Surviving a Wretched State

As part of our series of events with The Philosopher, theorist of African American history Melvin Rogers sat down with Neil Roberts, Professor of Africana Studies, to discuss the rhetoric of freedom across a lineage of public philosophers of the Africana tradition. In the course of their conversation, moderated by Philosopher editor Anthony Morgan, they discuss the importance of faith for African American radicals, the mythos of American exceptionalism, and the importance of Black political thought for understanding questions of freedom and liberation. Below is a transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for concision and clarity.

Learn more about our event series here, and watch a full video of the event here.

Neil Roberts: I wanted to begin by thinking about different ways of discussing modern Black political thought and then trying to situate what I take your book to be doing. There are different ways of thinking about not only African American political thought, but also what we might call Africana thought, a modern mode of thinking that began on October 12, 1492. Sylvia Wynter, Enrique Dussel, and others define the Atlantic slave trade as the moment when people began to self-identify with or get ascribed the labels “African” or “of African descent.” When thinking about Africana thought in the modern period, there seem to be three key questions. The first question, we might call the identity question, the third, the freedom question, and the second, mediating those two, the equality question.

The identity question can be posed very directly and shortly: Who am I and who are we? The second question, the equality question is more complicated. There are hierarchical and horizontal ideas of equality. In hierarchical ideas of equality, one thinks of “separate but equal,” where some are racialized as white and some are racialized as Black along different rungs of a hierarchy. Between differently situated groups there might be the semblance of equality, but the two groups still don’t experience the world in the same way. Part of the challenge of Africana thought is trying to shift from a hierarchical notion of equality to a horizontal or egalitarian one. And then there’s the freedom question. Put directly: what does it mean to be free? How does freedom relate to conditions of enslavement. Are liberation and emancipation the same as freedom?

What your book does is talk about another idea entirely, the question of democracy. You open The Darkened Light of Faith with the following question: “What is it about democracy that justifies our faith, especially African Americans’ faith in it?” Could you explain to us why you sought to provide an answer to this question of democracy, instead of framing your work in African American political thought through an alternative framework, like Black liberation?

Melvin Rogers: The question that animates the book is what justifies faith in democracy, especially for African Americans.

The book runs from approximately the 1830s with the abolitionist David Walker and concludes in the 1960s and ’70s with James Baldwin. And there’s a whole series of figures in between. But I see these figures first and foremost as public philosophers. I think that there’s a tendency to see these figures as activists, organizers, or strategists engaged in political machinations to secure their freedom and equality. That’s certainly true, but it really obscures the fact that these thinkers were offering rich arguments about why people ought to follow them and their way of thinking about democracy.

This perspective reminds us that they had complicated ideas about what ideals such as freedom and equality amounted to. They had those rich ideas amidst persistent attacks on them and African Americans. And as they looked around, it wasn’t clear that there were resources to support the actions that they were taking.

As I was reading the African American political tradition from the 1830s to the 1960s, it seemed to me that one way to get a handle on what these thinkers’ ideas were is to focus on faith.

NR: Why faith? You don’t talk about religion or spirit. So why discuss faith as a way for us to not only understand the idea of democracy, but to understand the tradition of African American political thought writ large?

MR: Faith is important partly because African American political thought comes onto the scene in response to a sustained attack on the very dignity of Black people. From the perspective of David Walker, Maria Stewart, or Hosea Easton, it isn’t clear that there is evidence to suggest that the United States can be anything other than a slaveholding society hellbent on dominating Black people.

When that’s the landscape they’re describing, how do we make sense of their affirmative gestures toward their white counterparts? As I was reaching for a term that could help stabilize the narrative from the 1830s to the 1960s, faith felt like the only option. Faith means running ahead of the idea that you need evidence to justify the stance or appeal that you’re taking.

What I came to discover as I was reading these figures is that they wanted us to see that under conditions of oppression, when it is not clear that the polity to which you belong is susceptible to transformation, what you find yourself resting on is faith. Maybe it’s faith in human nature. Maybe it’s faith in the aspirational core of democracy. Part of what I try to argue is that for them faith seems to be wedded to democratic struggle, particularly under intense, oppressive conditions.

NR: I was hoping you could say more on some of the figures in the narrative that you’re telling. But I want to invite you to do so with regards to what I take to be one of the biggest contributions of the book, which is your intervention into how we understand republicanism.

Republicanism is a central idea for philosophy and political theory. It’s also overwhelmingly taught in a race-neutral manner. You suggest not only that another vision of the world is possible, but that this vision was previously articulated, just silenced, disavowed, or underappreciated.

What exactly is republicanism to you? And how have you sought to rewrite republicanism’s genealogy with attention to Black intellectuals, artists and the movements that they fostered? Republicanism is a tradition that, in Western political thought, becomes irrelevant by the 19th century. You’re saying that it wasn’t irrelevant, and that it was really Black Americans that actually kept faith in democracy despite it seeming irrational.

MR: I argue in the book is that Black intellectuals open up a distinction between the people that enjoy the privileges of a constitution, and the ways in which we rhetorically invoke “the people” as a way to redirect the energies of the constituencies of a country. The second idea of “the people” is highly aspirational.

Part of what I argue is that African American thinkers lean heavily on this second, aspirational, dimension. This raises a series of questions about how you get people on the ground to embrace a new vision of themselves. One of the central principles or ideas that’s guiding all of this is the idea of freedom, which I derive from African Americans in the 19th century and their use of the politics of republicanism.

It seems to me that in contemporary discourse, republicanism refers to two different strands of political theory. One goes back to the Greek tradition, and the other, to the Roman tradition. The first of these emphasizes the importance of the character and habits necessary to sustain a political society. The Greeks place a great deal of emphasis on virtues. To them, it’s important to give ethical direction to your political community. It’s important to both the Greeks and the Romans to guard against various forms of corruption and exploitation (although the Greeks place an emphasis on the absence of domination). Since you don’t want to be at the arbitrary mercy of your fellows, you need institutional forms that will embody an idea of freedom that’s trying to guard against domination.

The tradition of contemporary republicanism is associated with figures like Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit. One of the things that emerges for both thinkers is the sense that, really, freedom is about the status that you enjoy. Part of what I try to argue in the early part of my book is that this discussion about status was understood to refer to those who do or don’t have political standing despite institutional recognition.

In the U.S. case, when American settlers took themselves to be experiencing domination at the hands of the British crown, they aimed to break from the monarchy and to establish institutional forms that could embody freedom. What I try to suggest is that for these African American thinkers dealing with racism, the challenge to their standing is not only—or fundamentally—about legal standing. It’s about their very humanity. Part of what the republican tradition misses is that any repair to this standing of Black people can’t simply be captured by proper laws. Instead, it urges us to challenge the ideas about Black inferiority that are in circulation. The issue of status for African American thinkers stands behind institutional forms and is related to the cultural and symbolic field in which Black people stand. Part of what they say is that we need to focus on the culture of American life and the ways in which that culture habituates white Americans to disregard African Americans’ humanity. Denial of humanity means denial of any reasonable legal provisions. African Americans spend a lot of time focusing on how white Americans see themselves and their humanity versus how they see African Americans and their humanity, and they try to reframe the domain of culture as a primary site of engagement.

NR: I’m hoping that you could say more about a couple of the figures who you examine. We’ve discussed this idea in modern Africana thought that there are figures who, over the last several decades, may never have even been written about. But are these figures now taught in our classes? Unfortunately, no.

In terms of aesthetics, you talk about Billie Holiday and her rendition of the song “Strange Fruit.” You attempt to give an archaeology of underappreciated accounts of republicanism in African American thought, yet there is still a necessary reconciliation with what W. E. B. Du Bois has articulated as an attempt to re-render lost-cause narratives.

How can one keep faith when these junctures present an affront to racially just societies, democratic societies? Could you say something to the idea that these entrenched prejudices require an approach distinct from republicanism?

MR: Although I lean on republicanism in order to bring into view the particular character of domination, we should not think that republicanism is a tradition that all Black folks are pulling from. There is still the natural rights tradition, which is derived from what most people would identify with liberalism.

My point in focusing on republicanism was to centralize the thinkers’ preoccupation with culture and language. When David Walker speaks about the republic, he does so in an effort to shame his readers. Part of what he wants to highlight is the hypocrisy of American democracy. Is this a republic, a society that enslaves human beings and treats them this way? When Martin Delany and Frederick Douglass invoke republicanism, it’s not ornamental. It’s meant to tap into a very robust tradition that they’re interested in deploying in the service of Black struggle.

Theoretical traditions are instruments for speaking to the subordination Black people experience. The reason why democracy emerges as the term binding them all together is because democracy is simultaneously preoccupied with freedom and mandates that that freedom be secured by virtue of people’s collective agency.

NR: David Walker and Frantz Fanon, like Holiday, Du Bois, and Ida B. Wells, were trying to think about how to keep faith while living in a wretched state. That moment of understanding parallels how Dante portrays the circles of hell in Inferno. At the moment in which you find yourself in that circle of hell, how exactly do you get out?

Even though these different thinkers, artists, and intellectuals weren’t necessarily thinking about how their actions fit into existing theoretical traditions, they nonetheless resisted. One of the important contributions that you’re making is to draw a historical lineage between their ideas, one that helps us to acknowledge, analyze, and reckon with them.

What are some ways that we can move within liberal frameworks of racial justice—ones that don’t convey the full scope of what’s necessary to resist domination, but that are attentive nonetheless? You depict Myrdal and Baldwin figures critical of these politics. How can we continue to reframe hierarchical theories of democracy as insufficient in light of those through which we find ourselves with the same access to resources and with the same outcomes?

MR: I’ve been defending the idea of an aspirational politics that covers many figures. One does not have to know a great deal about the United States to see how aspirational politics might easily stick to different kinds of myth. Americans are committed to exceptionalism, the sense that we’re fated to progress in an auspicious direction. Regardless of how frequently political theorists and historians try to disabuse us of this narrative, we seem steadfastly committed to the idea of our exceptional character.

By the time I got to the end of the book, the question became, “how do you guard against being co-opted for this liberal narrative that contributes to an exceptionalist mythos?” It seemed to me, turning to the 1950s and ’60s, that James Baldwin was pivotal for disentangling “progress talk” from Black redemption. Redemption, for him, implies relieving us or absolving us of some sins that are narrativized by white supremacy. Baldwin insisted that those deeds have been done. The deeds are, in Josiah Royce’s language, irrevocable. Baldwin’s asks what to do in response to that inheritance. He insisted that taking seriously the claim about irrevocable deeds would promote talk about the function of democracy insofar as it responds, or fails to respond, to the persistence of racial inequality and racial disadvantage.

The test of whether or not the United States is really up to the task and interested in responding to the persistence of this problem will be defined by the skills we deploy in trying to address the issues. Baldwin wanted to say that this is precisely the lesson of democracy in the United States. There’s no way to give an affirmative response to deal with racial inequality without, Baldwin insisted, keeping in view the trauma and the betrayal that was committed in the name of a democratic nation.

Anthony Morgan: Contrasting Frederick Douglass’s view with David Walker’s view, Douglass believed it is possible for Black Americans to get justice in the United States, and Walker believed it to be nearly impossible. Looking back on Walker and Douglass, whose thoughts are vindicated?

MR: Part of what both Walker and Douglas want to insist is that the practices of domination on display in the 19th century do not exhaust the egalitarian tradition of American life. They see themselves, even though they’re resisting in various forms, as contributors to it. They insisted that the legitimating logic of democracy, what makes it worthy of obedience, is the sense of openness that we’re constantly calling into view by virtue of speaking to a people yet undiscovered. What that does is creates a dynamic space of resistance among these thinkers that they think is internal to the dynamism of a democratic life. I’d infer that Walker wouldn’t have definitively arrived at the place that Martin Delany arrived in the 1850s, which was “we need to get up and leave.” Would he have arrived at the place in the 1920s with Marcus Garvey, given the persistence of what was going on? I’m not sure that he would have, because each of those moments was marked by important resistance from African Americans, although those advances didn’t wipe out white supremacy or absolve us of the stain of slavery.

NR: It’s striking that both David Walker and Frederick Douglass opened many of their addresses with “citizens”. They referred to Black people as “fellow citizens” even though they both understood that the state did not recognize these persons legally as such. Something like that appeal unites their two frameworks, however distinct that they are.

MR: But I would say that the reason why they were able to constantly invoke the language of “citizen” is because they did not believe that the status of citizenship was determined by legal recognition. For them, it was determined by our capacity to judge the environment in which we stood. In fact, that was the same capacity that the American colonists appealed to as they contested the British Crown.

AM: Can you speak more on faith in the Black tradition as an engine of political action for the thinkers in question?

MR: We already see in Frederick Douglass’s famous Fourth of July address that the concept of faith is anchoring his activism and motivating his oppositional response to Martin Delany, who argues that Black people ought to get up and go. In the 1850s, Delany made it clear to William Lloyd Garrison that if there was any probability that Black people would be treated fairly in the United States, he would stay and fight the good fight. But instead he says, “I have no hope. I have no faith in my fellows.”

Douglass would respond to this account and say, “I don’t disagree with brother Delany and his interest in Black people going elsewhere. I disagree that he doesn’t have sufficient faith to believe that Black people will be treated fairly on American soil.”

This idea of faith not only motivates Douglas, but also Anna Julia Cooper in the 1890s as she tries to make sense of how emancipated slaves see, in the U.S. North, an optimistic possibility for their liberation. Downstream, this idea of faith is also located within African American religious traditions, including the Christian imaginary that mobilizes Black people in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and during the civil rights movement. What binds them all together, even the religious descriptions of faith, is the sense that these folks were running ahead of the evidence that they need to justify their position. And they know that for those relying on strong evidentiary foundations, they’re going to appear irrational. Yet they want to say that it’s not at all clear how we account for radical political struggle in the absence of faith in the first place.

AM: Neil, do you want to add anything?

NR: We should say a bit more about Ida B. Wells. When I initially saw the architecture of Melvin’s book, but especially his focus on faith, I was trying to figure out where Ida B. Wells fit into your account. After the failure of Reconstruction, Wells criticized Douglass for not using his social and political capital to address lynching. Lynching was in part an attempt, particularly amidst pushback to Reconstruction, to fracture the population. I’ve always found it odd that Ida B. Wells had a newspaper that was called Free Speech. It’s as if free speech as Ida B. Wells understood it was the antithesis of how we talk about free speech today. For Wells there’s something about faith revealed in a sense of truth, through truth telling, or in trying to meaningfully articulate a mechanism that addresses what some of these figures and movements were trying to do.

MR: Part of what Neil is picking up on is the way Ida B. Wells and Black journalists pulled back the curtain so that all could bear witness to the horror of lynching and its motivations. Her emphasis on journalism was largely epistemic. She thought that the revelation of the truth, the facts about lynching, could move her reader. In that regard, she seemed not to have, I think, an interest in leaning on faith. That’s how we typically read Wells.

One of the things that this reading obscures is how heavily she leans on the aesthetic, on horror and brutality. Why exactly is she leaning on these terms to move her audience? To me, that has less to do with the epistemic resources of her audience than with a certain perspective on human nature that she has in view and in which she places her faith.

Ida B. Wells was clear that the practice of lynching helps to fortify the identity of her white counterparts. And when you read Ida B. Wells, you have to wonder: if that’s the case, why are we not speaking like Henry McNeal Turner, who basically suggests, like Delany, that African Americans ought to pick up and go? But that’s not the move she makes. The reason why she doesn’t make that move has less to do with this story about journalism and truth telling, and it has more to do with the baseline faith that she places in human nature—that we can be moved by brutality.

AM: Finally, how do the thinkers Melvin writes about link education and republicanism? Might these linkages help guide our thinking today?

MR: These are very different times than when you could write a book like The Souls of Black Folk and generate public debate. David Walker’s pamphlet was described by African Americans as a light that had awakened them. On the other side, it mobilized politicians in the South to pass laws banning African Americans from being allowed to read or being read to.

What I would suggest is that these figures thought that their activity, writing and circulating, was part of the broad system of reeducating the public. This is what Ida B. Wells thinks about journalism. There are others who think that art could serve this form including Billie Holiday with “Strange Fruit.” I want to add that these thinkers believed that their fellows could be horrified by an image and be moved to the core. I don’t know that I subscribe to that view today.

NR: I think education is essential even today. Remember that Anna Julia Cooper was first and foremost a principal, an educator.

Many of the works that we know from Cooper today, her work on race in the French Revolution for instance, came years after she was a principal. Du Bois has a whole chapter about Black schools.

He imagined education, literally the building of schools, as significant in not just philosophical but material terms. It’s not insignificant that the notion of abolition and democracy gets refashioned and repurposed by a figure like Angela Davis, who is known as an activist philosophy professor. bell hooks has also talked about abolition as requiring the refashioning of education in order to create something anew or to begin anew.

MR: This is precisely what Du Bois thought. You want to put these texts in wide circulation as a means to engage in a slow reacculturation, a redevelopment of the character of a soul.

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