Unmasking the Big Bluff of Legitimate Governance and So-Called IndependenceCreolizing Rousseau through the Reflections of Anna Julia Cooper
This article explains what is meant by the creolizing of ideas and then demonstrates it through exploring a political observation about political illegitimacy made by eighteenth-century Genevan social and political thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau and creolized when the nineteenth-century African-American educator and social critic Anna Julia Cooper argued that the ideal of independence that lay at the core of political doctrines of republican self-governance relied on forms of willful blindness that cloaked the ongoing dependence of all human beings on one another. In conclusion, the article considers what Cooper's expansion of Rousseau's insight and creolized readings of political philosophy imply for our pursuit of just political institutions today.
creolization, Rousseau, Cooper, legitimacy, independence
Creolization as a concept was first coined to describe what struck observers as a surprising and distinctive phenomenon underway in the Caribbean [End Page 1] of the early sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Specifically, non-indigenous peoples who had come to the region voluntarily and involuntarily, while committed to remaining as they had been, instead transformed sometimes radically and always rapidly. Crucially, what typically precipitated the shifts was precisely a desire to remain the same. How to square this circle? Continuing practices borne of other environments required creative substitutions in these new circumstances. And in these new situations existing forms of life took on altered meaning.
This birthing of the new in an attempt to sustain what had been suggested something fundamental about human forms of life—a process at work well beyond what was often framed as the aberrational context of the plantation economies of the Caribbean. After all, creolization was evident not only in the cultivation and preparation of food, but in speech and religious practice, ways of envisioning political life, and in human reproduction itself. In each of these cases, groups with no prior histories of contact who met in radically unequal and actively hostile settings remade themselves through their relations with one another. This was especially striking because while the evidence of the process was there for everyone to see, it completely belied the imperial political project that was supposed to guide and legitimate the political interactions that would shape the New World. After all, for Europeans, there were neat hierarchies of civilizational development that rendered mixture among their supposed unequals illicit. From the point of view of the many groups hostile to it, creolization was not really mixture, but bastardization, denigration and dilution.
This social scientific concept, developed mainly in the field of linguistics and in studies of New World religion, has recently been taken up by philosophers and political theorists in the Caribbean Philosophical Association, engaging the work of Caribbean literature scholars and creative writers as a way of rethinking the human subject as well as the ways that we should envision political life and the history and future of political ideas themselves.
In what follows, I will briefly elaborate what is meant by the creolizing of ideas and then demonstrate what it does by mixing the political thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau with that of Anna Julia Cooper. More specifically, I will explore a political observation made by the Genevan social and political theorist in the eighteenth century and creolized when the African-American educator and social critic analyzed a similar phenomenon, focusing especially on the ways gender and race exacerbated and complicated it. What was [End Page 2] at issue? For Rousseau, writing at a time when the question of legitimate governance had emerged to challenge the long history of divine rule and monarchy, empirical examples suggested that actual modes of governance, rather than creating an equalizing domain or form of leverage for the less powerful, added political privileges and seeming moral force to those with power and position. He asked how this unjust advantage could be counteracted, hoping that the answer could lie in law. Cooper, as I will argue, in effect creolizes Rousseau's observation when she perceives that the ideal of independence that lay at the core of political doctrines of republican self-governance relied on forms of willful blindness that cloaked the ongoing dependence of all human beings on one another. The distribution of this dependence was far from egalitarian and the recognition of the actual contributions of respective different people was consistently inaccurate. This inaccuracy tended to distort citizens' estimation of which individuals, groups, and races were worthy of social investment, a key factor when designing social policy. Cooper thereby extended Rousseau's concern that economic and related social inequalities were further entrenched by illegitimate governance to argue that inequalities were also reinforced by shared national misperceptions of public contributions and the rewards they thereby merited. While she did not offer concrete institutional recommendations to address this problem, she did outline a radical account of the stakes involved, suggesting the kinds of values and commitments out of which an alternative could grow. In conclusion, I consider what Cooper's expansion of Rousseau's insight and what creolized readings of political philosophy might offer the project of political thinking today.
Creolization and Creolized Readings
Before turning to the ways Cooper creolizes Rousseau's political thought, we must first understand more deeply what the term means—or, rather, we must acknowledge more fully the reality to which the term refers. While later used to explore similar processes underway elsewhere, creolization as a term, emerged to describe people of mixed blood and then symbolic and cultural systems that combined in the Caribbean in unprecedented ways (Chaudenson 2001; Gordon 2014). In each case, as Michael Monahan writes, "the concept of the creole picks out someone whose ancestry is in some significant sense fragmented—the family tree pointing back not to a single 'trunk,' but rather a fractured set of roots emerging from disparate [End Page 3] natal soils" (Monahan 2017, 2). Creolization then describes the process out of which creole products (people, tongues, artistic forms, ideas) emerge.
Central to these products is that they combine elements in unprecedented and unpredictable ways. The palette of ingredients is unexpected because the groups to which they are tied shared little or no prior history. Moreover, their new coexistence that sets the stage for this process did not emerge gradually, as different nations or ethnicities of people coalesced in a shared region of ample useful resources. Instead the circumstances that produced proximity were often sudden, violent, and traumatic. Further, the process of blending is not deliberately undertaken, charted out, directed, or controlled. Enmeshed in the busy task of living, people do not design creolized products to emerge as such.
These circumstances led the late Martinican writer and literary scholar Édouard Glissant to place special stress on the psychic state he thought characterized many instances of creolization (2008). For him, it was marked by a unique relationship between forgetting and remembering: Africans forcibly brought to the New World and the First Nations thereof both faced systematic efforts to eradicate and diminish the value of their historical practices and ways of knowing. Added to this was the fact that the world to which these referred was ceasing to exist. Still, many exercised creative perseverance and oppositional commitments to cultural maintenance, even as remembering what had been often meant that it remained recognizable through becoming something new. For Glissant, those who had undergone and been socialized in such circumstances were prepared in advance for the radical social transformations those outside the Caribbean would soon face.
If this account of creolization appears to border on romanticization, it is worth emphasizing that even if creolizing stresses an open-ended process that seems to highlight in radical and intensified form the nature of living human culture more generally, it too can be collapsed and hijacked. In other words, even in places where the language of creolization has been championed as an approach to national culture (Bolland 2006), frequently certain outcomes or products of the process of creolization are prized as its highest manifestation, encouraging people to reproduce this particular form of mixture as a newly prized purity that would in fact involve deliberate decreolization (Thomas 2004; Segal 1993). This re-instantiated reification of purity can be harder to detect where supposed celebrations of ongoing creolization are the norm (Misir 2006). [End Page 4]
This warning concerning the distinction between the process of creolization and selective celebration of some of its products is related to a final introductory point: there is an irony at the core of creolization. Specifically, one cannot deliberately make it one's end, goal, or method because the spirit of creolization rejects in advance any fixing, defining, and demarcating of boundaries or principles about how best to do or be anything; instead, creolization assumes that the expression of commitments must remain open to further mixing, revision, and transformation (Monahan 2011; 2017 and Gordon 2014; 2015). As Monahan writes, "As already ambiguous and dynamic phenomena ourselves, any effort to narrowly focus and constrain the methods we deploy to understand ourselves and others will necessarily mischaracterize the very object of study it claims to illuminate" (Monahan 2017, 6–7).
If we cannot make creolization our express goal, creolizing approaches are most likely to emerge when we are primarily interested in exploring and pursuing the fullest possible expressions of what it is to be human and when we are comfortable with the necessary openness and ambiguity that this must involve (Monahan 2011; 2017; Gordon 2014). Politically speaking and at the level of ideas, the aim is not to eliminate all salient forms of difference in some kind of magnificent final mixture. Quite the opposite. It is to understand that fostering a world where human beings can be more fully themselves is one where they can appear in and through their differences. As such, the meaning and nature of these are likely to be less predictable.
Thus, working from the vantage point of creolizing—both of understanding the ubiquity of this process and the hostility to it on the part of those committed to staving off dilution or impure mixture—leads in at least two directions. First, an understanding of creolization would make it clear that ideas are not neatly enclosed units that remain loyal to or engulfed in one geopolitical space, community of people, or tradition alone. Instead, as is true with blood or language or the preparation and consumption of food, ideas are resituated and refashioned and indeed, their vitality has everything to do with the potential range of consequences that result. The concept, say, of power, has a sufficiently coherent core to make its exercise coherent across a variety of contexts. Still what it means to or how one would secure or consolidate or lose it, will be imbued with the particularities of local histories and struggles. Relatedly, few of the thinkers whose work withstands the test of time only read in what ex post facto intellectual historical accounts would call "their tradition," since those who did are [End Page 5] likely to become quickly dated, speaking only to one, very narrow context with little generalizability.
But in addition to suggesting a mode of reading and engaging with ideas, creolization points to a way of understanding human subjects, relations, and worlds as fundamentally porous and indispensably interwoven, making it difficult to discern where one begins and another ends. And so, even if unfortunately illuminated through situations of conquest, genocide, and enslavement that none would want to emulate, creolization offers a lens into the actual circumstances of constraint and possibility within which human subjects live and breathe and seek to grow. In other words, in contexts where creolization is not disavowed and is thought obviously to describe the social world, the arguments to follow of Rousseau and Cooper are far from surprising. In other words, if we all need one another simply to survive, let alone to live with any purpose; if we cannot communicate without languages that change with their shifting speakers; if the landscape we occupy mirrors its changing inhabitants and their conceptions of value; and if, by definition, none of these processes are orderly or predictable, then how could an independent person be someone who is entirely self-reliant? How could their innovative contributions not draw from and build upon the eyes and hands and insights of manifold others? And how would this reality be properly reflected in political institutions? How can they be adequately solid and porous, continuous and evolving?
Rousseau's Portrait of Political Illegitimacy
In works most readers of this journal know well, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that profound inequalities and socialization in disingenuousness were at the origin of society itself, so that institutions that were supposed to govern fairly only add legitimacy to radical discrepancies of wealth stemming from initial acts of violence and theft. Trying to imagine an alternative—a conception of society that aimed to make the interdependence of every member of the polity palpable—required revealing the social norms that made governments compound the advantages of those who already had more than their share of a society's goods.
In Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Rousseau had argued that the original purposes for the launching of the grand experiment in government [End Page 6] was to secure the wealth of some from the many others who together could seize it. This initial goal continued to be evident in the vastly unequal "utility each person derives from the social confederation" or constituted government (Rousseau 1992a, 164). Rousseau observed of many of the polities of his day that the advantages of society were reserved for the powerful and the rich who, already affluent, could lay claim to all of the lucrative economic opportunities. And if these claims somehow conflicted with the regulations and laws already established by them primarily to protect their own advantages, political institutions did not intervene to punish their violations or enforce necessary limitations. Instead, the economic misdeeds of the rich found easy protection: "When an esteemed man steals from his creditors or cheats in other ways, isn't he always sure of impunity?" (Rousseau 1992b, 165, emphasis added). Rousseau makes clear that such men are emboldened because they can rely upon protections of their license. The very institutions that were framed as if they were to assure that law functions as an equalizing force instead protect them in acting as if it does not apply to them.
The law does not only turn a blind eye to market transactions that limit the opportunities of others, it gives moral permission to social and personal crimes.
Aren't all the pardons and all the exemptions reserved for them? And isn't public authority entirely in their favor? . . . The beatings he gives, the violent actions he commits, even the murders and assassinations he is guilty of, aren't these affairs passed over in silence and forgotten after six months? [Yet,] if this same man is robbed, the forces of law and order go into action immediately, and woe to the innocents whom he suspects. . . . Is it noisy near his door? He says a word and all is silent. Does the crowd inconvenience him? He gives a sign and everything becomes orderly. Is a cart driver in his way? His people are ready to beat him. And fifty honest pedestrians going about their business will be trampled before an idle good-for-nothing's coach is slowed down.
Rousseau observes, moreover, that these entitlements, which affirmed the greater value of not only the rich man's life, but also his comfort and every whim, cost him nothing. They are his right. The mechanisms that some supposed were aimed at creating the equality necessary for a more [End Page 7] widespread freedom instead secured and justified continued inequality, making the effective mastery of some over others a continued, if more diffusely actualized, fact.
How different is the picture of the poor man! The more humanity owes him, the more society refuses him. All doors are closed to him, even when he has the right to make them open. And if he sometimes obtains justice, it is with greater difficulty than another would obtain pardon.(Ibid.)
When service is needed, he receives ample attention: "If there are corvées to do, troops to be raised, he is given preference" (ibid.). And the services needed are many and disproportionate since richer neighbors can use their influence to exempt themselves. There is no such insulation or social safety net in return:
At the slightest accident that happens to him, everyone abandons him. If his poor cart tips over, far from being helped by anyone, I consider him lucky if he avoids the passing insults of the flippant servants of some young duke. In short, all free assistance flees him when needed, precisely because he has nothing with which to pay for it.(Ibid.)
This situation is worse still because it is near impossible for the poor to recover their losses since difficulty, argues Rousseau, increases with actual need. What the poor pay in fact returns to the rich since taxes go to those who take part in or are closely allied with government. And surely those benefiting excessively from a pact that misleadingly promises collective order and thriving will call this legitimate governance.
For Rousseau, these scathing diagnoses were intended to be illuminating, demonstrating how we are socialized to see what are in fact related phenomena—some exempting themselves from service so that more falls onto others; some enriching themselves, necessarily leaving less for others; zero-sum political economies nurturing deception and dependence—as discrete so that we are ill-equipped accurately to understand or, better, address them. His aim was to envision forms of government that would be legitimate precisely because they broke from, rather than further entrenching [End Page 8] foundational forms of injustice. One of his most significant contributions was that he did not minimize the scale and scope of the challenge.
Cooper's Diagnosis of the Ideal of Independence
While Rousseau explored the social and economic obstacles to the creation of a political sphere with a distinctive, egalitarian counter-logic, Anna Julia Cooper, reflecting on the practical work of transforming recently freed slaves into democratic citizens, identified the consistent refusal of many mainly white persons to recognize the historical contributions of slaves to the construction of U.S. society and to acknowledge their continued reliance on free black women and men and their labor. This refusal, she argued, limited the full democratic potential of the polity.
In her two-part classic A Voice from the South, Anna Julia Cooper writes, "We are not independent. Let's admit it, and if it's any comfort to know it, neither is anybody else. Independence is all a big bluff" (Cooper Undated; Browne 2008, 105; Weiss 2009, 97). So said a woman who, born a slave in mid-nineteenth-century North Carolina, began working at age ten to fund her own education. As a widowed adult woman, she raised seven children, none of whom she birthed, on a teacher's and then a school principal's and then teacher's salary. Cultivating the critical thinking skills of many of the first generation of free-born African-American women and men living in Washington, D.C., what did she, who so tirelessly set conditions for individual and collective black self-determination, mean by this casual, even irreverent dismissal of independence? After all, according to a centuries-long Western intellectual tradition, independence was thought to be a precondition for and expression of the capacity for meaningful freedom. What, then, were the implications for political theory of her insistence that no one was actually independent, and that the ideal itself was a "bluff"?
Part of the answer lies in her account of the distinctiveness of human development. More specifically, in the midst of a longer discussion of how unsentimentally to gauge the value of an individual, group or people, Cooper emphasizes that unlike non-human animals, human beings are born and remain thoroughly dependent for a protracted period of time. Assuring that a human child simply survives requires extensive cooperative work and attention, typically undertaken and devoted by women, with the result that there are no human adults—especially not the affluent and powerful [End Page 9] whom Rousseau described—who are not profoundly indebted to people and communities that set the conditions for their maturation. Cooper adds immediately and without qualification that there are no greater returns than investing in the development of people. So, the first part of our answer lies here: Claims to independence are rightly considered to be a big bluff since, when making them, we fail to take seriously or acknowledge that we all began life unable to fend for ourselves. We remain alive only because of the extensive care given by others. Human babies cannot be self-reliant.
This would be an easy and obvious admission if it were not for the socio-historical context in which Cooper was writing, which supplies the second dimension of our answer. This context was one that she described as decrying any and all forms of weakness, approving of bullies, and regularly mistaking domination for rightful power. Its norms, in short, were those of exploitation, which Cooper reflected on in an unpublished paper in terms that call to mind Rousseau:
Of all the crimes of the universe, exploitation is the quintessence, the sum total of the most monstrous, the most heinous, the most ungodly. Exploitation means using your neighbor for yourself. . . . [It is] the savage expression at the Nth degree of human selfishness, the hoggish principle among men which makes self the center of the universe and stands ready to trample ruthlessly underfoot or greedily devour the entire non-self regardless of right, rhyme or reason.
In short, even if certain individuals were to emphasize their reliance on and indebtedness to others, thereby bucking the ideals that surrounded them, for their contemporaries, the language of independence itself was premised upon multiple and fundamental forms of ruthless trampling and greedy devouring.
Exploitation, as she elsewhere describes it, marked the origins of the United States as a nation. The sheer ability, in her words, to wipe out existing occupants had been treated as a legitimate way of making claim to territory, a fundamental mistake that Rousseau also observed.2 From these foundations, the grammar had been set for U.S. political culture. In it, "taking advantage of present emergencies rather than the insight to distinguish between the true and the false, the lasting and the ephemeral advantage . . . [and highly], cultivated selfishness [were the] passport to success" (Cooper 1998c, 114). She continues: [End Page 10]
The fatal American faculty of cutting corners has taught us to call that program of education "practical" which makes the shortest cut to the nearest dollar in sight. Before childhood has had time to grow, it is harassed with the feverish, mercantile question "what can you do?" Bears sometimes eat their cubs and humans not seldom fatten on child labor, but the crime becomes monstrous when whole communities systematize the stunting and warping of all normal child-development by premature specialization.
This bankrupt set of values and their negative consequences was especially evident in what she characterized as the challenge, with the formal abolition of slavery, of black women and men being reborn as citizens, beyond and outside of the concept and experience of chattel. She wrote,
When colored persons have been employed it was too often as machines or as manikins [sic]. There has been no disposition, generally, to get the black man's ideal or to let his individuality work by its own gravity, as it were.
Put differently, the purpose of black lives in the New World had been determined by others for whom black people were at best valued for utilitarian reasons, for sparing what would have been costly labor expenditures. Cooper made similar observations about the situation of most women, including those who were not black. Their development had historically been oriented solely by the aim of becoming a figure of relative value: one who could supplement the worth of her husband. In each of these instances, the abilities or internal aims of entire subordinated groups were treated as irrelevant, since their members were supposed to be something of use to others and to what was deceptively (or blindly) called their independence.
The unwillingness to recognize the distinct value or gravity of the individuality of persons subordinated as black, female, and as black female had powerful consequences, according to Cooper. She describes their effect as the development, since the fifth century, of a lop-sided civilization, one brought up only by its father and lacking "the great mother heart to teach it to be pitiful, to love mercy, to succor the weak and care for the lowly" (Cooper 1998c, 73). Cooper did not blame men for an inability to offer the truths linked to the standpoint of being female. In fact, she commented, "It does credit both to his head and heart that no greater mistakes have been [End Page 11] committed or even wrongs perpetrated while she sat making tatting and snipping paper flowers" (Cooper 1998c, 107). Instead, Cooper understood the outcomes as inevitable in a world that had limped along as if with one eye. It had sorely needed the influence of feminine virtues that were at last gaining visibility and force. "Suddenly the bandage is removed from the other eye and the whole body is filled with light. It sees a circle where before it saw a segment. The darkened eye restored, every member rejoices with it" (ibid).
Cooper advanced similar arguments in "The Ethics of the Negro Question," which makes a case for what the black race offered the "civilization" of the United States. Black people, she declared, stood as "the passive and silent rebuke to the Nation's Christianity, the great gulf between its professions and practices, furnishing the chief ethical element in its politics" (Cooper 1998a, 206). A constant reminder of its own hypocrisy or self-righteousness in the midst of the constant failure to exhibit its own ideals, black people were like a "ghost" of all that remained undead and unresolved, often triggering angry resentment at their embodied ongoing challenge to the nation's desire simply to move on in self-glorification (Cooper 1998a, 209). For Cooper, the fact of having to grapple with such challenges was not itself a problem. Indeed, she, like Friedrich Nietzsche, understood facing and handling adversity as a sign of strength, with the implication that those shielded from such trials were likely less healthy individuals and communities (Gordon 2008: 73).
Just as the further inclusion of all women into a male-dominated civilization could be understood as the uncovering of a bandaged eye, Cooper suggests that black women and men's distinctive character would nurture the conflict of opposing racial-cultural elements that could stimulate progressive growth. Cooper argued that "it seems an Anglo Saxon characteristic to have such overweening confidence in his own power of induction that there is no equation which he would acknowledge to be indeterminate, however many unknown quantities it may possess" (Cooper 1998c, 147; emphasis original).3 G-d, for Cooper, cared about the evolution of civilization, which was to reach its highest culmination, "the last page," "the climax of history," "the bright consummate flower" in this final arena where "every agony has a voice" (Cooper 1998c, 129). As Europe had trumped Asia, espousing an unfortunate national exceptionalism, she wrote that America would be "broader and deeper and closer to the purposes of the Eternal than any the world has yet seen" (ibid). In other words, America's race [End Page 12] problem was its opportunity to develop better institutions, greater breadth of culture, and "the symmetry of her development" (Cooper 1998c, 132).4 Cooper clearly departed from standard interpretations of Rousseau here, by framing the challenges arising from salient differences and forms of inequality as a political opportunity. She also, in ways he would never condone, treated "civilization" as synonymous with a normative ideal, even if it were one that had to be forged and could be more and less effectively realized.
Cooper did not think that black women or men were ideal. She is clear on this point: "The black man is not a saint, neither can he be reduced to an algebraic formula" (Cooper 1998a, 212). He needed to be understood as a human being, neither divine nor subhuman and as quintessentially American. Observed Cooper, "He is the most American of Americans for he alone has no other civilization than what America has to offer. Its foibles are his foibles. Its youthful weakness and pompous self-confidence are all found here imitated or originating, as between sitter and portrait" (Cooper 1998a, 212–13). Similarly, Cooper did not suggest that white women had remained immune to the prevalence of the bullying logics of U.S. political culture. When challenging a white suffragette who aimed to advance the cause of white women by invidiously comparing them with black and native men who could already vote, Cooper charged her with pitting the eye against the foot, asking,
Is not this hitching our wagon to something much lower than a star? . . . . Why should woman become plaintiff in a suit versus the Indian, or the Negro or any other race or class who have been crushed under the iron heel of Anglo-Saxon power and selfishness? If the Indian has been wronged and cheated by the puissance of this American government, it is woman's mission to plead with her country to cease to do evil and pay its honest debts . . . let her rest her plea, not on Indian inferiority, nor on Negro depravity, but on the obligation of legislators to do for her as they would have others do for them were relations reversed. Let her try to teach her country that every interest in this world is entitled at least to a respectful hearing . . . not the white woman nor the black woman nor the red woman, but the cause of every man or woman who has writhed silently under a mighty wrong. . . . Her wrongs are thus indissolubly linked with all undefended woe, all helpless suffering, and the plenitude of her [End Page 13] "rights" will mean the final triumph of all right over might, the supremacy of the moral forces of reason and justice and love in the government of the nation."
Cooper emphasized that in a world run by might or by the strength of physical force, women of all races would always be inferior. It was in the realm of moral ideas that they could be "queen" (ibid). With opportunities increased for the higher education of women—through which it could become normal for women to express their reasoning and thinking—justice and love were already more effectively counterbalancing force and instrumentalism (Cooper 1998c, 76). Still, there was much farther to go in assuring such access was available to more than a few, exceptional black women.6
What Cooper considered a better symmetry of qualities, values, and traits historically tied to being male and female, Anglo-Saxon and Negro was a more accurate and relational reflection of the actual composition of the human community of the United States.7 After all, if to bluff is to deceive others about what one can and will do, a lop-sided civilization is one in which the nature of some groups and the quality of their contributions are mischaracterized and exaggerated, claiming as their own the labor and value they have forcefully extracted from others.
But what would a political culture that fully acknowledged the interdependence of its members look like? Would it be one in which independence would lose all sway as an aspiration?
First, according to Cooper, such a society would have to stress the importance of shaping the earliest impulses of human character, an immense task that typically fell to all races of women.8 These were responsibilities "that might make angels tremble" (Cooper 1998c, 59). Indeed, to "ignore or misuse [them was] to treat lightly the most sacred and solemn trust ever confided by G-d to human kind" (ibid). Doing justice to this task would enable all people to emerge as part of reciprocal relationships of giving and receiving rather than providing invisible labor never recognized as such or as merely receiving the good works of others. Consider this passage:
Not even the senseless vegetable is content to be a mere reservoir. Receiving without giving is an anomaly in nature. Nature's cells are all little workshops for manufacturing sunbeams, the product to be given out to earth's inhabitants in warmth, energy, thought, action. Inanimate creation always pays back an equivalent.(Cooper 1998c, 70; emphasis in original) [End Page 14]
But reciprocity, giving and taking, requires a different way of estimating the nature of worth, value, and individual achievement. And so she offers a different equation in three iterations:
Only let us recognize our assignment and not squander our portion.
Here, anything one finds oneself with is not one's nature or one's gift, but an assignment, task or work that one is to do.
Am I giving to the world an equivalent of what it has given and is giving me?
If I have been given talents or attention or opportunities, it is with the expectation that I give in turn and in equivalence.
Each is under a most sacred obligation not to squander the material committed to him, not to sap its strength in folly and vice, and to see at the least that he delivers a product worthy the labor and cost which have been expended on him.
What has been committed has not been done so flippantly; it has been an investment on which one owes a meaningful return.
Still, for Cooper, the return (or equivalence or work) can include but not be exhausted by the generation of economic profit. After all, she reflects, there are
hungerings in man besides the eternal all-subduing hungering of his despotic stomach . . . the hunger of the eye for beauty, the hunger of the ear for concords, the hungering of the mind for higher, richer, fuller living . . . [and] every man owes it to himself to let nothing in him starve for lack of the proper food.(Cooper 1998c, 174; emphasis in original)
Contributions then are not only made in volumes of cotton and tobacco and molasses, though these certainly count, but also in inventions and patents and immortal thoughts, in deeds of loving self-sacrifice and in the actions of heroes and benefactors, nurses, parents, teachers. Not all persons need to have "genius," but all must be allowed to "give what we [End Page 15] are at its best"—and to be honored for it (Cooper 1998c, 182). But each being able to offer what is unique to them will not be achieved in isolation or through sheer individual willing. Cooper concludes: each and every person owes it to everyone, but especially to those of his or her own household, "to disclose to his soul its possibilities and mend its opportunities . . . for [surely] there is no greater boon we can bestow . . . in this life" (Cooper 1998c, 175).
For those recently freed from literal, chattel slavery, 250 years had been devoted to making them and their loved ones useful only in ways desired by those able to control them. For Cooper, this was aptly summarized as making human beings into "a 'hand,' solely and simply" (Cooper 1998b, 251). Educating black people in a way that both reflected distinct individual possibility and was of use to humankind required "building men, not chemists or farmers, or cooks, or soldiers, but men ready to serve the body politic in whatever avocation their talent is needed" (Cooper 1998b, 251–52). The same, we can confidently surmise, would be true for the education of all women, especially black women.
Cooper's overall message is clear: To be human is to depend on relations with others. It is only with others that we can identify what is distinct within us and how we might nourish and direct it. Whatever contributions come of this investment by others in our abilities only has meaning in the value it also offers others. To believe otherwise is to engage in self-deception about what one can do and how it might be achieved. However, such deception has been at the core of the Western tradition of political philosophy and the U.S. nation from its foundation through genocidal usurpation framed as the rightful advance of Christian civilization. From there, an obsession with immediate returns for some made shortsightedness a requirement for political leadership and orienting guide with education. The damages are particularly pronounced with groups of people already assumed only to have instrumental value. But the harms are not only to the black women and men and non-black women implicated. They extend to the Western Christian and U.S. civilizations of which they are a liminal part since these mirror distorted conceptions of value and achievement. [End Page 16]
But there are alternatives. If wrongly understanding the supposedly independent achievement of some normalizes the dwarfing of the majority of people in ways that also stunt and impoverish the collective development of all, it is only through treating each as a human being rather than a useful appendage to another that we can center the question of their potential and the conditions required for its nurturing. Doing so can enable people to identify and realize their talents so that investments made in them produce ample returns. By Cooper's mode of reckoning, however, the tables of recognizable value would radically turn: those who dominate societies, who have had extensive energy, time, and money devoted to them are likely to come up short, unable to match the sheer depths of expenditures made for them. By contrast, those in whom very little has been invested, whether through sheer lack, neglect or directly imposed damage, often give back generously. As Lewis R. Gordon (2008) observes, these calculations can also be made internal to communities with the implications that, if little was invested in black girls and boys, black women typically went on to bear children, in addition to laboring alongside their male counterparts. They thereby fared better in this analysis. Cooper's hope was that such a recalibrated understanding would not only translate in recognition of the indispensable contributions made by African-American women and men and non-black women in the development of the U.S. nation but a less miserly orientation to future investment in them. After all, their labor had been nothing short of indispensable. And she was insistent in the case of the expansion of higher education to predominantly white women: women having more does not mean that men must have less since raising the bar for women raises the standards for their male counterparts. The same can be said of communities of color: their full realization can only lead to raising the bar for everyone non-black, with benefits for humankind.9
If independence is the claim to complete self-sufficiency, it is not only a big bluff but also a dangerous lie. No one (and no group or institution or nation) "makes it" without debts and obligations to others. Still, Cooper's written and educational work constantly reiterate the worth of the gravity of the individuality of black men and all women. She pins extraordinary hopes on the transformative force of both, all the while recognizing that its realization had to be a collective endeavor. In other words, even as shared projects were embodied by individuals with distinct talents, aspirations, and characters, they could emerge as such only in and through relations with [End Page 17] others. Rejecting prevailing conceptions of independence as a big bluff could reveal the overinvestments and under-investments on which it relied in the hope that less wasteful/more fruitful investments could be made.
What does it mean to say that these arguments creolize the ideas of Rousseau? First, when Rousseau identified existing political institutions as illegitimate, he did so by recourse to a particular set of claims. Namely, governments entrenched inequalities that preexisted them through providing legal sanction and moral support. Through awarding and protecting legal title to lands seized by robbery, for instance, political measures that used the language of rights, liberty, and equality literally transformed theft into protected and exclusive private property. In Rousseau's account, this transpired in the formation of Euromodern states and in the colonization of the Americas. Crucially, such government-sponsored transmutations were not only past. They continued into the present through who was emboldened in and served by civil life. The wealthy could act with license, effectively invoking their rights to freedom if even a challenge against them was broached. Their predatory power was thereby enlarged by institutions to which they gave no actual contribution, neither through their taxes nor their labor. By contrast, these political mechanisms that buttressed and multiplied existing obstacles to the poor relied on the inability of these same women and men to refuse to be called up for war and to pay into the public coffers. Still, while fascinated by global transformations taking place in his day, Rousseau's reflections were fundamentally informed by the world in his immediate orbit. In his account, it was one where religious and economic differences were most consequential, as well as widespread failures to distinguish particular from genuinely shared interests and needs.
Cooper does not explicitly or implicitly engage Rousseau in the writings discussed in this article, though she does mention him in the introduction to her dissertation, later published as Slavery and the French and Haitian Revolutionists: 1788–1805 (2006), as one of a group of figures that turned a philosophic ideal of liberty into a thunderous force for abolition in the French colonies. But the point of creolization is not to demonstrate intellectual indebtedness. Quite the opposite. Its aim is more accurately to capture how political thinking transpires. In this case, it is to show how even in efforts to grapple with the same ideal, to remain meaningful, it is transformed through its adaptation in new predicaments and situations. In the Americas this meant that conceptions of freedom and [End Page 18] independence would be refashioned by black and brown women and men rejecting accounts of reality belied by their own lives. The implication is that Cooper also diagnosed the failures of governmental institutions to expand the reach of republican and democratic ideals. Beginning with the land seizures that transformed First Nation territories into the U.S. colonies and then the kidnapping of Africans to procure unpaid labor that would build the imperious nation, an already deeply troubled ideal of autonomy borne with Enlightenment philosophy flourished in the soil of Anglo-Saxon America into monstrous distortions. Cooper framed similar observations to Rousseau's about how hypocritically criminal law and civic obligations were enforced as an expression of a political culture that valorized what could be achieved with brute force and that therefore refused, as a point of pride, to acknowledge relations of reliance and dependence. The implication was that seismic and manifold contributions of black women and men and many non-black women were invisible in plain sight. When inevitable public conversations therefore took place about the value of different groups within the nation with implications for policy investments and restrictions of all kinds, those who in fact gave the most were seen primarily in terms of lack. Put differently, Rousseau's concerns with the relationship between illegitimate workings of government and skewed perceptions of self-reliance or an absence of dependence continued in the worlds of Euromodern empire, taking on a distinctive and novel character.
But these developments were not only progressive. After all, while Rousseau was a famous critic of the ideal of great civilizations and of any conception of progress that was not accompanied by great loss, Cooper was not. Indeed, as she pointed out the extractive and exploitation dimensions of the building of the United States, she also saw in the collision of varieties of political differences the possibility of the greatest political perfection yet to be realized. In other words, although giving it an alternative character and trajectory, Cooper embraced her own chauvinistic, American exceptionalism. It is true that at its core was the interdependence that Rousseau sought in his social contract and one that gave pride of place to the historic role to be played by black women.10 It is also true that, unlike Rousseau and in a way that is perhaps distinctive to the "New World" of the Americas, Cooper celebrated both the process and products borne of fraught negotiations and difficult discord as the only way for collectivities fully to grasp what their differences had in common. [End Page 19]
By Way of Conclusion
While Rousseau and Cooper have many loyal readers, eager to build from their diagnoses, they have had as many detractors who usually worry that their very heavy emphasis on group identity does not sufficiently discuss how solidarity is imperfect and still must be produced and nurtured. Many also assert that this failure on their part arises from their antipathy toward forms of salient difference and individuality, which they perceive only as a liability to be minimized.
Creolization offers a fresh way of envisioning the relations among ideas and people. In emphasizing the createdness of shared modes of living and their ongoing, essential negotiation, it is a particularly important historical and contemporary strand in Africana political thought, suggesting a fruitful way to navigate longstanding debates within both European and Africana thought between advocates of individualism, self-reliance, and independence, on the one hand and of community, solidarity and interdependence on the other. It does this by suggesting a porous and multidirectional relationship between the individual and the community that is evident in both Rousseau and Cooper but often overlooked by their readers.
After all, despite his criticisms of the ways liberalism endangers republicanism, Rousseau is usually read as part of the liberal tradition because he considered the individual to be the key unit of political life and the one that gave equality and liberty their meaning. Yet he also believed that the conditions that enabled individual freedom were a fragile collective achievement, which is why it is easy to read his work as making a problem of cultural and individual differences. Cooper, precisely because black life had been treated as cheap and disposable, placed her emphasis on the irreplaceability of each human person. Mothers and teachers want to nurture individuals capable of making distinctive contributions, demonstrating that identifying and cultivating unique strengths does not happen in isolation. More, strengths are called such to the extent that they can build human relations through which others can manifest their potential. At the same time, the way that race and gender function tie the fates of individuals to their respective groups, overdetermining their standing and the way that their abilities and actions will or will not be perceived. This means that they cannot advance, even as individuals, without the progress of the larger group.
As I hope this article and other works on creolization illustrate, a parallel can be drawn with the development of fruitful ideas. As many [End Page 20] political activists and theorists have argued, we are living in a moment of great possibility and dire need, one in which the primary political modes of organization within which we live are fundamentally challenged by globalizing technological, social, and economic developments. Discerning how political institutions can facilitate human flourishing and minimize vulnerability in this changed environment is urgent. We can do this by looking across time and space to people who diagnosed shared and distinct dimensions of our current condition. Rousseau was particularly helpful in identifying instances in which the liberal language of equality and freedom could undercut both. This is no accident. He was looking at the way of understanding human beings that was developing in a global imperial capitalist economy that insulated continental Europe from what transpired in the colonies on which it relied. Cooper also disdained the complete obsession with monetary gain and profit that instrumentalized relations among human beings. However, her political thinking was anchored by a paramount concern with how a community of very recently freed slaves could transform themselves into democratic citizens in a country that refused to recognize the massive contributions of their labor to the development of the nation. She also worried about conceptions of freedom, devised on the model of mastery, by persons whose role encouraged them regularly to disavow how reliant they were on others.
We are living in a moment in which most polities are experiencing a wrenching divide: on the one hand we see citizens who are nostalgic for a conception of liberty that developed with enslavement. It is one in which a select few exercise what they have called self-determination and autonomy through public support for their denials of their actual, extensive reliance on unequal others. In both thinking and practice, they are wedded to an account of the origins of their ideas and conditions of life that would deny any past, present or future of their creolization. On the other hand, we see citizens who accept that they live in a changed world that is already heavily creolized and that will only become more so. For them, relevant intellectual and political resources and allies are a divergent mix, rooted in and uprooted from a vast range of places, together striving for a world in which they can be more fully themselves. Such a world can only emerge from deepening the relations among ideas and people who together seek to unmask what parades as expanding our freedom while in fact encouraging us to consent to the eradication of its conditions of possibility. [End Page 21]
jane anna gordon teaches political science at University of Connecticut. She is author of, among other books, Creolizing Political Theory: Reading Rousseau through Fanon (Fordham University Press, 2014) and the forthcoming Statelessness and Contemporary Enslavement. She is the former president of the Caribbean Philosophical Association.
1. This passage is from "Thy Neighbor as Thyself," Cooper Papers, Howard University, and is discussed by Penny A. Weiss in "Community: Mary Wollstonecraft and Anna Julia Cooper," in her excellent Canon Fodder: Historical Women Political Thinkers.
2. For her, this made "American" xenophobia a particularly stark instance of projection since, she argued, it effectively involved squatters trying to block other squatters from entering since, as the original owners of the land, it was only "red men" who could call themselves American through the right of primogeniture (Cooper 1998a, 127–28).
3. In a reversal of the way that the production of universal thought is usually conceived, Cooper wrote that, as paradoxical as it seemed, "instead of making us narrow and provincial, this trueness to one's habitat, this appreciative eye and ear for the tints and voices of one's own little wood serves but to usher us into the eternal galleries and choruses of God. It is only through the unclouded perception of our tiny 'part' that we can come to harmonize with the 'stupendous whole,' and in order to [do] this our sympathies must be finely attuned and quick to vibrate under the touch of the commonplace and vulgar no less than at the hand of the elegant and refined" (Cooper 1998a, 135). It was in actual rather than idealized America, an America that centrally featured black lives, that its representations could have lasting significance. In existential language, there is an assumption that thought emerging from Europe is purely transcendent while ideas from elsewhere are actually mere description of their facticity. In fact, the expression of people everywhere reflects both their facticity and their ability to be transcendent. The correcting move is to remember this for writers located everywhere; that our capacity to grapple with our facticity is an element of our capacity for transcendence.
4. For an excellent discussion of the way that Cooper mobilizes the arguments in François Guizot's "Lectures II. History of Civilization" to advance a counter to Ralph Waldo Emerson's conclusion that racial competition had to be hierarchical and culminate in genocide, see Fernheimer (2007). She also suggests, in ways that I am arguing here, that Cooper writes African-Americans—on their own terms—into the center of American history and culture (289), arguing that a healthy national harmony requires salient forms of difference and develops not out of the absence of discord but from opposed forces sounding against one another in an "equilibrium achieved through tension and conflict" (295).
5. The suffragette whom she was critically engaging was the Reverend Anna Shaw. [End Page 22]
6. Having spoken in more general terms about the higher education of women, Cooper writes: "The high ground of generalities is alluring but my pen is devoted to a special cause: and with a view to further enlightenment on the achievements of the century for THE HIGHER EDUCATION OF COLORED WOMEN, I wrote a few days ago to the colleges which admit women and asked how many colored women had completed the B. A. course in each during its entire history. These are the figures returned: Fisk leads the way with twelve; Oberlin next with five; Wilberforce, four; Ann Arbor and Wellesley three each, Livingstone two, Atlanta one, Howard, as yet, none. I then asked the principal of the Washington High School how many out of a large number of female graduates from his school had chosen to go forward and take a collegiate course. He replied that but one had ever done so, and she was then in Cornell" (1998a, 84–85).
7. I share May's (2007) objections to Stephanie Athey's depiction of Cooper as perpetuating problematic notions of national belonging through her engagements with eugenic language. As May argued, Cooper repeatedly mocked the xenophobic purposes to which Social Darwinism was put, rejecting it as an unscientific means to shore up unnatural social hierarchies (52–53). While I agree, as May points out when challenging Baker-Fletcher's reservations regarding the elements of social evolutionary and perfectability in Cooper's thought, that in seeking a progressive trajectory for the nation, Cooper never downplayed U.S. exploitation and violence perpetrated at home or abroad, Cooper did combine making readers face the sordid underside of historical examples of "democracy" and "progress" with a commitment to building an America worthy of claims to its exceptionalism.
8. Cooper is emphatic in "Womanhood: A Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of a Race" (1998d) that in the regeneration of the black race, it is black women's energies that will be most indispensable.
9. Lewis R. Gordon emphasizes this point: barring black students from the educational arena could only have the effect of lowering the overall standards. He draws the comparison with the history of U.S. sports, where standards skyrocketed once black athletes were allowed to compete, stating that "the limitations on performance are artificial, and one does not really know what communities can contribute unless they have the opportunity to do so" (2008: 72).
10. In identifying the ways that the category black tended to be monopolized by men while the category female was treated as synonymous with white women, Cooper could be read as suggesting that creolizing conceptions of blackness and womanhood would be necessary for black women to appear in their own right.