An Epistemic museum for modernity

An important role of universities at this moment in post-modernity is to investigate and interrogate the ideas and institutions that came alive in order to give modernity its intellectual power and socio-economic transformational capacity. The crucible was a world driven by the global governance and entrepreneurship of white supremacy, colonialism.

The performance structures of this world used a number of incisive instruments that enabled its effectiveness and sustainability. These included the policy of unleashing genocide upon Indigenous people, systemic chattel enslavement of Africans, conversion of African women into inter-generational carriers of the slavery status, and the crafting of a network of racist ideas that held in place these relationships of power.

These systems and their alleged science originated in specific cosmologies that found fellowship in the faculties of the finest and most respected universities. Indeed, elite universities in western cultures were the breeding ground of the ideas that constituted the intellectual foundations of policies that led to native genocide and black enslavement.

Historical research is showing how the university was both the battle-site and breeding ground of colonial actions and ideas that are considered crimes against humanity.

Universities provided the intellectual framework for the ideology and praxis of white supremacy and models of social management and economic extraction. They provided the necessary epistemology that created the pedagogy of race and racism. They provided the economics and political theories that gave respectability to racism. They provided the jurisprudence and biological sciences that enabled the enforcement of white supremacy as a means of maximising wealth extraction from racially dominated communities and nations.

The global enterprise of enslavement that poisoned humanity with the infusion of the toxic terminologies we call racism was imagined and designed in the classrooms, lecture halls and research laboratories of the finest academies across the North Atlantic world. Euro-America bent and twisted academia into its imperial service in order to sponsor genocide and slavery.

No university in the north of the ‘West’ is therefore innocent of this legacy. Their hands are red with the desecrated lives of black and brown people.

The Caribbean resided at the centre of this world. This was the portal through which navigator Columbus journeyed from Europe and arrived on this side of the Atlantic divide and took up residence.

Modernity is the ‘new world’ that resulted from his occupancy. The ideas that shaped this ‘beginning’ have an ancestral home in academia and were legitimised as their contribution to an ‘Enlightenment’.

Any reflection upon the mid-17th century writings of John Locke would encounter the remaking of the Caribbean world, incubating imperialism and giving it form and readiness for exportation across the hemisphere with its back to the energising winds of Europe. Locke was acknowledged as the best in the ‘West’ in the business of inventing racial philosophy. His work on the concepts of liberty and freedom within the existential realities of humanity found a direct path into the practice of colonial governance and served to set him apart as an elite founder of American pro-slavery constitutionalism.

While he made a respected reputation in academia and colonial administration, his profits came from the revenues derived from the enterprise of enslavement whereby black life mattered only in the context of its property values. He invested in enslavement and served as the corporate administrator of the Royal African Company established in 1672 to supply thousands of enchained Africans to the sugar plantations.

He saw no contradiction between his academic reputation and slave-based revenues. When he interfaced the concepts of human liberty and freedom with the enterprise of slavery, he experienced a complementary rather than contradictory epistemic emotion. Black peoples were sub-human, Locke concluded, and therefore not party to the philosophical construct that occupied him as a Professor of Law and Ethics.

Locke was the critical voice that shaped England’s designation of the Caribbean as home to the new enterprise of chattel slavery in which Africans were codified as commodities rather than humans. When English enslavers in Barbados used their parliament to pass the Slave Laws of 1661 that gave effect to the chattel model of slavery, Locke was not only an intellectual inventor but a decade later his slave trading corporation was a massive revenue reaper.

From the Caribbean the human commodification culture travelled north into South Carolina where it mushroomed before trekking across the vast land largely emptied by Indigenous genocide that made room for the enchained.

In Haiti, the Caribbean courageously turned this world right way up. It was here that the legacy of Locke was placed upon its head and rejected to be replaced by an island ontology in which all God’s children were recognised as equal across ethnicities. This was the Caribbean’s gift to modernity, an everlasting eruption that sets the islands apart as communities dedicated to restoring and protecting this primordial principle of ancestral humanity.

It is our duty now to foreground this history with a view to completing the Haitian Humanity Revolution as the best in the ‘West’. It is for us to deconstruct and dismiss the discourses of racist modernity. Having done so, the project ahead is to relocate these white supremacy philosophies and their practices from the university ecosystem into museums of intellectual artefacts.

Creating an epistemic museum for modernity is as good a mandate as any for the Black Lives Matter movement. Our Caribbean world is filled with some of the oldest epistemic artefacts. The journey from Columbus to Fidel Castro via Toussaint L’Ouverture is significantly signed with the best-known elements of the western canon, making the region a legitimate place to expect support for such a virtual institution.

An important consequence of this curation would be to decentre the enduring notion that slave traders, plantation owners, and the mercantile networks, along with its political governors, were the prime architects and beneficiaries of the slavery enterprise of white supremacy.

The shelves of such a museum should be largely filled by the text and testimonies of a corrupted academia that spewed out the writing and research of racist raconteurs and rectors. Professors of the plantations should not be allowed to slip away in the illumination of emancipation but should be identified, tracked down and held to account.

This is an important task for the postmodern university.


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Hilary Beckles

Sir Hilary Beckles is Vice-Chancellor of The University of the West Indies. Before assuming this office in 2015, he served the University as Professor of Economic History, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Undergraduate Studies, and Principal of its Cave Hill Campus in Barbados for thirteen years. He has had a distinguished career as an academic, international thought leader, United Nations committee official, and global public activist in the field of social justice, minority empowerment, and for slavery and colonialism.

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