African-American Religion: A Documentary History Project
Special Features
Race, Religion, and Nationalism: Three Books


Author's Response

Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.
Bowdoin College
Visiting Professor, Amherst College 2001–2

Note: Presented at the “Race, Religion, and Nationalism: Three Books” Symposium, Amherst College, October 26, 2001. Copyright © 2001 by the author and the Trustees of Amherst College. All rights reserved.

     Let me thank Will [Gravely] and Bob [Gooding-Williams] for their extraordinary engagement with my work. Both have suggested new paths for me to pursue in my scholarship and I am truly grateful. I am bit humbled by it all. This is pretty heavy stuff. Nevertheless, I want to try to respond to their gentle and not-so gentle nudging in the short period of time allotted to me.

     Will suggests three lines of historical inquiry that Exodus! failed to examine at a sufficient level of detail.

1) is my general characterization of the ecclesiastical exodus that marked the emergence of the independent black church movement. On Will’s view, a closer examination of that movement—over and beyond the gallery incident—would have only strengthened my account of this earlier form of exodus politics with that of the national black conventions.

2) is that the narrative description I offer fails, at some level, to incorporate the pre1830 black abolitionist movement in my consideration of an effort to make a distinctive form of racial solidarity.

3) although I gesture to the black state convention in the book, I do not examine how exodus politics might have animated African American involvement in electoral politics (the antislavery political parties beginning in the 1840s).

     I want to address each of these concerns individually, but I should frame my remarks, first, with a kind of general characterization of what I took myself to be doing when I sat down and wrote the book. I wanted to offer a plausible historical account of a form of racial politics that did not presuppose an essentialist conception of race. My general intuition was this: contemporary discussions of racial politics run aground precisely because those discussions assume a narrow field of meanings as to what race signifies. When I remember my great-grandmother, Mymy, admonishing me for “obsessin’ over white folks,” and her saying in the end in response to what she took to be my crude nationalist musings, “You know white folks ain’t gon’ change, so you need to stop worrin’ about them, cause dwellin’ on ’em will eat you up.” I could not easily fit this into a set of deliberations about racial essentialism and elimitivism.

     As I wrote in Exodus!,

My great-grandmother understood that no matter how you slice it “America” was and is fundamentally a racial ideology. She understood in her own way that notions of white supremacy saturate the nation’s principles, or as a Ralph Ellison put, that racism is “like a boil bursting forth from the impurities in the bloodstream of democracy.” But, she was thoroughly American, and she often reminded me that I was too. As she faced the potential terror of domestic service in the houses of white folk on the coast of Mississippi, her humiliation, continued insult and, more important, her endurance translated into a cultural logic passed onto her children and their children’s children. Her words echoed the voice of Toni Morrison’s Baby Suggs as she spoke to Denver: “Know it, but go on out of the yard.”1

Again, in my view, contemporary discussions of race simply fail to capture what this view involves.

     Bad stories usually make available a set of bad options, and often lead us to care about things that perhaps we ought not be so preoccupied with. On one level, we have told a bad story about racial politics in America, and Exodus! is my attempt to offer a different narrative—a historically inflected account of a different way of thinking about race-based politics. So, a presentist preoccupation drives the organization of the plot of this story. Synecdoche and gesture alongside philosophical argument, juxtaposition, and archival work were my principal tools in writing what I hoped would be a plausible story.

     Now, what does all of this have to do with brother Will’s three lines of historical inquiry? First, my description of the gallery incident and the subsequent formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church as “paradigmatic” was, however clumsily stated, a use of synecdoche: a way of referring to a broader set of processes that Will rightfully points out by focusing on the particular. So, I concede the need, as he puts it, “to reiterate the church-specific terms of this form of exodus politics and of the repetitive nature of the process of independence.” I also agree that some clarification needs to be given as to how the gallery incident in Philadelphia was “paradigmatic” for the emergence of independent churches. But, in some ways, I am left asking the simple question: yes, yes, but is the historical narrative still plausible? And if so, there is work to be done by some historian out there!

     This takes me to the second and third points. Will questions the absence of any sustained attention to the pre1830s black abolitionist movement and its impact on the form of politics I lay out in the book. He also wonders what would exodus politics look like in the context of the state conventions when a specific set of electoral concerns (as well as other considerations) had the attention of the conferees. I gesture to the former in my general discussion of publics and the black church. I think I offer a conceptual framework for understanding the pre1830s black abolitionist movement, and in some ways, I take it that my invocation of Walker’s distinctive public rhetorical engagement presupposes the work of these black abolitionists. But, again, I concede the point. A thicker historical narrative needs to be told. The story, however, remains plausible.

     As for the last point, I mention briefly in the book the black state convention movement. My own preoccupation, for good or ill, is with what I take to be a national formation. But Will’s point is well taken, and it in some ways leads us to the more philosophical dimensions of the argument. That is, how might we think about the changing contexts of the period and its effects on race-based politics as I’ve conceived it? What are the implications of my view for thinking about racial politics at the local level and after significant historical events like the Civil War? Well, I commend a view of race-based politics that begins with the idea of problem solving. My use of John Dewey throughout the book is to highlight this particular pragmatic dimension in order to hold off the idea that racial politics have necessarily involved a biological understanding of race. But, we need to be aware of how the setting changes the kinds of problems confronted and the sorts of publics formed in response to them. We need to be aware of the shifts in the meanings of words that inform our deliberations. How the language of race and nation, for example, change and how those changes affect the tone and timbre of our politics. My approach would caution against any a priori assumptions about the nature of that racial politics. I suspect then that there would be some differences (major and minor) and some overlap. The point, and I take this to be Will’s point as well, is that we need to tell a thicker story about the differences and similarities. And perhaps my preoccupations in Exodus! might be good point of entry to tell that story. In any case, a thicker story would benefit immensely our contemporary deliberations about race.

     This serves as a good transition to the essay by my good friend, Bob Gooding-Williams. Although I am not quite sure I agree with his reading of Du Bois and Douglass (I simply need more argument in this regard), I find the form of the argument (particularly his efforts to pursue some of the implications of my notion of a “soul-craft” politics) quite provocative. And I hope we spend a lot of time getting Bob to flesh some of this out for us. As for his specific reading of Exodus!, I must admit that I was a bit shocked that Robert Gooding-Williams accused me of not being pragmatist enough. Ain’t that the pot callin’ the kettle black.

     Bob writes, “We can begin to see the limits of his articulation [of Exodus politics] by recalling his contention that the common problems sustaining racial solidarity in Exodus politics are ‘palpably shared’.” On Bob’s view, my appeal to the obvious is not plausible, precisely because for many African Americans what is seen as a “racial problem” by some isn’t a problem at all. As he says, “my point here is that, especially in our post-Jim Crow or post-Civil Rights era, we should not take for granted, and will find it ever more dubious to take for granted, that there are problems that an overwhelming majority of (let alone all) blacks see as palpably present and that an overwhelming majority (let alone all) see as palpably demanding political mobilization.” Instead, Bob rightfully suggests that the idea of racial solidarity has to result from “collective action” and democratic debates about needs—debates that involve efforts to persuade others that certain matters are in fact problems. “Racial solidarity, as he says quite eloquently, will have to be forged in the crucible of politics.”

     But I take this to be a consequence of the position I lay out in Exodus! Let’s return to the actual passage in which I invoke the notion of palpably shared problems. The passage comes on the heels of my efforts to hold off an essentialist reading of black identity based on some notion of common condition and common interest. I write:

The idea of a common condition and by extension a common interest, however, is another concern. A problem may be a shared one for black individuals. We may all agree that slavery is wrong or that lynching is evil. But that fact does not lead to the conclusion that we have identical interest or that we will agree on a course of action. Some may pursue a moral or a legal means to end both practices: they may appeal to a broader moral law or simply to the stated principles of American democracy. Others may pursue a more violent course of action: they may call for insurrection or even outright revolution. In either case, the desired aims could very well be different. . . . The issue is not common interests or an agreed-on course of action. Rather it is the common problem that necessitates conjoint action, actions that may vary, given the different conceptions of the good that animate them, but are nevertheless connected by their efforts to respond to a palpably shared problem.2

The point in the passage is to recognize that there are a variety of political positions that constitute African American politics. And, in some ways, because my concern lies here I assume that the problem is seen as shared (that’s why I used the easy case of slavery and lynching, but I also recognized that this is not necessarily the case under all circumstances: notice the use of the auxilariy verb may). I go on to say that the “aim is to allow for a plurality of action and to build forms of overlapping consensus with an eye toward problem-solving and not with the view that there is but one conception of the good to be recognized by all black people precisely because they are black.” Bob’s insistence about the importance of politics is embedded in this effort to hold off a certain conception of black politics.

     In a recent essay I try to make this pragmatic conception of racial solidarity and black identity more explicit. I argue that there are at least two ways to think about black identity.3 First is what I call the archeological approach. Here black identity is about discovery, an archeological project in which we uncover our true selves and infer from that discovery what we must do. Racial identity is interpreted in terms of reality and appearance. There is a real way of being black and a false way. On this view, something out there is essentially black and when we lose our way, as some of us have as result of white supremacy, we need only find “it” and all will be well. It so happens that the conception of the self informing these projects is fixed and unchanging as a reference for deliberation. With this in mind, it is not really possible to have genuine conflict or uncertainty about how one should act as a black person. The distinction is made before hand. Either one acts like a true black person—one who understands who she is—or one doesn’t. The conflict is only apparent.

     The problem arises when folks postulate one single factor—the racial self—as an explanation of the moral lives of black people. The moral complexity and uncertainty that is often a part of political decision-making in particular is reduced to a simple conflict between showing fidelity to one’s cultural inheritance or not or, better, being authentically black or an Uncle Tom. Such a way of rendering complex moral situations in which race is actually involved only indicates the loss of the capacity of discrimination, of an ability to make delicate distinctions. Under such conditions, no matter what the problems may involve (they may involve issues of gender, class, sexuality, religious preference, geographic difference, etc.), all problematic situations can be resolved by an appeal to the good and to the notions of obligation that flow from an authentic way of being black in the world. The moral choices of African Americans are narrowed in such a way that the actual uncertainty and conflict that is characteristic of any situation properly called moral is obscured. The fact that we are often ignorant of the end and of good consequences, of the right and just approach, of the direction of virtuous conduct when we address the complicated issues of race and racism in this country is lost.

     The second view does not hold that identity is about discovery. Rather, identities are seen as consequences of human activity. More specifically, identities are, in part, the products of our actions as we struggle to resolve problematic situations, dispose of meddlesome circumstances, and surmount obstacles. Identity is not about discovery. It is not an archeological project in which we uncover our true selves and infer from that what we must do. Instead, taken together, our problem-solving activity turns out to be our lives. I call this view the pragmatic historicist approach where character and conduct are interrelated and mutually dependent as we act in particular situations. The self, on this view, is not some stable, unchanging and continuous frame of reference. Rather, it is thought of as an organization of habits that is relatively stable and enduring. These habits (that are always subject to modification when we act) constitute our character as it was formed, at least in part, from previous experiences.4 Our understanding of the beliefs, choices, and actions that rely on these habitual tendencies arises in the context of bringing these experiences to consciousness in narrative (the history of the self). So, what we have done and are doing, and the stories we weave about these experiences are absolutely critical for a pragmatic view of black identity.

     I say a lot more in the essay to develop this argument, but I end with something that speaks directly to Bob’s concern. That is, the particular view of black identity and racial solidarity I offer requires something else: that, for me, these ideas are live options. That is, they appeal to me as real possibilities. For example, if I ask you to believe that, under certain circumstances, racial solidarity is absolutely essential to the flourishing of black individuals and that notion “makes no electric connection,” as William James puts it, and “it refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all” then the idea is completely dead for you. And I can’t persuade you otherwise. The fact that the idea can be live for some and dead for others, however, shows that its deadness or liveness are not intrinsic properties, but rather issues of our individual temperaments.5 They are measured by our willingness to act and, in some cases, to act irrevocably. This view holds off, I believe, the complaint that race talk ends up as a form of conscription, drafting reluctant individuals into its fold or labeling those who refuse to join or those who choose to leave as either race-dodgers or AWOL.

     This way of thinking about black identity shifts the discussion in at least two ways: (1) we move from the idea that notions of obligation and good are based in a conception of a fixed racial self to the idea of solidarity in the face of particular problems (a solidarity that is constantly remade giving the shifting nature of problems) and (2) it evades the rather narrow debates about whether races are real or not. For those of us who struggle to imagine a race-based politics in the aftermath of the sixties revolution because race and the idea of black identity remain live hypotheses, it is necessary that we think about these issues more clearly (taking our cue from those early nineteenth-century debates about the role of race in our politics). Once we do this perhaps we can get on with the business of finding better ways of talking about the complexities of black lives and of responding intelligently to the actual problems we face.

     II. As for the contradiction or confusion around my use of the politics of respectability. I think you’re basically right. The problem may be a bit overstated, however. I identify the inside approach of the convention movement with the politics of respectability. I describe the inside approach as a focus on the development of group solidarity and sustained self-critique and improvement. I define the politics of respectability as a strategy of reform directed at the members of the black community and an effort to sustain conversation among themselves about the problems facing them. I then distinguish two different inflections within the politics of respectability: 1) the privatization of the discrimination and 2) an immanent conversation that principally involves a call for solidaristic efforts to reject white paternalism and to alleviate the condition of black people in general. So, the politics of respectability generally involves an effort to sustain a conversation about matters facing black folk: that conversation takes two forms (1) and (2). I make the mistake on page 158 of describing the politics of respectability as an immanent conversation instead of simply as a conversation.


     1. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., Exodus!: Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 18. Ralph Ellison, “What America Would Be Like without Blacks,” in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), 577. Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Penguin, 1987), 244. [return to text]

     2. Glaude, Exodus!, 11–12, emphasis added. [return to text]

     3. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., “Pragmatism and Black Identity: An Alternative Approach,” Nepantla: Views from South 2, no. 2 (2001): 295–316. [return to text]

     4. Gregory Pappas, “Dewey’s Ethics: Morality as Experience,” in Reading Dewey: Interpretation for a Post-Modern Generation, ed. Larry A. Hickman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 110–11. [return to text]

     5. William James, The Will to Behave (New York: Dover, 1956), 2–3. [return to text]

Copyright © 2006 The Trustees of Amherst College and
African-American Religion: A Documentary History Project
Amherst College #2269, P. O. Box 5000
Amherst, MA 01002–5000

Home | About the Project | Advice for Beginners | Volumes | Atlantic World | Continental Phase | Global Phase | Sample Documents | Research Resources | Teaching Resources | Special Features | Feedback | Related Sites | Amherst College