lower middle-class Pietist background, says in the Observations that white people continually rise from the rabble, but never gives an actual example of a white person who has done so.

The class issues are obviously complicated by being enslaved in many ways.

Daniel Falcone: Were there any reviews or any interpretations of the book that surprised you? What do you hope readers find interesting?

Surya Parekh: There’s a review out in the London School of Economics Review of Books right now. I have a colleague at Wake Forest who’s taught the book to undergraduates who seem to really like the way that the book asks us to challenge the binary of radical and assimilationist.

One of the things that really interested me especially with Wheatley is how this person from 13 or 14 years of age claims a position of authority in the poems she writes. She constructs a lyrical speaker who’s speaking from authority. One of her early poems is to the graduates of what was called the University of Cambridge (Harvard University). She’s telling them to use their education for good purposes. How is it that a 14 or 15-year-old enslaved person feels able to do this?

Or Francis Williams, in his Latin poem, says that it’s the Black citizen that’s the representative citizen of Jamaica. Part of what is so interesting is that the imaginative positions that these thinkers take are surprising. It’s not what we would expect. And so how do we read these gestures?

This is what literature allows us to do, to imagine other people, to enter other universes and other spaces that are unlike our own. One of the things we try to do is imagine these spaces. How can we imagine the space of somebody who was brought across on the Middle Passage on a rather brutal voyage?

It is almost impossible for us to imagine but we must try to imagine it. And that’s what we do when we read, we take up that impossible task and keep trying to imagine.

Daniel Falcone is a teacher, journalist, and PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY as well as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He resides in New York City.