- Becoming Black: Creating Identity in the African Diaspora
Michelle Wright's ambitious texts is an introduction to racialized Enlightenment discourse on subject formation, an overview of the most important black responses to these philosophies, and a feminist intervention into theories of diasporic black identity. Such an all-inclusive project could easily be unwieldy, but Wright demonstrates mastery of her subject matter and reveals how the integration of these textual histories is a necessary foundation for scholars of the Black Diaspora.
Wright explains that the black diasporic subject is constantly in a status as either an Other-from-within or an Other-from-without in Western discourses. For Thomas Jefferson, black diasporic subjects are a virus threatening to destroy the state, whereas for G. W. F. Hegel, the African is outside history but paradoxically necessary in the formation of the Western subject as an Other for the European subject. By exploring the logical fallacies in the subject construction in the West through discussions of Hegel, Jefferson, and Arthur de Gobineau, Wright demonstrates that racist discourses are not cohesive and that the "counterdiscourses" that emerge in response to these philosophies are correspondingly varied.
In her discussions of counterdiscourses created by W. E. B. Du Bois, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Frantz Fanon, she relies on Marxist and Hegelian theories of the dialectic to explain how black thinkers have critiqued the fallaciousness and paradoxes of Western racial discourse. According to Wright, "these counterdiscourses all produce a synthesis that simultaneously speaks to the idealist construction of the Black Other and the existence (or possibility of) a Black subject" (68). The history of twentieth-century black thought is, for Wright, a trajectory that moves between being configured as black other to configuring the self as a black subject. Black subjects must negotiate a form of subjectivity that is a negation of their negation in a history of Enlightenment thinking. How does one become a black subject, these thinkers ask, when his or her status as subject is predetermined by his or her objectification? [End Page 155]
The answer to that question lies in Wright's discussion of Frantz Fanon, in which she argues that the way around subject status garnered from a negation of a negation has lain in the building of a black patriarchal nation. Such a formation has typically erased the black woman from discussion of black subject formation. Wright's compelling reading of critically neglected texts by Audre Lorde and Carolyn Rodgers explores how these women argue "that I is our West African ancestry, rather than our tortured relationship to the Western nation, that links us" (182). She does not critique this model with as much rigor as she applies to her discussion of black man thinkers, although her final chapter about the "Urban Diaspora" in Europe does address an attachment to African ancestry as the center of subject formation. The final chapter is a collection of highly evocative albeit truncated readings of texts by blacks in Europe. Her attempt to discuss black subjectivity within the context of a truly disjointed
collective gestures to the new directions her work will probably take in the future.
The most significant accomplishments of the text are Wright's brilliant gloss on how dialectical models shape discussions of black subjectivity, her elucidation of the true differences in discourses about the black male subject that are often hidden under homogenous readings of a black nationalist tradition, and elegant readings of black feminist engagements with this tradition. Becoming Black is essential reading for scholars of the black diaspora who want a more rigorous understanding of the black subject formation in the Western philosophical tradition.