By Gray Black
A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece discussing the disassembling and rewiring of the white, cis-heterosexual “Great Man” histories advocated by Thomas Carlyle into “Intersectional Great Person” histories when combined with the intersectionality put forth by Kimberlé Crenshaw. While the exaltation of minoritized racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, ability, and cognitive figureheads is exciting for us Leftist historians and holds promise for equalizing the discipline, there are some axiological and teleological problems which may arise when associated with tokenism and inadvertent reinforcement of coloniality. We must ask ourselves if exalting subaltern greatness to the myopic (and nevertheless standard) notional greatness of Carlyle is, in fact, the best way to approach dismantling the stratification of the “other”. Therefore, it is necessary to deconstruct how this discourse materializes for those involved and how to properly include the subaltern.
Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci created the portmanteau subaltern to shed light on those muzzled and marginalized by hegemonic forces. These forces are superpowers that control, divide, sequester and socioeconomically enchain aforementioned power-minority peoples. To restate, the ultimate goal of what I have deemed to be the “Intersectional Great Person” approach to history is to illuminate inequalities of minority groups but to simultaneously legitimize and empower them as worthy, equal, and great in their own right. Nonetheless, given Gramsci’s definition of what it means to be subaltern, the moment the academy recognizes and hears a subaltern voice, they would, inevitably, no longer be considered subaltern for they have entered into a prevailing discourse in a way that is catered to dominate culture. By raising those residing in the understructure to the rafters of the superstructure, the essential importance of their identity and cultural work may be negated. This same phenomenon of neutralization remains pervasive in established liberal academia. Although broadmindedness in educational institutions pursues impartiality, it jeopardizes dismissing all the distinctions that are born from power structures.
Additionally, individuals crucial to subaltern histories could once again be paralleled to, or in the worst-case scenario, in competition with those established by dominate culture as great figures. Introducing Fanon’s ideas from his book Black Skin, White Masks is especially useful when considering this dilemma. Fanon asserts that power exists in one space and is guarded by people who look a specific way. Ultimately, the only feasible way to “sit at their table”, so to speak, is to prove to them that you are alike; the subaltern historical figure must substantiate their humanity and existential worthiness which are measured according to the imperial academy. Although this method might include more subaltern historical figures within the elitist academic domain, this process of recognition is founded upon inequality since the rigorous vetting and acceptance of paradigmatic “greatness” is a procedure through which all figureheads except those in dominant culture must enter. Fundamentally, based on this schema, the female, queer, disabled, neurodivergent, and racially/ethnically subaltern figure cannot be essentially equal, and, by proxy, nor can the masses. If we, as academics, deem a propagandistic pedestal as a platform of and for power, then decolonization cannot transpire; we would simply be re-envisioning a space that is inherently privileged without dismantling that privilege.
Parenthetically, this more abstract, value-rational inculcation of the subaltern into dominant greatness can be likened to internalized capitalism in subaltern spaces. All that is symbolically associated with Western, proto-industrial capital, such as meat, money, and merit, is mimicked and sought by those in the Global South. Once where predominately plant-based diets, provincialized bartering, and communitarianism predominated, there has been a mass transposition of violent eco-atomization, entrepreneurial industrialization, and hyper-individualism over imagined communities. While many in post-colonial nations reach for the branded idea of success, other native, indigenous, and globally minoritized people consider degrowth and ecosocialism to be a conduit for social and environmental benefits, but also for decolonization. In this sense, just as instrumental greatness must be deconstructed to enact true systemic, institutional, and social decoloniality, cerebral capital must be rejected for the purpose of academic degrowth and subaltern empowerment.
This proposition may also benefit from an analogy. Using the dismantling of Confederate statues across the United States, the difference between lifting up to a colonial preestablished level and showing an inclusive alternative can be exemplified. While effigies exalting Confederate generals and slave owners alike being torn down is one part of the decolonization process, many are being replaced with statues of antipodal figures such as Frederick Douglass and Maggie Walker. The common reactionary rhetoric touted by not-so-covert bigots is that history will be erased if these problematic icons are removed. Instead, monuments for minoritized indivdiuals not only retain the same historical legacy and chronology, but the historical narrative is publicly redirected from xenophobic sympathy to lionization of the minoritized.
While this representation is fantastic in itself and reclaims a historical physical and societal space without necessarily placing subaltern figures next to symbolic bastions of social hegemony and bigotry, even more poignant for the case for total academic decolonization are the creative origins of these newly represented historical figures. The recently raised statue of Harriet Tubman, a disabled Black woman who helped many slaves escape servitude in the American South, was designed by Alison Saar, a mixed-race artist. In Richmond, Virginia, the Black and queer artist, Kehinde Wiley, designed the three-stories-tall “Rumors of War” statue, depicting a Black man on horseback. This anti-Confederate statue was one of the catalysts for the former Confederate Capitol’s memorial of Robert E. Lee to topple just a few months ago. This past year, a group of queer activists in New York City erected a guerilla bust of Martha P Johnson, a Black, trans, and disabled woman who was a keystone during the Stonewall Riots and who dedicated her life to LGBTQIA+ liberation. After an unkept two-year promise to erect a memorial for Johnson and other Stonewall activists, Eli Erlick, a culturally Jewish, trans activist who was indispensable in the statue’s erection, averred to CNN that the NYC queer community would not “wait for the city to build statues” for them. Anarchistic minorities like Erlick teach all historians a critical lesson; while we wait for administrations and other academics to catch up, it is crucial for all teachers, most especially those whose identities exist outside of dominate culture, to relay self-established and inclusive oral histories and literature. For here, not only do these great subaltern historical figures unfetter you, as a teacher immured with a particular discriminatory system, but they inspire other subaltern children, young adults, and mature students who likely haven’t seen their identities represented as respectfully and openly, if at all. When historical representative greatness is not offered by the establishment, it is our duty to represent ourselves.
Overall, in order to avoid further perpetuation of categorical imbalance, we must reconceptualize the pedestal of greatness not necessarily being built for power but as a tool to empower. While the requisite of hiring of more Black and Brown, indigenous, subaltern, queer, disabled, and neurodivergent people to teach history is an easily conceivable institutional solution, teaching self-directed curricula which is representative of those minorities already existing within the academy is an alternative solution to decolonization in the interim. Moreover, ideally, a global coalition of multicultural, diverse agents may be needed to help pick and choose inclusive curricula for those in dominant culture while those in proto-industrial nation-states accept (not permit) the autonomy of those in subaltern demographics, territories, and societies to choose their own distinctive, shared, and interconnected historical discourse. Furthermore, the implementation of the “Intersectional Great Person” historical narrative may entail obligatory explanations of power relations and inherent inequalities to take steps towards a global paradigm shift of other people and their intelligence and capabilities.
It is long overdue that the cherished accounts of heroes be reappropriated by subaltern societies, and for all those hailing from dominant societies to incorporate the stories of “great” minority voices into our studies. Like the subaltern statues monumentalizing across the world, we share our groundedness to the reality of the world, the weight of our burdens, and the resolute, concrete resolve to exist freely and equally. On decoloniality, we shall not crumble.
Gray Black is a human and non-human animal justice “world-maker” and an upcoming doctoral researcher. Their work uses Marxist-feminist political thought, analytic psychology, and psychodynamic perspectives to examine empathy, affect, minority mutuality, eco-socialism, and the intersections between speciesism and queerphobia. They have been published by Scotland’s leading campaigning animal welfare charity, OneKind, as well as /Queer, the audio-visual platform which offers queer historiographies and analyses of global current events effecting gender and sexuality variant communities. Their critique of cis-heterosexist capitalism and animal consumption was featured in Queer + Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression.
Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta
Featured Image: Statue of Harriet Tubman, New York. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.