We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity

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Overview

African American history resounds with calls for black unity. From abolitionist times through the Black Power movement, it was widely seen as a means of securing a full share of America's promised freedom and equality. Yet today, many believe that black solidarity is unnecessary, irrational, rooted in the illusion of "racial" difference, at odds with the goal of integration, and incompatible with liberal ideals and American democracy. A response to such critics, We Who Are Dark provides the first extended philosophical defense of black political solidarity.

Tommie Shelby argues that we can reject a biological idea of race and agree with many criticisms of identity politics yet still view black political solidarity as a needed emancipatory tool. In developing his defense of black solidarity, he draws on the history of black political thought, focusing on the canonical figures of Martin R. Delany and W. E. B. Du Bois, and he urges us to rethink many traditional conceptions of what black unity should entail. In this way, he contributes significantly to the larger effort to re-envision black politics and to modernize the objectives and strategies of black freedom struggles for the post-civil rights era. His book articulates a new African American political philosophy--one that rests firmly on anti-essentialist foundations and, at the same time, urges a commitment to defeating racism, to eliminating racial inequality, and to improving the opportunities of those racialized as "black."

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Editorial Reviews

Black Issues Book Review

A philosophical defense of black political solidarity as a tool for defeating racism, eliminating racial inequality and improving opportunities for those racialized as 'black.'
— Sandra L. Jamison

New York Magazine

Shelby, a rising star who teaches African-American studies at Harvard, argues for black solidarity without black racial identity. If that seems paradoxical at first blush, it won't after you have read this account of black political thought from W.E.B. Du Bois to Malcolm X.
— Jim Holt

New York Times Book Review

It isn't easy being a philosopher committed to making critical reflections on African-American identity. Those about whom you write have little time for abstractions and even less patience with criticism. The philosophers for whom you write often refuse to take seriously a subject so outlandishly removed from all that has preoccupied them for the past two and a half millenniums. And the experience upon which you reflect is largely bereft of earlier models to build upon. Only a few intrepid souls have plowed this virgin intellectual field. Add to them now Tommie Shelby, a sparkling new talent with all the boldness and intellectual self-assurance necessary for such an effort...Although black Americans have led the way in practical matters, insightful theoretical reflections on identity politics are still wanting. Shelby's We Who Are Dark is respectful of such politics, but severely critical as well. His book contests the movement's central claims at a level of sociophilosophical sophistication that one rarely encounters.
— Orlando Patterson

Choice

From his training in political philosophy, Shelby argues that there is a need for black political solidarity as a continuing tool of emancipation. Drawing on the ideas of Martin Delaney, W. E. B. DuBois, Malcolm X, Black Power, and black cultural nationalism, Shelby concludes that the transcending unifying factor now is the "pragmatic nationalist conception of political solidarity." This provocative, stimulating, and readable book can offer a fresh understanding of the virtue of black solidarity and introduce readers to the thinking ways of philosophers.
— J. H. Smith

Ethical Perspectives

On what grounds—and to what ends—are marginalized or oppressed social groups constituted as a group? Specifically, how should those who identify as black in the present-day United States conceive of their sense of solidarity, and what should be the guiding norms of such conception? Tommie Shelby's We Who Are Dark offers a lucid and rigorous treatment of these questions. His argument rests on two initial assumptions: one, that there is indeed a demonstrable sense of solidarity—that is, of "we-ness"—among those who identify as black in North America, and two, that identifying and/or being identified as black in North America is still the basis for continued socio-economic and political oppression, marginalization, and exclusion. The question that follows from these assumptions is whether and how black solidarity could be instrumental in resisting and overcoming such oppression, marginalization, and exclusion...A brief summary such as this fails to do justice to the scope, depth, and elegance of Shelby's argumentation throughout his book. We Who Are Dark makes an important contribution to the field of African-American Studies in particular and political philosophy in general. The sympathetic yet incisive analysis of the problematic aims and assumptions that inform classical nationalism and identity politics is likely to find an audience both within and beyond the circle of scholars with a specific interest in theorizing black identity. Moreover, while Shelby writes from within the dual traditions of mainstream Anglophone philosophy and African-American studies, and constantly enters into dialogue with thinkers from both traditions, he remains an original voice. His thoughtful engagement with thinkers such as Du Bois, Garvey, Delaney, et al, does not merely re-tread the conceptual pathways laid down by them, but mines their work for unacknowledged contradictions and hidden digressions. Despite aligning himself with Rawlsian political liberalism, his book is much more than merely a rehashed version of Rawls. His argument for solidarity for the sake of justice rather than for the sake of maintaining an essential ideal of blackness deserves consideration in its own right.
— Vasti Roodt

Souls

Shelby interprets Black nationalist thinking in six elegant, novel chapters...A progressive notion of Black political solidarity in the post-civil rights era has to come to grips with the unique challenges facing us today. For this reason, We Who Are Dark must be required reading for anyone pragmatically concerned with the future of the souls of Black folk, the souls of a people.
— Neil Roberts

Perspectives on Politics

The intellectual and strategic moorings of contemporary black political solidarity are increasingly unstable. As the political memory of the race-specific Civil Rights movement fades further into history, intraracial differences that have always existed, such as gender, religion, sexuality, multiracial identification, immigration, region, cultural affiliation, political ideology, and generation, are being highlighted by race scholars from a variety of fields as reasons for rethinking race-based political cohesion. Tommie Shelby acknowledges all of these internal pressures, but sees the widening gap between poor and more affluent blacks as the intraracial fissure that most threatens political cohesion among today’s African Americans. From this sociological premise, Shelby sets out to articulate a “progressive,” philosophically sound basis for black political organization that appeals both to the class interests of poor and working-class blacks and to those of middleand upper-class blacks. By “progressive,” Shelby means a recognition that basic social injustices linger, and can and should be corrected through state intervention and/or collective political action.
— Hawley Fogg-Davis

Ethics

An elegant, superb, and timely little book...It immediately secures Shelby’s place among the most significant thinkers working at the interface of philosophy and black studies. This groundbreaking work enlarges the field, rethinking our ideas on a variety of matters heretofore understudied but now readied for philosophical analysis...Shelby is of the generation for whom black power was their parents’ idea. They can face it with fresh eyes as young intellectuals looking back on received opinion, and here Shelby subjects black nationalism (BN) to searching examination and sometimes withering criticism, even while wanting to believe and defend it by isolating what he sees as its central and strongest claims...Shelby manages to find (or, perhaps, to conjure) the little-noticed liberal hidden within a variety of militant black activists, orators, and authors. Throughout, his tone and style are analytic, measured, soberly realistic, and fair-minded...I think the ultimate value in Shelby’s indispensable book may be to help remind us (perhaps unintentionally) that what we mainly need in combating continuing racial injustices against African Americans is a firmer and more clearheaded commitment to justice, not to race or blackness or a supposed nation of African America.
— J. L. A. Garcia

K. Anthony Appiah
Shelby's aim is to show that one can achieve a robust form of black solidarity without a commitment to black identity. He identifies robust solidarity as entailing: identification between group members, shared values or goals, group loyalty and mutual trust. I think the arguments that he offers that all these elements of robust solidarity are possible without the sort of distinctive black identity required by collective identity theory are compelling. This is important, because many people take it for granted that the pursuit of solidarity entails the need for identity. In articulating the necessary analytic distinctions, Shelby makes the kind of contribution that I believe is characteristic of the most useful philosophical interventions in African American studies (and in many other fields): he shows that there is conceptual space for more options than the current debate presupposes.
Charles W. Mills
As an interdisciplinary enterprise, African-American studies is thriving, but philosophy's contribution has until recently been next to non-existent. The field's image is still an overwhelmingly "white" one--a discipline that has nothing to say about the specific concerns of blacks. Tommie Shelby's book, addressing as it does a long-standing set of issues in the black tradition, is a welcome proof of the subject's relevance and importance for African-American interests. Employing the apparatus of contemporary analytic philosophy with rigor, sophistication, and the use of a remarkable range of sources, he sets out to defend a qualified version of the classic black nationalist thesis that a distinctive "black" politics predicated on black solidarity is morally and politically justifiable. Not only does he succeed splendidly in this task, but he provides in the process a model of how the "unwhitening" of philosophy can eventually be achieved.
Black Issues Book Review - Sandra L. Jamison
A philosophical defense of black political solidarity as a tool for defeating racism, eliminating racial inequality and improving opportunities for those racialized as 'black.'
New York Magazine - Jim Holt
Shelby, a rising star who teaches African-American studies at Harvard, argues for black solidarity without black racial identity. If that seems paradoxical at first blush, it won't after you have read this account of black political thought from W.E.B. Du Bois to Malcolm X.
New York Times Book Review - Orlando Patterson
It isn't easy being a philosopher committed to making critical reflections on African-American identity. Those about whom you write have little time for abstractions and even less patience with criticism. The philosophers for whom you write often refuse to take seriously a subject so outlandishly removed from all that has preoccupied them for the past two and a half millenniums. And the experience upon which you reflect is largely bereft of earlier models to build upon. Only a few intrepid souls have plowed this virgin intellectual field. Add to them now Tommie Shelby, a sparkling new talent with all the boldness and intellectual self-assurance necessary for such an effort...Although black Americans have led the way in practical matters, insightful theoretical reflections on identity politics are still wanting. Shelby's We Who Are Dark is respectful of such politics, but severely critical as well. His book contests the movement's central claims at a level of sociophilosophical sophistication that one rarely encounters.
Choice - J. H. Smith
From his training in political philosophy, Shelby argues that there is a need for black political solidarity as a continuing tool of emancipation. Drawing on the ideas of Martin Delaney, W. E. B. DuBois, Malcolm X, Black Power, and black cultural nationalism, Shelby concludes that the transcending unifying factor now is the "pragmatic nationalist conception of political solidarity." This provocative, stimulating, and readable book can offer a fresh understanding of the virtue of black solidarity and introduce readers to the thinking ways of philosophers.
Ethical Perspectives - Vasti Roodt
On what grounds--and to what ends--are marginalized or oppressed social groups constituted as a group? Specifically, how should those who identify as black in the present-day United States conceive of their sense of solidarity, and what should be the guiding norms of such conception? Tommie Shelby's We Who Are Dark offers a lucid and rigorous treatment of these questions. His argument rests on two initial assumptions: one, that there is indeed a demonstrable sense of solidarity--that is, of "we-ness"--among those who identify as black in North America, and two, that identifying and/or being identified as black in North America is still the basis for continued socio-economic and political oppression, marginalization, and exclusion. The question that follows from these assumptions is whether and how black solidarity could be instrumental in resisting and overcoming such oppression, marginalization, and exclusion...A brief summary such as this fails to do justice to the scope, depth, and elegance of Shelby's argumentation throughout his book. We Who Are Dark makes an important contribution to the field of African-American Studies in particular and political philosophy in general. The sympathetic yet incisive analysis of the problematic aims and assumptions that inform classical nationalism and identity politics is likely to find an audience both within and beyond the circle of scholars with a specific interest in theorizing black identity. Moreover, while Shelby writes from within the dual traditions of mainstream Anglophone philosophy and African-American studies, and constantly enters into dialogue with thinkers from both traditions, he remains an original voice. His thoughtful engagement with thinkers such as Du Bois, Garvey, Delaney, et al, does not merely re-tread the conceptual pathways laid down by them, but mines their work for unacknowledged contradictions and hidden digressions. Despite aligning himself with Rawlsian political liberalism, his book is much more than merely a rehashed version of Rawls. His argument for solidarity for the sake of justice rather than for the sake of maintaining an essential ideal of blackness deserves consideration in its own right.
Souls - Neil Roberts
Shelby interprets Black nationalist thinking in six elegant, novel chapters...A progressive notion of Black political solidarity in the post-civil rights era has to come to grips with the unique challenges facing us today. For this reason, We Who Are Dark must be required reading for anyone pragmatically concerned with the future of the souls of Black folk, the souls of a people.
Perspectives on Politics - Hawley Fogg-Davis
The intellectual and strategic moorings of contemporary black political solidarity are increasingly unstable. As the political memory of the race-specific Civil Rights movement fades further into history, intraracial differences that have always existed, such as gender, religion, sexuality, multiracial identification, immigration, region, cultural affiliation, political ideology, and generation, are being highlighted by race scholars from a variety of fields as reasons for rethinking race-based political cohesion. Tommie Shelby acknowledges all of these internal pressures, but sees the widening gap between poor and more affluent blacks as the intraracial fissure that most threatens political cohesion among today’s African Americans. From this sociological premise, Shelby sets out to articulate a “progressive,” philosophically sound basis for black political organization that appeals both to the class interests of poor and working-class blacks and to those of middleand upper-class blacks. By “progressive,” Shelby means a recognition that basic social injustices linger, and can and should be corrected through state intervention and/or collective political action.
Ethics - J. L. A. Garcia
An elegant, superb, and timely little book...It immediately secures Shelby’s place among the most significant thinkers working at the interface of philosophy and black studies. This groundbreaking work enlarges the field, rethinking our ideas on a variety of matters heretofore understudied but now readied for philosophical analysis...Shelby is of the generation for whom black power was their parents’ idea. They can face it with fresh eyes as young intellectuals looking back on received opinion, and here Shelby subjects black nationalism (BN) to searching examination and sometimes withering criticism, even while wanting to believe and defend it by isolating what he sees as its central and strongest claims...Shelby manages to find (or, perhaps, to conjure) the little-noticed liberal hidden within a variety of militant black activists, orators, and authors. Throughout, his tone and style are analytic, measured, soberly realistic, and fair-minded...I think the ultimate value in Shelby’s indispensable book may be to help remind us (perhaps unintentionally) that what we mainly need in combating continuing racial injustices against African Americans is a firmer and more clearheaded commitment to justice, not to race or blackness or a supposed nation of African America.
Publishers Weekly
Shelby, an African-American philosopher, dissects the history of black political thought from W.E.B. Du Bois to Malcolm X in order to arrive at a new political philosophy that takes black solidarity as its foundation. He does an excellent job of summarizing the central tenets in black political thought, from Booker T. Washington's beliefs about self-reliance to Marcus Garvey's more radical strain of black independence. His approach to history is rigorous and genuinely critical. Shelby finds merits and flaws in almost every political theory he discusses, leading to an evenhanded, meticulously thought-out argument that builds upon the best elements of black political thought. Shelby argues for a new strain of black nationalism and solidarity, one that draws upon traditional liberal philosophy and avoids the constraints of forced group identification. For an academic text, Shelby's prose is determinedly clear, if not always engaging. He has the frustrating habit of announcing his arguments pages and chapters before he actually makes them, rather than just building such discussions into his text. However, this flaw does little to detract from the overall accomplishment of Shelby's work and its contribution to both black political thought and American philosophy. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674025714
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 9/15/2007
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 832,038
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Tommie Shelby is Professor of African and African American Studies and of Philosophy at Harvard University.
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Read an Excerpt

Preface
Can black political solidarity lead to a more just society and world? If so, what form must it take to produce this result? These are the questions that drive this book. Historically, political unity among black Americans has contributed much to the cause of social justice. It was essential to the abolition of chattel slavery. It was instrumental in bringing down Jim Crow segregation. It played a crucial role in the establishment of constitutional and legislative guarantees of equal civil rights for all citizens. But now, in what has come to be dubbed the "post-civil rights era," does black political solidarity have any purpose to serve? Many people, including a growing number of blacks, would answer with a resounding no. But my answer is yes, and in this book I offer my reasoning. I believe that black political unity still has an important role to play in making our society, and perhaps our world, a more just one, though the role it should play today differs from what many in the history of black political thought have envisioned. We Who Are Dark is a philosophical rumination on the current significance of black political solidarity.
Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Preface

Introduction: Political Philosophy and the Black Experience

1. Two Conceptions of Black Nationalism

2. Class, Poverty, and Shame

3. Black Power Nationalism

4. Black Solidarity after Black Power

5. Race, Culture, and Politics

6. Social Identity and Group Solidarity

Conclusion: The Political Morality of Black Solidarity

Notes

Index

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Preface

Preface Can black political solidarity lead to a more just society and world? If so, what form must it take to produce this result? These are the questions that drive this book. Historically, political unity among black Americans has contributed much to the cause of social justice. It was essential to the abolition of chattel slavery. It was instrumental in bringing down Jim Crow segregation. It played a crucial role in the establishment of constitutional and legislative guarantees of equal civil rights for all citizens. But now, in what has come to be dubbed the "post–civil rights era," does black political solidarity have any purpose to serve? Many people, including a growing number of blacks, would answer with a resounding no. But my answer is yes, and in this book I offer my reasoning. I believe that black political unity still has an important role to play in making our society, and perhaps our world, a more just one, though the role it should play today differs from what many in the history of black political thought have envisioned. We Who Are Dark is a philosophical rumination on the current significance of black political solidarity.

Read More Show Less

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