Conversations in Black: Sylvester A. Johnson

(Originally published for Marginalia Review of Books on March 8, 2016 in our Conversations in Black Series, hosted by Dr. Monica R. Miller and me. Here's a taste, but head on over to MRB for the whole interview).

[Read the first parts of the interview at MRB.]

MM/CD: The early chapters of the book forcibly articulate the economic roots of African American religion in colonialism, and the economic roots of black dispossession within (and from) Atlantic empire, more generally. At once, through your attention to Elmina and Cape Coast, which had thriving centers of trade that were by many standards fairly cosmopolitan, you persuasively demonstrate that many Africans were complicit and/or actively engaged in empire, in that empire involved the trade of a host of commodities, including but extending beyond human cargo. Hence, Africans were a vital component of the establishment of trade networks. Yet, a racialized social hierarchy ensured that even this African involvement would never “pay off” for them in a way on par with Europeans. Why has it been difficult for historians to tell the story of Euro-American empire in a way that does not flatten or erase African involvement in empire? And what is gained from fuller historical portraits like the one you present here?

SJ: A terrific question, one that demands multiple layers of response. Among the reasons is the routinization of foregrounding Europeans as agential subjects par excellence. With rare exceptions, we have been conditioned to thinking about trans-Atlantic slavery through a moral lens that impugns Europeans for exercising power malevolently and while viewing Africans as mostly hapless victims. It is certainly true that this process ended with Europeans inflicting massively destructive conquest and domination against Africans. But that’s not how the story began. I open the book with a focus on the Kongo empire because this kingdom was older and more powerful than that of the imperial Portuguese merchants who wandered into its territory in the 1400s (those from Lisbon). The Kongolese adopted Christianity as a luxury import of sorts, not so unlike yoga or pilates for high-brow Americans of the present. It was for elites. For their part, Europeans were simply unable to dominate Africans, since the latter were militarily superior and ably defended their own territory. I frame the beginnings of these imperial relations within an account of commercialism because Africans and Europeans were mutually willing (even eager) trade partners who both profited handsomely from conducting business.

Europeans may have invented a virulent form of racism, but they did not invent slavery. Nor did they invent colonialism. In fact, I am compelled to conclude that Europeans were not the first to develop a system of racism. Europeans did, however, remake slavery as a racial institution. My aim is not to get Europeans off the hook. Rather, I want to explain how the world of Atlantic history came to be, and that requires taking seriously the fact that power is not the exclusive preserve of Europeans.

Think of it this way. There is a relationship between treating Europeans as the sole arbiters of conquest and domination and treating Europeans as the sole or essential arbiters of history and civilization (think of how Georg Hegel understood history). In actual fact, they have been neither. If it is no secret that Africans were already conducting a thriving slave trade before the 1500s and had their own empires, then that knowledge needs to become data for interpreting the history of power. I think Marcus Garvey understood this, and I think this is partly why he was conscientiously a self-proclaimed imperialist. Not only did some Africans willingly enslave other Africans with no sense of remorse, but also Blacks from the United States colonized and subjugated Africans through a process of racial domination. As a result, these Americo-Liberians enjoyed the sweet fruits of democratic freedom (they were really free in the way we are accustomed to thinking of White Americans as having actual freedom) while Blacks in the United States were in chattel slavery or were being decimated under White terrorist rule following the abolition of chattel slavery. I also explain how some Black Americans participated in US wars of genocide and colonialism against Indigenous American nations following the Civil War. This was a critical factor for Black efforts to integrate into the political community of the United States.

Power is not and will never be the special preserve of the White race. But for too long, we have become comfortable with the image of Blacks as sacrificial lambs bumbling along under the regime of slaughter at the hands of Europeans. There is a type of comfort in interpreting Black religion under the sign of innocence. This is a narrative perversion, a way of reading Black religious history to achieve a mythopoeic account of good versus evil that defangs the ambivalent militancy of Blacks while succoring Christian triumphalism. At this point, we have entered the poetics of race history. African American Religions is an attempt to demythologize racial Blackness and racial Whiteness by taking what we know—power is not the special preserve of Whites, and Africans administered empires, slavery, and conquest—as useful and essential data for interpreting the history of freedom and empire to show how they have been mutually constitutive.

MM/CD: Without giving away too much from the book, or at least giving you the option of what to offer here, you make some incredible, groundbreaking suggestions about the relationship between European mind/body, spirit/body ontology (i.e. duality) and the rise of the “fetish” as a popular and philosophical topic of interest for Europeans. Furthermore, you bring ontology to bear on economics and discuss the “spiritualization of money and the secularization of finance” as significant for the growth of the slave trade. You even draw some incredibly compelling genealogical connections between the European interest in the African “fetish” and Marx’s turn to the fetish for his theorization of political economy. What do you have in mind by the turn to “spiritualization of money” and “secularization of finance”? What are the implications of this section of the book for understanding the economic roots of Atlantic empire, the relationship between economics and black religion, and the limits of economics for ensuring black entry into the “marketplace” (broadly construed)?

SJ: Yes, that’s a great question. By the “spiritualization of money” I mean to denote the transformation of money from material entities (coins, bullion, other material commodities such as ivory and gold) to immaterial entities such as insurance, interest, and debt. These instruments of finance capitalism were invented as practical solutions for conducting the African slave trade. This accomplished a reinvention of money that transformed it into a spiritual (i.e., non-material) technology. So, today, it is no big deal to recognize that money has to be accounted for as wealth that can be tracked on a balance sheet. In fact, the money held by the wealthiest individuals and companies is not material cash but capital such as a share of ownership of a company, which is itself an immaterial entity. Even our cash is now typically a dynamic pattern of data that allows us to access it while traveling simply by authenticating our identity using a bank card or biometrics on a smartphone.

This exists in necessary apposition to what I call the secularization of finance. In the context of the fetish, I try to explain how finance came to be formed as an enterprise that could incorporate Christian subjects who viewed capital and commercial obligation in ways that resisted and ultimately defied the religious oaths that grounded African commercial practices—the latter bound commercial parties under threat of injury or death from an Orisha, a powerful extraordinary entity in African indigenous religion. Another prominent example of this is that loan interest (usury) became routinized as a Christian practice in Western Europe, rather than being treated as a religious breach suitable for only Jewish financiers.

The cultural history of so-called fetish religion, as William Pietz demonstrated in a pioneering series of studies, cannot be separated from material practices of commerce and the global trade in the millions of Africans who were abducted and forced into regimes of domination that dispersed them thousands of miles from their homelands. So, another take-away is that no study of Western capitalism is complete without attention to its intersectional history with African indigenous religion. (I should probably add that this is not a reductive claim. It is also essential to study South Asia and East Asia, for instance, to understand the full history of Western capitalism.)

Check out the rest of the interview here...