Discussion: MLK and the Legacy of Civil Disobedience in America07-04-2020
Kenyon Victor Adams
Thomas Chatterton Williams
“Perhaps more than any other people Americans have been locked in a deadly struggle with time, with history . . . and a great part of our optimism, like our progress, has been bought at the cost of ignoring the process through which we’ve arrived at any given moment in our national existence. “—Ralph Ellison
Kenyon Victor AdamsSince we are here concerned with citizenship, I want to preface my brief remarks by signaling the relationship between citizenship and national memory, and how the concept of race, as we see in various historical examples, necessarily replaces that of citizenship. Race, with its weird science and capacious imaginative scope, once assigned and proliferated, features the negation of historical and genealogical identity, but also, arguably, the national identity—of all subjects within its range of address.
The potential fruition, even beauty, of citizenship can perhaps be experienced only by a people who have access to recall or ingest the story of a nation’s becoming, and their own place within that narrative. So the concept of race, and particularly of whiteness as it has been developed since the seventeenth century, imminently threatens the virtue of American citizenship, democracy, and the future of the national community. It was this insight, imbued by particular theological claims and critiques, that was Martin Luther King Jr.’s central concern, and it is there we must locate possible outcomes of his work—or apparent disparities in his legacy.
Before critiquing or even assessing King’s legacy, we must ask ourselves, “How do I know what I know about King?” And I want to suggest that there is something distinctly inherent to American life that makes fragile our national memory and troubles any certainties about formal readings of King, and the freedom movements with which we identify his legacy of contemplation and action. So let me begin with King’s own words, and an invocation of what I believe is his most rigorous and efficacious contribution to the American project—and to what may be its most ephemeral and essential expression: citizenship.
If America does not respond creatively to the challenge to banish racism, some future historian will have to say that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all.
The ultimate logic of racism is genocide.
I want to propose a reading of the Freedom Movement as a nascent antiracist movement that aspired toward an intersectional and pan-African identity, and that, despite its limitations, enacted a foray into various embodied discourses and discourses of the body. King’s identification of racial hierarchy, and its predicate, whiteness, as a critical threat to American democracy must also remain central as we reflect on King’s mission and strategies. Any identifiable fissures in his public activism will reveal a corresponding pressure from this immense site of social harm.
King’s methodology of nonviolent, direct action relies on two basic elements that have proven artificial or unsustainable:
(1) the delusional character of American democracy; and
(2) the inherent and inextricable Christianness of white-identifying citizens.
Both of these assumptions can perhaps be attributed to a kind of spiritual naivete in King regarding the violent nature of whiteness, a sentiment nurtured within King himself as an article of personal faith, and also as a theological and political figure. King’s tactic was to move the proverbial needle on white moral capacity, trusting that so-called “white America’s” rendition of Christianity would serve as the ultimate arbiter—rather than the justifying agent—of America’s liminal democracy. I’ll offer three points on this, and an observation.
Elements of King’s strategy that have proven artificial or unsustainable:
(1) That there is an equivalence between white identity and black identity, between black beingness and whiteness. This may have resulted from a failure to consider a historical and ontological account of whiteness.
(2) The idea that white-identifying Americans are fundamentally God-fearing people and will capitulate to the moral demands of historical Christianity.
(3) The problem of the “exceptional Negro”: the idea that if black people can perform and depict such a high standard of moral, intellectual, and physical rectitude, they will inevitably overcome white prejudice and therefore transcend racial hierarchy, by achieving through exertion the standards of superiority and entitlement upon which whiteness is based, placing the responsibility of eradicating systemic injustices on the citizens most negatively affected by those systems.
The first two assumptions are misguided in that they fail to identify that the most critical paradox separating blackness and whiteness is not contrasting heritages, but a dialectic of construction and erasure. Whiteness is fundamentally an erasure and therefore a violence, not only for the subject it makes white but also to those whose lives and narratives must be erased in order to preserve, sustain, and expand the preeminence—and indeed, the righteousness and innocence—of whiteness and its subjects. In King’s terms, it gives a false sense of superiority to the segregator, and a false sense of inferiority to the segregated.
Whiteness at once assumes a givenness in relation to subjectivity, divinity, agency, and fruition, while it paradoxically erases family lineage, resists oral histories, rejects biological and theological claims of identity (as King argues in “Letter from Birmingham Jail”), and declares a self-pronunciation as origin. That is, whiteness names itself historically and persists in self-naming even as it paints over genealogies and other histories of the body.
While the concept of whiteness is rooted in erasure and forgetting—a way of making genealogy at once irrelevant and ultimate—blackness depends upon memory, not only embodied memory but also national memory. Blackness has emerged as the energy and vitality of pan-African peoples living in diaspora to claim and profess humanity, selfhood, citizenship, even divine adoption in the face of radical threats to their subjectivity, human dignity, and rights as citizens. Blackness as a construct of identity is a creative action, yielding robust and lasting contributions both within its subject and far beyond the bodies of those it seeks to liberate and imbue. King situated his own work inside of this expansive global energy.
Blackness can be and has been shared widely, often appropriated from its segregated contexts to be consumed by other peoples who relate to the context of violence in which blackness was engendered; but blackness also, as James Baldwin points out, has become one of the primary ways that white-identifying peoples seek to reconstruct or remedy the vacancy and disintegration that whiteness creates morally, relationally, historically, and cathartically.
Regarding black exceptionalism strategies: the exceptional Negro, in the case of King, offers moral license for the white-identifying person who accepts King to then be violent toward those who seem, by comparison, unexceptional. The gospel of exceptionalism has historically produced a backfire effect, by which white-identifying peoples and spaces accept the exceptional person of color on terms of proximity related to their own perceived superiority, and proceed to demonstrate deeper violence toward what they perceive to be standard or ordinary examples.
In Closing: An Observation
There has been at work a harmful misreading of the King legacy, which projects and sustains a patriarchal and individualist construal of the Freedom Movement, beginning with the idea that the Montgomery bus boycott was led and executed by a single man. This calculated fantasy has expanded to depict a contemporary, twenty-first-century Freedom Movement devoid of such leadership, and therefore bereft of critical, even moral, agency: quotidian lamentations claiming, “We don’t have any leaders like that anymore.” Yet various people remember the Freedom Movement differently, not only African Americans versus those who believe themselves to be white. And the ways in which we remember these things have become crucial to the prospect of progress.
The antiracist activist not only detracts from the legitimacy of whiteness but also seeks to construct an expansive pan-African humanism. Such as the kind we see in King. What might seem a weakness in King’s antiracism, may actually be a failure of American memory to identify and contextualize the mission, character, and trajectory of King’s work and thinking. And this breakdown of memory can be attributed, at least in part, to the effect of segregation on American identity, education, and the comprehensive, epistemological implications of racial hierarchy for human and social formation.
It is the antiracist position, and antiracist movements—including the work of Angela Davis, Black Lives Matter, various campus movements, the newly founded Antiracist Research and Policy Center, the Racial Imaginary Institute, and many others—that have carried on the deepest work of King, along with black liberationist, womanist, and queer theologies that are continually championing, and possibly recovering, the irrevocably compromised missiology, liturgies, and ideologies of Christianity in the United States.
If, in remembering King and seeking his legacy, we imagine a mythologized, patriarchal figurehead whose most significant contribution was the March on Washington, then we do not remember King accurately or well. Remembering King as an antiracist criminalized by his government, a strident opposer of white supremacy, a representative of the total activities of a resistance ignited in segregated communities across the United States, we will see the legacy still alive, and under threat.
Finally, we’d be remiss in this discussion not to mention directly the philosophy underlying King’s work, which was the centrality of love. King’s conviction that love possesses and demands centrality in every endeavor of liberation is echoed in the Black Lives Matter movement, which is predicated by the initiative to self-love and established as a “love letter to black people.” Baldwin too begins and ends The Fire Next Time with a similar appeal to the agency and necessity of love. I have been encouraged by the ways in which queer theorists and theologians have advanced all liberation efforts by diversifying and expanding the normative ways of being embodied people, which inevitably expands perceptions and conceptions of love and loving.
I teach about race, along with sexuality and gender and politics, while my research independently has involved a lot of Arendt’s conceptual frameworks. When a panel on Martin Luther King Jr., civil disobedience, and Arendt was proposed to me, I saw an opportunity to address one of the questions that has occupied my classrooms. My students and I have grappled with the lasting impact of the civil rights movement, which is where I think a framework from Arendt might be particularly salient.
Arendt presents two options for members of marginalized and excluded populations in relationship to mainstream culture. She is referring in her work to a context of Jews in Europe and the position of Jews in Europe; and the two options she identifies are the parvenu and the pariah. She illustrates this polarity of the parvenu and the pariah in studies of figures like Heinrich Heine and Rahel Varnhagen. For her, the parvenu is one who comes from this marginalized and excluded group yet is able to achieve through assimilation a certain status, a certain respectability among the dominant culture. This can happen through wealth, this can happen through social connections; but it always happens as a part of a striving on their part—for example, in her portrait of Rahel Varnhagen. This is a wealthy German-Jewish woman who took great pride in running a highly regarded intellectual salon. Varnhagen was a woman who did everything she could to assimilate, including changing her name and becoming baptized, to seek respectability and status that was untainted by her Jewishness.
The parvenu yearns for acceptance attainable only through social climbing toward the rewards of mainstream society. By contrast, the pariah uses her detachment from mainstream society to see it more clearly, to speak against oppression that is rendered visible by the conditions of her own life. The conscious pariah resists oppression through embracing her marginality. She becomes a champion of oppressed people, and she’s able to analyze the circumstances by which they become so. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl notes that the pariah’s task includes this one critical component, “to avoid sacrificing the outsider’s perspective for the parvenu’s comforts.”1 I’ll say that again: “to avoid sacrificing the outsider’s perspective for the parvenu’s comforts.” That covers that polarity of the parvenu and the pariah and their relationship to each other.
Now, to me, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a conscious pariah par excellence. The anniversary of his assassination this year has included much revisiting of King’s political breadth, which goes far beyond the mainstream narrative that refers to him wanting all children to be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. The actions of the early 1960s and the 1950s civil rights movement were far more controversial than our historical narratives will acknowledge at present. However, even more so, the King of the later 1960s who spoke against the Vietnam War at Riverside Church, who connected militarism, poverty, and racism, sometimes materialism, as his triple evils—that King leaned even further into the position of the pariah, someone able to diagnose and willing to speak against the most fundamental levers of oppression. He acknowledged that loss of social status, which was the parvenu’s greatest fear, would inevitably accompany the struggle he envisioned of a multiracial, anticapitalist, and anti-imperialist movement. He said the first twelve years of the civil rights movement were a struggle for decency, a struggle to end the humiliation of explicit legal segregation; but the victories of those first twelve years “didn’t cost the nation anything,” meaning, to integrate lunch counters didn’t cost the nation anything really in material terms. Ending poverty, providing quality education, dismantling the military-industrial complex—these would be an entirely different story. And, of course, King was not alone in these ideas; these certainly come from Bayard Rustin as well as the Black Panthers, a whole multiplicity of leaders of the civil rights movement and other, even more sort of radical wings of it.
I could elaborate even further on this case for King as a conscious pariah in the Arendtian model, but at an initial glance I can see a rather seamless application. However, I want to return to the other side of Arendt’s binary, because it is there where I’m interested in what may potentially be a more generative conversation. I’m interested in juxtaposing King’s conscious pariah-hood with the opportunities that black political figures had in the decades following his death to choose some of the benefits of incorporation into existing political structures, to be, in other words, a very modified kind of parvenu. I will note that even the most successful black parvenu in the United States will very likely remain a pariah figure to many, and that the sedimented forms of racism at the institutional and individual level would make it very difficult for black Americans to ever really feel themselves or believe themselves assimilated. This is a potential limitation of this thesis that I’m willing to debate another time.
However, the “betrayal by parvenu” thesis within sort of contemporary black political history is drawn heavily from Manning Marable, who locates the shortcomings of post–civil rights black politics in the class divisions within the black community, with opportunities for advancement available mainly to the black middle class and elite. Marable, along with Adolph Reed, Frederick Harris, and others, has been providing this analysis for decades; but perhaps it wasn’t until the later years of the Obama administration and its end that the gap between black elite advancement and black emancipatory politics came into a shared, clear view.
Given the evolution of black politics following King’s assassination and in the decades that followed the civil rights movement, we might wonder how King would have evolved when presented with opportunities that emerged, however brief and fragmented, for political incorporation following the civil rights movement. The 1970s saw twenty black mayors elected in cities like Atlanta and Los Angeles, where Maynard Jackson and Tom Bradley pursued to varying degrees economic development programs that benefited white and black elites, growing the ranks of the latter without engaging in mass redistribution.
The 1970s also saw the advent of neoliberalism writ large, an ideology of reducing the welfare state and turning to the market as an instrument of empowerment. Within this larger milieu President Nixon proposed the idea of “black capitalism,” where there would be government agencies—surprisingly unfunded, as it turned out—who would promote and contract with black-owned businesses. This turned out to be mostly a cosmetic effort to coopt demands for economic equity and to provide some reassuring vision for white voters on how racial protests would be pacified.
We don’t know how King would have changed or navigated any of these shifts; but we can see that the temptations of the parvenu’s comfort through assimilation and incorporation crept into black politics very soon after King’s death, creating a form of politics which was by no means the only form. This is not an attempt to erase more radical approaches; it’s only to say that this possibility only came into existence at the time to create a black politics that bore little resemblance to King’s radical critique of the totality of American power.
As a Jewish person I can draw from the example of my own community to say that Jewish members of the Trump administration, like Stephen Miller and Jared and Ivanka Trump, have thrown into sharp relief the sacrifice of conscience that the parvenu makes, and the never-ending mandate of a pariah to remain critical of the rationales for power structures.
If we recall the mandate of the pariah to avoid sacrificing his perspective for material comforts, we can at the very least mourn what we hope would have been the steadfast consciousness of Dr. King had he lived a longer life. We might also wonder whether the loss of his lived example and guidance caused a potential cross-class, cross-race coalition to fracture, and whether that fracturing made the commitment to the pariah’s discomfort less appealing and the rewards of embracing some components of American power more possible. This could have been through the complicity in the carceral state evidenced by Kamala Harris’s record of increasing felony conviction rates by 15 percent and drug conviction rates by nearly 20 percent while serving as San Francisco’s district attorney, or by President Obama’s embrace of capitalism in his deference to the heads of major banks as the height of the 2008 financial crisis, or even more recently, Michelle Obama’s pronouncement of George Bush as her friend, someone she “loves to death,” someone whose company that she enjoys because they sit next to each other at formal events.
So the question that these bring up for me is not, was Martin Luther King a model of civil disobedience; it’s how can we rediscover the courage to be the kind of conscious pariah that he was.
1. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, “From the Pariah’s Point of View,” in Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, ed. Melvyn A. Hill (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979), 5.
Thomas Chatterton Williams
In recent years I’ve found myself thinking about Aristotle’s distinction between the good man and the good citizen, and the political conditions that allow that latter identity to come to fruition.
This is a distinction that Hannah Arendt draws on in her essay “Reflections on Civil Disobedience,” and which Leo Strauss elucidates as follows:
In Donald Trump’s America this distinction between partisan and patriot, good man and good citizen, seems more salient than it has at any other point in my life. What, after all, does it mean to be a good citizen in America at the moment when children, and even babies, are torn from their parents and isolated in desert cages; when so many unarmed men and women, often but not always black, are shot to death with no repercussion; when children are slaughtered in our nation’s schoolrooms because our laws ensure that the most violent of weapons remain readily accessible and our lawmakers pantomime regret while enthusiastically sacrificing a percentage of our boys and girls to the gun lobby on the altar of commerce; when avowed racists march through our streets and the president condones them. “There are fine people on both sides,” he tells us. At what point are we to conclude that blind patriotism to such a regime is incompatible with the dictates of good citizenship?
The practical meaning of the notion of the best regime appears most clearly when one considers the ambiguity of the term “good citizen.” Aristotle suggests two entirely different definitions of the good citizen. In his more popular Constitution of Athens he suggests that the good citizen is a man who serves his country well, without any regard to the difference of regimes—who serves his country well in fundamental indifference to the change of regimes. The good citizen, in a word, is the patriotic citizen, the man whose loyalty belongs first and last to his fatherland. In his less popular Politics, Aristotle says that there is not the good citizen without qualification. For what it means to be a good citizen depends entirely on the regime. A good citizen in Hitler’s Germany would be a bad citizen elsewhere. But whereas good citizen is relative to the regime, good man does not have such a relativity. The meaning of good man is always and everywhere the same. The good man is identical with the good citizen only in one case—in the case of the best regime. For only in the best regime is the good of the regime and the good of the man identical, that goal being virtue. This amounts to saying that in his Politics Aristotle questions the proposition that patriotism is enough. From the point of view of the patriot, the Fatherland is more important than any difference of regimes. From the point of view of the patriot, he who prefers any regime to the Fatherland is a partisan, if not a traitor. Aristotle says in effect that the partisan sees deeper than the patriot but that only one kind of partisan is superior; this is the partisan of virtue. One can express Aristotle’s thought as follows: patriotism is not enough for the same reason that the most doting mother is happier if her child is good than if he is bad. A mother loves her child because he is her own; she loves what is her own. But she also loves the good. All human love is subject to the law that it be both love of one’s own and love of the good, and there is necessarily a tension between one’s own and the good, a tension which may well lead to a break, be it only the breaking of a heart.1
Though the realities are starkly different, the tension between these two kinds of good also makes me think of the powerful 2006 film The Lives of Others, which many of you probably have seen. Set in 1984 in East Germany, a Stasi agent is ordered to spy on a playwright who has thus far escaped state scrutiny due to his pro-communist views and international recognition. The agent and his team bug the writer’s apartment, set up surveillance equipment, and begin reporting his activities. But eventually the agent comes to find out that the playwright has been put under surveillance at the request of a man who covets his girlfriend. It dawns on him that he cannot serve his state and not participate in a terrible wrong—here rendered in miniature, of course, but it is not hard to extrapolate from this personal wrong a much greater society-wide wrong any citizen serving such a regime would necessarily be complicit in. And so at great personal cost this agent, who reveals himself to be a good man, subverts and disobeys the demands put upon him.
We’re now living in a time where a great many Americans in an enormous variety of nonviolent ways are deciding to disobey—in ways we may agree with and in ways that may repel us, too. We see in the country sanctuary cities, police officers and mayors unwilling to do the work of reporting and rounding up undocumented immigrants for ICE. We see men and women taking it upon themselves to rid their communities of monuments to slavery and diminution. And yet elsewhere we do see citizens refusing to adapt to our evolving understanding of gay rights. We see business owners refusing to serve same-sex clients, which is also a form of disobedience. In these instances, the disobedience is in contradiction to pressure that is considered legal. They are disobeying the law, whether or not we agree with it.
But there is also a more expansive understanding of civil disobedience which in some cases may even be harder, and this necessitates going against social norms, if not legal strictures, which is why Arendt distinguishes between disobedience of the law, both civil and criminal, and the defiance of religious, secular, political, and social authority. Is the football player Colin Kaepernick a bad citizen for kneeling during the spectacle of the national anthem and drawing the ire of the president and many self-professed patriots, losing his career in the process? “The law can indeed stabilize and legalize change once it has occurred,” Arendt writes, “but the change itself is always the result of extralegal action.”2
The case of Kaepernick and the national movement against police brutality, and the extraordinary backlash it has generated, particularly interest me in light of the themes we are here to consider. Like the agent in The Lives of Others, Kaepernick offers a prosaic glimpse of what can happen to a man trying to be good in a bad regime. Can civil disobedience help reunite majority opinion around a common truth? So far, I’m not at all certain. Is civil disobedience, however, an exemplary and courageous act of citizenship, a useful and necessary means, at the very minimum, of allowing the good man to continue looking himself in the mirror in an imperfect society, what Camus meant when he spoke of the individual’s resistance to injustice as fundamental for the resisting individual’s own health and welfare? Of all that I am positive.
It remains to be seen if what we are witnessing today can equal that which was harnessed during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, led by one of the finest citizens this country has ever produced in the figure of Martin Luther King Jr. But it is a start and a welcome divergence from the end-of-history complacency that mired us in previous eras. As others have remarked, the United States is a country in which an individual, through “one of the most serious oddities of our law . . . is encouraged or in some sense compelled to establish a significant legal right through a personal act of civil disobedience.”3 In some very real sense, then, loving America means knowing when and how to defy her, both legally and normatively. This is not partisanship; this is what genuine patriotism looks like if we insist on another definition of patriotism, of the patriot, one more expansive than that used by Aristotle.
I think of the two women who confronted Senator Jeff Flake in the elevator after the Kavanaugh testimony. I think of them holding open the door, demanding he not look away from them. And to my amazement I think of him actually, if fleetingly, listening to them and changing his vote. And for a moment I really do believe a new and better democratic American ideal can emerge. But to live up to the legacy of King and others, it may be the case that many more of us are going to be required to be courageous.
1. Leo Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies (1959; repr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 35.
2. Hannah Arendt, “Civil Disobedience,” in Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1970), 80.
3. Edward H. Levi, quoted in Robert Teigrob, Living with War: Twentieth-Century Conflict in Canadian and American History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 175.
Q&A: MLK and the Legacy of Civil Disobedience in America
Kenyon Adams, Amy Schiller, and Thomas Chatterton Williams
Ann Seaton: Thanks. Those were really three incredible pieces. Now we’re going to turn the questions over to all of you. . . .
Q: First, thank you all for your presentations. Kenyon, I appreciate the connection you’re bringing back to existence, an ontological question, so I was thinking about the connection that you were making between blackness as a space for creative action and the distinction Chatterton was making around the good man and the good citizen—the example of Kaepernick was what I was thinking of. Kenyon, would you say that that was creative action? And then, what is the relationship between creative action and being the good man?
KVA: That’s a great question, thank you. Maybe we could split this, especially the bottom half. Is it a creative action? I think I was—for my purposes I was using the idea of what is constructive. I was trying to do a construction and erasure dialectic with blackness and whiteness to kind of demonstrate what I think drove King or really concerned him theologically. So creative action in terms of King—I think he would think that it requires, you know, a football player to contextualize direct action. The King that died before forty would probably—that person, that sort of anachronistic person would now have to say, okay, how are you going to contextualize direct action?
But the other part of creative action that I was trying to point to was that King was looking at the whole African diaspora, and looking at liberation movements not just for the African diaspora but for people all over, liberation movements all over the world. He saw that as creative energy, and he actually felt that the United States was a bit behind, and he thought it was pretty amazing that you’re trying to do creative action to produce a cup of coffee—using constitutional law for a cup of coffee.
So I think contextually, yes, it’s creative action, Kaepernick. My concern would be this kind of anachronistic, you know, assemblage. I think there are other places also to look and other ways that if you were to say, how does King’s work now extrapolate itself and become contemporary, I think there are also other things to imagine.
TCW: Just about Kaepernick: I think about him a lot, and I’m confused about what he really means for the time and what he will mean in the future. And I think about, were King alive in a time like now, would he have a Nike contract or something like that? And is it possible to do something as noble as King did in a time like our own, which is—it’s always going to devolve in some sense into something material and able to capitalize off of in a way that seems to devalue something that is there in the pristine images of the 1960s that are preserved for us.
So I think that Kaepernick is doing something very noble and very important, and I think that the reason that you can tell it’s important is the extremity of the backlash that he generates. It means that he brought something new into the world that many people don’t want to see brought there. But I’m not sure, maybe it is actually in fact frivolous on some level, and the Nike contract maybe makes it that way—I’m not sure.
KVA: We’ll add to that: you made me think that the theater—King was interested in theater, and that was very conscious, to use your cue. It was very conscious, and if that’s a modality, it is a modality, and I think Kap is involved with that modality.
Amy Schiller: I would just add that certainly Arendt, I think, would look at Kaepernick and the kneel as action, right? It’s a political action that creates a new space and a new discourse and a new kind of chain of reactions that were previously sort of unthinkable or unanticipatable. So if we just want to refer back to her, certainly there’s a way of seeing Kaepernick as a person of action, and political action—which for Arendt is inherently sort of creative and natal.
KVA: In no way to diminish Kap, I think like it’s pretty powerful stuff, pretty amazing stuff.
Q: You mentioned, Kenyon, the concept of the exceptional Negro, and the patriarchal picture that was sometimes painted when we talk about Martin Luther King Jr., and it reminds me of the study I recently saw, actually, that says both white and black women equally look at natural hair, black natural hair, as being unprofessional, which shows this level of—I hate the word “colonizing,” but I’m going to say it anyway—this colonized thought. . . . I was shocked to find that it was equal: both black women and white women seem to think this in this study. And, you know, despite the intersectionality of the Black Lives Matter movement there is still this “exceptional Negro” concept, which then allows us to justify behavior that is bad behavior against others, and also this patriarchy where sometimes black men are trying to get freedom for black men, and not for . . . , you know, the trans community or women. So I guess my question is, how can we tackle our refusal to focus on a holistic liberation when survival is really what is on everyone’s minds? I feel that we’re not really focused on a holistic liberation of all within the black community.
KVA: Okay. A lot there. Let me just say the name Eboni Marshall Turman. In case you haven’t engaged her, she can certainly speak and has spoken to this—also Howard Thurman. You know, we like to talk about King and Gandhi. I think that’s another interesting memory we harbor or hold. Howard Thurman was the spiritual leader that likely mostly influenced King. If you listen to his eulogy of King, it’s extraordinary. Thurman is a key to what you’re asking at the end of your question.
I had a note, and I was saying I’d be remiss, and then I missed it. But I’d be remiss not to mention the underlying philosophy of King’s work, which is the centrality of love. And I’m still learning about that; but his conviction about love, that it sort of possesses all this necessary centrality for every freedom and liberation endeavor, is, I think, rooted in self-love. So self-love, self-care, is something you’re hearing a lot, and you’ve got to really recognize that Black Lives Matter put that out there as a whole new kind of infiltration of psyche and constructive beingness, a love letter to black people. So I think the holistic— If joy, according to Willy Jennings, is the goal of all this justice work, then love is the journey, is the engine, the driver, the power. But that has to be self-love, and Thurman is the really clear voice on this. So I think learning what King meant when he talked about love, and what Thurman means when he talks about love, and then applying critiques— You mentioned the patriarchal rendering. I think whiteness and straightness—these things are all connected, you know. Baldwin could have given that address. Rustin could have given that address. What would have happened if they had? So yes, it’s important to not remember one man as being the Freedom Movement in the United States. That’s important. That doesn’t detract from King. As a matter of fact, he would tell you this, I’m confident.
Thomas Chatterton Williams: If I understood the question, you’re juxtaposing the individual’s kind of breaking apart from the oppression from the group left behind. I often think about this and wonder. I moved to Paris seven years ago, and I think a lot about some of the black—including James Baldwin—some of the great black writers who have done that, and I think a lot about what Richard Wright said, which seems on one level a little bit like betrayal but on a human level it makes a lot of sense to me too. He said he was so happy when he got to Paris, and he said, “Every hour that you’re fighting for your freedom is an hour that you’re not free.” And he said, “I have more freedom in a square block of Paris than in the entire United States of America.” It’s a question taken up in Paris Blues with Sydney Poitier and Paul Newman, where Poitier kind of doesn’t want to go home, but his visiting girlfriend prevails on him to go back because she says that’s where the fight is. And he doesn’t know why he’s going back to the fight because if the fight is joy, the term you use, he already had joy.
There’s a tension there that I don’t know is fixable between the individual and the group. The individual is always subject to the they, and the only liberation from that is to separate from the they; and that feels like something wrong on a lot of levels as well. So there’s always something being sacrificed.
Q: Hi. I really appreciate the opening comments. And the question and musing I’m posting, I am doing so acknowledged as a female person lacking color. But my concern and question really was prompted, Kenyon, by some of the things you said about ethnicity and pan-Africanism, and I’m kind of wondering about the position of maintaining racial identities over humanity as an identity. So it may be civil disobedience, but for most of my life, when given a questionnaire, if the question is race, I check “Other” and write in “Human.” I have done so for I don’t know how long. Both of our adult children have done so their whole lives. I will check ethnicity for demographic medical purposes. But I have gotten backlash from friends and acquaintances who are people of color that in doing so, a person lacking color, I am being racist in claiming that there are no races. And I claim that from a biological standpoint. I believe there are ethnicities, there are classes, there are cultures; I don’t personally believe that race exists. I think there’s humanity. So if you could address how that fits into or is against some of the struggles you represent, that would be great.
Seaton: Can we start with Amy, just because I feel she’s getting a little left out—not to essentialize or anything.
Schiller: So, all right. So I’m also a white woman. Sorry: I am a white woman, not also. You obviously identify differently. I find it important— I can only speak to how I personally navigate this, and I think Kenyon may have a better theoretical couching for this. When I teach my classes, if I teach at Brooklyn College, they are almost entirely racial minority students. And if I’m teaching a class about race in American politics it is significant for me, on the one hand, to establish that the professor-student relationship remains intact, that my responsibilities to them and their responsibilities to the classroom and to me are all the same even in acknowledging the dynamics of race as an additional element of knowledge and power and knowledge production in that room. So I think it’s important for me not only at the beginning of class but throughout the class to acknowledge that I will not have the same sort of personally informed experience, the lived experience, of race that other people in that room have, and that that informs my access to knowledge, that informs how my analysis and my instincts are shaped, and that is, I think, just a truth that I really believe about how people live in society. Because maybe races do or do not exist in an ontological sense, but many people are raced. I live in a world that treats me as a white person, that treats other people as people of color. The consequences of living in those two kinds of bodies are really different.
So I think it’s really valuable, on the one hand, to be able to acknowledge the differences in lived experiences even while maintaining that, yes, the other roles that we have and the other relations we have to one another remain intact and respected. I don’t know if that fully answers your question, but that’s how I’ve handled it.
KVA: You can’t have a democracy and maintain racial hierarchy. So it’s not exactly about a subjective thing. Do you want to have apartheid, or do you want to have democracy? The two cannot coexist. What do we have?
I would check out some critical race theory. Read Nell Irvin Painter’s History of White People as a start. There’s a discourse that is historical. I think it’s important to say no, there is no beingness to whiteness. No one can say I am white and that be true; yet, as she’s describing, it’s a false identity with real-world consequences; so it’s one of those imaginary things that comes into reality in very strong ways. But that’s because we have something that more resembles apartheid than democracy. So I think King was trying to take racial hierarchy down, he was trying to take apartheid down, and he tried to do that theologically, betting on the Christian character of the United States of America.
TCW: I want to thank you for that comment and for the question. It speaks directly to what I’m very focused on right now. I’m finishing a book about being the black father. I grew up under the rule of hypodescent and the idea of the one-drop rule. My father’s black, my mother’s white. I grew up not questioning the idea that I was white, and white people didn’t really question it; black people are used to accepting people of all skin tones as part of the black community. It wasn’t till I moved to France and had children who came out looking Swedish that the fiction of race kind of really presented itself to me. And I did a lot of thinking, and for four years I’ve been writing a book that’s an adaptation of an essay I wrote about the shock of having a very white-looking daughter, and what does it mean if I’m a black man that can have a daughter like this, and what does it mean if my daughter is white and my father is black but they have the same smile and a lot of the same DNA.
Last spring I profiled a very brilliant woman named Adrian Piper who’s an artist. She had a huge retrospective at MoMA recently. She lives in Berlin, she’s a distinguished philosopher, and she publicly retired from blackness in 2012. We talked a lot about this, and there was some deep part of me that still, even as I was writing this book, was resisting. But I came out of these conversations with her thinking that the most radical act of civil disobedience that I can probably do and teach my children to do is to step out of this black-white binary that is a fiction that is forced on us and that produces a social inequality that I don’t want to reproduce anymore. And I realize that’s naive. Privileged black people can be really supportive of this position, or they can get really mad, saying that, “You live in Paris, you have light skin and a white wife, so that doesn’t speak to me.” That’s possibly a compelling response to it, but I’m out of the game myself, and I’m really inspired by the little act of civil disobedience that you do every time you fill out a box, because those boxes are fake. So thank you.
KVA: If I can say one thing about the box: so we both have babies—I have a little daughter two years old now, and I could not get her out of the hospital. Listen, she was born two years ago. I couldn’t get her out of the hospital, and I could not get a Social Security number—and I spent time—until I declared her according to a six-box half sheet of paper. This is the United States of America. If that’s not apartheid, you’re going to have to explain to me what it is.
The other thing I want to leave you with is this deep thing about they made us a race, we became a people: black people became a people. I am black, and that’s a beautiful thing. It’s one of the best things to be, especially now. But if you want to reject whiteness and white identity, who are you? You’re going to have to creatively act that. Where’s the creative action or constructive? Is there constructive whiteness that is not a violence?
TCW: This is a really interesting. If we can keep going with that question a little bit longer, I agree with you 100 percent that . . . it’s not enough to just say, “Stepping out of race, race is over,” and then it’s business as usual. We actually have to do what Fanon was asking for, which is to create a new man. And I think that we could do that, because in human terms, in civilizational terms, white and black is not that old. It’s like four hundred, five hundred years old. We have lived other ways, we could live other ways, if significant numbers of us wanted to, so desired to.
Last summer I spent time interviewing real white nationalists in Europe and Richard Spencer here in America, and one of the things that they think [that] is very dangerous is this kind of complacent idea of whiteness, where whiteness is neutral and everybody else is raced insofar as they deviate from white neutrality. They want to reawaken a white race consciousness, and they want white people to know that they’re white. I certainly don’t want white people to be reawakened to their racedness in the way that Spencer does; but I do want white people to step out of the idea that they have no race. I want them to rethink their social identity and collectively with other people of goodwill to think of ways that we can get past that and we can belong to a nation together as citizens, that we can be human together as you suggest.
It’s really interesting that you say that about having kids in the States, because my kids were born in France, where they’re about to strike the word “race” from the constitution.
KVA: We should specify between race and ethnicity or other notions. Race has its own space, and it really didn’t exist as a robust space until 1620. So ethnicity—you are from somewhere and somebody, so that’s good news. You’re not white, but you are from somewhere and somebody. So you can claim that and then try— I think collectively the United States has to really—like I said, it’s a laundry list. Taking racial hierarchy down may be at the top of that list, and then we can deal with other embodiments.
Seaton: Before I take a question, I’m forced to say something, which is that, as someone who wrote on race in the Enlightenment for my dissertation, and I teach about it as well, there is no human outside of race. So when the category of the human arose with Linnaeus’s Systema naturae—I don’t know if you’re familiar with it. . . . He was the person who came up with the notion of the sort of scientific categories though which we describe the human species. Also a fellow named Immanuel Kant, a rather well-known philosopher. Both of them, when they describe the category of the human in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, respectively, [they] elaborately described it, and only described it, insofar as it related directly to race. So this fantasy fiction that there’s some human category that anyone can step outside of—I mean, Adrian Piper knows this quite well; she’s a Kantian philosopher herself. I think what she’s doing isn’t sort of saying that she doesn’t want to be black; I think what she’s saying is, she doesn’t want to be violently racialized and segregated. I don’t think those are the same thing.
TCW: She’s actually saying both. She’s saying that she wants to belong to a tradition and a culture, but she told me—we spoke about this, and she told me that. I said, “Well, do you believe in a black sensibility?” She said no. There’s no Jewish sensibility, there’s no black sensibility.
Seaton: Right, but I still think that’s not quite the same thing as saying that there’s this human category that exists outside of race. When she says there’s no black sensibility, I think what she’s saying is something much more complicated. I mean, I think that runs throughout her work; she’s actually one of my teachers.
I’m not proposing that either of us can know for sure what she means—
TCW: I have a long profile in the New York Times Magazine on her where she’s on record saying that she doesn’t believe people are white or black, and she’s not black.
Seaton: I’ve read that.
TCW: She said it pretty clearly.
Seaton: Right, but I think that she’s also— Well, anyway, I just don’t think there’s a human category that exists outside of race historically, philosophically, or intellectually.
TCW: Is it possible that we could imagine one going forward though?
Seaton: Well, right—yes. I mean, maybe Sun Ra would have to be the person to do that for us. Any other questions?
Q: I can’t help but add as a medievalist [that] there was no conception of race the way we have it. The way they thought of a person was primarily as a soul, and the word for soul is feminine in Latin. And thinking of the Western European tradition in particular, but it’s not unique to that, this was a tradition that was kind of shared in many ways by the Islamic and the Jewish traditions as well. So this soul was not the body—it had nothing to do with it. It was often envisioned as feminine vis-à-vis a kind of masculine god. So I think that there are kinds of notions, a way of talking, about a human being that are not racialized the way they’ve been since the seventeenth century, and they’re interesting to consider.
Schiller: The thing that makes a soul into a human being is a body to some extent, right?
Q: That’s a little complicated. Ultimately, Christianity would say that—I mean, that human beings are essentially body and soul. But the sense, when we would talk about the subject, for example, or the person, they would say the “soul.” That’s the word that they used.
Schiller: It’s just a matter of how do we—I’m not convinced that we could subtract the body and remain, and somehow still be talking about human beings.
Q: Certainly in Christian theology that’s absolutely true. . . . The major division was between the human being, the angel, and the beast—those were the three categories. And the human being is differently positioned. Also, it had to do with whatever court law you followed and whether the law was set in Christianity, Judaism, or paganism/Islam (considered to be the same thing). But if you converted to another religion you were considered fully 100 percent to be one of [that group] as opposed to the other, and there are plenty of examples of that. One of the first converts to Christianity was an Ethiopian in the Acts of the Apostles.
I’m not saying this is the answer to everything, but there are different ways of envisaging this.
KVA: King, you know, really proposed something that I think has been overlooked or ignored. His training was in his Western theological received traditions. He read all the medieval mystics, he quoted Aquinas, he constructed all these things. He was in the Imago Dei, and that was supposed to be something that was indefensible. People came to him and he said you basically can’t be a Christian anymore and believe in the Imago Dei and then be a segregator—right? So that to me is his theological line in the sand.
The question is, does the theological tradition you’re referring to matter to America? Because if you look at King’s legacy, that’s a question.
Q: I think that’s very, very—especially in recent years, since 2016, we see the direction in which evangelical Christianity in particular, one has to say, has gone. Not all evangelical Christians: I want to make that very clear. There are certainly plenty of people who do identify with Christianity that cross all races, and of course other faith traditions and nonfaith traditions; but I think we can’t hold on to theology.
KVA: But the racial imagination in the United States is wed to the Christian imagination through the lens of American Christianity, so this is, I think, still a debacle.
Q: In recent years I’ve heard a lot of people referred to as “people of color,” or “I am a person of color,” and this includes Arabs who are very light-skinned, some of them; it includes Asians. I don’t know who else it includes. Is that a racial category?
TCW: That is a good question. I think that “people of color” is a term that doesn’t mean much. It doesn’t convey much. Arabs—that’s an interesting category. They’re technically Caucasian on the census, depending on which country they come from. But “people of color” doesn’t make sense, especially when you get into the huge differences among Asian peoples. And where they fit on the whiteness scale is evolving still, and it’s going to be very interesting to see how that plays out.
I never refer to myself in terms like that.
KVA: The term has been, I would say, claimed and howled and beloved by millennials—when I say millennials I probably look silly, but people I find to be younger than me.
Schiller: People of age?
KVA: No, I feel a lot of my students that I’ve had use the term, and with a lot of creativity and pride, and I think language, you know—we were talking a bit about language last night. I feel that certainly in the poetic realm where artists live and where poets live language is not this fixed thing that tells us what to be; we engage it in order to make meaning. And so I think in some very ingenious ways [they’re] making meaning of all the sorts of things that come at them. So I think people of color—I think people keep trying to name human, so they’ll keep doing that.
Q: I have a question about navigating identity. I’ve spent some time in Palestine over the summer, and I was really struck by, obviously, a million things but particularly about identity, the way in which identity is really constructed collectively, and that it was in stark comparison, especially on college campuses in the U.S., to the necessity and desire to identify so much with the individual, with all of your identifiers that cut all the lines of intersectionality. Without criticizing that form of identity, it was just interesting to see a different societal conception of collective identity around your heritage in direct relation to other people. So I guess my question is just if we are imagining that we can create a new, as you were talking about, a human category—if in the future we could engage with that, how do we navigate through the very different ways in which we collectively or individually identify?
TCW: May I? I think that it’s important to [realize that] we’re not all going to get on the same page at the same time, so I think that some people are going to navigate a broader understanding of common humanity than other people at the same time, and there will be spaces that are freer and others that are more traditional and restricted or even backwards. So I think that people can find each other who want to create that new man. But I’m not so naive or utopian to think that we will all do this, and maybe it won’t happen in certain parts of the world ever; and the one that you refer to maybe is a place where group identities are so engrained that [they] would be very hard to get over.
Q: Mine kind of relates to what he was discussing about identity, because I identify as Latina, and that’s an issue with certain people. I can never get on the same page with people who aren’t Latina sometimes; they’ll say that’s not all right. And I understand where they’re coming from, but living where I live and coming from where I come from, I’m not white enough for certain kids, and then I’m not ethnic enough for the black kids or other kids. Sometimes I fall right in that middle; I feel left out. When you address this, how do you address that, because I don’t fall within either in this situation.
TCW: I think you should define yourself as yourself. I think that’s hard, but it’s the most meaningful definition you can come by. I understand that there’s a lot of sustenance in belonging to a they; but you say you’re Latina not because you choose to construct yourself that way, but because you don’t get constructed into other binaries, right? But that seems to me inadequate to move through life as being defined. I think it’s all of our work to define ourselves. Sometimes it’s very easy just to slip on the cloak of communal identity because it doesn’t demand as much; but you’re young and you’re here at a very [diverse] school, and maybe there’s something else to you besides being given a social identity to the extent that you can.
Schiller: I will build on that and just say I think one of the things that interests me is what are the vectors by which we can find ways of connecting to one another and to other people? What are the shared interests? What are the solidarities? What are the goals? Do I necessarily need— I think everybody needs validation and everybody needs a certain amount of recognition and affirmation to feel solid in the world, and I really respect the need for that. I also think that finding one’s social community and one’s political community does not begin and end with that project, that it is bigger and more expansive than the project of identity affirmation. Identity affirmation can come through action, things that one does with others.
KVA: I only have one other thought, maybe with our powers combined. I mean, here’s the thing: there’s the subjective experience, and then there’s the apartheid sort of resemblance of our society. The U.S. census, and I don’t even know if the people who did this had master’s degrees, but they created the term “Latin,” right? This is a creative people who have done a lot with that sort of identity; so they’re going to say the Cuban is the same thing as the Mexican is the same thing as . . . And that creates political power in voting. But the census made that. That’s one reality. The 2020 census is coming up. How are you identified in that? You can claim identity, but at some point I will in this country be reminded that I am viewed on that paper a certain way, whether through violence or other situations.
And then there’s the political aspect. So if you have an issue with the term “Latin,” it has been made, so maybe you have an issue with the making. You can take that up.
Q: I was just wondering, going back to your previous discussion about people of color and there being kind of a spectrum of whiteness and not fitting into certain categories, whether you see those terms as being helpful or negative toward our country, and whether you see them changing in the future, and whether those terms should stay in [terms of] how we want to build our humanity or whether they might be degraded away in our future.
TCW: I would like to see the census— I would like to get rid of these categories, because in my own lifetime—I’ll give you an example that the categories don’t make sense. When I was younger, you could only mark one box on the census. Now you can mark multiple boxes. So I would have had to choose. I couldn’t possibly reflect my actual heritage on the census until I was an adult. Now I can mark a number of things and it completely changes my official social identity. But nothing about me changed, nothing about my ancestry changed, nothing about my reality changed. What do these terms really mean? I mean, at one point Chinese were considered black, Mexicans were black. . . . It changed throughout the twentieth century. A term like “black” doesn’t capture anything, and a term like “people of color” captures even less specificity. Whiteness is a category that has constantly evolved around the margins especially, and has expanded to include other groups, as other groups have always defined themselves against the lowest category on the social hierarchy, which has always been stuck at black. So whiteness didn’t used to include Southern Europeans. These categories don’t do anything. So in my own kind of naive, hopeful way, I hope we could get to a point where we don’t use them.
This is actually possible. France is a society that has lots of flaws, but it doesn’t re