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Race, Religion, and Nationalism: Three Books


Exodus! and the Politics of Racial Solidarity

Robert Gooding-Williams
Northwestern University

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.

     Eddie Glaude’s Exodus!1 is a substantial and timely contribution to the study of African American political thought and practice. Like some of the recent writing of philosopher, Tommie Shelby, (see, e.g., Shelby’s “Foundations of Black Solidarity,” forthcoming in Ethics), it is a subtle attempt to reconceptualize the possibility of African American political solidarity amidst the remnants of racial domination affecting post-Civil Rights America and in the wake of the demise of plausible appeals to an “essential black subject” (an expression that Glaude borrows from Stuart Hall and Cornel West). Because I strongly sympathize with the general thrust of Glaude’s argument, my comments, notwithstanding a criticism or two, may be taken primarily as an attempt to explore some of political philosophical consequences of his views.

     My remarks divide into two parts, the first of which is a reconstruction of Glaude’s conceptual “mapping” of African American politics. There, I analyze the key distinctions animating Glaude’s defense of a pragmatist, or “common problems,” notion of black racial solidarity. In the second part, I explore some of the implications of Glaude’s views for an engagement with the political thought of the early Du Bois, echoes of which may still be heard in contemporary discussions of race in America, and for a reconsideration of Frederick Douglass’s contributions to African American political philosophy.

Part I: Glaude’s Conceptual Map

     Glaude’s conceptual mapping of African American politics involves four distinctions. The first is the distinction between a pragmatist notion of racial solidarity and a cultural nationalist, or “organic,” notion of the same; the second is between political and cultural conceptions of the black nation; the third is a distinction between two different inflections of the politics of respectability—on one hand, “the privatization of discrimination,” on the other hand, “immanent conversation”; the fourth and final distinction is between an insurrectionary politics and a soul-craft politics.

Cultural Nationalism or Pragmatism? 

    I begin with the distinction between cultural nationalist and pragmatist ideas of racial solidarity. According to Glaude, the cultural nationalist holds “that there is a specific form of life that binds black people to one another in the United States and throughout the world” (12). While some cultural nationalists tend to the position that this form of life manifests a biologically inherited racial essence, others insist simply that it is “deep-rooted, if not biologically grounded” (13). For the cultural nationalist, the form of life that unites all black people is an expressive totality (a phrase Althusser made famous with his criticism of Hegel), a many faceted culture (defined by common memories, beliefs, forms of art and religion, etc.) that expresses in each of its facets the same underlying, organic, racial specificity. On this view, which is a racialized version of political expressivism,2 black political solidarity stems from black peoples’ embeddedness in the culture they share in common (12–13).

   The pragmatist notion of racial solidarity eschews the cultural nationalist belief that there is something deep-rooted and organic that binds black people together. For the pragmatist, black political solidarity is a function of the common problems faced by similarly situated African Americans. Endorsing the pragmatist view, Glaude argues that “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” (12).

   Glaude relates the pragmatist conception of black political solidarity to two important theses. The first is the Dewey-inspired idea that we should think of black publics, including, for example, black churches, as associations that address common problems, or ills, “in an effort to avoid some consequences and secure others” (12, 110). For Glaude, black publics have been critical to the formation of African American racial solidarities. The second thesis is that biblical narrative, particularly the typological rhetoric of the Exodus story, provided much of the vocabulary by which African Americans organized a national public in the early nineteenth century, thus cultivating among themselves a sense of racial solidarity and “peoplehood” that, in a version of what Glaude calls “soul craft politics,” pressured American society to “live up to its ideals” (chapter 3, 111–12).

   I will have more to say about the pragmatist conception of black solidarity in what follows. I will suggest, in fact, that it is not pragmatist enough. And I will also have something to say about the idea of a “soul craft politics.” In the meantime, I turn to a second distinction, that between a political and a cultural conception of the black nation.

The Black Nation: Political or Cultural?

   The distinction between political and cultural ideas of the black nation is between two different but overlapping uses of “nation language” that animated the eleven meetings of the National Negro Convention movement between 1831 and 1860. When Glaude speaks of a political idea of the black nation, he has in mind uses of nation language that, while giving some attention to issues of moral reform and social uplift, focus primarily on state power and, specifically, on the racist practices and laws of the American nation-state. When, on the other hand, he speaks of the cultural idea of the black nation—which readers should not confuse with the cultural nationalist thesis that there is something deep-rooted and organic binding all black people together—he has in mind uses of nation language that, while giving some attention to American racism, focuses primarily on issues of moral reform and social uplift. According to Glaude, the political idea of the black nation, because it tends to conceptualize the black nation in connection to the racism impinging on it from without, expresses an “outside” approach to the problems facing the black community. The cultural idea, because it tends to conceptualize the nation with reference to its internal, “cultural” (social and ethical) workings, expresses an “inside” approach to these problem that draws its power from the efficacy with which it generates and sustains conversations among black Americans about their common problems. As I understand Glaude, he believes that both ideas of the black nation have served to mobilize pragmatically-forged, problems-base feelings of racial solidarity (17–18, 112–115).

   Let me turn now to Glaude’s third distinciton, which is between the privatization of discrimination and immanent conversation.

The Privatization of Discirimination and Immanent Conversation

   Glaude’s reconstruction of the history of the National Negro Convention movement explicity ties that movement’s “inside” approach to common problems to what he calls “the politics of respectability.” As Glaude initially describes it, the distinction between the privatization of discrimination (hereafter “PD”) and an immanent conversation about racial discrimination and its effects (hereafter “IC”) is a distinction within the Convention movement’s “inside” approach and is supposed to capture the differences between two separate “inflections” of the politics of respectability (114, 118–119). As we shall see, however, Glaude later contradicts this initial description, or, to put the point more generously, modifies his position to suggest that the distinction he really has in mind is not between PD and IC, but between two different modes of IC.

   Explaining the differences between PD and IC (see 118–124), Glaude identifies PD as the view that racial discrimination is a public implication of private attitudes and behaviors. PD “privatizes” racial discrimination by interpreting it as an effect caused by “private,” subjective failings of character (e.g., slothfulness and intemperance). According to PD, discrimination and the problems it produces would disappear were these character flaws corrected, for correcting them would prompt whites to respect blacks. PD likewise holds that the ordinary people who exhibit these character flaws cannot help themselves, and so require the vanguard efforts of the black middle class morally to uplift and reform them.

   In contrast to PD, IC insists that the black community best copes with its difficulties, not by harping on the character failings of ordinary men and women, but by accenting the agency of such people, their capacity for the cooperative effort and stern discipline that is involved in assuming responsibility for a community and effectively responding to its problems through democratic debate and analysis.

   As I have already suggested, Glaude is not entirely consistent in his treatment of the distinction between PD and IC. In chapter 8, for example, he refers explicitly to “the inside dimension of the convention movement—that immanent conversation about the circumstance of black people with two different inflections” (158, my emphasis), thereby invoking a broad conception of immanent conversation that contrasts with the narrow conception sketched in chapter 6 (118–20). According to the broad conception, which represents, I think, Glaude’s considered and perhaps most defensible position, PD (one of the “two different inflections”) is a species of IC, not its antithesis, and the black middle class’ politics of respectability is a part of the immanent conversation of the Convention movement. Glaude already hints at this more encompassing conception of immanent conversation when, as part of his effort to “rethink the status of moral uplift talk in black historiography,” he seems to suggests that the black middle class’ call “to debate and analyze,” regardless of the privatizing content of the call, “directs our attention to black agency” (124). Still, Glaude never clearly resolves the ambivalence in his thinking about immanent conversation, and he may have been initially moved to deny PD’s status as immanent conversation because he sees very well—as in his discussion of the Convention movement’s transmutation into the American Moral Reform Society—that the privatization of discrimination can make it “almost impossible to call for an immanent conversation among black people about the issues facing their community” (127).

Insurrectionary Politics or Soul Craft Politics?

   The three distinctions I have examined so far give Glaude the theoretical resources he requires to form the concept of a pragmatically based sense of racial solidarity animated by a cultural idea of the black nation; or, more exactly, the concept of a pragmatically based sense of racial solidarity animated by an “inside,” immanent conversation approach to common problems, where immanent conversation is broadly conceived. In what follows, I will refer to this concept as Glaude’s “IC concept of racial solidarity.” As I read Glaude, he holds that both insurrectionary politcs and soul craft politics can satisfy the IC concept of racial solidarity.

   Glaude’s discussion of insurrectionary politics concentrates on Henry Highland Garnet’s speech of 1843, “Address to the Slaves of the United States of America.” Glaude summarizes his interpretation of Garnet’s address as follows:

Garnet’s address presented before the convention movement a direct frontal assault on the politics of the nation-state. His speech called for radical political action by people of color. As such, the inside dimension of the convention movement—that immanent conversation about the circumstances of black people with two different inflections . . . confronted with a violent posture the domain of the state. Out of the dimension of the convention movement that spoke to cultural identity he attempted to articulate a national politics that violently confronted the nation-state. In other words, he interpreted the call for immanent conversation as a call for general slave insurrection in the South and mass “black” political action in the North (158).

   On Glaude’s view, Garnet succeeded in basing an “outside” approach to common problems on an “inside” approach, in grounding an endorsement of political violence against the American nation-state in an immanent conversation accenting black “agency-as-struggle” (159). Radicalizing the politics of respectability (161), Garnet’s politics satisfied the IC concept of racial solidarity, but called for agents of violence who refused morally to identify with the American nation-state and believed that African American identity is inessentially American. This, at least, is what Glaude seems to imply when he suggests that violent struggle compromises the sort of moral identification that has inspired blacks “to fight for the soul of the American nation” and argues that, for Garnet, “America . . . was not the issue” (159–161).

   In contrast to insurrectionary politics, soul craft politics is founded on a moral identification with Amerian nation. Importantly, this identification is not with the racist practices of the American nation, so much as with the ideals of that nation as interpreted by the agents of soul craft politics. I say, “as interpreted,” because soul craft politics typically involves a contestation of often hegemonic interpretations of American ideals, or, in Glaude’s language, a reimagining, or recasting, of those ideals, the point of which reimagining is to insist that racist practices, though perhaps consistent with American ideals as hegemonically interpreted, contradict those ideals as re-interpreted.3 Like insurrectionary politics, soul craft politics satisfies the IC concept of racial solidarity, but is essentially a morally inspired struggle to reform, or to reconstitute, the spiritual core and “internal arrangements” of American society (111). For Glaude, black American soul craft politics is an “Exodus politics” that “simultaneously accents the idea of racial solidarity and identifies with America (111, 167).4

Part II: Glaude, Du Bois, and Douglass

   I turn now to the second part of my remarks, which, due to time constraints, will be brief, sketchy, and consist of a number of perhaps controversial claims for which I will not present arguments. Alas! I begin with a discussion of what I take to be the political philosophical significance of Glaude’s conception of Exodus politics.
Glaude’s Philosophical Contribution.

   Glaude’s idea of an Exodus, soul craft politics is philosophically important, because it so effectively puts into question the assumption that cultural nationalism and assimilationism exhaust the options available to African American politics, an assumption that so very often, too often, haunts the philosophical discussion of African American politics.

   Clearly, Exodus politics is not a form of cultural nationalism, for it declines to conceptualize African American politics as expressing a deep-rooted biologically, spiritually, or culturally formed racial ethos that is evident antecedently to politics. I nonetheless remain dissatisfied with Exodus politics, for it is residually a form of political expressivism, a politics predicated on a prepolitical idea of “the meaning of being black,”5 where that meaning is identified not with something “deep rooted,” but with “common problems.”

     In a sense, the difficulty is that Glaude’s pragmatist articulation of an Exodus politics is not, finally, pragmatist enough. We can begin to see the limits of his articulation by recalling his contention that the common problems sustaining racial solidarity in Exodus politics are “palpably shared” (12, my emphasis). Glaude’s appeal here to the palpable, or the obvious, is not convincing, because it is not plausible. Consider, for example, that most African Americans (71%) believe that they have less opportunity to live a middle class life than European Americans. Still, close to a third do not believe this!6 Moreover, some blacks believe that even if racial discrimination still exists, it has ceased to be a serious impediment to racial mobility (John McWhorter is a case in point). 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 collective political mobilization. More and more, racial solidarity will have to be forged in the crucible of politics; that is, through collective actions and democratic debates about needs-interpretations by which African Americans persuade one another to see one another as sharing certain race-related problems. More generally, the idea that racial solidarity stems from or expresses “common problems” that clearly and plainly manifest themselves prior to the pragmatic engagements of politics will seem increasingly incredible. Rather racial solidarity will be more plausibly interpreted as a function of politics, where the political speech and action of African Americans moves African Americans to embrace the belief that they share certain problems (which belief they might not otherwise share) and to act accordingly. In keeping with the spirit, if not the letter, of Glaude’s pragmatism, this will be another way of conceptualizing racial solidarity in nonessentialist terms.

     If Exodus politics eschews cultural nationalism, neither is it assimilationist. Exodus politics avoids assimilationism, precisely because it declines to envision the elimination of racism as a matter of dispensing with an anomolous, inessential feature of American life that stands as an obstacle to African Americans bringing their lives into harmony with the agreeably fundamental and constitutive arrangements of American life. Rather Exodus politics is a soul craft politics, which is to say that it aspires to re-constitute American life through the re-imaginings and re-interpretations of ideals that challenge American identity at its core. In Roberto Unger’s language, Exodus politics is a politics of radical reform.7

Du Bois and Douglass

     A few words now about Exodus politics in connection to Du Bois and Douglass. I begin with Du Bois.

     In The Souls of Black Folk (hereafter Souls), Du Bois argues that there are two individually necessary but jointly sufficient conditions for a racially inflected politics that is suitable, or fit, to the circumstances of his fellow African Americans.8 The first is that this politics be a politics of uplift that responds to the reality of modernity by promoting the normalizing assimilation of the African American masses to the moral and economic norms constitutive of modern social arrangements. This is the Crummellian, civilizationist side of Du Bois. The second condition, which relates to Du Bois’s critique of Crummell,9 is that such a politics be a politics that responds to the reality of being black by expressing the historically formed collective spirit of the black folk. This is the cultural nationalist, political expressivist side of Du Bois. Part of the genuis of Souls, and one of the reasons the book still speaks to us, is its coherent vision of a politics that is assimilationist, yet expressive of a spiritual and cultural national identity. Du Bois’s politics is at once a politics of the masses and a politics of the folk, for it justifies the uplift of the masses by appealing to a message (part of Du Bois’s conception of the “meaning of being black”) that is putatively immanent in the collective spirit of the folk.

     My reason for contrasting Glaude to Du Bois is perhaps now clear. Whereas Du Bois articulates a politics that synthesizes normalizing assimilationist and cultural nationalist sentiments, Glaude articulates a politics that is blissfully free of both sentiments. From the perspective of Glaude’s historical account of African American political thought and practice, we should view Du Bois as the most brilliant of the African American political philosophers who fell prey to the organic conceptions of nation that came to dominate the mid- and late nineteenth century, and who used the story of Exodus to advance organic conceptions of the nation (cf. 164).10

     Let me turn now to Frederick Douglass, and specifically to My Bondage and My Freedom (hereafter Bondage). Douglass’s second autobiography was published in 1854, during the period (the 1850s) that, on Glaude’s account, organic conceptions of the nation begin to animate African American political thought (14). Yet Douglass’s political thought remains free of such conceptions and belongs in essence to an earlier era. Indeed, I wish to suggest here that Bondage, in contrast to Souls, envisions African American politics as a robustly democratic enterprise that, like the feminist politics recently envisioned by at least one political theorist inspired by Hannah Arendt,11 is nonexpressivist. In other words—and here, I cannot begin to defend, let alone do justice to this claim—Bondage’s portraits of politics in action suggests that democratic politics may forge shared, race concious African American solidarities and identities, absent the expression of some pre-political racial specificity, or ethos.

     I wish also to suggest that, in an important sense, the picture of black politics sketched in Bondage is nonassimilationist, in just the way that Exodus politics is nonassimilationist. In order to develop this point, I will conclude these remarks by saying a few words about Du Bois’s interpretation of Douglass’s political thought.

     In the famous third chapter of Souls, the theoretical significance of which goes well beyond Du Bois’s famous critique of Booker T.Washington, Du Bois presents Douglass as the founder of a tradition of political thought and activism of which he, Du Bois, is the heir. The essence of that tradition, Du Bois suggests, is the idea of assimilation through self-assertion. Du Bois contrasts the idea of assimilation through self-assertion to Washington’s idea of assimilation through submission.

     But what does Du Bois mean by assimilation? Not, I think, what Bernard Boxill means when, in one of his essays, he defines assimilation as the idea that a color-blind society is “both possible and desireable in America.”12 Du Bois’s rather different idea of assimilation, I have already mentioned: again, it is the idea that African American life can be brought into harmonious accord with the constitutive norms of our basic social arrangements—for Du Bois, the moral and economic norms of modernity.13 In order to normalize African American life, two obstacles—racial prejudice and African American cultural backwardness—had to be overcome, or so DuBois argued.

     Now Douglass, I want to suggest, though an assimilationist in Boxill’s sense, was not an assimilationist in Du Bois’s sense. Neither was he a separatist in Du Bois’s sense, for Douglass, unlike Martin Delaney, did not advocate that African Americans depart the basic social arrangements confronting them in America in order to create social arrangements elsewhere devoid of white supremacy. In Bondage, and in other writings of the 1850s, Douglass writes neither as an assimilationist (in Du Bois’s sense) nor as a separatist, but in the spirit of what I have called “radical reform” and what Eddie Glaude calls “soul craft.” As a radical reformer, Douglass aspires not to bring African American life into conformity with the constitutive norms of the then existing American polity, but to reform that polity by re-imagining and re-constituting its constitutive norms. This, I take it, is the aspiration evident in his Fourth of July address of 1852, a brilliant speech in which, as David Blight puts it, “Douglass illuminated his desire for a rending and a rebirth of the American nation.”14

     If the reading of Douglass I have sketched here is correct, then Du Bois’s historical reconstruction of the assimilationist lineage of his political philosophy is incorrect. Moreover, Du Bois’s reconstruction of that lineage, by obscuring the distinctive character of Douglass’s political thought, lets disappear from view a politics that the conceptual distinction between assimilationism and separatism cannot capture, and that likewise eludes the distinction between assimilationism and cultural nationalism. Part of thinking critically about and beyond Du Bois is the persistently difficult task of releasing thinking from the grip of his compelling and still influential interpretation of the history of African American political philosophy. One of the many great virtues of Eddie Glaude’s Exodus!, with its vision of a nonassimilationist but non-cultural nationalist African American political solidarity, more reminiscent of Bondage than of Souls, is that it helps us achieve this task.


     1. See Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., Exodus!: Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). [return to text]

     2. For a detailed and historically informed discussion of the idea of political expressivism, see Charles E. Larmore, Patterns of Moral Complexity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), chap. 5. [return to text]

     3. Strictly speaking, Exodus! equivocates on this point. Although Glaude sometimes proposes as I believe he should, that showing that there are contradictions between American ideals and American practices requires a re-interpretive, re- imagining (or re-casting) of those ideals (see, e.g., 96–97, 109), he occasionally suggests that these ideals have interpretation-independent meanings on the basis of which it can be demonstrated that such contradictions exist (see, e.g., 92–93, 111). For a related discussion of the role of reinterpretation and contest in a democratic politics that resists “kitsch” notions of American identity, see my “Race, Multiculturalism, and Democracy,” Constellations 5 (March 1998), 26–30. For a detailed history of the contest in American political culture between ascriptivist (racist, sexist, xenophobic, etc.) and nonascriptivist interpretations of American political ideals, see Rogers Smith, Civic Ideals (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997). [return to text]

     4. Glaude’s endorsement of a soul craft politics that identifies with America partially explains his emphatic critique of Sacvan Bercovitch’s treatment of American ideology, which critique appears to be driven by the view that hegemonic interpretations of American ideals (and of the symbols that represent those ideals) can at times be effectively challenged and resisted by alternative interpretations (see 45–53, esp. 53). [return to text]

     5. Here, I borrow a phrase that Du Bois uses in the “Forethought” of The Souls of Black Folk. [return to text]

     6. Orlando Patterson, The Ordeal of Integration (Washington, D.C.: Civitas/Counterpoint, 1997), 57. [return to text]

     7. See Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Democracy Realized (London: Verso, 1998), 16–20. [return to text]

     8. I develop this claim at length in an unpublished paper, “Between the Masses and the Folk: Du Bois, Culture, and Political Leadership.” [return to text]

     9. For my account of Du Bois’s critique of Crummell, see my “Du Bois’s Counter-Sublime,” in The Souls of Black Folk: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Terri Hume Oliver (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1999), 245–62. [return to text]

     10. Souls’s allusions to the story of Exodus include references to the promised land, the figures of Moses and Joshua, and the King’s Highway. [return to text]

     11. See Bonnie Honig, “Toward an Agonistic Feminism: Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Identity,” in Feminists Theorize the Political, ed. Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott (New York: Routledge, 1992), 215–35. [return to text]

     12. Bernard Boxill, “Two Traditions in African American Political Philosophy,” Philosophical Forum 24 (fall–spring 1992–93), 119. [return to text]

     13. Du Bois’s idea of assimilation has some significant affinities with the idea of assimilation that has evolved in some twentieth century sociological theories of race relations. For an excellent intellectual history of the relevant sociological theories, see James B. McKee, Sociology and the Race Problem (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), passim. [return to text]

     14. David Blight, Frederick Douglass’s Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 75. [return to text]

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