The Darkened Light of Faith: Race, Democracy, and Freedom in African American Political Thought
By Melvin L. Rogers.
Princeton University Press, 2023.
Hardcover, 400 pages, $35.00.
Reviewed by Lee Trepanier.
African American political thought has seen a resurgence in response to public attention to recent police killings of African Americans and the launch of the New York Times 1619 Project. For example, Robert L. Woodson Sr.’s Red, White, and Black is a collection of prominent and respected black scholars and intellectuals who reject the 1619’s claim that America was founded as a racist country and instead contend that the black experience in America is one of complexity and contradictions. Rachel S. Ferguson’s and Marcus M. Witcher’s Black Liberation Through the Marketplace argues for a return to classical liberal principles to remedy the black exploitation in America. These and other books, including Melvin L. Rogers and Jack Turner’s African American Political Thought, address the questions of democracy, race, and solidarity from the country’s colonial origins to today.
Melvin L. Rogers, Professor of Political Science at Brown University, continues to contribute to this conversation with The Darkened Light of Faith: Race, Democracy, and Freedom in African American Political Thought. Examining the work and lives of prominent African Americans in the nation’s history, Rogers argues that these individuals sought to transform the United States into a racially just society by having Americans live up to the country’s democratic ideals. By confronting Americans about the racial injustice in society, these African Americans act as the conscience of the nation to propel its citizenry to make “a more perfect union.”
Rogers examines the lives and works of David Walker, Maria Stewart, Hosea Easton, Martin Delany, Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois, Billie Holiday, James Baldwin, and others. By uncovering their political thought, Rogers reconstructs a shared normative vision of these individuals to address three questions: 1) how did these people understand America, especially from a position of subservience; 2) what was their vision of democracy to make America a racially just society; 3) and what did this vision presuppose about the people to whom they appealed?
For Rogers, an ethical account of democracy includes the values of freedom—“the ability to pursue one’s plans of life without fear or threat of being subjected to the use of arbitrary power”—and equal regard—to show concern without prejudice for someone in one’s community. Democracy itself for Rogers is more than the political and legal institutions of a country but also the habits and sensibilities of its people. By bringing African American political thought to the forefront of the American tradition, Rogers advances a hopeful but realistic view of American democracy that rejects the narrative that the country is fundamentally white supremacist while, at the same time, acknowledges the United States’ sins of slavery, segregation, and discrimination.
According to Rogers, African Americans have adopted a rhetoric that is both cognitive and affective. The former is an appeal to logic about the unjust treatment of African Americans; the latter brings attention to the brutalization of the black body to invoke disgust, shame, empathy—and ultimately political action—in those who observe it. For those who understood America from a position of subservience, the goal, Rogers argues:
. . . is to cultivate new sensitives toward black people (sometimes by seeing things as we should and other times by seeing who we are in our treatment of black people) and to do so such that they emanate from white Americans’ self-understanding.”
In other words, democracy is both cultural and institutional. As a minority, African Americans have sought reform on both fronts to make America racially just: to end laws and institutional practices that discriminate against African Americans and to change white Americans’ sensibilities so they have equal regard for their fellow black citizens.
By appealing to the human condition of vulnerability that all people share, African Americans aim to transform white sensibility in the hope that white Americans can empathize with the black experience. The hope is that the portrayal of the injustices inflicted on African Americans will eventually lead white Americans to see African Americans with equal regard—“to disentangle their vulnerability from their blackness.” Such action is based on a faith that others may ultimately accept a view contrary to their original perspective. It is to imagine a future that others cannot yet see; or, as Rogers puts it:
Faith becomes the imagination’s expression, and the courage to act functions as faith’s executive virtue. When bound to the imagination, faith looks on the present from the perspective of the future. The vision of the future becomes part of the reason for resisting present actions that frustrate flourishing.”
To realize this future is to resist the injustice of the present in the hope that over time American sensibilities will be reconstructed bit by bit to support a more racially just country.
Rogers begins with the nineteenth-century abolitionist David Walker as one who resisted the racial injustice of his time. From his analysis of Walker’s 1829 pamphlet, Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, But in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, Rogers argues that Walker employed the “call-and-response” logic of rhetoric to ask the question what it was to be a citizen of the United States during this period. Freedom was Walker’s answer and for African Americans this meant resistance to domination. For Rogers, nineteenth-century African American thinkers like Walker resituated the republican idea of civic virtue in the context of slavery and racism. Doing so resulted in a defense of racial solidarity and the beginning of African American civil organizations, like the Negro Convention movement.
Rogers then compares Martin Delaney and Frederick Douglass with regard to the future of race relations in America. Delaney—an abolitionist, journalist, physician, and military officer—was pessimistic about race relations, whereas Frederick Douglass abided by a faith in the principles of the country’s founding that reconciliation was possible. Since control of their future was not entirely in their power, African Americans were confronted with these two choices—Delaney’s black nationalism or Douglass’ racial reconciliation—to find their future footing in the United States.
The horrors of lynching as recorded by Ida B. Wells, the NAACP, and sung by Billie Holiday is Rogers’s next topic. Just as these images, songs, and recordings tied white communities together who committed these injustices, it also galvanized anti-lynching activists and shamed others into a “new, higher mode of living.” This aestheticization of politics is continued in Rogers’s examination of W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Criteria of Negro Art” and The Souls of Black Folk. If the goal is to transform white Americans’ perceptions of African Americans, then aesthetics is one of the means to accomplish this. Du Bois recognized this by arguing for an aesthetic that creates a community based on sympathy and shared interests.
Rogers concludes with his study of James Baldwin. By creating a space of agency for African Americans to resist the legal, institutional, and cultural reproduction of past white supremacy, Baldwin sought to take control over the development of one’s own character, even if it was motivated by previous failures to accomplish this. Rogers called this “critical responsiveness”: the capacity “to properly listen, see, and feel” to reform American sensibilities. In studying Baldwin, Rogers discovers a model for African Americans to confront those who threaten their freedom and equal regard.
Of the many books recently published about African American political thought, The Darkened Light of Faith will stand the test of time and will be seen as an important contribution to this conversation, if not an outright classic. It offers a realistic assessment of the country’s mistakes on slavery, segregation, and discrimination and offers an equally realistic path forward to address these problems that continue to plague us. At a time when ridiculous and dangerous views about race are voiced in the public square, we need a sensible and hopeful one. The Darkened Light of Faith is such a voice.
Lee Trepanier is Chair and Professor of Political Science at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is an author of numerous books and is the editor of the Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film. His Twitter handle is @lee_trepanier.
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