On the dangers of single stories: from the Haitian revolution to Ubuntu humanism

4 minutes to read
Ana Deumert

In his preface to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre noted that one of the epistemological aims of the colonial project was the production of mimic men. Sartre commented mockingly: 

“The European élite undertook to manufacture a native élite … These walking lies had nothing left to say to their brothers. From Paris, from London, from Amsterdam, we would utter the words ‘Parthenon! Brotherhood!’ and somewhere in Africa and Asia lips would open ‘….thenon! … therhood!’. It was the golden age.”

It was the proverbial ‘golden age’ for colonialists and colonial empires. They revelled in their superiority. And one would hope that this history is truly over. But the past, as I have argued in my previous column lingers and haunts the present.

Earlier this month, a high-brow Swiss newspaper published an opinion piece which graciously declared that ‘Western Humanism belongs to the whole world’. The humanism that is described – promoted and universalized – in the article is indeed of a Western, and thus ultimately provincial, kind. It is an odd combination of individual self-realization, democratic governance, moderate enlightenment philosophy and empirical science.  The message is simple: humanism as it developed in Europe is good for you, you ignore it at your own peril.

A deep ignorance lies at the root of such arguments. It is an ignorance of a broader philosophical tradition in which Western humanism articulates only one of many ways of being human. It is also an arrogance that believes that others should learn from the West – become mimic men – but that the West has nothing to learn from anyone. This is especially worrying since what passes as humanism in contemporary Euro-America reflects quite often a neoliberal consensus that fails when confronted with many of the complexities of a diverse world.

Maybe it is time, as suggested by Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire, for Africa – and the rest of the majority world – to help Europe to decolonize itself.

Humanism, understood broadly as a concern for the dignity and welfare of people, speaks to ideas of universality. Yet, humanist philosophy has come in different forms, challenging precisely these ideas of universality, and allowing for the possibility – and potentiality – of alternative universals. Humanism represents, to cite again Césaire, ‘a universal rich with all that is particular, rich with all the particulars’ (letter to Maurice Thorez, 1956).

Within Europe itself there exist diverse humanist traditions. Marxists have articulated their own idea of humanism. There are the traditions of radical enlightenment philosophy, Satre’s humanist existentialism and Levinasian humanism, as well as posthumanist thought which strategically decentres human agency. And indeed there exists a long-standing critique of Western humanism from within. Jacques Derrida’s work comes to mind here.

In China, there is Confucianism and Buddhism, and in India Rabindranath Tagore articulated his version of humanism. Islamic thought too is permeated with humanist thinking.

The Haitian revolution challenged Europe by demanding ‘universal emancipation’, an idea that has its foundations in thirteenth century Mali

The Haitian revolution challenged Europe by demanding ‘universal emancipation’, an idea that has its foundations in thirteenth century Mali, and that – at the time – was impossible to contemplate for even the most enlightened French humanists (Nick Nesbitt, Universal Emancipation, 2008). And in doing so Haiti developed its own version of humanism:  the Kreyol concept of libete was not just a translation of liberté, but spoke directly to the lived experience of slavery, and as such redefined one’s relationship to land and labour (celebrating self-sufficiency rather than any form of labour-for-others). Here we see a humanist political project that is inherently anti-capitalist. Maybe Europe can learn?

On the African continent, and in the African diaspora, négritude, ujamaa, ubuntu, black consciousness and quilombismo are humanist philosophies. Indeed, the articulation of an alternative humanism has been central to anti-colonial struggles.

African humanist philosophies differ from European humanism in one fundamental respect: there is a distinct focus on relations, on the inter-personal and communal, rather than on the individual (which reigns supreme in most European accounts).  This emphasis on relation, on seeing the other – including the non-human world – and recognizing them permeates traditional ubuntu philosophy; it is central to Fanon’s ‘new humanism’ as well as to Es’kia Mphahlele’s African humanism.

In an interview with the psychologist-philosopher Chabani Manganyi, Mphahlele comments as follows: ‘to want to reach out, outward, out of themselves … This is what African humanism is about: you are enlarged and increased when you go out of yourself.’ (Manganyi, Looking Through the Keyhole, 1977). This is not simply an African version of Christian Nächstenliebe, the love of those who stand next to us (and are recognizably like us), but reflects what Friedrich Nietzsche calls Fernstenliebe, the love of the most distant.

This sounds and feels quite different from most versions of Western humanism, which stand in an intellectual tradition that is permeated by a fundamental unease about the presence of the other as other. Thus, writing about the United Kingdom, Sarah Ahmed (2000, Strange Encounters) comments on pervasive discourses that position outsiders as ‘dangerous’, as a figure who threatens community and who needs to be either removed or absorbed. Not as someone to whom we reach out in order to become ourselves.

It is here too that Europe might be able to learn from the majority world. Assimilation and integration – key words in the context of contemporary European migration policies – make no sense from the perspective of Mphahlele’s humanism: relation means the acceptance of difference, not its elimination. Umntu ngumtu ngabantu, ‘a person is a person because of others’; this is the essence of ubuntu philosophy.

I borrowed my title from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story, and thus conclude with a quote from her:  “When we reject the single story. When we realize that there is never a single story about any place. We regain a kind of paradise.