If a language is a kind of cartography, then to translate is to transform one
map into another. It is a pro cess of finding the right symbols, those that
will allow new readers to navigate through a landscape. What Mbembe
offers us here is a cartography in two senses: a map of a terrain sedi-
mented by centuries of history, and an invitation to find ourselves within
this terrain so that we might choose a path through it— and perhaps even
beyond it.
What is “Black reason”? Mbembe’s sinuous, resonant answer to that
question is that it is what constitutes reason as we know it— the reason of
state, the reason of capital, the reason of history. To understand the cate-
gory of Blackness, one must understand the history of the modern world, its
forms of conquest and exploitation, the manifold responses to its systems
of oppression, the forms of re sistance and voicing, the totality and its frag-
ments. But the only way to make sense of that broader history is to begin
from the category itself, from its power to condense and crystallize these
broader pro cesses. The critique offered here is one of remarkable histori-
cal and philosophical breadth. But it is also always attentive to the laby-
rinths and multiplicities of individual experience as shaped by social and
conceptual worlds. ‘Black’ is first of all a word,” Mbembe writes. “But the
word has its own weight, its own density.” There are words that wound,”
he notes, notably this “name that was given to me by someone else.” “To be
Black is to be stuck at the foot of a wall with no doors, thinking nonetheless
that every thing will open up in the end” (pp. 151, 152).
With a voice that is conceptually percussive and often deeply poetic,
Mbembe offers an account that is also always a theorization, sometimes
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