Hegel was a critic of early scientific racism, in particular of phrenology. One might think this makes him a good candidate for our first rational anti-racist. One would be wrong. In his Philosophy of History Hegel offers a dismal vision of the negro. However, as an idealist, Hegel is reluctant to credit physical causes as the root of spiritual achievements, such as civilization.
Anti-racists may take fleeting comfort in the fact that Hegel suggests that Africa’s backwardness is the result of climactic and geographical causes:
Africa proper [i.e. sub-saharan Africa], as far as History goes back, has remained — for all purposes of connection with the rest of the World — shut up; it is the Gold-land compressed within itself — the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of self-conscious history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night. Its isolated character originates, not merely in its tropical nature, but essentially in its geographical condition.
What does Hegel mean when he says that Africa proper has no history? To give a precise answer would require expounding Hegel’s conception of philosophical history, so I’ll make do with a crude and distorted simplification: Hegel means that (1) nothing of world historical importance has ever happened in Africa proper, and (2) sub-saharan Africans haven’t written histories. There is no black Herodotus.
Hegel is inclined to see history as following men’s ideas, and in particular their religion and philosophy. A people builds a culture according to how it sees the world and itself. In this regard, Hegel regards negroes as undeveloped:
The peculiarly African character is difficult to comprehend, for the very reason that in reference to it, we must quite give up the principle which naturally accompanies all our ideas — the category of Universality. In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence — as for example, God, or Law — in which the interest of man’s volition is involved and in which he realizes his own being. This distinction between himself as an individual and the universality of his essential being, the African in the uniform, undeveloped oneness of his existence has not yet attained; so that the Knowledge of an absolute Being, an Other and a Higher than his individual self, is entirely wanting. The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality — all that we call feeling — if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character. The copious and circumstantial accounts of Missionaries completely confirm this, and Mahommedanism appears to be the only thing which in any way brings the Negroes within the range of culture.
That negroes lack a conception of a higher principle such as God or Law, Hegel thinks, is entirely in accordance with their forms of religion. As he puts it:
The grade of culture which the Negroes occupy may be more nearly appreciated by considering the aspect which Religion presents among them. That which forms the basis of religious conceptions is the consciousness on the part of man of a Higher Power — even though this is conceived only as a vis natures — in relation to which he feels himself a weaker, humbler being. Religion begins with the consciousness that there is something higher than man. But even Herodotus called the Negroes sorcerers: — now in Sorcery we have not the idea of a God, of a moral faith; it exhibits man as the highest power, regarding him as alone occupying a position of command over the power of Nature. We have here therefore nothing to do with a spiritual adoration of God, nor with an empire of Right. God thunders, but is not on that account recognized as God. For the soul of man, God must be more than a thunderer, whereas among the Negroes this is not the case. Although they are necessarily conscious of dependence upon nature — for they need the beneficial influence of storm, rain, cessation of the rainy period, and so on — yet this does not conduct them to the consciousness of a Higher Power: it is they who command the elements, and this they call “magic.”
In magic, man considers himself to be the master of nature. He does not master nature by submitting to her laws, as he does in modern applied science, but rather commands nature by sheer force of will. In his Philosophy of Religion, Hegel
describes how this works:
A missionary who found himself at the head of a Portuguese army relates that the negroes who were their allies had brought a magician of this kind with them. A hurricane rendered his conjuring arts needful, and, in spite of the strong opposition of the missionary, they were resorted to. The magician appeared in a peculiar fantastical dress, looked up at the sky and the clouds, and afterwards chewed roots and murmured phrases. As the clouds drew nearer, he broke out into howls, made signs to the clouds, and spat towards the sky. The storm continuing notwithstanding, he waxed furious, shot arrows at the sky, threatened it with bad treatment, and thrust at the clouds with his knife.
Other negroes, Hegel says, have moved past magic into animal worship and related forms of religious expression. Hegel considers this a large improvement over magic, as it admits the existence of a source of power outside man. However, the negro veneration of this external principle remains willful:
The negroes have a great variety of idols, natural objects which they make into their fetishes. The first stone which comes to hand, locusts, &c., these are their Lares, from which they expect to derive good fortune. This is thus an unknown indefinite power, which they have themselves created in an immediate way. Accordingly, if anything unpleasant befalls them, and they do not find the fetish serviceable, they make away with it and choose another. A tree, a river, a lion, a tiger are common national fetishes. If any misfortune occurs, such as floods or war, they change their god. The fetish is subject to being changed, and sinks to a means of procuring something for the individual.
The tendency to regard God as a servant is still present in black theology. According to the prominent black theologian James Cone, a major influence on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, “black theology refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better kill him. The task of black theology is to kill Gods who do not belong to the black community.” As Hegel said of blacks, their god always remains within their power.
This poverty of spiritual conception has real consequences:
But from the fact that man is regarded as the Highest, it follows that he has no respect for himself; for only with the consciousness of a Higher Being does he reach a point of view which inspires him with real reverence. For if arbitrary choice is the absolute, the only substantial objectivity that is realized, the mind cannot in such be conscious of any Universality. The Negroes indulge, therefore, that perfect contempt for humanity, which in its bearing on Justice and Morality is the fundamental characteristic of the race. The undervaluing of humanity among them reaches an incredible degree of intensity. Tyranny is regarded as no wrong, and cannibalism is looked upon as quite customary and proper. Among us instinct deters from it, if we can speak of instinct at all as appertaining to man. But with the Negro this is not the case, and the devouring of human flesh is altogether consonant with the general principles of the African race; to the sensual Negro, human flesh is but an object of sense — mere flesh.