Today the United States celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr Day, to honor a leader that changed a nation. Among his many accomplishments, Dr. King contributed a unique perspective and vocabulary to political thought — one of many black writers and activists who urged Americans to fundamentally re-imagine the nature of their democracy. On this occasion, we present an adapted extract from The Time is Always Now: Black Thought and the Transformation of US Democracy by literary critic and intellectual historian Nick Bromell.
Black American thought about democracy has been too varied and complex to be reducible to a single program or philosophy. Still, within the ever-changing stream of black American political reflection, we can discern a strong current that has sought to achieve full citizenship for black Americans by transforming democracy for all Americans. This current has drawn from both the assimilationist and separatist strains of black political thought, so it cannot be held within either term of this binary. Its vision arises in large part from its critique of the racialized nature of US democracy, or what Charles Mills has called “racial liberalism,” yet it does not abandon hope for democracy. Nor should it be identified with what cultural historian Richard Iton has called (perhaps unfairly) the Bayard Rustin legacy of “pragmatism, instrumentalism, and compromise” that renders black political ideas “acceptable [only] if they correspond to the patterns and practices prevalent in the American national context.” Many black American thinkers provide insights into democracy that disrupt established “patterns and practices” and propose fundamental transformations of “mainstream American norms” of democratic thought and citizenship.
Their thinking originates in a standpoint, or perspective, profoundly different from that of white Americans and from much mainstream democratic theory, be it liberal, republican, Marxist, Straussian, communitarian, agonistic, or deliberative. As Mills and other black philosophers have emphasized, black American political thinkers have understood themselves to be embedded in the matrix of their historical moment, so that the distancing move on which so much history and philosophy depends was seldom available—or appealing—to them. They have been activist thinkers engaged in the politics of the moment. Their raced black bodies have made it doubly unthinkable to them that their theorizing could be occurring somewhere outside of time and space, in a realm of pure thought. This is why Leonard Harris has called black thought a “philosophy born of struggle,” and why Patricia Hill Collins writes that “It is impossible to separate the structure and thematic content of thought from the historical and material conditions shaping the lives of its producers.” Eschewing the stance of distance and the trope of spectatorship that are embedded in the word “theory” itself, black thought works, as George Yancy writes, “within the concrete muck and mire of raced embodied existence.” From this place, from the mire of an unrealized democracy, black political thinkers have found that some of the concepts and keywords coined by the white mainstream are inadequate to the task at hand.
For this reason, black American writers and thinkers have often invented vocabularies with a different accent—crafting images, stories, concepts, and keywords to name different stakes and values. We may have read them, but we may not have recognized their words as bearers of “political thought” if we have read them solely through the lens provided by the mainstream, white political tradition. “There are tongues in trees, sermons in stones, and books in the running brooks! Those laws did speak!” Frederick Douglass declared in response to the Supreme Court’s overturning of the 1875 Civil Rights laws. Douglass was plainly figuring those laws as things of nature that could speak. But why? If we read his words only as a metaphor and fail to take with complete seriousness the radical vision of democracy the metaphor points to, we miss most of what he, once considered a “thing” himself, had to say: things can sometimes speak what men know but cannot or will not say. Any effort to put black political thought into conversation with conventional political theory must register the ways black thought exceeds and radically supplements such theory.
A small but growing number of scholars in the field of political theory have begun this work and I am deeply indebted to them. They include, among others, Danielle S. Allen, Lawrie Balfour, Gregg Crane, Eddie S. Glaude, Robert Gooding-Williams, Michael Hanchard, Jason Frank, Richard H. King, Ross Posnock, Adolph Reed, George Shulman, Jack Turner, and Iris Marion Young. They have given me—as someone housed in an English department and trained to read literary texts—much of the conceptual vocabulary I use to articulate the ways literature thinks about the political in general and democracy in particular. I find common ground with many of these scholars also in believing that the imagination itself does important political work, providing what Wolin has called “a corrected fullness,” a vision of political phenomena not only as they are, but as they might be.
Bringing together political theory with my own training in literary and cultural studies, then, I hope to contribute to a vigorous conversation between these fields. Yet even as I work in both disciplines, I also depart from some conventions they share. I don’t seek to present either a history or an elaborated theory of black American perspectives on democracy. Instead, following the orientation of the writers, I put their ideas to work in the present and in response to a particular problem today — for now is the temporal frame within which these black American thinkers usually placed themselves. They lived in and shared Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of now.” They occupied with Frederick Douglass “the ever-present now” from which he declared, “we have to do with the past only as it is of use to the present.”
I write, then, at a particular moment and with an eye toward a specific problem: the disintegration of Americans’ shared understanding of democracy.
Nick Bromell is the author of The Time is Always Now: Black Thought and the Transformation of US Democracy (OUP USA); By the Sweat of the Brow: Labor and Literature in Antebellum American Culture and Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the Sixties, both published by the University of Chicago Press. His articles and essays on African-American literature and political thought have appeared in American Literature, American Literary History, Political Theory, Raritan, and The Sewanee Review. He teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and he blogs at thetimeisalwaysnow.org.
Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only politics articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Image credit: Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. 26 March 1964. Public domain via Library of Congress.