Academic journal article African American Review

"Race" and Hermeneutics: Paradigm Shift - from Scientific to Hermeneutic Understanding of Race

Academic journal article African American Review

"Race" and Hermeneutics: Paradigm Shift - from Scientific to Hermeneutic Understanding of Race

Article excerpt

As a concept, race is plurisemous. Its referents are not limited to visible morphological markers of difference. Social behavior, psychological profiles, economic activities, aesthetic forms - these are some of the many indicators by which racial identities are assigned or withheld, claimed or rejected, celebrated or deprecated. In racialized nation states (the United States, Canada),(1) race can be quite hazardous. Participation in or exclusion from various sectors of national life - the economy, politics, education, recreation, the arts - may depend on the racial identity assumed by or even assigned to individuals or groups of individuals. To speak, therefore, of race in contexts such as these is not merely to address oneself to an abstract concept. Rather, it is to intervene actively in a discursive field that is highly charged by a sense not only of past and ongoing grievances but also of present investments.

In the following pages, I shall examine those investments as they pertain to theories of interpretation. Beginning with the premise that race is one of several" communities of meaning" existing "|out there' in the world," and that its effectivity in the production and interpretation of culture belongs in "the province . . . of hermeneutic understanding," I will argue that, as systems of understanding, hermeneutic theories also stand in need of interrogation from the point of view of the ideology of race and the practices of racial discrimination (Appiah, "Uncompleted" 21-37). I will also argue that, contrary to Henry Louis Gates's position, African peoples have several systems of interpretation; that, though each may have certain similarities to others, they are not the same; and, finally, that any comparison between these systems and a European model must point out not only features of similarity or equivalence but also those of contrast, contradiction, and difference.

Studies which restrict themselves to pointing out similarities between the strategies of deconstruction, say, and Yorubaderived "New World" Signifying overlook the ideology of race. Even after we have disposed of the melanin, we cannot dispose of ideology. The ideology of race may or may not, in its operations, rely on biology. But, as the experience of our daily lives shows, and as examples from interpretation theories (Mailloux; Gates, Signifying; Gadamer), essays on curricular change in post-independence Kenya (Ngugi) and literary criticism reveal, it does make its presence felt.

I have derived the premise outlined above - i.e., that it is in ideology rather than in biology that we may find the meaning of race - from Kwame Anthony Appiah's essay "The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race." The essay's objective, Appiah writes, is to discuss "the way in which . . . Du Bois . . . came gradually, though never completely, to assimilate the unbiological nature of races." (22) The phrase gradually, though never completely, to assimilate is a signpost to the conclusion Appiah intends to draw, by the end of his essay, from Du Bois's work: that races are "unbiological."

To arrive at this conclusion, Appiah undertakes a systematic and critical explication of Du Bois's thoughts on race as recorded in "The Conservation of Races" (1897), "Races" (1911) and Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (1940). The evidence, he contends, points to a reluctance on Du Bois's part to dispose entirely of the belief that there is an essence of race (34). Du Bois's work was "a pretext for adumbrating the argument he never quite managed to make" (35):

The truth is that there are no races . . . .

Talk of "race" is particularly distressing for those of us who take culture seriously. For, where race works . . . it works as an attempt at a metonym for culture; and it does so only at the price of biologizing what is culture, or ideology. . . . What exists "out there" in the world - communities of meaning, shading variously into each other in the rich structure of the social world - is the province not of biology but of hermeneutic understanding. …

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