View of Hank Willis Thomas’s Freedom Now (blue and gold), 2018, screen print on retroreflective vinyl, mounted on Dibond, 24 × 30".

EXALTED AND EXCORIATED, praised as universalist and damned as Eurocentric, the Enlightenment has for decades now been central to scholarly debate and even, to a significant extent, to discussion beyond the academy. If these arguments originally pivoted on the contrast between the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the nineteenth-century backlash or counter-Enlightenment, the opposition that has structured the conversation since the turn of the millennium has been between the Enlightenment and the post-Enlightenment (whether post-structuralist or postcolonial, or sometimes both).

Yet even as we speak (write), it could be contended that these debates are about to be blotted out, rendered irrelevant, by the oncoming darkness of an aggressively resurgent anti-Enlightenment, which bears some affinities to traditional conservatism and the nineteenth-century counter-Enlightenment but is now more explicitly racialized than before. So this is no longer a time when self-styled post-Enlightenment critics—taking for granted liberal-democratic guarantees—can afford to be sneering at Enlightenment norms. The protections of those rights and freedoms can no longer be assumed.

Of course, for blacks and other people of color, those assumptions were never operative in the first place. The misleading definite article (“the”) actually subsumes multiple Enlightenments, diverse both geographically (whether intra-European, e.g., Scottish, Dutch, or German, or extra-European, e.g., Islamic or Asian) and politically (“conservative” or “moderate” versus “radical,” in Jonathan Israel’s dichotomy). But I suggest we need to formally recognize a variant not usually listed in these taxonomies: what could be termed the Black Enlightenment.

View of Hank Willis Thomas’s Freedom Now (blue and gold), 2018, screen print on retroreflective vinyl, mounted on Dibond, 24 × 30".

The Black Enlightenment develops in modernity out of the experience of Atlantic slavery, which created a stigmatized, diasporic Afro-descendant population not merely in the Americas but also in Europe. And this global experience of racial subordination, lasting for over a century after the nominal emancipation of slaves in various countries (1865 in the United States; as late as 1888 in Brazil), generates what could be metaphorically seen as a “black light.” Think of it as a kind of X-ray vision into the actual workings of polities committed on paper to inclusive liberal-democratic norms but in truth still racially structured, as exemplified even today by the racial realities of the US and other nations. The very invisibility of blacks as human equals—recall here Ralph Ellison’s classic 1952 novel, Invisible Man—has given them (us) an insight into white cognition (W. E. B. Du Bois’s “second sight”), a metaperspective that can be analogized to frequencies beyond the visible spectrum.

So if the “whiteness” of Enlightenment vision has too often been self-blinding rather than illuminating, a black correction has been required to see clearly. And from this perspective, this angle of vision, the problem has never been a genuinely universalist White Enlightenment but a consistently racially particularist White Enlightenment, from the American founding father Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, proclaiming the self-evident truth of human equality to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, simultaneously the father of modern Western ethics and the inventor of modern “scientific” (biological) racism. As the anti-Enlightenment bears down on us, threatening a new Dark Age, just remember: We told you so (and long ago, too).

Charles W. Mills is a distinguished professor of philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center. His most recent book is Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2017).