Reposted from my Tumblr, because I went to the effort of typing this up and it keeps blowing my mind with how well-argued and everything it is.
Henry Louis Gates Jr: Hello?
The Enlightenment: Yes?
HLG Jr: Is that the Enlightenment?
TE: Yes, yes it is. What can I do for you?
Why was the *creative* writing of the African of such importance to the eighteenth century’s debate over slavery? I can briefly outline one thesis: After Descartes, *reason* was privileged, or valorized, among all other human characteristics. Writing, especially after the printing press became so widespread, was taken to be the *visible* sign of reason. Blacks were “reasonable,” and hence “men,” if — and only if — they demonstrated mastery of the “arts and sciences,” the eighteenth century’s formula for writing. So, while the Enlightenment is famous for establishing its existence upon the human ability to reason, it simultaneously used the absence and presence of “reason” to delimit and circumscribe the very humanity of the cultures and people of colour which Europeans had been “discovering” since the Renaissance. The urge toward the systematization of all human knowledge, by which we characterize the Enlightenment, led directly to the relegation of black people to a lower rung on the Great Chain of Being, an eighteenth-century construct that arranged all of creation on a vertical scale from animals and plants and insects through humans to the angels and God himself.
From “Writing, ‘Race,’ and the Difference It Makes”, in Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (1992).