Grant Farred Lecture: “Negro” and The American Condition

A few weeks ago visiting professor Grant Farred provided a lively night of academic quandaries and theoretical debate during his lecture on the political, philosophical, and linguistic use of the word Negro and its connection to American race relations in the works of James Baldwin.  Dr. Farred is a professor of literature, Africana studies, and cultural studies at Cornell University.  He is also an active author and recent books include Midfielder’s Moment: Coloured Literature and Culture in Contemporary South Africa, What’s My Name?  Black Vernacular Intellectuals, Phantom Calls: Race and the Globalization of the NBA, and Long Distance Love: A Passion for Football.  Dr. Farred has also served as an editor on various essay collections focusing on the Caribbean intellectual, Post-Apartheid in South Africa, and C.L.R. James, marking him as a leading scholar in diverse literary and cultural studies.

Dr. Farred began his enthusiastic talk with a close reading of James Baldwin and his idea that the Negro is the only real American.  For Baldwin, the term Negro is the condition of America, because it joins the oppressor and the oppressed.  In America the Negro is thought of as the other.  But the other only exists in relation to the dominant party, or white Americans.  The other, or Negro, is then a neighbor, distant but near to Whites at the same time, and not actually an other at all.  If the Negro is the same as the White community, then the Negro is the narrative of America, the story of the oppressors and the oppressed.   The Negro and White America are also forever joined together as the condition of America, because the United States can never return to a time before America was founded on the atrocity of slavery.  The Negro is America, as well as its past and future.

Dr. Farred points out that Baldwin overlooks the experience of the Native American in his discussion of the Negro as the condition of America.  Although this is a problem, because the Native American is othered in White culture, in reality Native Americans are the indigenous people of America and are anything but an other.   Therefore, like the Negro, the Native American is the condition of America and is not distant but is near to White America.  In the lecture Dr. Farred explains how the Negro can be then used as a term for all groups of people that have been oppressed and othered in the United States, including African Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and any other community.  The Negro is the Condition of America and all who have been oppressed, and all who have been oppressors.

As the talk concluded and Dr. Farred opened up the room to questions, he challenged assumptions regarding the current role of the other in America culture.  When asked about Rachel Dolezal, Dr. Farred stated that the other always begins with exclusion and the assumption that the other is not the same as the dominant party.  By claiming that Dolezal does not know the African American experience, it is othering her and making the experience a combative game.  For Dr. Farred this is the problem of over representation and the idea that a person can only speak for their own gender, race, or class.  This creates experience as a combative game because people must one up each other in order to be considered other or oppressed in America.  Over representation just then further segregates and others people’s experiences.  Dr. Farred ends his answer by saying America needs to find a new way to express self and the other, and perhaps that way is through Baldwin’s use of the term Negro.

Dr. Farred is currently finishing a forthcoming book called Bodies in Motion, Bodies at Rest and last fall posted on University of Minnesota Press’ Blog regarding his complex relationship with the works of Martin Heidegger.

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