RECAP: African American Political Thought Roundtable

In discussing the overarching goal for the recently published African American Political Thought: A Collected History (University of Chicago Press, 2021), co-editor and University of Washington Associate Professor of Political Science Jack Turner III pointed to how the tradition in the field has long been to divide Black thinkers into taxonomies of ideology: feminism, Marxism, nationalism, to name a few. Without at all intending to displace this approach, the new collection, Prof. Turner continued, was designed to provide a thinker-centered, multidisciplinary counterbalance to it that illuminated, rather than obscured, the singularity and granularity of particular minds from the African American community and African diaspora, both in terms of their ideas and their distinct interpretive methodologies. Doing so required a second intervention: a reconstitution of American intellectual history writ large in order to reflect how “African American political thought and American political thought are essential to one another and share a common historical fate.”

Elaborating on the project’s thematic binding, Brown University Associate Professor of Political Science Melvin L. Rogers, the volume’s other co-editor, noted how, in the act of encountering the persistence of racial inequality, the growth of economic inequality, and the overall pall of political decay, readers are asked to take stock of the health of democracy both as an ideal and as a practice, particularly in the U.S. Specifically, by framing our understanding of democracy within the context of the terror, harm, disappointment, and vulnerability that Black people have experienced over time and continue to experience in the present, the collection demands that we take very seriously the question of whether or not democracy is up to the task of making good on its promises. And this imperative, Prof. Rogers added, should not in any way be construed to suggest that the figures examined collectively stand or stood in a positive, affirmative relationship with democracy. Democracy’s critics—Wells, Du Bois, Delany, and more—were vital to the task at hand.

Following the co-editors’ comments on what the collection as a whole aspired to and how it took shape, a trio of contributing authors shared brief remarks on the thinkers they spent time with. Carol Wayne White, Presidential Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Bucknell University, spoke on Anna Julia Cooper’s construction of a new model of relational humanity that promoted democratic values which were not as visible in the work of leading white intellectuals (and white leaders) of the time, nor in the work of Cooper’s African American male peers. In her writing, activism, community work, and educational efforts, Cooper revealed an unrelenting love for an idealized and intersectional—if, of course, also unconsummated—vision of an America transformed into what it could be. Hers was a vision quite out of fashion in academia today, though Prof. White noted in closing that we would do well to channel Cooper’s faith in humanism. If not a transformed U.S., what are we fighting for?

University of Illinois-Chicago Associate Professor of Political Science and African American Studies Cedric Johnson then looked at Huey Newton, whose life, from beginning to end, he argued, reflected turns in the Black experience in the second half of the 20th century. Newton was, for example, one of the first to lay bare the kind of role that prisons and police were playing in Black communities, long before mass incarceration was common coin. Along with Bobby Seale and other fellow Black Panther Party members, he helped popularize the idea that Black people constituted an internal colony within the U.S., a conceptualization that powerfully oriented Black political life away from American democratic politics and toward international events. And when they later de-committied from this colonial understanding and instead embraced a politics of inter-communalism, Newton and the Panthers brought up issues that continue to speak to a major conundrum in American life: How do you lead a socialist revolution on U.S. soil at a time when the majority of people veer toward liberal democratic capitalism? Is it possible, that is, for Black activists to serve as a vanguard when the rest of the country is not prepared to move in the same direction?

Wrapping up the roundtable, University of Virginia James Hart Professor of Politics Lawrie Balfour described how her chapter for the collection not only allowed her to re-engage with a figure, in Toni Morrison, who “taught me how to read [and] how to think about the American literary canon”; re-visiting her subject, she continued, also opened up a new pathway for thinking about Morrison as a literary theorist and author, particularly in terms of how her work provides a map for exploring the lived meaning of freedom from the vantage point of “the unchosen.” For one, Morrison’s fictional worlds create pictures of alternative, non-status quo ways to imagine and organize power and define community. Additionally, in turning to Beloved, Prof. Balfour drew out how the language of hunting and prey, so formative to Morrison’s fiction and non-fiction work alike, serves as a means of constructing metaphors for a modern world built from the Atlantic slave trade, chattel slavery, and colonialism of many forms. In centering this history, Morrison helps us define freedom by way of an understanding of what it means to be on the move, to be hunted; she helps us think about what it means to occupy a democratic society whose constitution has a fugitive slave clause etched into its original structure, a fact that, to this day, brings to the fore questions about political belonging and issues related to how coerced movement—forced migration, mass eviction, the violent policing of borders—remains a core problem in political life. Who, Morrison asks, is the foreigner, and where is the foreigner’s home?