Democracy in Black
How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul
“We have frequently printed the word Democracy. Yet I cannot often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken’d, notwithstanding the resonance and the many angry tempests out of which its syllables have come, from pen or tongue. It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.” The words of Walt Whitman’s 1871 classic Democratic Vistas elegantly capture the passion animating Eddie S. Glaude’s bracing challenge to twenty-first century American democracy, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul.
A synthesis of narrative, history, and critique underwritten by an expansive moral vision and a deep ethic of human creativity and solidarity, Glaude diagnoses the problem afflicting America’s political culture as one of a congenital defect that continues to affect the body politic. Race and our ideological investments in it lie at the heart of the fatal flaw that arrests the development of democracy in America. And, much like Whitman, Glaude broaches the abyss of the American political landscape and pronounces the virtual absence of democracy and the need for “a remaking of American democracy” (8).
Glaude calls for a wholesale rethinking, reimagining, and remaking of the very project of democracy. The resources for this effort are neither heroic, nor exceptional, yet must draw from the everyday practices of citizens imbued with a sense of purpose and grounded in an ethic of struggle that affirms the worth, value and dignity of each and every member of the American polity. This is “the heart of democracy in black” (236).
Over the course of nine chapters, Glaude sets out his case for a “reimagining [of] black politics and a remaking of American democracy” (8-9). Democracy in Black links the fate of American democracy to the necessity of a renewal of black politics and a deepening of the political through the recognition of the complexities of black subjectivity. Indeed, African Americans stand at the heart of democracy, and past and present struggles against the deep anti-democratic forces in America offer critical resources that should inform contemporary efforts to realize a freer and fuller democracy in America.
Glaude deftly moves across the current economic and political landscapes in narrating the wide and deep divides that constitute America in the twenty-first century. Through concepts such as “Great Black Depression,” “misremembering,” and “values gap” Democracy in Black introduces readers to the underside of American democracy by examining the ongoing precarious existence of African Americans who continue to experience the brute force of a rapacious capitalism, and the dictates of a polarized polity in which “difference is destiny” (38).
However, it is through the witness of everyday citizens working to forge bonds of solidarity and community in light of the challenges of an anemic twenty-first century American democracy where we see an emergent politics that moves beyond the calculus of the given. Intergenerational coalitions of citizens animated by religious, moral, and progressive visions of what can “expand the very idea of who matters” in creating a new politics and a new democracy (227).
Despite its impassioned call for a broad and deep democracy, Democracy in Black, suffers from the very symptoms it seeks to diagnose. That is, the people who give rich expression to emergent and radically democratic practices become mere objects mobilized within a theoretical-political framework that objectifies and marginalizes their lives, thoughts, hopes, aspirations, and dreams. While there is much discussion of politics in Democracy in Black, it is a curious discourse of politics that is preoccupied with personalities—with acute and sustained focus on President Barack Obama. Thus, the election of Obama operates synecdochally for all of black politics. It is this mode of presentation built on a narrative of decline that moves temporally from the eclipse of the modern Black Freedom Movement to our contemporary moment, and gains particular traction with the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States that raises questions regarding the overall structure of the book’s argument.
Despite the protean nature of black life and black politics—attested to by the very narratives of activists from North Carolina to Missouri discussed in Democracy in Black—Glaude consistently returns to the form of black liberalism as the source of the problem. Ultimately, Glaude will conclude from a very sprite and incomplete rehearsal of three historical moments that “black liberalism became the dominant, if not the only, political game in town” and that “the triumph of black liberalism happened even as the material conditions of black life deteriorated and as the institutional life of black America collapsed” (171). This logic of equation not only reduces the substance of Glaude’s critique, it also constitutes a deeply troubling aspect of the text.
While Glaude should certainly be commended for his passion in diagnosing the congenital racial defect that is American democracy, there are other aspects of his argument that need to be critically challenged. Democracy in Black demonstrates a peculiar ideological investment in a narrative of decline for black institutions, be it black political institutions, the Black Church, or black colleges and universities. Glaude writes, “Black institutions themselves (both locally and nationally) are falling apart. Their presence as places to aspire to attend (like black colleges) or as sanctuaries for the soul (like churches) diminishes daily” (129). It is the height of irony then that the politics of Moral Mondays which Democracy in Black celebrates is led by a black minister who is the president of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP], and a graduate of the historically black North Carolina Central University.
Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul is a continuation of Eddie Glaude’s preoccupation with democracy in America. The book extends an invitation to readers to take up the challenge to begin again the project of radically reconsidering and reconfiguring the substance and shape of our political community. It is a challenge that can only be met by a cognitive, material, and spiritual revolution. For, as Glaude cautions, “If we fail this time—and if there is a God I pray that we don’t—this grand experiment in democracy will be no more” (236).
Corey D. B. Walker is Dean of the College and John W. and Anna Hodgin Hanes Professor of the Humanities at Winston-Salem State University.
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