Authoring Otherwise: Ambivalence and Imagination in African American Democratic Thought

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Henry, Daniel, Government - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Balfour, Lawrie, University of Virginia

This dissertation concerns the work of democrats in undemocratic times, tracing an understudied strand of African American democratic thought through the impasse of the Jim Crow era. As political theorists in recent years have sought to move beyond a “liberal consensus” picture of American political development, they have often approached African American political thought through the framework of a politics of recognition, emphasizing the ways thinkers in this broad tradition have imagined, and strove toward, some future democratic community with presently-racist white citizens. I argue that African American democratic thought during times of impasse cannot be reduced to this pursuit, which ignores the often deeply, and generatively, ambivalent theorizing in this tradition about the prospects of democratic community with Jim Crow whites, as well as deep uncertainties as to what terms of association might characterize it. In the absence of recognition, I argue, Black thinkers pursued a multifaceted strategy of “opacity,” characterized by efforts to render uncertain white visions of Blackness and the terms of racial hierarchy in part constructed through that imaginary. By rendering perceptions across the color line opaque, they opened room for imagining new terms of relation in the (ambivalent) present, which could not be reduced to aspirations of some future democratic community. In tracing this history, I focus on the works of Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964), Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), and W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). My readings span the years 1892 to 1928, and engage the segregated New Woman movement of the late 19th century, the dominative listening practices of whites during the ragtime era, and the capitalist and colonial threats to (aesthetic and political) self-determination during the Harlem Renaissance. I center on three key themes, each of them rendered in various ways opaque: the meanings of “assembly” in Cooper’s A Voice from the South and Wells’ pamphlet Southern Horrors, both published in 1892; Johnson’s politics of “fugitivity” in his 1912 The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and later writings on music; and W.E.B. Du Bois’ anticolonial, epistolary refiguring of the “human” in his 1928 Dark Princess: A Romance. Their thought offers broader lessons for the fate of democratic thought amid exclusion and domination, as well as conceptual resources for a contemporary impasse in American politics defined in many respects by Jim Crow’s echoes.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Democratic Theory, African American Political Thought, Jim Crow, Racial Politics, Literature and Politics
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