“Western Civilization” in the Thought of Afro-American and Francophone Black Intellectuals – from the Great War to the Early Cold War – Public lecture by Georgios Varouxakis (Queen Mary, University of London)

Utrecht, Thursday 10 March


Afro-American thinkers were faced from early on after Emancipation with their relation to ‘European’ (or/and some decades later, ‘Western’) civilization. They were Americans, finding themselves in a country that identified itself with a civilization purportedly originating in Western Europe and claimed as the heritage of Americans of European origin. The strategies African American thinkers and activists developed in order to cope with that predicament differed widely and evolved over time. They generated a range of responses. Some demanded to be allowed equal and unsegregated educational opportunities to share in that ‘European’ culture, accepted as higher — and thereby prove their worth within and through it. Others opted for more or less complete rejection of ‘Western’ or ‘European’ cultural norms and tried to find inspiration and pride through a ‘return’ to ‘primitive’ African art, folklore and music. And still others attempted to prove that ‘Western’ civilization had originated in Africa and therefore to claim respect for African-Americans as co-owners of the cultural heritage of that civilization. Among the responses was the attempt to claim empathetic superiority for African Americans because of their ability to understand both the ‘white’ vantage points of their majority fellow-Americans and another vantage point that was unique to themselves. That ‘double vision’ African Americans were endowed with, thanks to their predicament, was proposed as a unique advantage through which they could make their distinct contributions to ‘Western Civilization’. Meanwhile, African, Madagascan and Caribbean thinkers and activists in the French republican empire were facing similar dilemmas in a considerably different context. Their responses were similarly varied and ranged from Blaise Diagne’s complete conformism to French citizenship, through René Maran’s protest in the preface of his novel Batouala, or Jane Nardal’s ‘internationalisme noir’ and the notion of Afro-Latinity, to the Négritude movement. The close interactions between American and Anglophone Caribbean Black thinkers on the one hand, and Francophone African and Caribbean Black intellectuals on the other, ensured that these debates and developments were not isolated but directly cross-fertilised each other. The paper will attempt briefly to analyse the attempts to respond to, or re- define, ‘Western Civilization’ in the thought of authors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Jessie Fauset, William H. Ferris, Alain Locke, Rayford Logan, Hubert Harrison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Jane Nardal, Paulette Nardal, Kojo Tovalou Houénou, Louis T. Achille, Aimé Césaire, Alioune Diop, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Frantz Fanon, and several others.


Georgios Varouxakis is Professor of the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary University of London, where he is also Co-director of the Centre for the Study of the History of Political Thought. His research interests lie in modern intellectual history and include the history of political thought (British, French and American 19th-20th centuries), the history of international political thought, political thought on nationalism, patriotism, internationalism and cosmopolitanism, on empire and imperialism, and the intellectual history of ideas of the West and ideas of Europe. His books include Liberty Abroad: J. S. Mill on International Relations (2013), Mill on Nationality (2002), and Victorian Political Thought on France and the French (2002). He is currently writing The West: The History of an Idea, to be published by Princeton University Press.