Herder and the Black Slave

Priscilla Layne and Jakob Norberg


We argue that Herder’s often-ignored “Negro Idylls” in the tenth and final collection of his Briefe zu Beförderung der Humanität are both politically significant and highly revealing of the limitations of Herder’s political philosophy. The poems’ compassionate but politically confining representations of Black slaves ultimately seek to resolve the internal tensions of his own account of “humanity,” the topic of the entire tenth collection, and indeed of the entire work. Our reading shows how the “Negro Idylls” reveal that the structure of Herder’s political philosophy is shored up and rendered coherent only by a particular conception of the Black slave as a non-avenger, a figure who willingly renounces retribution for historical wrongs to facilitate an otherwise threatened future redemption of humanity. Despite Herder’s genuine commitment to the abolition of slavery and his scathing critique of colonialism, then, Herder’s hope for humanity as a whole rests on the shoulders of Black subjects, even as it deprives these subjects of their own humanity. (PL/JN)

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