- Black Is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics by Paul C. Taylor
To gather together is an act of generosity, to identify and to connect pieces from here and there in order to give them meaning and structure so as to point to some linkage, configuration or coherence—but to do so without forgetting disparity, heterogeneity, and incoherence. In his deeply important work, Black is Beautiful, A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics, Paul C. Taylor engages in this careful act of gathering together, what, following Stuart Hall, Taylor calls an "assembly" of "black aesthetics," what he defines as the "practice of using art, criticism, or analysis to explore the role that expressive objects and practices play in creating and maintaining black life-worlds" (3–6). He understands the "black" of black aesthetics in light of common-sense race-thinking in which black refers to those "who have been racially positioned as black, and to the life-worlds that these people have constructed" (11).
Taylor skillfully assembles the components of a black aesthetics in "connection to the wider problematic of racial formation under white supremacy" (5). His project is thus in part a response to an ocular regime dominated by the whitely eye that has been constructed by ideologies and racial formations that denigrate, undermine, and make invisible bodies of color, specifically black bodies. This is the eye habituated not to see blackness or to see it as merely an object or a subject of ugliness, and deployed in what, following Monique Roelofs's analysis of aesthetic racialization and Saidiya Hartmman's notion of racial performance, Taylor understands as [End Page 287] the "race-aesthetic" nexus. Informed by this race-aesthetics nexus Taylor finds it necessary to carry out a philosophical investigation to study the link between black aesthetics and philosophy, thus offering not an empirical investigation on the debt of diasporic practices to African sources or a critical analysis of specific art objects, but rather a meta-theoretical investigation as well as what we might call a theoretical-phenomenological analysis that discloses and clarifies the traditional questions of art theory in the analytic tradition (authenticity, beauty, ethical criticism) as well as the embodied perception (in the sense of aesthesis) of objects and practices maintaining black life. Taylor thus assembles something difficult, a black aesthetics that both tries to capture that "there is a single thing" worth calling black aesthetics (the black in black aesthetics) while at the same time recognizing the heterogeneity, expansiveness, and multiplicity of life-worlds of people racialized as black. He clearly and systematically fleshes out the nature, scope, limits as well as possible contributions of this difficult task in the first chapter of this much needed contribution to the philosophical discourse on aesthetics.
In chapter 2, Taylor commences the difficult labor of engaging the race-aesthetics nexus by elaborating on the different types of invisibility that black bodies and selves are subjected to by the whitely eye. Taylor constructs a theoretical layering of racial disregard, a taxonomy of black invisibility informed by narratives of lived experience by some of the greats of black expressive culture and theory such as Ellison, Du Bois, Fanon, Morrison, and Wallace. While I would have appreciated the inclusion of Audre Lorde, another great of black expressive culture given her disclosure of the queer black female body, Taylor nevertheless effectively classifies key moments of the racialization of visuality in its practices of making-invisible black bodies. Given the work of John Tagg on the connection between visuality and power and the work of Nicholas Mirazoeff on the relevance of visuality as the producer of the real, we are well aware of the impact of the eye (in particular the whitely eye) in conjunction with different visual technologies in the operations of oppression. His elucidation of the different types of black invisibility (presence, personhood, perspective, plurality) constitutes a careful dissection of the different types of black invisibility that will certainly allow for future nuanced critical engagement with specific art objects or cases...