Black Religion and Political Thought

Moral March, February 8, 2014, Raleigh, N.C. (Shutterstock)

In the era of Black Lives Matter, Black political thought has acquired renewed interest and attention. As recurring incidents of state violence against Black people in the US and elsewhere have been captured and circulated in an unprecedented manner, we are called to re-imagine the relationships between blackness, the political, liberation, and so forth. Even as there is a general consensus that anti-Black racism persists, fissures within Black political discourse become explicit when authors put forth explanations, causal accounts, theoretical frameworks, and solutions to the problem of anti-blackness. Some, for instance, endorse an intersectional approach, one that underscores the overlapping relationships among race, gender, sexuality, class, and other modalities of power and subject formation. Some critics of this approach worry that intersectionality masks an identity politics, diminishing the primacy of socio-economic class and the desperate need for a collective struggle against the interests of capital. And there are those, influenced by Afropessimism, who would stress the structural antagonisms between blackness and civil society. According to this perspective only an end to the world as we know it can liberate Black people.

In this well-researched and beautifully-written text, Johnson conjures and gathers a series of Black thinkers and activists – such as Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael—to demonstrate how radical Black thought refuses narrow conceptions of the political that would limit freedom to the protection of rights and reduce solidarity to the horizon of the US nation-state. Underlying Johnson’s return to the religiosity of Black radical thought is a sense of the inadequacies of liberalism, especially those strands of political liberalism associated with John Rawls. While liberalism tends to promote universal conceptions of equality, inclusion, and fairness, liberal thinkers downplay how “race, class, and gender circumscribe the terms of liberty and equality” (5). In addition, since liberalism puts a premium on the distinction between the public and private, or the political and the religious, it leaves selves devoid of vital ethical and spiritual resources for combatting injustice and imagining alternative possibilities.

But Johnson does not spend time focusing on liberal discourses that have set the terms and conditions for how many speak about religion, ethics, Black suffering, etc. He gets on with the business of thinking with and through the rich and fecund traditions that he has inherited. Two thinkers/activists that are crucial for Johnson as he lays out his project are Audre Lorde and Toni Cade Bambara. The “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, and poet” Lorde is significant for Johnson’s project because she offers a positive conception of difference that moves beyond the demand to be tolerant of others. According to Johnson, “[Lorde] yearned for a new theory of politics that established itself in humanism, a reconfiguration of categories and metaphors to help articulate the existential, political, and spiritual pain among far too many Blacks, women, gays, and lesbians” (5). Johnson reads Lorde’s famous dictum about the “Master’s tools never dismantling the master’s house” as a reminder that “Blacks would never be accepted in white society through mimesis, or through elaborate appropriation of language, dialect, culture, or ethos” (1). Consequently, Black people, according to Johnson’s reading of Lorde, must “carve out a counter-political strategy, one…based on a path forged by the grammar of Black politics and designed to take seriously Blacks’ own overlooked traditions” (2). This does not mean that rights-talk, recognition, or electoral politics should or could be abandoned; it does mean that a radical intersectional politics operates on a horizon that extends beyond, and is sometimes in conflict with, representationalist politics. What Johnson finds in a figure like Lorde is a broader sense of freedom and “human fufillment,” a holistic approach to resisting injustice and oppression that makes room for spiritual and existential concerns.

This holistic approach is exemplified in Bambara’s novel, The Salt Eaters, a text that underscores “healing as a fundamental and necessary component of achieving individual and collective freedom” (21). In other words, freedom involves healing and conjuring practices (remembrance, mourning, consulting the ancestors) that address psychological and existential wounds that accumulate in a world organized against Black women. Care-work and practices of intimacy sit at the nexus between the public and the private, blurring the lines that have been carved to establish the properly political.

Figures such as Lorde and Bambara make explicit what Johnson calls an ethical turn in political thought and practice. According to the author, this ethical turn “involves a disruption, dismantling, and rebuilding of debilitating social and economic structures with expressed desire to achieve human flourishing and dignity for all” (15). The ethical turn draws attention to Black religious practices (enslaved Africans treating the Bible as a talking book; the Nation of Islam creating cosmogonies that countered white supremacist myths about Black people’s inferiority) and how these practices have contributed to freedom struggles. In addition, the ethical turn conceives of political actors as more than just rights-bearing subjects; rather the turn to the ethical foregrounds Black people’s search for dignity, human flourishing, and a deep sense of belonging (16-17).

There are two aspects of this ethical turn that demand closer consideration and that help the reader understand how Johnson is interpreting the achievements of Black Power, the civil rights movement, Black feminism, and so forth. For one, Johnson describes the ethical turn as a kind of interruption into structures and rationalities that have been devastating to marginalized subjects. Part of the disruptive quality of Black radical thought is the refusal to remain within the confines of the nation-state and the willingness to create alignments with dispossessed peoples around the world. The swinging back and forth between the singular and the universal in a manner that bypasses the nation-state as the ultimate benchmark is what Johnson calls “humanistic nationalism.” As he describes it, this humanistic nationalism “is ethical in the sense of an intentional effort toward communal and collective freedom and justice by way of the individual attaching his or her communal struggle to communal organizing against, for instance, colonialism” (142). Humanistic nationalism enables fraught and difficult alliances between Black people’s struggles in the US and struggles against injustice elsewhere. It reminds us that State repression within the US is often connected to militarism abroad. Consequently, as Robin Kelley has demonstrated in his work, we don’t have to see certain strands of Black nationalism as opposed to trans-national efforts to dismantle exploitative political and economic configurations. Johnson sees this ethics of humanistic nationalism in King’s critical stance against the Vietnam war and the triple evils of war, racism, and imperialism. He also sees this ethic in Carmichael and SNCC’s solidarity with Palestinians living under Israeli state occupation.

The second dimension of the ethical turn involves what Johnson calls sacred subjectivity – a term that captures how Black people draw from religious traditions and conjuring practices to “reassemble the shattered pieces of Black bodies torn asunder by white supremacy” (205). Here Johnson is getting at a certain doubleness in religiosity or the grammar of the sacred. On the one hand, he is thinking about specific traditions and institutions that Black people have participated in, created, and deconstructed. But similar to philosopher of religion Anthony Pinn, Johnson is also after a broader conception of Black religiosity, one that opposes the white supremacist degradation of blackness with a different structure of valuation. Sacred subjectivity, which is composed of counter-narratives, healing rituals, painful memories, tragic hopes, aesthetic practices, and the invocation of opaque gods, spirits, and ancestors, is what prevents blackness from being coterminous with social death. It is a witness to the ingenuity of Black people under constant duress; it points to a “more” alongside racism, sexism, and the exploitation of labor. The sacrality of Black subjectivity does not necessarily anticipate fixing the wound or gathering the ruins in a manner that will make Black people whole. Rather it compels a re-articulation of the wound such that the fracture that Black people have been forced to embody under the regime of racial capitalism becomes more than an indication of violence. The fracture may also betoken alternative, but not always articulable, ways of relating to a violent world that secures itself by cultivating the fantasy of being whole, coherent, and settled.

And perhaps this is where Johnson’s thought-provoking text leaves us with unresolved questions and challenges. If the affirmation of Black humanity and dignity is the goal of Black freedom struggles, how is this different from strands of liberalism that seem to assume the dignity of the human? Hasn’t a certain attachment to the human as worthy of respect and value been inseparable from the creation of the non-human, the inhuman, and the not quite human? How does the desire to belong and flourish require black people to be invested in mechanisms of recognition and structures of affirmation that rely on anti-blackness, the accumulation of capital, war, and the devastation of earthly existence? These are questions that will continue to haunt and vex the reader after reading Johnson’s inspiring and timely book.

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Joseph Winters

Joseph Winters is the Alexander F. Hehmeyer Associate Professor of Religious Studies and African and African American Studies. He also holds secondary positions in English and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. He is the author of 'Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress' (Duke University Press, 2016). Follow him on Twitter @JRWinters77.