An excerpt from
In a Shade of Blue
Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America
Eddie S. Glaude
In a Shade of Blue: An Introduction
Pragmatism is as native to American soil as sagebrush and buffalo grass. So is white supremacy. But classical pragmatists like Charles S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey rarely took up the question of white supremacy in their philosophical writings. For them, race and racism remained marginal intellectual categories despite the long, looming shadow of slavery that framed their extraordinary lives. I am not convinced, however, that their failure to address white supremacy philosophically constitutes an unforgivable moral failing. Professional philosophy, after all, isn’t the first place one looks for courageous social advocacy. And James and Dewey did in fact demonstrate in their daily lives a commitment, however limited, to antiracist politics (Peirce is a different story). We need to recognize that American pragmatism emerged in the context of a nation committed to democracy and slavery, to ideas of equality and to the insidious ideology of Anglo-Saxonism. American pragmatism indeed reflects the haunting duality at the heart of this country: a simultaneous commitment to democratic ideals and undemocratic practices. To say then that pragmatism is native to American soil is to acknowledge that it carries with it all the possibilities and limitations that have defined our fragile experiment in democracy.
One would hope that matters had changed among scholars who call themselves pragmatists today. But even now, most pragmatists fail to take seriously the issues of race in their philosophical work. Cornel West’s account of pragmatism in The American Evasion of Philosophy inserted W. E. B. DuBois into the pantheon of pragmatist thinkers, and we have seen, due in large part to the indefatigable work of Leonard Harris, a resurgence of interest in Alain Locke. But too often DuBois and Locke remain mere personalities. Their insertion into the pantheon of American pragmatism is much like the use of gender-specific pronouns to draw attention to feminist concerns in philosophical writing: the impression it creates—that patriarchy, or in this instance white supremacy, has been seriously considered—is too often an illusion.
When, for example, Richard Rorty invokes the work of James Baldwin in his book Achieving Our Country, one expects more than a passing mention of the problem that so exercised Baldwin throughout his career. Instead, Baldwin stands simply as an exemplar of moderation—someone willing, unlike the leftists Rorty so vehemently chastises, to criticize America without rejecting it outright. This is interesting as far as it goes; Rorty’s nostalgia for the old white left and his eloquent commitment to the ideals that animate the life of the country are hard to dislike. But Rorty evades the more fundamental challenge that Baldwin’s writings present to anyone willing to engage them: that America must confront the fraudulent nature of its life, that its avowals of virtue shield it from honestly confronting the darkness within its own soul.
Rorty might claim that his liberal commitments offer adequate resources for addressing these concerns; that is to say, if good liberals are to be consistent they must condemn racism insofar as it denies the maximization of opportunity for individual variation. Rorty, like most good pragmatists, believes that the liberal goal of maximal room for individual variation requires “no source of authority other than the free agreement of human beings,” that we must work to diminish human suffering and make possible the conditions for human excellence, and that we must commit ourselves to the goal that every child should have an equal chance of happiness. Nothing further needs to be said. But Rorty knows, as we do, that liberals have failed miserably in these areas, primarily because of their equivocation in the face of white supremacy’s insidious claims. Pragmatists need to offer something more than assertions that “good liberals don’t behave in this way.” Sustained attention needs to be given to the kinds of claims and practices that frustrate the liberal vision Rorty commends. The same can be said about John Dewey, the consummate philosopher of American democracy: shouldn’t he have engaged philosophically the ways in which white supremacy frustrated his philosophical claims about democracy? We know he did not, and Rorty, one of his most famous contemporary disciples, also has not. That kind of work is left principally to those of us who bear the brunt of such practices.
A Tradition of African American Pragmatism
We know African Americans have taken up the task. Not so much by participating in professional philosophical debates about truth and meaning as by tackling the complex problems of American racism. To be sure, the political philosophy of W. E. B. DuBois carries the imprint of pragmatism, and Alain Locke’s theory of value and critical theory of race reflect pragmatic commitments. Both take up the pressing issues of American democracy in light of the history and political economy of white supremacy, which gives their pragmatism a timbre and tone different from that of Dewey and Rorty. But DuBois and Locke do not stand alone. One encounters in Anna Julia Cooper’s magisterial work, A Voice from the South (1892), a pragmatic defense of religious belief in the face of a debilitating skepticism in which “all hope in the grand possibilities of life [is] blasted.”
Several years before William James’s classic 1896 essay, “The Will to Believe,” Cooper argued for the necessity of belief as a source of what James called the strenuous mood. She recounted the story of a slave who attempted to escape to the North. “He believed that somewhere under the beckoning light, lay a far away country where a man’s a man. He sets out with his heavenly guide before his face—would you tell him he is pursuing a wandering light? Is he the poorer for his ignorant hope? Are you the richer for your enlightened suspicion?” In Cooper’s view, much depends on our belief in “the infinite possibilities of devoted self-sacrifice and in the eternal grandeur of a human idea heroically espoused.” Such faith—that is, “treating truth as true”—compels us to work to transform our world and is essential, she argued, if African Americans are to rise to the challenges confronting them. Cooper closed her marvelous work with words much like those of William James but with the gravitas of someone struggling against white supremacy: “The world is to be moved one generation forward—whether by us, by blind force, by fate, or by God! If thou believest, all things are possible; and as thou believest, so be it unto thee.”
We also find African American cultural workers during the Harlem Renaissance, alongside DuBois and Locke, drawing on the insights of pragmatism to formulate their claims about the beauty of black life. These formulations aided in their attempts “to explain America to itself” in light of the doings and sufferings, as well as the expressive traditions, of African Americans. Charles Johnson, the Chicago-trained sociologist and editor of Opportunity, thought of himself as a Deweyan of sorts, and his reading of pragmatism informed his conception of African American politics. In his “Notes on a Personal Philosophy of Life,” for example, Johnson rejected a formulation of black community predicated on an abstract notion of racial essence, an idea of blackness antecedent to the actual experiences of black individuals. For him, meaning and the values that we come to cherish emerge out of transactions with our environment—out of experience: “Adherence to any body of doctrines and dogmas, based upon a specific authority, as adherence to any set of beliefs, signifies distrust in the power of experience to provide, in its on-going movement, the needed principles of belief and action. [Dewey] challenges to a new faith in experience itself as the sole ultimate authority.” This view of experience led Johnson to emphasize the centrality of African Americans to the actual meaning of democratic community and social justice in the United States. Neither could be known, in his view, except by confronting candidly those who have been denied just treatment and access to democratic life.
Ralph Ellison makes a similar claim. He recognized that the grand democratic vision of Ralph Waldo Emerson was limited by his racial myopia, in the sense that Emerson failed fundamentally to recognize African-descended people as autonomous agents. In Invisible Man, for example, Ellison puts forward a profound reconstruction of Emerson’s vision by drawing a circle, to invoke the title of one of Emerson’s important essays, around his powerful but limited vision of American democratic life. Emersonian ideas of self-reliance and representativeness, both of which presuppose a white American subject, are recalibrated to provide those consistently marginalized in Emerson’s “imaginative economy” a central and canonical place in the very construction of American identity. Indeed Ellison claimed to be an inheritor of Emerson’s language. But in claiming that inheritance, he also makes an argument about the direction and meaning of American pragmatism. As Michael Magee writes, “In returning to Emerson, Ellison recalls the uncanny truth about pragmatism, that it is ‘the partial creation of black people.’” This provocative formulation signals the extent to which American pragmatism is the direct reflection of the unique character of America itself, which is inextricably connected to the presence of its darker citizens—America’s blues people.
There has indeed been a longstanding tradition of African Americans explicitly taking up the philosophical tools of pragmatism to respond to African American conditions of living. Cornel West stands in this tradition even though he has, over the years, distanced himself from the label. West’s prophetic pragmatism, as expressed in The American Evasion of Philosophy, ushered in a formal articulation of the sensibility that I have generally outlined here. In his hands, pragmatism encounters the underside of American life, it grapples with the tragic dimensions of our living, it gives attention to individual assertion and structural limitations, and it asserts the need for a fuller grasp of the realities of white supremacy (and other forms of oppression) that inform our self-understanding. He rightly notes that American pragmatism “tries to deploy thought as a weapon to enable more effective action” and that “its basic impulse is a plebian radicalism that fuels an antipatrician rebelliousness for the moral aim of enriching individuals and expanding democracy.” But West knows of pragmatism’s blind spots—that its commitment to expanding and enriching democratic life has been continuously “restricted by an ethnocentrism and a patriotism cognizant of the exclusion of peoples of color, certain immigrants, and women yet fearful of the subversive demands these excluded peoples might make and enact.” Like those before him he takes up the task of attempting to explain America to itself, and we find that, when assessed in light of the history and political economy of white supremacy, pragmatism—whether Emersonian, Jamesian, or Deweyan—looks and sounds different. It has been colored a deep shade of blue.
In a Shade of Blue is my contribution to the tradition I have just sketched. My aim is to think through some of the more pressing conceptual problems confronting African American political life, and I do so as a Deweyan pragmatist. I should say a bit about what I mean by this self-description. John Dewey thought of philosophy as a form of cultural and social criticism. He held the view that philosophy, properly understood as a mode of wisdom, ought to aid us in our efforts to overcome problematic situations and worrisome circumstances. The principal charge of the philosopher, then, is to deal with the problems of human beings, not simply with the problems of philosophers. For Dewey, over the course of his long career, this involved bridging the divide between science, broadly understood, and morals—a divide he traced to a conception of experience that has led philosophers over the centuries to tilt after windmills. Dewey declared, “The problem of restoring integration and co-operation between man’s beliefs about the world in which he lives and his beliefs about values and purposes that should direct his conduct is the deepest problem of any philosophy that is not isolated from life.”
Dewey bases this conclusion on several features of his philosophy: (1) antifoundationalism, (2) experimentalism, (3) contextualism, and (4) solidarity. Antifoundationalism, of course, is the rejection of foundations of knowledge that are beyond question. Dewey, by contrast, understands knowledge to be the fruit of our undertakings as we seek “the enrichment of our immediate experience through the control over action it exercises.” He insists that we turn our attention from supposed givens to actual consequences, pursuing a future fundamentally grounded in values shaped by experience and realized in our actions. This view makes clear the experimental function of knowledge. Dewey emphasized that knowledge entails efforts to control and select future experience and that we are always confronted with the possibility of error when we act. We experiment or tinker, with the understanding that all facts are fallible and, as such, occasionally afford us the opportunity for revision.
Contextualism refers to an understanding of beliefs, choices, and actions as historically conditioned. Dewey held the view that inquiry, or the pursuit of knowledge, is value-laden, in the sense that we come to problems with interests and habits that orient us one way or another, and that such pursuits are also situational, in the sense that “knowledge is pursued and produced somewhere, somewhen, and by someone.” Finally, solidarity captures the associational and cooperative dimensions of Dewey’s thinking. Dewey conceives of his pragmatism as “an instrument of social improvement” aimed principally at expanding democratic life and broadening the ground of individual self-development. Democracy, for him, constitutes more than a body of formal procedures; it is a form of life that requires constant attention if we are to secure the ideals that purportedly animate it. Individuality is understood as developing one’s unique capacities within the context of one’s social relations and one’s community. The formation of the democratic character so important to our form of associated living involves, then, a caring disposition toward the plight of our fellows and a watchful concern for the well-being of our democratic life.
With these four general features in mind, Dewey’s view is consistent, as one would expect, with the characterization of pragmatism provided by Williams James. In Pragmatism, James powerfully describes the pragmatist as one who
turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action, and towards power. . . . It means the open air and possibilities of nature, as against . . . dogma, artificiality, and the pretence of finality.
The good pragmatist, then, encourages a view of philosophy as social and cultural criticism, where the neat conundrums of the scholar’s professional practice give way to a certain kind of responsibility in our intellectual lives, where we take the tools of our training and work to offer some insight into specific conditions of value and into specific consequences of ideas. In this view, philosophy becomes, as Dewey argued, “a method of locating and interpreting the more serious of the conflicts that occur in life and a method of projecting ways for dealing with them: a method of moral and political diagnosis and prognosis.”
A sensibility or general temperament, to use James’s language, informs this philosophical orientation: it places an accent on an open, malleable, and pluralistic universe, a view in which change is a central feature of our living, demanding of us variety, ingenuity or imagination, and experimentation in practical matters. It places a fundamental accent on human agency or powers. This can be thought of as a reflection of its Emersonian lineage. Pragmatists express a profound faith in the capacity of everyday, ordinary people to transform their world. There are certainly constraints, but it is through our various practical transactions that we work to make a substantive difference in our conditions of living.
Pragma is Greek for things, facts, deeds, affairs. Pragmatists hold the view that our practice is primary. Knowledge, for example, does not require, in the pragmatist view, philosophical foundations in direct personal awareness. Instead, it is bound up in culture, society, and history. It results, in part, from our doings and sufferings, our ability or inability to secure desired aims in a somewhat hostile environment. The good pragmatist, in the end, seeks to avoid dogmas that settle matters prior to experience and calls us to see the ethical import of our actions—that what we believe about the world has ethical significance and that what we do has ethical implications for how we will live our lives. C. I. Lewis best captures this view of pragmatism: “At bottom, all problems are problems of conduct; all judgments are implicitly judgments of value; that as there can be ultimately no valid distinction between the theoretical or practical, so there can be no final separation of questions of truth of any kind from questions of the justifiable ends of actions.”
• • •
A Return to James Baldwin
In The Fire Next Time Baldwin invokes the beauty of black life and struggle, not out of blind deference to the authority of those experiences, but as a means of exposing the adolescence of this fragile experiment in democracy and proposing an approach to what he describes as the difficult task of “raising our babies.” For Baldwin, the traumas of African American life have given “the American Negro . . . the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling.” Invocations of the beauty of black life and struggle, then, disrupt a certain utopian imagining of America as “the shining city on the hill”—disclosing for all to see the lie of American innocence.
Beyond this, such invocations reveal a deep insight about American democratic living. Black life and struggle force the nation to encounter the grim realities of suffering and thus undermine the belief that America is an example of democracy realized. They serve as a corrective to the myth of American innocence, the false comforts of moral righteousness, which would insulate us from what Cornel West calls the funk of life—the fact, as Baldwin put it, that life is inescapably tragic:
Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.
The fact of death, for Baldwin, ought not tempt us into a quest for certainties that secure us from the evils of living. Instead we should earn our death “by confronting with passion the conundrum of life,” and we should do so nobly, in part “for the sake of those who are coming after us.”
In Baldwin’s view, such an understanding of life remains elusive for Americans precisely because of our refusal to look the facts of our country’s racialized experiences squarely in the face. To do so would shatter the illusion that ours is a white nation and would force our fellow white citizens to see and finally know these blues people who may “reveal more about America to Americans than Americans wish to know.” In this sense, Baldwin’s invocation of the beauty of black life and struggle constitutes a profoundly democratic act aimed at rescuing democratic ideals from the ghastly implications of the idolatry of color. This insight, I believe, cuts in a number of directions.
Baldwin recognized, perhaps in ways we have yet to grasp, the extent to which appeals to blackness were warranted in a country so fundamentally committed to white supremacy. But he also understood those appeals instrumentally and as inherently limited. Color, in his view, was a political reality, which revealed little about our moral capacities. The challenge was somehow to transcend color, narrowly understood, and to do so in the name of the complex experiences of African American life. Baldwin powerfully pleads in The Fire Next Time:
At the center of this dreadful storm, this vast confusion, stand the black people of this nation, who must now share the fate of a nation that has never accepted them, to which they were brought in chains. Well, if this is so, one has no choice but to do all in one’s power to change that fate, and at no matter what risk—eviction, imprisonment, torture, death. For the sake of one’s children, in order to minimize the bill that they must pay, one must be careful not to take refuge in any delusion—and the value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion.
Baldwin offers here a serious cautionary note. Invocations of the reality of black pain and suffering ought not lead us to embrace conceptions of black identity and history that would further deny how deeply implicated we are in this country’s past, present, and future. To be sure, one of the lessons we are to learn from his discussion of the Nation of Islam in The Fire Next Time is the organization’s failure to understand how profoundly American black folk in this country actually are. Baldwin’s was not an invocation of the idols of the past: the past does not constitute a refuge from the horrors of life. Baldwin invoked the beauty of black life in order to orient us to the future, to the task of creating a better world for our children. His was a profound act of piety and an extraordinary expression of love.
But Baldwin’s discussion of the Nation of Islam also reveals something else: the radical rage that results from the conditions of black living in the United States. One would expect individuals who experience systemic degradation to be angry. This is not to suggest that rage should completely define their lives. For some this may be the case. But for the majority of African Americans rage stands alongside the joys of living, and it is precisely in this intense juxtaposition that the edginess of some facets of black life can be found. Indeed, Baldwin renders intelligible the strangeness of the Nation of Islam’s theodicy by translating it into the idiom of everyday black life, where rage is a constant companion: we all have our private Bigger Thomas living within our skulls. Baldwin’s prose, even when he writes of our desperate need to work together, in love, to better our country, drips with rage—not a consuming, destructive anger but a rage that incites us to act to transform our circumstances and to memorialize loss.
Some argue that Baldwin’s later writings suffered from an all-consuming rage—that politics and its consequences overwhelmed his aesthetic choices. I disagree. No Name in the Street, for example, far from marking a decline, elaborates in interesting ways the insights of The Fire Next Time. Take the theme of translation. Here Baldwin, through a retelling of the history of the civil rights movement and his autobiography, renders the Black Panthers in particular and the black power movement in general intelligible to those who might view it as simply the rantings of crazed African American youth. The theme of love recurs as well. He writes of his finding love in Paris, and how “it began to pry open . . . the trap of color, for people do not fall in love according to their color.” This conception of love extends to the great paradox of African Americans working passionately for American democracy. As Baldwin writes at the end of No Name in the Street:
To be an Afro-American, or an American black, is to be in the situation, intolerably exaggerated, of all those who have ever found themselves part of a civilization which they could in no wise honorably defend—which they were compelled, indeed, endlessly to attack and condemn—and who yet spoke out of the most passionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life.
To my mind, such formulations are hardly less acute than the powerful views of The Fire Next Time.
Even Baldwin’s view of color, as evidenced briefly in his remarks about love, remains consistent. He still sees color instrumentally and as inherently limited. But he understands the significance of appeals to color for those who have suffered because they are black. As African Americans struggle with the difficult tasks of self-creation and identity formation—both of which, he suggests, are “arrived at by the way in which the person faces and uses his experience”—the reconstruction of blackness becomes a key tool in finding one’s place in a civilization committed to white supremacy. The slogan “black is beautiful,” Baldwin argues, is not an expression of reverse racial chauvinism; rather, it registers the fact that “black is a tremendous spiritual condition, one of the greatest challenges anyone alive can face.” He goes on to say that “to be liberated from the stigma of blackness by embracing it is to cease, forever, one’s interior agreement and collaboration with the authors of one’s degradation.”
Color has no intrinsic value here. Even as Baldwin asserts its importance he insists that such ideas must inevitably be transcended.
If it is difficult to be released from the stigma of blackness, it is clearly at least equally difficult to surmount the delusion of whiteness. And as the black glories in his newfound color, which is his at last, and asserts, not always with the very greatest politeness, the unanswerable validity and power of his being—even in the shadow of death—the white is very often affronted and very often made afraid. He has his reasons, after all, not only for being weary of the concept of color, but fearful as to what may be made of this concept once it has fallen, as it were, into the wrong hands. And one may indeed be wary, but the point is that it was inevitable that black and white should arrive at this dizzying height of tension. Only when we have passed this moment will we know what our history has made of us.
Again, this does not constitute a great departure from Baldwin’s early work.
Yet there remains an importance difference between No Name in the Street and The Fire Next Time. The tone is decidedly different. A history of loss—loss of life and loved ones—is central to the story of the African American sojourn in the United States. In No Name in the Street Baldwin places this history in the foreground, and rightly so, for here he witnesses death and tells the tale of the mighty dead who struggled to change America. Indeed, the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers reveal for Baldwin the depths of the sickness that infects the soul of America—and perhaps also a more general, unseemly truth: that “most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.” Baldwin’s invocation of “all that beauty,” then, entails, among other things, a memorializing of this loss. What is ironic about the criticism of Baldwin during this period is the refusal to take seriously what the dead might mean for him and for America.
The term invocation has a special resonance here. The political theorist Sheldon Wolin distinguishes usefully between vocation and invocation. Vocation, in his view, involves a commitment to an ideal evidenced in a particular practice: a calling of sorts that shapes one’s choices and guides one’s actions. Invocation, however, is a response to a certain kind of loss, a “recalling” that entails the recognition that “something irreplaceable has gone” and that we and our world are irreparably diminished by that fact. Typically, and this is especially true for a society like ours, so committed to notions of progress and the like, loss is banished to history; it is something to “get over.” But Wolin rightly notes that loss “is related to power and powerlessness and hence has a claim upon theory.” The question, and a powerful one it is, then becomes how to memorialize loss theoretically.
Baldwin answers not with an account of the role of theory in our lives but with an insistence that the memory of loss must inform our current practice. Memory constitutes a constraint on hubris and enables passionately intelligent action. To ignore the past is to fall victim to its undertow. It dooms us, as Santayana famously noted, to repeat the past, and for those who have suffered irreparable loss such repetition is unacceptable. Baldwin wrote of history in “White Man’s Guilt”:
History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.
The memory of loss then reminds us—and this is especially important to the marginalized and subjugated in our society—of the bodies and broken souls that lie hidden beneath our cherished form of life. This “rememory,” as Toni Morrison describes it, holds at arms length America’s beliefs about its commitment to the inherent rights of all human beings without distinction; it also tempers any conviction that we are the progenitors and perennial defenders of such ideals.
For Baldwin, then, invocations of the past orient us appropriately to the tasks of self-creation and reconstructing American society.
In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, therefore, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history. . . . But, obviously, I am speaking as an historical creation which has had bitterly to contest its history, to wrestle with it, and finally accept it in order to bring myself out of it.
No Name in the Street enacts this Emersonian formulation with relentless courage, foregrounding loss at every turn in order to disclose, amid the extraordinary transformations wrought by black struggle, the daunting challenge of how we, as Americans, must work through the reality of our dead.
Wolin makes another important point about loss and invocation that bears mentioning. In moments of rapid transformation, loss appears to be as much a prerequisite as a side effect of change. And, for Wolin, when losses (or what he refers to as casualties) far exceed the capacities of those who endure them, resulting in little time “to mourn, to absorb the loss and make sense of it, then there is the political equivalent of blocked grief.” Blocked grief can take many political forms. Wolin mentions religious and patriotic fundamentalism. In the case of African Americans, we may memorialize in various ways the deaths of Martin, Malcolm, Medgar, and all of the loved ones we know little about, but the resentments and questions associated with their loss remain unresolved. I want to suggest that blocked grief has resulted, among African Americans, in the persistence of black quests for certainty—forms of racial politics that secure us from American hypocrisies.
Baldwin recognized this. However, he remained concerned about America precisely because he understood African Americans as intimately connected to this fragile experiment. He saw that it was necessary to embrace this flawed country even as he grasped, perhaps more clearly than most, how blocked grief altered these peculiar blues people’s orientation to this place. Baldwin’s insight frames my own embrace of pragmatism and informs this modest act of piety and love.