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February 24, 2021+Randall Kennedy
+Viewpoint Diversity+Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

On the Authority of Experience in Black Thought

This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, "Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog." Narration begins at 1:10.

The spectrum of thought amongst African Americans is and has always been much broader and multifarious than commonly perceived. Neglect of that fact has led to an homogenization that has tended to submerge African American individuality.

In 1776 some blacks thought that their interests would best be served by victory on the part of the American colonists in their struggle with the British Empire and fought with the rebels. More believed that their interests would be better served if King George prevailed and fought on behalf of the monarchy. In 1827, in the inaugural issue of Freedom’s Journal, the first newspaper owned by African Americans, the editors announced that they would “ever regard the Constitution of the United States as [their] political star.” By contrast, the great abolitionist journalist and orator Frederick Douglass declared: “I cannot have any love for this country or for its Constitution. I desire to see its overthrow as speedily as possible, and its Constitution shivered in a thousand fragments.” In 1868, when reformers proposed that the federal Constitution be amended by the Fourteenth Amendment, most blacks urged that it be ratified; after all, the proposed amendment would constitutionalize the citizenship of all blacks born in the United States and prohibit states from denying to anyone “the privileges or immunities of citizens” or “life, liberty, or property without due process of law,” or “the equal protection of the laws.” Some blacks, however, denounced the Fourteenth Amendment because it implicitly permitted racial disfranchisement. The two blacks in the Massachusetts legislature that considered the amendment voted against ratification (though a large majority of their colleagues voted the other way).

Marcus Garvey disagreed with W.E.B. DuBois about a variety of issues having to do with racial politics. For instance, while DuBois condemned anti-miscegenation laws, Garvey supported prohibitions on marriage across the race line, finding common cause on this matter with white supremacists. The disagreement between these two degenerated into bitter enmity. Garvey called DuBois a “reactionary under [the] pay of white men.” DuBois called Garvey “either a lunatic or a traitor” who was “without a doubt, the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world.”

A distinguished roster of black activist thinkers have adopted an optimistic perspective regarding the possibility of attaining racial justice in America. Optimists include Mary McLeod Bethune, Walter White, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr, Ralph Ellison, John Lewis, and Barack Obama. An impressive cadre of black activist thinkers believe, by contrast, that attaining racial justice in America is a virtual impossibility. Agreeing with Thomas Jefferson and Alexis de Tocqueville, they contend that racial slavery fatally poisoned the possibility of racial harmony in America. They contend that we shall not overcome. Pessimists include Henry McNeal Turner, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Derrick Bell, and Randall Robinson.

Fervent debates about scores of subjects – indeed every imaginable subject -- have roiled African Americans ideologically: accommodation versus protest; interracial socialism versus black nationalism; Gandhian non-violence versus “by any means necessary,” support for affirmative action versus detestation of “lowered standards,“ “integration” versus “black power,” “respectability politics” versus “I don’t give a fuck” authenticity politics. Black thinkers have even disagreed over the years about the preferred term by which they designate “Blacks,” “blacks,” “African Americans,” “Negroes,” “colored people,” and “people of color.”

There are several implications to be drawn from recognizing the frequently underestimated breadth, complexity, and variety of beliefs and perspectives found amongst African Americans. One is the dubious utility of resorting to “experience” as an explanation for a given way of thinking. It is frequently said, for example, that the egalitarianism manifested in the jurisprudence of Justice Thurgood Marshall is a function of his experience as a black man oppressed by white supremacism. But what about other black men also oppressed by white supremacism who responded very differently, such as Justice Clarence Thomas, who is deeply antagonistic towards the social egalitarianism that Marshall embraced?

A wide variety of thought is discernible amongst people who have undergone a similar experience because experience does not dictate thought. It is undoubtedly influential which is why one can detect notable demographic patterns from which one can chart probabilities. It is probable that an African American will prefer the Democratic as opposed to the Republican candidate for president. But that does not mean that the experience of a particular African American will necessarily determine that person’s preferences. Experience affects thinking in all sorts of subtle, complex, mysterious, and surprising ways. But it does not determine thought. Hence, we ought to be skeptical about claims regarding “the authority of experience” and efforts to make a credential of experience. That a person has suffered impoverishment and marginalization is, alas, no guarantee at all that that person will be attuned to those social vices or immune to them.

An experience is, at most, a fragile and uncertain opportunity. What matters is what one does with whatever experience one happens to have. There are plenty of African Americans who were enslaved but made little or nothing of intellectual interest from their ordeal. Frederick Douglass created much from his ordeal which is one of the reasons why he is so justly celebrated. Mere experience is not what produced his speeches and articles. It was his exertion of intelligence that produced those works. When discussing an African American thinker -- when discussing any thinker -- make sure to recognize appropriately the individuality of that person’s intellectual offering. Mere experience has never produced a book or poem or essay or story. Accomplishment in whatever form it takes is always the upshot of some individual’s peculiar effort.


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