Could the African American political tradition save American democracy? African Americans have had every reason to reject America’s democratic experiment. Yet African American activists, intellectuals, and artists who have sought to transform the United States into a racially just society have put forward some of the most original and powerful ideas about how to make America live up to its democratic ideals. In The Darkened Light of Faith, Melvin Rogers provides a bold new account of African American political thought through the works and lives of individuals who built this vital tradition—a tradition that is urgently needed today.
The book reexamines how figures as diverse as David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, Billie Holiday, and James Baldwin thought about the politics, people, character, and culture of a society that so often dominated them. Sharing a light of faith darkened but not extinguished by the tragic legacy of slavery, they resisted the conclusion that America would always be committed to white supremacy. They believed that democracy is always in the process of becoming and that they could use it to reimagine society. But they also saw that achieving racial justice wouldn’t absolve us of the darkest features of our shared past, and that democracy must be measured by how skillfully we confront a history that will forever remain with us.
An ambitious account of the profound ways African Americans have reimagined democracy, The Darkened Light of Faith offers invaluable lessons about how to grapple with racial injustice and make democracy work.
Melvin L. Rogers is professor of political science and associate director of the Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Brown University. He is the author of The Undiscovered Dewey: Religion, Morality, and the Ethos of Democracy, coeditor of African American Political Thought: A Collected History, and editor of John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems.
“Rogers thoroughly rewrites our understanding of the history of political philosophy by at long last incorporating nineteenth-century African American thought in the narrative. When liberalism and utilitarianism abandoned commitments to participation, civic culture, and solidarity in the mid-nineteenth century, republicanism didn’t die. Instead, African American thinkers mined and transformed this tradition, as Rogers in turn does again, to push Americans toward a full flowering of a culture rooted in freedom and dignity for all. This is a brilliant book.”—Danielle Allen, author of Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality
“Rarely does a book fundamentally alter our understanding of a subject. Melvin Rogers’s The Darkened Light of Faith is one such book. Grand and profound, it not only provides insights about the people and ideas it examines, but also offers wisdom about how we ought to live together. The care and brilliance with which Rogers treats African American political thought is breathtaking and inspiring. This will be a foundational book for as long as the world turns.”—Nicholas Buccola, author of The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America
“At a moment when the value of democracy has been challenged by a resurgent authoritarian right and, in entirely different ways and to different ends, by antiracist thinkers on the left, Rogers advances a brilliant defense of democratic ideals. The Darkened Light of Faith makes its case through innovative readings of African American political thinkers who insist that U.S. democracy can and must be reconstructed.”—Lawrie Balfour, author of Toni Morrison: Imagining Freedom
“With The Darkened Light of Faith, Rogers solidifies his place among the most sophisticated and insightful interpreters of the African American political tradition. After his learned, probing, and elegant treatment, it’s impossible to read these familiar texts and debates in the usual ways. The political wisdom and ethical truths that Rogers extracts from such thinkers as Walker, Wells, Cooper, and Du Bois will be absolutely vital if we are ever to transform the United States into a racially just society.”—Tommie Shelby, author of We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity
“What a triumph! With Copernican gusto, Melvin Rogers shatters the genealogy of republicanism, showing how nineteenth- and twentieth-century Black political thinkers and activists offered alternatives to white supremacy and reimagined freedom beyond domination. It is not too early to place Rogers’s landmark book alongside David Walker’s Appeal, Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South, W.E.B. Du Bois’s Darkwater, and Angela Davis’s Lectures on Liberation.”—Neil Roberts, editor of A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass
“Melvin Rogers has written a brilliant book. Aiming to wrest democracy from the grip of white supremacy, he presents incisive readings of key figures in the African American intellectual and artistic traditions, from David Walker and W.E.B. Du Bois to Billie Holiday and James Baldwin, and develops a powerful and attractive political vision inspired by their insights. Philosophically rich, imaginative, erudite, and beautifully written, The Darkened Light of Faith is a major contribution to political theory and intellectual history.”—Duncan Bell, author of Dreamworlds of Race: Empire and the Utopian Destiny of Anglo-America