The Darkened Light of Faith: Race, Democracy, and Freedom in African American Political Thought

Book Length Project (In Development)

The Darkened Light of Faith: Race, Democracy, and Freedom in African American Political Thought investigates the sustained commitment by African-Americans to the American polity amid exclusion in the 19th and 20th century through a number of key figures.  It uses the philosophical and political category of “the people” understood as a not yet realized ideal, and argues that this category served as the space in which blacks sought to transform their fellows. In occupying this space they relied on rhetoric (i.e., as a tool for transformation) and appealed to the sentiments (i.e., the affective sensory capacity of humans to which rhetoric was directed).  The moral is that since blacks did not know if or when their grievances would be answered, their actions were inescapably tied to uncertainty and so demanded faith.  Faith thus encouraged self-assertion and so affirmed agency, but agency was circumscribed by humility about political outcomes. The book thus deepens our understanding of the dynamics of democratic transformation from the perspective of political theory, while simultaneously placing at the center of analysis African American political thought. Some of the central figures discussed include: David Walker, Maria Stewart, Hosea Easton, Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Billie Holiday, Martin Luther King Jr., and James Baldwin.

  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction


Part 1: Situating Oneself in the Political World

  • Chapter 1: My Judgment Makes Me Political: David Walker’s Transformative Appeal
  • Chapter 2: Living an Anti-Slavery Life: Walker on Freedom’s Demand
  • Chapter 3: Being a Slave of the Community: Democratic-Republicanism and Racialized Domination

Part II: A Society that Never Was, But May Yet Be
(Being Revised)

  • Chapter 4: “The History of a Human Heart”: The People, Faith, and Sentiment in W. E. B. Du Bois
  • Chapter 5: “I Sing the Body Electric”: Billie Holiday and the Performance of Democratic Regard

Part III: The Darkened Light of Faith
(In Production)

  • Chapter 6: Between Legality and Moralism: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Radical Vision of Civil Rights
  • Chapter 7: Love’s Unsettling Knowledge: On James Baldwin’s Radical Vision of Democratic Engagement
African American Political Thought: A Collected History

(anthology with Jack Turner, University of Washington; Under Advance Contract: University of Chicago Press)

African American political thought is one of the most intellectually vibrant “up-and-coming” areas in political theory and black studies. It brings the rich texts of the African American tradition into conversation with abiding concerns of political theory: the meanings of justice, freedom, and equality; the nature of power, obligation, and “the good life.” Out of this encounter comes deeper understanding of the tradition as well as enhanced understanding of political theory’s core concepts. The autobiographies of Frederick Douglass (1845, 1855, 1893), for example, change our understanding of freedom by giving us a detailed portrait of freedom’s destruction, then its realization. The meaning of freedom—its importance to self-worth, dignity, and social life—comes into view against the backdrop of Douglass’s first-hand experience of slavery, providing a vantage point on freedom unavailable in Locke, Hegel, or Arendt. At the same time, reading Douglass in light of the traditional canon expands our sense of Douglass’s significance. Traditional political theory and African American thought are mutually illuminating.

Because the field is both early in its development and home to some of political theory’s most creative scholars, the time is ripe for a summary statement of the field’s concerns and content. African American Political Thought: A Collected History will provide that statement. The “collected history” format will allow us to showcase the tradition’s internal variety while still articulating a framework for studying it. The introductory essay will articulate the framework; the 30 chapters by leading scholars will focus on individual thinkers to illustrate the variety.  The book as a whole will advance an argument about who and what constitutes the tradition, and in so doing, provoke further inquiry.

Race and the Imagination in African American Political Thought, Edited Book Project

“Race and the Imagination in African American Political Thought” will explore and interrogate the ways in which African American intellectuals have often relied on and theorized the imagination in their effort to achieve equality. Based on a two-day workshop that will convene Spring 2017, the volume will serve as a companion conversation to the larger book I am currently co-editing with Jack Turner entitled African American Political Thought: A Collected History. Unlike that volume, however, this conversation focuses our attention more directly on the capacity for imagining American society anew and the faculty of the imagination that figures either explicitly or implicitly in the work of African American thinkers. Each contributor will take up the broader theme through attentiveness to a single thinker or several thinkers.


The various genres in which African American political thought unfolds follow from two related issues that the volume means to bring together. The first is a desire to rethink the boundaries of the American polity by contesting white supremacy as the primary operating norm for organizing political, economic, and social relations. As Robert Gooding-Williams puts the matter, African American political thought “is bound together by genre-defining thematic preoccupations—for example, the political and social organization of white supremacy, the nature and effects of racial ideology, and the possibilities of black emancipation” (Gooding-Williams, In the Shadow of Du Bois, 2-3). The second is a desire to engage the cognitive and affective presuppositions that enable us to recognize and acknowledge the pain of others as making a claim on us. The first issue places emphasis on the historical problem of white supremacy these thinkers engaged and the way it conditioned the substance of their political philosophical outlook. The second of these, although also grounded in the particularity of their position in time, invites connections between their theorizing and contemporary reflections in political and moral philosophy as it relates to themes such as judgment, affect, virtue, character, power, political economy, democracy, republicanism, and liberalism. How these two features come together is often captured by various approaches to stimulate and direct the imagination (as was the case for thinkers such as David Walker, Maria Stewart, Frederick Douglass, and Ida B. Wells) or implicitly theorize the workings of the imagination (as was the case for Hosea Easton, W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, and James Baldwin). These thinkers are not taken to be exhaustive, but illustrious figures in the tradition.


As the above indicates, there is no way to address the broader theme without simultaneously dealing with the historical and philosophical contexts in which these thinkers worked. But the usefulness of doing this partly turns on a desire to get clearer about how these thinkers may yet enable our own contemporary thinking. Hence, each essay will look backward in its historical sensitivity and forward with an eye to enriching our current philosophical reflection. The ultimate goals of the initial workshop and ultimate volume, therefore, are: (1) to debate and discuss the significance of the imagination for contesting white supremacy and enriching political life and (2) to produce an interdisciplinary collected volume that exemplifies the diversity of approaches often on display within the tradition of African American political thought.

Pragmatism in Black

Invited Keynote Lecture for Rutgers Conference on Pragmatism and Early 20th Century U.S. Literature

Race and Domination in African American Political Thought

Research Article

Reflections on Vincent Lloyd’s Black Natural Law

Invited Article for Syndicate