“Bringer of Problems”: Charles H. Long and the Basic Question of Humanity

walker_corey-copy Today’s guest post was written by Corey D. B. Walker, Dean of the College and John W. and Anna Hodgin Hanes Professor of the Humanities at Winston-Salem State University. He previously served on the faculty at the University of Virginia and Brown University where he was chair of the department of Africana Studies. He is author of A Noble Fight: African American Freemasonry and the Struggle for Democracy in America (University of Illinois Press) and has recently completed a new book project entitled Between Transcendence and History: An Essay on Religion and the Future of Democracy in America.

“Our warfare lies in the field of thought.”
Proceedings of the National Convention of Colored People, 1847

“The visibility of the black community in America is our challenge and opportunity to develop a theology of freedom – a freedom for humanity – a new humanity!”
Charles H. Long, 1969

Charles H. Long

These two statements capture a key theme in the work and thought of Charles H. Long. In many ways, Long raises fundamental questions regarding the very project of thought in the modern era. He echoes the sentiments of Martin Luther King, Jr. who offered this often overlook comment, “And one day, historians of this era might be able to say there lived a great people, a black people who injected new meaning into civilization.” [1] It is this new meaning – a new humanity – that serves as an index for Long’s thought and a key principle underlying his conception of what the late Vincent Harding termed “the vocation of the black scholar.” [2]

But to leave it at that is to underestimate the critical import of Long’s thought and miss the broader opportunity for intellectual renewal represented by the one who has been called the “bringer of problems.” [3] Indeed, the questions he raises can, however inadequately, be expressed in the following manner:

Do our modes of knowing – critical and/or otherwise – bracket to much of the human condition that makes knowledge possible? How do legitimate knowledges, critical knowledges abstract away the historical and material realities of the world? In other words, how and in what ways do dominant regimes of knowledge serve as a “prison-house of thought” and facilitate “dehumanization by design”? [4]

Long’s practice inspires such questions in facilitating the emergence of an/other surface for interrogating the project of thought. In so doing, he instructs us in taking up and extending intellectual practices which open up new spaces for elaborating the conditions of possibility for thinking and being other/wise.

It is to this end – “to undertake the creation of a world for everyone” – which Long moves us in recognizing that both the colonizers and the colonized do not escape the structures of thought in broadening and deepening what philosopher Jacques Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible.” [5] That is, “the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that defines the respective parts and positions within.” [6]

For over half a century, Charles H. Long has significantly explored and expanded the
boundaries of the “sensible” through his critical engagements in the academic study of religion. While the auto/biographical may provide us with a point of entry into the person and event of Charles H. Long, I want to suggest that an/other site and scene properly orients us to truly hear and host his thought.

The site to which we can (re)turn to host Long’s thought is the first Black Studies director’s seminar convened by the Institute of the Black World in 1969 where Lerone Bennett issued a critical epistemological and ethical challenge to those assembled regarding the intellectual and political problem space of blackness in the academy and the broader society. Under the title, “The Challenge of Blackness,” Bennett challenged the directors to view the issue of blackness as not just a mere descriptive of a condition elaborated within the geopolitical and historical confines of a distinctive Western and uniquely American imaginary. Rather, he sought to encourage an interrogation of blackness along an axis of elaborating the condition of possibility for an/other knowledge and an/other order of being. Recognizing the limitations of the dominant episteme, Bennett states, “We are about the task of defining, defending, and illustrating blackness. . . . [W]e believe blackness is a total challenge, and because of the fact that at a certain level, basic conflicts of interests express themselves as conflicts of rationalities. We see the rationality of blackness as a total challenge to the world.” [7]

The critical achievement of Bennett’s statement is the acuity and integrity of defining the intellectual task as an open thinking of the theoretical, methodological, and categorical implications of blackness for elaborating a new order of knowledge commensurate with the new political orders emerging in the world. Blackness becomes the condition of possibility for an/other formation of knowledge – a chaos that is a cosmos of new opportunities for creating new knowledges and new forms of collective life. Blackness oscillates within a political and intellectual nexus so elegantly captured in the statement by Toni Morrison, “There is no romance free of what Herman Melville called ‘the power of blackness’ especially not in a country in which there was a resident population, already black, upon which the imagination could play; through which historical, moral, metaphysical, and social fears, problems, and dichotomies could be articulated.” [8] Thus, blackness operates as “problem-space” whereby “an ensemble of questions and answers around which a horizon of identifiable stakes (conceptual as well as ideological-political stakes) hangs.” [9]

In many ways, Bennett’s challenge of blackness serves to inaugurate a foundational rethinking to the protocols of society and academy as well as the dictates of disciplinary knowledge. Indeed, what is at stake is nothing less than “the integrity of knowledge’s organization according to a profound commitment to the History of Thought and to culture” which brings into the open the “mostly latent and only occasionally exposed differences in the university between the attitude that holds ‘politics’ and ‘learning’ to be wholly separate, and that which knows them to be in an uneasy symbiosis.” [10]

The problem of thinking blackness reminds us of the theoretical purchase such a thinking posits in the afterlife of the inaugural scene for capturing new opportunities for critical intellectual work. The thought of Charles H. Long facilitates the critical exploration of how and in what ways “the ‘living of blackness’ becomes a material way of knowing,” to borrow from E. Patrick Johnson. [11] Long offers us an exemplary framework with which we can exploit this in pursuing “hermeneutical procedures that seek, an interpretation of the historical range of human expressions in their specificity and integrity, whether in art, linguistics, geography, etc.” [12] More importantly, he reminds us that the task of thought relative to blackness is “more than an accusation regarding the actions and behavior of the oppressive cultures; it goes to the heart of the issue. It is an accusation regarding the world view, thought structures, theory of knowledge, and so on, of the oppressors. The accusation is not simply of bad acts but, more importantly, of bad faith and bad knowledge.” [13]

By elaborating a critical practice of thinking blackness Long forces us to confront the theoretical and methodological limits of thought in illuminating how “the forms of matter evoke modes of consciousness and experience” and how the dominant translations of the forms of matter within the disciplinary taxonomies of the West and the critical resistances to these translations open up new structures of meaning and being in the world. [14] That is, the logical economy of blackness and the human which draws our attention to “things-in-themselves” and the “abstractions of consciousness proceeding from the vague intuitions and traces of the things-in-themselves, those things we can never know.” [15] The thinking of blackness disrupts the logical economy of the thought so elegantly captured by Charles Long when he writes, “As stepchildren of Western culture, the oppressed have affirmed and opposed the ideal of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment worlds. But in the midst of this ambiguity, for better or for worse, their experiences were rooted in the absurd meaning of their bodies, and it was for these bodies that they were regarded not only as valuable works but also as the locus of the ideologies that justified their enslavement. . . . The totalization of all the great ideals of Western universalization met with the factual symbol of these oppressed ones.” [16] It is this disruption along with an eruption of new imaginings of cognitive and material relationships that prevent an arresting and disciplining of blackness at a premature moment of rationalization and hypostatization of a human condition – the results of which we know from the material cum theoretical colonial ordering of things. Instead what is offered is “the historicity of the human community” and the “possibility of the rediscovery of the life of matter as a religious phenomenon – an equal and sometimes alternate structure in the face of the dehumanizing and terroristic meaning of history.” [17]

In order to pursue such a fugitive line of thinking we must inaugurate a practice that critically engages the past and present changing dynamics of culture, capital, and commerce in evolution of the modern Western world and its elaboration of the logics and technologies of what it means to be human. That is to explore the foundational question of thought of human existence so aptly formulated by Charles Long in his instructive essay, “The Humanities and ‘Other’ Humans”:

One of the crucial issues in the humanities today has to do with a definition of the meaning of totality in terms of human worlds. In the first instance, how are we to define the human species? Are all human beings to be defined as constituting the human species? Are all human cultures, both past and present, to be included in the study of the humanities? Are all human situations part of the possible constituting data of the humanities? In other words, the question is raised, given the actual or possible worlds we live in, is it adequate for the humanities to derive its fundamental orientation, meaning, and data from simply the Hebraic, Greek, Christian meanings of our culture? [18]

Long’s questions regarding the project of humanistic thinking – and, by extension, thinking itself – properly orients us toward the very in/completeness of the categories of thought in light of the infinite depth and particularity of the human enterprise. Long’s intellectual practice reminds us that an exemplary thinking of the human strains against a constitutive and necessary in/completeness that cannot be absolutely contained, categorized, and catalogued under the current regimes of thought. Indeed, for “the bringer of problems,” this incompleteness means we must open up new horizons for thinking and imagining the human other/wise.

Let us begin to contemplate the basic question of “humanity – a new humanity” in all of its depth, variety, and splendor as we forge a thinking capable of hosting the thought of Charles H. Long and reimagining “an-other world of human beings.” [19]

These remarks were delivered at a special session of the 2015 American Academy of Religion annual meeting dedicated to honoring the contributions of Charles H. Long.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Creative Protest,” in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume V: Threshold of a New Decade, January 1959-December 1960, Clayborne Carson, Tenisha Armstrong, Susan Carson, Adrienne Clay, and Kieran Taylor, eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 370.

[2] Vincent Harding, “The Vocation of the Black Scholar and the Struggles of the Black Community” in Education and Black Struggle: Notes from the Colonized World, Institute of the Black World, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard Educational Review, 1974), 3-30.

[3] David Chidester, Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995), xvii.

[4] Robert B. Jones, Jean Toomer and the Prison-House of Thought: A Phenomenology of the Sprit (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993); Mumia Abu-Jamal, Live From Death Row (New York: Harper Perennial, 1996), 86.

[5] Charles H. Long, Reflections on Race, Religion and History, Veterans of Hope Pamphlet Series 2.3 (Denver: Veterans of Hope Project, 2004), 11. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, Gabriel Rockhill, trans. (New York: Continuum, 2004).

[6] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 12.

[7] Lerone Bennett, Jr., The Challenge of Blackness (Chicago: Johnson Publishing, 1972), 33. For an elaboration of the context of this important speech and for the work of Bennett and others at the Institute of the Black World, see Derrick E. White, The Challenge of Blackness: The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011).

[8] Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 37.

[9] David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 4.

[10] Ronald A. T. Judy, (Dis)Forming the American Canon: African-Arabic Slave Narratives and the Vernacular (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 6-7.

[11] E. Patrick Johnson, Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 8.

[12] Charles H. Long, “Mircea Eliade and the Imagination of Matter,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. 1.2 (2000), 2.

[13] Charles H. Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion (Aurora: Davies Group, 1995), 208.

[14] Charles H. Long, “Mircea Eliade and the Imagination of Matter,” 3.

[15] Charles H. Long, “Mircea Eliade and the Imagination of Matter,” 11.

[16] Charles H. Long, Significations, 211.

[17] Charles H. Long, “Mircea Eliade and the Imagination of Matter,” 53.

[18] Charles H. Long, “The Humanities and ‘Other’ Humans,” in Morphologies of Faith: Essays in Religion and Culture in Honor of Nathan A. Scott, Jr., Mary Gerhart and Anthony C. Yu, eds. (Atlanta: Scholars Press, ) 204.

[19] Charles H. Long, “The Humanities and ‘Other’ Humans,” 214.

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Chris Cameron

Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. He is the author of 'To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement' (Kent State University Press, 2014) and 'Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism' (Northwestern University Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.

Comments on ““Bringer of Problems”: Charles H. Long and the Basic Question of Humanity

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    With thanks to Prof. Walker for bringing this particular ensemble of thinking about the significance of Prof. Long’s work together. Very helpful.
    I am tangled up in thinking about two authors these days, and could not help but to think about Carol W. White’s forthcoming book “Black Lives and Sacred Humanity: Toward an African American Religious Naturalism” (Fordham University Press, 2016) while reading this appreciation of Charles H. Long. It seems to me that Long and White are part of a genealogy of thought that challenges us to reimagine, through our relationship with matter, and in particular for White the matter of Nature, the meaning of being an oriented human.
    As we face the volatility of climate, and the sixth great extinction of species, returning to Long and turning toward White strike me as keystones for consciously addressing the three-fold heritage of the Indigenous-Euro-African American foundations of the particularities of American thinking. And consciously imagining other/wise the Indigenous people, the African Americans and the Euro-American heritage of our current moment.
    Reconfiguring a sacred relationship to matter will be the only way to disrupt the “cannibal psychosis” (Jack D. Forbes, “Columbus and Other Cannibals,”1979) of Euro-AMerican violence toward the Indigenous people of the continent, and the confounding of blackness as the bodies upon which slavery was institutionalized. To the extent that any and all of us are caught in consumer capitalism, we share in the illnesses of cannibal psychosis, and killing ourselves with bodies that no longer move themselves across territory, leading to problems of obesity and diabetes that not only cross the lines of ethnic identification, but also disproportionately impact those whose bodies survived originally only because of their remarkable capacities to endure conquest and oppression with the fewest of calories while exhausting their caloric intake.
    Change is coming. As suggested by the title of ecologist Guy McPherson’s blog, “Nature Bats Last,” and thus the change that comes will hit where, when, and with force that is unknowable and unstoppable. Charles H. Long has been cultivating the ground of thought for the transformation that such change requires of us. Recollecting and carrying his work forward in the work of present and future scholarship initiates the return to matter as that matter initiates its encounter with humanity.

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