Malcolm Bailey, Untitled, 1969, acrylic on composition board, 48 × 72". © Malcolm Bailey.

EITHER BECAUSE OF or in spite of the fact that I am a biracial Black lesbian academic, enlightenment is always “the Enlightenment” for me, specifically signifying the historical era and ideology that is my most frequent point of orientation. One could argue that it was the Enlightenment that made me: After all, this is when European and US white heterosexual males hit their intellectual stride, creating themselves as a holistic entity while the other 95 percent of the planet became what are now called “gender,” “racial,” and “sexual” “minorities.”

Thomas Jefferson, Immanuel Kant, David Hume—all impressive thinkers and yet all equally impressively blind. One is allowed, I think, to feel a certain amount of pique in reading them and noticing the extensive labor they put into defining a concept like perception while tossing off casually vicious, fearful, and disdainful perceptions about Africans, “Negroes,” “Indians,” and any other nonwhite peoples unfortunate enough to come under their purblind purview. (Women are almost completely beneath mention.)1

Ever since these philosophes and their ilk created these hierarchies, there have been those who have combated them, most often using Enlightenment methodologies to dismantle that era’s ugly legacies. Contrary to its exponents’ claims of seeking a greater good, the Enlightenment and its embrace of reason and the scientific method have given us a world as stratified as ever—rationalism’s main innovation was to justify those stratifications not by invoking the divine right of kings, or divine wisdom, or witches, but by framing inequality as the unfortunate yet inevitable result of the “laws” of capitalism, biology, and genetics. Deploying rigorous, transparent, deeply informed logic and scientific arguments, proponents of human rights have tried to show that race, gender, sexuality, and class are just categories, not the unavoidable consequence of natural laws. These categories, these critics of the Enlightenment hold, are utterly human, utterly mortal inventions, with very real effects, to be sure, but all the same, just that: inventions.

Audre Lorde warned us that you can in fact use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, but you can’t then use those tools to build anything radically different. In looking at the dominant logics of feminism, queer theory, or Black nationalism, I believe she is right. It seems that in arguing against one or two bigotries, we leave others in place.

Aristotle and Newton were pretty damn wrong about most things, and yet for some reason one must study them in order to be considered educated on any number of fronts.

Neuroscientists have argued that the human brain is hardwired to find patterns, fallacious as they may be. This suggests that the Enlightenment craze for labels, for herding humans, animals, plants, and minerals into rigid taxonomies, is not specific to the eighteenth century but has been present, in one form or another, throughout human history. The implications are dispiriting: Is it impossible to escape our desire for superficial (and often derogatory) labels? Then again, I am relying on neuroscientists who, like me, were probably created through the Enlightenment. Perhaps “hardwired” is just another iteration of “natural law.”

I recently had the pleasure of returning to a book that was integral to my graduate education and that, for me, signifies “Enlightenment” par excellence: Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s 1944 Dialectic of Enlightenment. While I do not advocate every argument or endorse every observation within it, its authors’ refusal to worship at the altar of (white) Western reason has long served me as an intellectual tonic—especially in the halls of academe, where, despite right-wing claims to the contrary, most faculty have not really moved away from the belief that the alpha and omega of worthwhile intellectual pursuits are to be found within the history of white, Western (and male) civilization.2

Crucially, Horkheimer and Adorno analyze the meaning of the European “Age of Reason” in a fashion that many a committed leftist fails to accept today: They propose that in deifying and reifying “reason” as a transcendent practice inherently geared toward vanquishing superstition and myth, those eighteenth-century European philosophers—Kant, Hume, et al.—and their heirs in fact traded one set of religious beliefs for another.

At the core of Enlightenment “religion” is the worship of heterosexual (albeit sometimes queer) white male bodies (scientists, politicians, entrepreneurs, analysts, and philosophers who were all horribly flawed—by narcissism, by racism, by any number of things) whose biographies are taught as the foundation to Western education. Aristotle and Newton were pretty damn wrong about most things, and yet for some reason one must study them and their thought in order to be considered educated on any number of fronts.

The Enlightenment religious narrative stages the millennia of these straight white men’s dubious achievements as meaningful warfare, whether ideological or literal, and asks us to believe in a real and lasting victory of Right over Wrong when one side of straight white men vanquishes another. Brutus defeats Julius Caesar; the Pope defeats Galileo; Galileo’s legacy defeats the Pope; Churchill defeats Hitler; Einstein defeats Newton; George W. Bush defeats Al Gore. Somehow, we are meant to find meaning and enjoined to care deeply.

Now, it’s not as if I am ungrateful for the Nazi defeat, or not still a bit crushed by Gore’s defeat. And it’s not as if I deny that feminism, Black nationalism, and queer rights come with their own baggage; even Audre Lorde had her blind spots. Nor am I seeking, Foucault-like, to return to some halcyon era before the Enlightenment: The fact that racism as we now know it didn’t exist before the fourteenth century means very little when one surveys the history of civilizations around the world and sees, over and over again, a strong man, or sometimes woman, triumphantly strutting over the corpse of their nemesis.

All the same, the Enlightenment and its own continuing triumph, its persistence as our intellectual and ethical coin of the realm (i.e., Western civilization), often drives me mad. When the white-male-dominated media rails against Donald J. Trump’s trumped-up charges of “fake news” and then soberly reports the latest scientific finding on female/Black/queer genetic/biological/intellectual inferiority, how can I take any white male voice seriously? When we can still have supposedly “rigorous debate” on the possibility that women are just no good at science and Black people just can’t compete intellectually with whites, but we never entertain the possible inferiority of white men (why do they have a near monopoly on mass shootings in the West?) because to do so labels one an Angry . . . fill in the blank. (For me it would be Black lesbian.)

Enlightenment is the nauseating smell created by seemingly good intentions mixed with decrepit stupidity and thoroughly rotten self-regard—a smell I have trouble not sniffing, the way I keep checking to see if my almond milk (the latest health fad . . . also brought to you by the Enlightenment!) really has gone bad. And Enlightenment is what defines me, so often, in so many moments. It is the pedestal on which I stand, always straining to look beyond for some feasible alternative.

Michelle M. Wright is the Longstreet Professor of English at Emory University and the author of Becoming Black: Creating Identity in the African Diaspora (Duke University Press, 2003) and Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).


1. See Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze’s landmark Race and the Enlightenment (1997) for extensive quotes on race and racial ability from Kant, Jefferson, Hume, Hegel, de Buffon, Herder . . . pretty much all the major players.

2. Horkheimer and Adorno’s collection of essays continues to be prescient. It predicted the ubiquity of television culture, and screen culture as a whole really, given its authors’ focus on endless, hypnotic electronic pageantry. There are also misses: the odd rant against jazz, for example, which confuses bebop with big band and leaves an ugly stain of racist hauteur.