Date February 25, 2021
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New textbook illuminates African American scholars’ centuries-long crusade for true democracy

“African American Political Thought,” co-edited by Brown political scientist Melvin Rogers, reveals the outsize impact many Black thinkers, from Frederick Douglass to Angela Davis, have had on American society.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Readers who browse the politics section of a bookstore will find countless anthologies of essays and speeches by American political thinkers. But most have one thing in common: They focus chiefly on white, wealthy and powerful intellectuals and barely skim the surface of African American political thought. 

Melvin Rogers, an associate professor of political science at Brown University, has long wished he could change that fact. For decades, he felt someone needed to create a comprehensive textbook chronicling the societal contributions of influential African American thinkers through the centuries, from early writers such as Phillis Wheatley to present-day scholars such as Clarence Thomas.

Just in time for Black History Month, Rogers and his longtime colleague, University of Washington political scientist Jack Turner, have now created just that. book cover of "African American Political Thought"

Over the course of several years, Rogers and Turner co-edited the text “African American Political Thought: A Collected History,” released by University of Chicago Press on Tuesday, Feb. 23. By way of essays from some of today’s most esteemed political science scholars — including Anthony Bogues, director of Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice — the book takes a closer look at 30 preeminent Black intellectuals throughout American history, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Zora Neale Hurston to Martin Luther King Jr.

Upon the book’s release, Rogers answered questions about the text, the essayists and the thinkers they spotlight.

Q: What led you and your colleague to create this book?

Jack Turner and I both work in political theory, a sub-field of political science. Specifically, we study African American political thought. We both agreed that there’s a big hole in the literature: There has never been a signature text that provides something of a tour through the major African American political thinkers. We wanted to create that together as a gift to the profession that has given us both so much.

In the beginning, we sat down together and identified scholars who were well-known and widely praised for their scholarship on each of the figures we wanted to feature. We were incredibly happy and humbled that so many of them agreed to contribute essays. Every chapter focuses on a different figure, first offering some biographical context, then zooming in on a particular aspect of that thinker’s life or work, and making a distinctive argument.

Q: Many of the thinkers spotlighted here are public figures, living or dead, whom people might believe they know well: Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison. What new things might people learn about them in this book?

When I read the contributors’ essays, I learned a great deal about the richness and variety of some of these figures’ contributions to public thought.

For example, Ida B. Wells, writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is most famous for her anti-lynching journalism and activism. But the author of the Wells chapter, Naomi Murakawa, helps the reader see that Wells isn’t just interested in exposing the false claims that were used to justify the lynching of Black people — she’s also interested in expressing deep and profound concern with the way the criminalization of many Black people created a stigma against all Black people that pervaded every facet of society. 

Every chapter is a little like that: Each writer helps you see something about each thinker that you wouldn’t have been able to see by going it alone. To me, this text highlights the importance of continuing to subject historical figures to interpretation, of continuing to excavate their archives, in order to shed new light on persistent injustices.

“ I think what all of these thinkers drive home is that the kind of sovereignty we all crave, the kind of individual power we all want, is the kind of power we can only forge by working together. ”

Melvin Rogers Associate Professor of Political Science

Q: How did you choose which 30 thinkers to spotlight in this text? Is there something all of them have in common?

In one sense, the book, by focusing on a single figure in each chapter, tries to hold in view the idiosyncratic views of each thinker. But there’s a throughline, which is why we call it a “collected history” — and that is the thinkers’ persistent confrontation with white supremacy in the United States. Each of these thinkers, in their own way, is responding to white supremacy while also holding up a picture of what a healthy democratic society could or should look like. 

That throughline is quite distinct from other histories of political philosophy. Other highly cited American and European political thinkers, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, tended to dwell on the idea of the social contract: What is the legitimate basis of government, what rights do we have, and what individual freedoms should we give up in exchange for government protections? But in that time, those questions didn’t apply to African Americans, because the government afforded them no rights or benefits in exchange for their societal contributions. So in focusing on the social contract, there were questions and answers we were missing: What does it mean to engage in political contestation from below, from the position of being excluded? What does it mean to try to forge a vision of “the good life” amid practices of domination? 

Q: Do you feel that many African American thinkers throughout history developed a comprehensive set of ideas about how to confront and eradicate white supremacy?

Cornel West speaking at a podium at Brown University
Cornel West, one of the thinkers featured in the new text, spoke at Brown in 2018. Photo: Frank Mullin

I think when you travel through each of these chapters, from Phillis Wheatley to Cornel West, it’s clear that to them, the problem space of white supremacy remains. But the contours of that space — the places of dark and light — change over time, and as a result, so do their proposals to confront it. Some don’t propose to confront white supremacy so much as they try to identify ways to live a good life even in the midst of it. Others offer tactical plans for organizing for power. There are some figures who say, look, there’s no place for us to go; I doubt the polity is up to the task of effectively responding to racism; we just need to figure out how to protect ourselves.

The text is comprehensive in that sense that these 30 figures cover and engage every aspect of African American life in a democratic society — and they do that by constantly keeping in view the problem space of white supremacy in all its dynamism and transformation.

Q: What impact did these 30 African American thinkers have on society, and how did their impact change over time? 

I think what changes across time is their standing in society. What gains momentum over the centuries is the idea of African American thinkers as legitimate sites of truth. In today’s intellectual circles, you see scholars (and not just Black people) turning to African American thinkers as a resource for thinking about our current political moment and the past that gave life to it.

Once again, take Ida B. Wells as an example: In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, she lambasted white journalists because they were not truthfully reporting what took place with respect to lynching. At the time, her perspective wasn’t accepted in the mainstream. The New York Times had incendiary things to say about her; its writers were constantly challenging her credibility. 

Contrast that with the last two thinkers featured in the text: Cornel West and Angela Davis, who are still alive today. Davis was criminalized when she was younger, but today she is recognized as a credible source of thought on democratic life, a site of truth. The same goes for Cornel West; he is widely respected. Over the course of history, you see this transformation of the social status of African American thinkers, and that’s partially owing to the work previous thinkers have done in transforming the status of all African Americans. 

Q: What, above all else, do you hope readers take away from this volume?

If there is one lesson that the tradition of African American political thought makes very clear — and I’m borrowing a passage from one of our essayists, Danielle Allen, here — it’s that democracy in the U.S. has a way of constantly advancing the claim that each one of us is sovereign, that each of us is the master of our own destiny, only to remind us again and again that we’re often very powerless. African American thinkers, more than others, highlight the constant tension between this ideal vision of sovereignty and the reality of their non-sovereign condition. But make no mistake, we all find ourselves in this condition, regardless of how we identify racially or ethnically. 

There is an inescapable dependency at the heart of American public life. I think what all of these thinkers drive home is that the kind of sovereignty we all crave, the kind of individual power we all want, is the kind of power we can only forge by working together.