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We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity [Paperback]

Tommie Shelby

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Book Description

Oct. 15 2007

African American history resounds with calls for black unity. From abolitionist times through the Black Power movement, it was widely seen as a means of securing a full share of America's promised freedom and equality. Yet today, many believe that black solidarity is unnecessary, irrational, rooted in the illusion of "racial" difference, at odds with the goal of integration, and incompatible with liberal ideals and American democracy. A response to such critics, We Who Are Dark provides the first extended philosophical defense of black political solidarity.

Tommie Shelby argues that we can reject a biological idea of race and agree with many criticisms of identity politics yet still view black political solidarity as a needed emancipatory tool. In developing his defense of black solidarity, he draws on the history of black political thought, focusing on the canonical figures of Martin R. Delany and W. E. B. Du Bois, and he urges us to rethink many traditional conceptions of what black unity should entail. In this way, he contributes significantly to the larger effort to re-envision black politics and to modernize the objectives and strategies of black freedom struggles for the post-civil rights era. His book articulates a new African American political philosophy--one that rests firmly on anti-essentialist foundations and, at the same time, urges a commitment to defeating racism, to eliminating racial inequality, and to improving the opportunities of those racialized as "black."


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From Publishers Weekly

Shelby, an African-American philosopher, dissects the history of black political thought from W.E.B. Du Bois to Malcolm X in order to arrive at a new political philosophy that takes black solidarity as its foundation. He does an excellent job of summarizing the central tenets in black political thought, from Booker T. Washington's beliefs about self-reliance to Marcus Garvey's more radical strain of black independence. His approach to history is rigorous and genuinely critical. Shelby finds merits and flaws in almost every political theory he discusses, leading to an evenhanded, meticulously thought-out argument that builds upon the best elements of black political thought. Shelby argues for a new strain of black nationalism and solidarity, one that draws upon traditional liberal philosophy and avoids the constraints of forced group identification. For an academic text, Shelby's prose is determinedly clear, if not always engaging. He has the frustrating habit of announcing his arguments pages and chapters before he actually makes them, rather than just building such discussions into his text. However, this flaw does little to detract from the overall accomplishment of Shelby's work and its contribution to both black political thought and American philosophy. (Nov.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

Shelby's aim is to show that one can achieve a robust form of black solidarity without a commitment to black identity. He identifies robust solidarity as entailing: identification between group members, shared values or goals, group loyalty and mutual trust. I think the arguments that he offers that all these elements of robust solidarity are possible without the sort of distinctive black identity required by collective identity theory are compelling. This is important, because many people take it for granted that the pursuit of solidarity entails the need for identity. In articulating the necessary analytic distinctions, Shelby makes the kind of contribution that I believe is characteristic of the most useful philosophical interventions in African American studies (and in many other fields): he shows that there is conceptual space for more options than the current debate presupposes. (K. Anthony Appiah, author of The Ethics of Identity)

As an interdisciplinary enterprise, African-American studies is thriving, but philosophy's contribution has until recently been next to non-existent. The field's image is still an overwhelmingly "white" one--a discipline that has nothing to say about the specific concerns of blacks. Tommie Shelby's book, addressing as it does a long-standing set of issues in the black tradition, is a welcome proof of the subject's relevance and importance for African-American interests. Employing the apparatus of contemporary analytic philosophy with rigor, sophistication, and the use of a remarkable range of sources, he sets out to defend a qualified version of the classic black nationalist thesis that a distinctive "black" politics predicated on black solidarity is morally and politically justifiable. Not only does he succeed splendidly in this task, but he provides in the process a model of how the "unwhitening" of philosophy can eventually be achieved. (Charles W. Mills, author of The Racial Contract)

Shelby dissects the history of black political thought from W.E.B. Du Bois to Malcolm X in order to arrive at a new political philosophy that takes black solidarity as its foundation...Shelby finds merits and flaws in almost every political theory he discusses, leading to an evenhanded, meticulously thought-out argument that builds upon the best elements of black political thought. (Publishers Weekly 2005-08-22)

A philosophical defense of black political solidarity as a tool for defeating racism, eliminating racial inequality and improving opportunities for those racialized as 'black.' (Sandra L. Jamison Black Issues Book Review 2005-09-01)

Shelby, a rising star who teaches African-American studies at Harvard, argues for black solidarity without black racial identity. If that seems paradoxical at first blush, it won't after you have read this account of black political thought from W.E.B. Du Bois to Malcolm X. (Jim Holt New York Magazine 2005-12-19)

It isn't easy being a philosopher committed to making critical reflections on African-American identity. Those about whom you write have little time for abstractions and even less patience with criticism. The philosophers for whom you write often refuse to take seriously a subject so outlandishly removed from all that has preoccupied them for the past two and a half millenniums. And the experience upon which you reflect is largely bereft of earlier models to build upon. Only a few intrepid souls have plowed this virgin intellectual field. Add to them now Tommie Shelby, a sparkling new talent with all the boldness and intellectual self-assurance necessary for such an effort...Although black Americans have led the way in practical matters, insightful theoretical reflections on identity politics are still wanting. Shelby's We Who Are Dark is respectful of such politics, but severely critical as well. His book contests the movement's central claims at a level of sociophilosophical sophistication that one rarely encounters. (Orlando Patterson New York Times Book Review 2006-01-08)

From his training in political philosophy, Shelby argues that there is a need for black political solidarity as a continuing tool of emancipation. Drawing on the ideas of Martin Delaney, W. E. B. DuBois, Malcolm X, Black Power, and black cultural nationalism, Shelby concludes that the transcending unifying factor now is the "pragmatic nationalist conception of political solidarity." This provocative, stimulating, and readable book can offer a fresh understanding of the virtue of black solidarity and introduce readers to the thinking ways of philosophers. (J. H. Smith Choice 2006-06-01)

On what grounds--and to what ends--are marginalized or oppressed social groups constituted as a group? Specifically, how should those who identify as black in the present-day United States conceive of their sense of solidarity, and what should be the guiding norms of such conception? Tommie Shelby's We Who Are Dark offers a lucid and rigorous treatment of these questions. His argument rests on two initial assumptions: one, that there is indeed a demonstrable sense of solidarity--that is, of "we-ness"--among those who identify as black in North America, and two, that identifying and/or being identified as black in North America is still the basis for continued socio-economic and political oppression, marginalization, and exclusion. The question that follows from these assumptions is whether and how black solidarity could be instrumental in resisting and overcoming such oppression, marginalization, and exclusion...A brief summary such as this fails to do justice to the scope, depth, and elegance of Shelby's argumentation throughout his book. We Who Are Dark makes an important contribution to the field of African-American Studies in particular and political philosophy in general. The sympathetic yet incisive analysis of the problematic aims and assumptions that inform classical nationalism and identity politics is likely to find an audience both within and beyond the circle of scholars with a specific interest in theorizing black identity. Moreover, while Shelby writes from within the dual traditions of mainstream Anglophone philosophy and African-American studies, and constantly enters into dialogue with thinkers from both traditions, he remains an original voice. His thoughtful engagement with thinkers such as Du Bois, Garvey, Delaney, et al, does not merely re-tread the conceptual pathways laid down by them, but mines their work for unacknowledged contradictions and hidden digressions. Despite aligning himself with Rawlsian political liberalism, his book is much more than merely a rehashed version of Rawls. His argument for solidarity for the sake of justice rather than for the sake of maintaining an essential ideal of blackness deserves consideration in its own right. (Vasti Roodt Ethical Perspectives 2006-12-01)

Shelby interprets Black nationalist thinking in six elegant, novel chapters...A progressive notion of Black political solidarity in the post-civil rights era has to come to grips with the unique challenges facing us today. For this reason, We Who Are Dark must be required reading for anyone pragmatically concerned with the future of the souls of Black folk, the souls of a people. (Neil Roberts Souls)

The intellectual and strategic moorings of contemporary black political solidarity are increasingly unstable. As the political memory of the race-specific Civil Rights movement fades further into history, intraracial differences that have always existed, such as gender, religion, sexuality, multiracial identification, immigration, region, cultural affiliation, political ideology, and generation, are being highlighted by race scholars from a variety of fields as reasons for rethinking race-based political cohesion. Tommie Shelby acknowledges all of these internal pressures, but sees the widening gap between poor and more affluent blacks as the intraracial fissure that most threatens political cohesion among today’s African Americans. From this sociological premise, Shelby sets out to articulate a “progressive,” philosophically sound basis for black political organization that appeals both to the class interests of poor and working-class blacks and to those of middleand upper-class blacks. By “progressive,” Shelby means a recognition that basic social injustices linger, and can and should be corrected through state intervention and/or collective political action. (Hawley Fogg-Davis Perspectives on Politics 2006-09-01)

An elegant, superb, and timely little book...It immediately secures Shelby’s place among the most significant thinkers working at the interface of philosophy and black studies. This groundbreaking work enlarges the field, rethinking our ideas on a variety of matters heretofore understudied but now readied for philosophical analysis...Shelby is of the generation for whom black power was their parents’ idea. They can face it with fresh eyes as young intellectuals looking back on received opinion, and here Shelby subjects black nationalism (BN) to searching examination and sometimes withering criticism, even while wanting to believe and defend it by isolating what he sees as its central and strongest claims...Shelby manages to find (or, perhaps, to conjure) the little-noticed liberal hidden within a variety of militant black activists, orators, and authors. Throughout, his tone and style are analytic, measured, soberly realistic, and fair-minded...I think the ultimate value in Shelby’s indispensable book may be to help remind us (perhaps unintentionally) that what we mainly need in combating continuing racial injustices against African Americans is a firmer and more clearheaded commitment to justice, not to race or blackness or a supposed nation of African America. (J. L. A. Garcia Ethics 2008-01-01)

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent in many ways Feb. 3 2014
By A Reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a really great book, one that does a great job at a few things that philosophy books rarely do. I'll mention three things in particular. First, it's one of the best examples I can think of what I'd call "mid-level theorizing". This is work that operates "below" so called "ideal theory". Most political philosophy works in ideal theory, where several non-actual assumptions are made, most importantly "full compliance"- the assumption that everyone will act as they should if the theory was right. This is not illegitimate, and often necessary, but the transition from ideal theory to the real world is often very unclear. Similarly, the book works "above" the most common kinds of "applied ethics", where particular moral dilemmas are examined. This is a type of work that philosophers tend to not do very well, but Shelby's book is one of the most successful examples I can think of. It does a really good job of showing how considerations of justice can and should work in non-ideal situations without merely resorting to causistry or ad-hoc judgments. This success is, perhaps, related to the second virtue I want to highlight. The book does an excellent job of integrating "social theory", broadly understood to include history, sociology, psychology, literature, etc. with philosophical reflection. This is hard- it's hard to be able to do good work in several fields- but this book does a great job of it. In some ways this might reflect the inherently interdisciplinary nature of Africana studies, but whether that's so or not, it's a model of the good integration of this sort of material into a philosophical text. This sort of integration is probably going to be necessary for really satisfying mid-level theorizing.

Finally, the book is an excellent example of how one an apply, and make use of, what Rawls called "Political Liberalism". In this way it helps show the power and attractiveness of that approach. In this book Shelby doesn't foreground the connection, though he's done this more in his later, more recent work. That's not a criticism- this isn't a book about political liberalism, but rather, I'd say, and example of it.

This book is obviously most likely to be attractive to people interested in philosophical questions about race and justice. It's very good on that score. But, it should be read more generally by people interested in how to do really top-notch political or social philosophy, especially of the "mid-level theorizing" variety.

Finally, I should note that the writing is consistently clear and enjoyable. It's not overly technical, and no deep background in philosophy is presupposed, but it's not over-simplified, either. This is one more clear virtue of the book. Over all, it's just a really well done job, and highly recommended.
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