Moving the Colour Line

Moving the Colour Line

Session #5 of the Race in Philosophy and Media Seminar* introduced by Sudeep Dasgupta. BG1 0.16, 5 April, 15.00 – 18.00. Contact:

What is “Blackness”? And who is asking? To answer the first question, one would also have to answer the second. Why? Because “Blackness” is and has been many things in different times and at different places: a target to be aimed at violently, for enslavement, exploitation and extermination; a weapon of political resistance crafted to combat those who target it; a moving resource of intellectual and political engagement exposing the lines of power that cleave social formations historically and geographically. Instead of an object of distanced academic contemplation, these three dimensions convert “Blackness” and the study of race into a disruptive force through which the prevalence of racist domination is considered intrinsic to both society and its study.
Keeping all three dimensions of “Blackness” in sight, this seminar session will argue that “movement” marks the political and intellectual force of the politics of race. The power of “Blackness” resides in how it has continually moved historically and geographically, and how every formulation exposed the politics of race, gender, sexuality, caste and nation. The three readings locate the politics of race at specific historical moments and in specific spaces to flesh out how “Blackness” was formulated, what it revealed about forms of power, and how it intervened in specific struggles.
W.E.B. Du Bois’ first formulation of the “Colour Line” exposed the impossible fit captured in the syncretic term “American Negro” after Emancipation. The assumption of equality in citizenship was undermined by the inequality maintained by a racist nation-state. What were the consequences for the “Souls of Black Folk” post-Emancipation and in the midst of Jim Crow? How did these Souls experientially live the contradictions of this failed transition from enslavement to emancipation? What did it say about progressive notions of historical development and the racialized bases for thinking the Nation? And how might it expose the continuing deformations of subjectively-felt identities in contemporary politics which demands assimilation, integration and the dissolution of alterity?

Saidiya Hartman’s poetic rendition of “Wayward Lives” defiantly articulates the lived realities of Black women in the U.S. to counter the ways they have been targeted in political, intellectual and media discourse. From being objects of sociological study, racist media discourse and political discourse of the U.S. state, Hartman makes them resistant subjects by voicing the affective, intellectual and political dimensions of gendered and raced subjects. Who decides what the “straight” line is from which these raced and gendered bodies drift? What queer trajectories of defiant speech and aesthetic invention do they draw, and how does this waywardness expose the racist assumptions dividing society and (en)gendering hate? Hazel Carby’s article situates the continuing necessity for the work Hartman produces by providing a genealogy of black women’s articulation of the intrinsic links between race, sexuality and imperialism within feminist thought.
Kamala Visweswaran emphatically reminds us that Un/common cultures were formed precisely through the transnational exchange of intellectual and political resistance to forms of racism. Tracing Du Bois’ dependence on caste theory from India in his conceptualization of race in the U.S., she tracks its repercussions today as Western racism, Indian caste oppression and sexist domination everywhere intersect in the relay between the U.S., South Africa and India.
The readings move the colour line between different geographical spaces and historical periods to flesh out the often-emaciated notions of “Blackness” which circulate in the academy. By giving substance to this term, both the political importance and intellectual wealth of anti-racist engagements outside and in the academy emerge as “Blackness” is understood as target, weapon and moving resource.


W.E.B. Du Bois, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”, The Souls of Black Folk (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007); 7 – 14.
Saidiya Hartman, “The Terrible Beauty of the Slum”, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (W.W. Norton & Co., London and New York, 2019).
Hazel Carby, “‘On the Threshold of Woman’s Era’: Lynching, Empire and Sexuality in Black Feminist Thought”, Critical Inquiry 12(1), 1985, pp: 262 – 277.
Kamala Visweswaran, Un/Common Cultures: Racism and the Rearticulation of Cultural Difference (Duke University Press, Durham, 2017) 68 – 72; 131 – 159.

*Change of Name of the Seminar to Race in Philosophy and Media.
The title of this year’s seminar is now changed to Race in Philosophy and Media. This results from the strong, but fair and convincing criticism we received from several colleagues including members of the University of Colour whose work we very much appreciate. We must admit that we have not been careful enough considering the name and the organization of the first half of the seminar, that therefore contributed to further marginalization of people of colour. This was not our intention, and we want to apologize for that. With the new title and the topics of the next meeting, we want to continue to engage in a much-needed discussion in a hopefully productive and inclusive manner.