Who k(new): the Nation-ist contour of racial identity in the thought of Martin R. Delany and John E. Bruce.

Author:Curry, Tommy J.


Despite the irrefutable failure of integration1 and multiculturalism, race theory in philosophy continues to endorse the dilapidated ideas of color-blindness (Bonilla-Silva 2003, 2001), (2) and liberal democracy, which ignore the historic and systemic racism of American society. (3) Currently, theories about race focus on the socially constructed nature of the term--its contingency, rather than the effects it has had on African descended people's political orientation in America and the cultural heritage various African thinkers have infused the term with over the centuries. The dominance of anti-essentialist rhetoric and cosmopolitan care ethics in philosophy has forced scholars to write a historical and textually skewed apologetics of historic Black figures as the condition for their acceptance into the canon.

By ignoring key texts, inventing illusory continuities with established white philosophical traditions, limiting Africana philosophy to applied social/political thought, (4) and eliminating meaningful discussions of culture with charges of essentialism, philosophy has effectively enforced an anti-Black moratorium on any attempt to address the drastic cultural, social, and political conditions of African people in America.

This essay is divided in three parts. In part I, I review and critique part of the extant literature on race, nationalism, and Delany. In part II, I argue that Delany's thesis that Blacks are a "nation within a nation" provides a fertile ground for theorizations about Black solidarity under the permanent conditions of oppression in America. In part III, I explore John E. Bruce's reformulation of Delany's concept of nation as a development of race. The theories of Delany and Bruce on race help articulate the theoretical contributions of a Nation-ist perspective to contemporary racial problems in the United States.

  1. Literature Review

    The analysis of racism that contextualizes the Black situation in the United States as a product of domestic colonialism is largely ignored in philosophical conversations about race. As illustrated by Hurricane Katrina, the colonial condition in America perpetuates Black vulnerabilities, poverty, and death. The conception of American racism as colonialism may appear as a pessimistic reality; but this reality needs to be confronted in contemporary philosophical works on Black solidarity and reflected in current "critical" understandings of the socially constructed nature of race in America. To date, the only literature that suggests a conceptual apparatus to explain the reality of African descended people's (hereafter ADP) subordinate status in the American context is Critical Race Theory (hereafter CRT), or more specifically Derrick Bell's racial realist account in CRT. According to Bell,

    Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those Herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary "peaks of progress," short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it and move on to adopt policies based on what I call: "Racial Realism." This mind-set or philosophy requires us to acknowledge the permanence of our subordinate status. That acknowledgement enables us to avoid despair, and frees us to imagine and implement racial strategies that can bring fulfillment and even triumph. (Bell 1992b: 373-374)

    Despite the philosophical insights and explanative power of Bell's theory, Black philosophers primarily rely on the promises of American liberalism and the hopes of democracy in the post-Civil rights era to fundamentally change the racial context of the United States and remedy individual attachments to racial loyalties. Under the integrationist teleology, the jettisoning of race is consistent with a normative universalism that equates truth and progress with the elimination of racial distinctions. Gary Peller writes:

    Today the story of the Civil Rights struggle is commonly told in a linear fashion, as if progress in race relations followed a teleological evolution--from an ignorant time when racial status was taken to signify real and meaningful differences between people to the present enlightened time, when race is properly understood in mainstream culture not to make a difference except as vestiges of unfortunate historical oppression or in terms of vague and largely privatized 'ethnic heritage.' (Peller 1995: 128)

    In practice, this rigid universalism makes historic Black thinkers the test subjects of experimental philosophical projects that seek to enlighten the colored reason of "raced" philosophers through the transcendence of racial consciousness. Despite the dogmatic assertions that racial and cultural identities centered on "Blackness" are passe constructs of biological determinism (Appiah 2000, 1992; Stout 2002), there is no unquestionable justification to prefer the abstractions of humanism over the historical realities of racial oppression and the coherence of African ancestry. (5) Because of its excessive individualism, liberalism fails to understand race and "the profound importance of culture, of membership in cultural groups, and of the influence these factors have within the institutions, practices and meanings of American society" (Cochran 1999: 5). This blind-spot in liberalism's conceptualization of the individual, which is largely a result of the Enlightenment's marriage of reason to anthropology, makes liberal theory an awkward and largely unhelpful intellectual tradition on questions concerning racial loyalties and the cultural membership surrounding "Blackness." This is where Black nationalism, as an ideology and philosophy, can provide some valuable insights.

    Black Nationalism was the earliest and most dominate branch of African thought in America prior to integration. (6) At its inception, Black nationalism was "a consciousness of a shared experience of oppression at the hands of white people, an awareness and approval of the persistence of group traits and preferences in spite of a violently anti-African larger society, a recognition of bonds and obligations between Africans everywhere, [and] an irreducible conviction that Africans in America must take responsibility for liberating themselves" (Stuckey 1972: 6).

    In this consciousness, Pan-Africanism is implicit; (7) under Black nationalism the recognition of African heritage is the belief that "people of African descent throughout the world have common cultural characteristics and share common problems as a result of their African origins, the similarity of their political oppression and economic exploitation by Western civilization, and the persistence and virulence of racist theories, attitudes, and behavior characterizing Western contact with people of African descent" (Bracey et. al 1970: xxix).

    Despite its reliance on the dubious category of race, and its privileging of ADP's African identity over their American identity, Black Nationalism has a strength which resides in its ability to accurately explain the persistence of the racial reality of ADP in America while highlighting the culturally creative consciousness of ADP's thinking about their oppression under race. Unfortunately, the current reflections on Black Nationalism by authors such as Anthony Appiah (2005), Eddie Glaude Jr. (2007), and Tommie Shelby (2005) have uncritically taken up the American liberal tradition as a part of the "African American" entitlement to American citizenship. This anti-race and anti-African stance of the aforementioned camarilla valorizes the imagined continuities that people of African descent shared with America while championing the inevitable excoriation of Africanity and Pan-African consciousness as intellectual and ethical maturity.

    This thinking ignores the terms through which Black people have come to understand their historical and cultural fusion with the idea of race, and perpetuates apologetic readings of Black nationalists like Martin R. Delany and the outright dismissal of militant Black thinkers like John E. Bruce. In 1970, Theodore Draper's book the Rediscovery of Black Nationalism became a much debated topic in Black history. This is largely due to the controversy his now infamous essay, "The Father of Black Nationalism," caused when it appeared in the New York Review of Books. The essay, which was a shortened version of chapter two, "Emigration," of his book released earlier that year, sparked an enormous debate as to the status of Delany in Black history and the historiography of Black Nationalism. According to Draper, Delany was an integrationist whose "'black nationalism' was based on unrequited love, on rejection by whites, rather than on a deeply rooted, traditional attachment to another soil and another nation" (Draper 1970a: 24). In an effort to prevent "new political communities" from being "infected with the nationalist fantasy and encourage a destructive and self-destructive--separatism from other communities" (Draper 1970a: 181), Draper wanted to show that Delany was an integrationist who gave up his "nationalist" program which, even in his own time, "relatively few Negroes took ... very seriously" (Draper 1970a: 47).

    Draper's work, which was challenged back in the 1970s by leading scholars on Delany (Titcomb et. al 1970; Foner 1970; Sterling 1970), has tainted contemporary perspectives on Delany. Today, scholars like Tunde Adeleke (2003) and Tommie Shelby (2005) want to propose "deconstructive readings" of Delany's thought that make his thinking compatible with integration. With our historical lens geared towards the emergence of Black Nationalism in the 1960s, and our philosophical eyes viewing these figures from this vantage point, our thinking has been constrained by an integrationist belief in equality. According to J. Saunders Redding, "Black...

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