By Gray Black
Napoleon, Aristotle, Charles Darwin, Julius Caesar, Isaac Newton, Charlemagne, and Beethoven—what do they all have in common? While Thomas Carlyle, a 19th century Scottish essayist and historian, would have you believe that they all shared “greatness”, one may argue that their commonalities lie more within a particularly exclusive social cabal.
Carlyle, a product of an elite education in the 19th century, was living and writing in the Victorian Era, a time remembered for Britain’s statism, industrialization, and imperialism. Congruently, Carlyle seemed focused on discussing another significant element of Victorian England, which was an emphasis on order, standards, and traditional values that contrasted modern individualism. Although often contemporarily discredited for his Machiavellian and dictatorially-sympathetic views, Carlyle manufactured a distinctive argument which advocated for the continued acclaim of born leaders through their skill and conduct. In his essay, “On Heroes,” Carlyle posited that the most illustrious leaders are born with certain archetypal characteristics which guarantee extraordinariness. Outwardly, the “Great Man Theory” is seemingly framed by the Homerian concept of Arete, where fabled or real heroes were ascribed virtue and distinction to their character, along with a cocktail of other desirable traits, setting the protagonist apart from all others in the story. Reiteratively, Carlyle not only believed that traits such as charisma, acumen, influence, and valor were just a few of the innate qualities that leaders throughout history have wielded, but that these characteristics are compulsorily innate and unteachable.
Although Carlyle is correct that many leaders are not coached on how best to lead, we are firsthand witnesses to leaders all around us, in our communities and in our homes. The single mother of three is a hero. The trans girl, still exhuming her true identity, is a hero. The person who continues to re-enter rehab for a drug addiction alongside the indigenous regenerative farmer in the Andes are heroes. The cow who escapes the slaughterhouse is a hero, and even the thistle which pierces the crack in the pavement is heroic too. Yet, none of these leaders will ever be recorded in standard schoolbooks. Existence itself is great, and yet the vast majority of us are never lastingly inscribed as “great.” For many of us, meritocracy is a pipedream, and, therefore, Carlyle’s theory of selective greatness remains true (idiosyncratically at best). It is here, in this sense, Carlyle’s argument of “natural genius” is salvageable only after it acknowledges inequality and its cognitive, bodily, social, and economic ramifications for the many. The perpetuated trans-spatiotemporal superstructure of inequality raises many of our icons in the West of whom we obliviously exalt. Even when not born into poverty, these figures have gotten lucky in their circumstances where they are able to stand on platforms of notoriety long after death. Even then, cross-cultural revolutionary thinkers and potent doers might never be named due to their own systems of oral traditions or the lack of desire by writers, historiographers, and biographers to credit them. Many of the model leaders Carlyle provides his readers all have been raised in situations that catered to their ultimate exemplary status and have been categorized as heroes in only six distinct senses, which are the pigeonholing of heroes as Divinities, Prophets, Poets, Priests, Men of Letters or Rulers. These terms are not only all ontologically niche but are also predeterminately designed for a specific demographic to achieve greatness. As historians striving for academic decoloniality, we, of course, must reject the framework of Carlyle’s theory. Nevertheless, the essence of the “Great Man” histories may still have a paradoxical advantage of promoting a global ethos towards equality with some alterations that feature the concept of “intersectionality.”
In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced her essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex”. Although Crenshaw initially used the term to pertain to the interconnectivity of race and womanhood, intersectionality assumed a broader meaning non-exhaustively encompassing the nexus of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, and ability. Fundamentally, any demographic which falls outwith dominant culture may experience multiple forms of oppression at once. At the root of intersectionality lies an unrestricted, dialectical emphasis on identity politics and minoritization. Considering the similitude of “great” historical figures focused on in the Western canon, the subject of history taught in primary, secondary, and higher education could greatly benefit from the essential components of Crenshaw’s neologism. Even when students are finally presented with historical figures whose identities lie outside of white, able-bodied, straight, cisgender, and male, many educators default to apologism or erasure. From the sheepish disclosure of Malcom X’s bisexuality to the avowal that Caesar and Nicomedes were truly, unequivocally just “good friends,” gay and bisexual individuals lose out on the normalization of non-heterosexual greatness. When discussing Jeanne d’Arc, instructors habitually eschew gender-neutral pronouns for pronouns corresponding to Jeanne’s sex despite common knowledge that they preferred to live their life as a man. No teachers take the opportunity to capitalize on discussions of the illustrious Medici family’s multiracial background, and all illustrated depictions of King Tutankhamun portray whiteness in spite of irrefutable genetic evidence that he was, in fact, Black. Furthermore, the physical disabilities and neurodiversity of figures ranging from Frida Kalo to Leonardo Di Vinci are certainly not Carlylean characteristics of marked greatness. The problem here is not with the lauding of past accomplishments but the lack of heterogeneity of the accomplished and what accomplishments actually are. A union of the thoughts of Carlyle and Crenshaw may be ideal for historical identity recognition and, collaterally, global social appreciation.
Firstly, while Crenshaw’s work is crucial to understanding oppression and how each non-dominate identity only increases the likelihood of one’s exploitation and subjugation, I contend that by solely focusing on oppression (and not just actively, conscientiously recognizing it) oppression is reinforced. Moreover, when the term “intersectionality” is employed by white, neoliberal academics in their lectures or academic compositions, the term is both sterilized and bastardized, as it is now a banal aspect of the intelligentsia’s argot and not being exemplified or discussed by the subaltern. Despite good intentions, intersectionality is still taught through a white, elitist lens. In this vein, intersectionality is thus a buzzword for lecturers to claim they discussed, despite the recognition and education of interrelated oppression existing in an abstract vacuum, thus leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Overall, the oppressors oppress more (albeit inadvertently) when capitalizing on the language of the oppressed.
Students of a liberal, “enlightened” education are not only presented with a seemingly finite dichotomy between non-dominate and dominate, oppressed and oppressors (if their teachers actually discuss it), but their “white people’s history,” as averred by Tang Tiaonai, only buttresses the inequality they are taught to contest. Words of alterity used, even in a progressive, “virtuous” context, ultimately disempower minoritised beings and allow them no means of escape. Furthermore, those in nations in the Global South may experience internalized oppression through the residual colonial education system when their history is always taught in relation to those illustrious leaders in dominant societies. This didactic subjugation was even mentioned in the 1930 Indian Declaration of Independence. “Culturally, the system of education has torn us from our moorings,” it reads. “Our training has made us hug the very chains that bind us.” Almost a century later, one would think that Leftist academics of all levels would be eschewing the crude, neo-liberal fixations of skeletal power structures so as to ultimately grapple with the complexities of meta-oppressive, white-washed sagas of dynamic historical figureheads. All those in the dominant academic sphere of influence, especially those who are racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, and ability power-majorities themselves, must universally introduce curriculum that is not only inclusive of subaltern societies and others in nondominant culture but is also represented by and for them. Successfully executing this would only require reallocation of texts and the prioritization of inclusivity…
Author and historian, Dipesh Chakrabarty, advocates in his book, Provincializing Europe, for a cross-cultural and transinstitutional collaboration for historical narratives upon referencing the compendium Telling the Truth about History. History, for Chakrabarty, is a construction of multiple realities. He further rejects what we might consider to be the allegedly Churchillian maxim, “history is written by the victors” by asserting that history is fluid and can be easily rewritten. Similarly, inspired by Georg Hegel, Charles Taylor writes in his essay, The Politics of Recognition, that every society has intrinsic worth as well as valuable and suitable realities and roles, and therefore deserve to be recognized. In addition to his passion for multiculturalism, he also maintains that in order for others to have honor, others must not. When examining historical narratives from across space and time, all cultures inevitably use specific people that are in association with movements, events, and epochs. Nevertheless, it’s a constructed choice to ascribe greatness to them. Could it be that by recognizing the significance of people from all cultures, customs, ethnicities, creeds, abilities, sexualities, and genders, the idea of “greatness” divorces itself from the officious definition of greatness that Carlyle and others proselytize? After all, Carlyle’s advocacy for unidimensional, liberal “greatness” can goad white, working-class families heralding from capitalist nations to be deferential cogs, while bullying others from the “Global South” into inelastic conformity. A nuanced, composite, and transcultural “greatness” may provide exemplars for all people to stimulate a collective consciousness and promote important dialogue.
This model may be surprisingly best exemplified within the hallowed halls of the University of St Andrews, a notoriously elite, white-dominated institution. Here, Indian historian and academic, Dr Milinda Banerjee, has created and directed a postgraduate course in Global Social and Political Thought. Not only is the programme interdisciplinary, but it is one of the only known courses in the world to focus its historiographic oculus on a Spivakian dialectic between popular Western/European authors as well as subaltern authors. Banerjee’s curriculum does not conflate global with the all-too-common chronology of “Polybius to Paine.” Instead, the selected figureheads who hail from transcontinental points of departure exhibit greatness, not regardless of their various minority status(es), but because of their minority status(es). In this sense, Banerjee has intersectionalised “Great Man” histories and has offered his students a social, ideological, and ecological holism to the historical narrative. Intersectional representation of archetypes of those who helped to revolutionize, form, reform, or solidify what it means to be an upstanding, conscientious person outside of a traditional, monocultural reality is communizing as well as revolutionary. It is crucial to note here that Dr Banerjee has lateralized his curricula rather than set a precedent for the greatness of subaltern historical figureheads and historians alike to reach.
There is something to be said for reasserting the importance of certain contributions. Subaltern heroes have been written about on their own accord. They are celebrated because of how they have impacted their communities, and not just in relation to the antipodal North Atlantic. Greatness is not centered in whiteness or European lineage. Nor is their greatness rooted in masculinity, heterosexuality, cis-gender identities, physical ability, neuronormativity, affluence, or conventional beauty. The syllabus in centers of learning across the world must not only be more reflective of the many components of inequality, but also more inclusive of the importance of those falling in the multifarious realms of non-dominate culture. While greatness is a subjective notion that spans human identities (let alone species), it is imperative that we, as historical investigators and present-day knowledge producers, diversify and blend the characteristics attached to historical significance that we teach our students. Instead of substantiating power-majority preeminence through the prescribed Carlylean ideology, a protracted, reflective fresco held up to include subaltern icons will help to create a space for our student’s own future historical greatness, and, moreover, the self-perceived greatness in the now and of the future.
Gray Black is a human and non-human animal justice “world-maker” and an upcoming doctoral researcher. Their work uses Marxist-feminist political thought, analytic psychology, and psychodynamic perspectives to examine empathy, affect, minority mutuality, eco-socialism, and the intersections between speciesism and queerphobia. They have been published by Scotland’s leading campaigning animal welfare charity, OneKind, as well as /Queer, the audio-visual platform which offers queer historiographies and analyses of global current events effecting gender and sexuality variant communities. Their critique of cis-heterosexist capitalism and animal consumption was featured in Queer + Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression.
Featured Image: Michelangelo’s David in Academia Gallery, Florence. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.