Robbie Shilliam

This chapter traces the radical non-recognition of persons by the powerful. What, it asks, if there is absolutely no chance of being recognized as a person by those who wield the power of law over you? I address this question by making us face a Black plantation worker in British Guyana who, during the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy in 1935, identifies himself as an Abyssinian General. How can this General by recognized by the colonial authorities? Facing the Haitian Revolution, wherein Africans authored and executed their own liberation, Hegel can provide no answer to such a question. For European enlightenment thought did not engage with enslaved Africans except as ‘slaves’, humans in biology only, tragically devoid of reason and agency, especially what Hegel would call ‘world-historical’ agency. Working through Frantz Fanon’s critique of the excisions and exclusions in Hegel’s dialectic of recognition, I turn to African-American ethnographer Zora Neale Hurston and Jamaican author Erna Brodber in order to elaborate some of the practices of self-meaning and self-valuation undertaken by descendants of enslaved Africans who have been denied recognition. Returning, by way of these authors, to the Abyssinian General, I pose the question: with what creative matter would it be possible to cultivate a new humanism – not the thin particular of European philosophy that masquerades as a universal, but a thick decolonised humanism that propels liberation? What might it look like to re-recognise one’s own personhood communally, drawing on spiritual resources to redeem a collective self?

in Recognition and Global Politics