If the November 2008 election of Barack Obama to the presidency provided an occasion to measure the distance the United States had traveled from its origins in slavery, then Donald Trump’s rise to the highest political office has presented a different historical calculus. Viewed through the lens of this racial history, the new administration reminds us that structures and practices of exclusion endure across time.
Just how to conjugate the relationship between past and present in each of these instances is open to debate. But lurking behind these contemporary case studies is a more basic conceptual dilemma: What is the political function of historical comparison when it comes to measuring “progress” toward liberty and equality for all? If Obama’s presidency allowed us to celebrate racial progress, that is, what happens to democracy now, when that distance seems to have narrowed? To pose the query most plainly, does democracy require progress? If so, whose? And why?
My forthcoming book, Untimely Democracy, narrates the nineteenth-century backstory of these questions by studying the work produced by African American authors and activists after the official end of Reconstruction—and after the abolitionist aims of the Civil War had faded.
This was a moment that W. E. B. Du Bois, writing in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), termed a “second slavery.” With this phrase, Du Bois captured the lynching and exclusion that were part and parcel of the Jim Crow United States. But he also issued a philosophical critique of the way the nation paved its path toward democracy. Resisting the impulse to marshal the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments as enervating signs of closure, Du Bois asked his readers to confront the living legacy of racial bondage that required Americans—black and especially white—to conceive of emancipation as an ongoing task.
This is what Souls calls the “present-past,” a designation that places the past after, rather than before, the present. The rewriting of linear time embedded in this phrase forces a confrontation with the ways that practices and views of a system like racial slavery recur in the so-called epoch of liberty.
What can democracy do with such repetition?
The question is an unsettling one. For in its dominant articulation, American democracy depends on the promise of a better future disconnected from the past. Central to Thomas Jefferson’s political philosophy, for example, is the principle of generational autonomy: the notion that each cohort of citizens is free from the burdens of its ancestors. Slavery stands as the limit point for such a model. For Jefferson, blackness represents a future endlessly haunted by bondage, and thus Africans can have no place in American democracy. Slavery must end, but so must the presence of the persons who embodied the endless memory of bondage.
Black Americans in Jefferson’s era and beyond resisted this removal. Still, some found alluring the temporal logic that the third president expressed. Writing just a few years before Du Bois, W. H. Crogman and H. F. Kletzing published Progress of a Race; or, the Remarkable Advancement of the Afro-American (1898). Their book entreated readers to “Compare, if you will, the condition of the Negro race half a century ago with that of today, and the most despondent must dismiss his fears and acknowledge the progress so marked.” Delivering on this claim, Kletzing and Crogman presented a comparative analysis of past and present: “Then the Negro was a piece of property; now he is an American citizen. Then chains and the lash and hounds were sending a constant terror to the heart of the poor slave; now the most humble of the race may claim the ballot and protection from wrongs under the law of the state.”
Other Jim Crow–era authors contested this comparison. Pauline E. Hopkins began her 1900 novel Contending Forces with an arresting revision to Progress of a Race. “Let us compare the happenings of one hundred—two hundred years ago, with those of today,” she declares. “The difference between then and now, if any there be, is so slight as to be scarcely worth mentioning.” Hopkins’s thesis brings Du Bois’s present-past to life. It also fundamentally alters the Jeffersonian narrative wherein “progress” requires the fading away of the past in the present.
For Hopkins, in contrast, progress results not by breaking with the past but by embracing its persistence. This embrace demanded measurement not only of the distance between then and now but of their proximity. Progress was the goal for Hopkins and her colleagues, but the term had a perpetual question mark accompanying it.
The historical conditions in which these writers worked forced them to construct an untimely democratic vision: one in which victories won did not indicate the sure end of the campaign for racial justice, and where moments of regression and even stasis did not signal the death of the prospect of progress.
Theirs is a view worth contemplating as we deliberate about democracy in our own present-past. What would it mean for us to imagine this political form as Du Bois and Hopkins did, with the past always in view of the present, and not just as a point of contrast?