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  • "That Third and Darker Thought"African-American Challenges to the Political Theories of Jacques Rancière and Axel Honneth

This article explores several challenges African-American political thinkers pose to the continental tradition of European political philosophy as represented by two eminent theorists, Jacques Rancière and Axel Honneth. It focuses on the three sharpest points of disagreement between them—over (1) the nature of the political subject (actor) and her motivations for becoming political; (2) the need for normative grounds as a basis of political critique; (3) the quality of political temporality—and shows how a range of African-American political thinkers have developed rigorous accounts of all three of these matters. These accounts not only expose the limitations of Rancière's and Honneth's views but also provide a capacious theoretical framework able to hold their disagreements in productive tension with each other.


race, philosophy, African-American political thought, Charles Mills, Axel Honneth, Jacques Rancière

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Following a path marked out by W. E. B. Du Bois's claim that African-American slaves' songs had a "message . . . to the world," this article explores several challenges African-American political thinkers might pose to continental traditions of European political philosophy.1 Extending Charles Mills's well-known critique of philosophical liberalism's blindness to its racialized history and commitments, I bring a range of African-American thinkers into a critical dialogue with two representative figures of mainstream continental philosophy today, Jacques Rancière and Axel Honneth.2 Neither would self-identify as a liberal, and each represents one of the main non-liberal genealogies in the European traditions of political philosophy and critical theory. Rancière can be said to descend from Althusser and Foucault. His interests are broad and eclectic, but he is best known for ideas such as policing and distribution of the sensible, which bear a strong family resemblance to Althusser's concept of ideology and to Foucault's notions of discipline and episteme. Honneth is a representative of the Frankfurt School and identifies with the tradition of critical theory that includes Hegel, Marx, Adorno, and Habermas. He is best known for his evolving theory of recognition.3

My aim here is not to fault Rancière and Honneth for their inattention to race but to show that the work of a range of black thinkers reveals some limitations of their thought and challenges it in productive ways. I am writing in particular to critics and scholars who have used Rancière or Honneth to explicate black politics and cultural production while giving little thought to the ways black thinkers, activists, and artists elude, challenge, and potentially transform the ideas of these and other notable European theorists.4 Too often, it seems to me, European and Anglo-American political traditions are brought to bear on black thought as if it were merely a passive illustration of the ideas of those traditions and made no distinctive theoretical contribution itself.5 As we shall see, African-American political thought offers illuminating challenges to both theorists.

Fissures in Continental Political Philosophy: The Principal Points of Disagreement between Honneth and Rancière

In June of 2009, Honneth and Rancière met at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main, Germany to discuss the areas of agreement and discord between their respective political theories. Their conversation, which sometimes edged into debate, was recorded and later published along with some ancillary texts as Recognition or Disagreement: A Critical Encounter on the Politics of Freedom, Equality, and Identity, edited [End Page 262] by Katia Genel and Jean-Philippe Deranty.6 Several principal points of disagreement between Rancière and Honneth came to the fore. These had to do with (1) the nature of the subject and what motivates the pre-political subject to become political; (2) the need (or lack thereof) for normative grounds as a dimension of political critique; and (3) the nature of political temporality. I will take these up in order and then turn to the ways a range of African-American thinkers might intervene in this discussion.7

The Nature of the Politics and the Political Subject

Rancière defines politics as coming into being whenever a person asserts his or her radical political equality with all other citizens. Political equality, for Rancière, is specifically an equality of competence to participate in politics understood (following Aristotle) as ruling and being ruled. Such equality is always presupposed, he argues, even by a political order based on hierarchy, since the very purpose of that hierarchy is to deny and control it. Political equality is thus what he calls "axiomatic"; it is a presupposition that becomes "verified" in moments of political irruption when certain citizens insist upon it. Rancière suggests that in this moment of assertion, a person (he prefers to use the word "entity" or "body") "dis-identifies" in the sense that she rejects the identity of an unequal into which she has been cast by the current political order and its control of what he calls "the distribution of the sensible"—what can be seen, thought, and felt within it. He also describes this moment as one of "subjectivization," meaning that only by dis-identifying with his or her assigned identity as an unequal does a person create and assert herself as a political subject.8

At their meeting, Honneth objected that this description of politics omits a key consideration: what motivates a person to rebel in the first place? In his view, it is "suffering":

It's not sufficient to say that there is a miscount, that some are not counted [as being equal]. One has to add that the miscounted also suffer from it; otherwise, it becomes unclear why they act as they do, why they perform 'de-identification' and undergo the "subjectivization" process. Becoming a political subject means overcoming the status of an uncountable excluded subject, but as I like to put it, the motivational force for wanting to overcome this status has to stem from some form of suffering, which is therefore part of the political order Rancière and I are describing.

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Rancière rejoined that the very meaning of suffering lies entirely within any distribution of the sensible. It does not become a political issue until those who suffer assert their equality of competence to govern. In fact, he continued, most of those who experience domination do so submissively, perhaps unknowingly; and even when they do rebel, their rebellion seldom takes the radical form of a claim to political equality and a rejection of the current distribution of the sensible. Therefore, suffering should not be considered the cause of political irruption:

It's not necessarily because people are suffering that they act politically; acting politically, very often, comes because some forms of ruptures appear possible. I think it is a matter of reconfiguration of the field of the possible. It is very rare that suffering produces politics by itself.9


Indeed, Rancière believes that Honneth's question is misplaced because it does not recognize the premise that politics begins and exists only in "moments" of irruption. Honneth cannot see that there is no antecedent political subject whose motive to rebel need concern us. The political subject who rebels is "an invention":

A political subject is an invention; an invention has no self. The political subject has no self, so you cannot account for the construction of the political subject out of the suffering of the individuals who are involved in the creation of this subject.


This counter-intuitive rejection of the importance of personhood to politics stems partly from Rancière's definition of politics but also from his belief that the concept of the political subject-as-person forecloses on far more possibilities than it opens up. It takes for granted as given what is in fact has yet to be enacted. It threatens to fix as a singularity what is multiple and fluid, and it reduces politics to therapeutics, a subfield of psychology rather than a domain in its own right.10

Rancière's answers make good sense as corollaries to his own definition of politics and as an expression of his post-structuralist skepticism toward subjectivity in general. However, he did not directly address, much less answer, the question Honneth stubbornly continued to pose: why do certain persons, and sometimes whole groups, undertake the process of de-individuation in which they become political subjects? In his view, this [End Page 264] is the essential question of political philosophy, and Rancière was just evading it.

In his own earlier work, Honneth presupposed that individuals and groups have an "identity" of their own; they act as political beings when they demand recognition of and respect for that identity from others. The later Honneth has modified this theory considerably. He has jettisoned the notion that political actors struggle on behalf of a given identity, and he now sees their identity (or subjecthood) as being formed in large part through the struggle for recognition itself. Therefore, Honneth now conceives of the struggle not as primarily a psychological, inter-subjective one. Instead, as Deranty helpfully explains in his introductory essay:

Recognition now names the structure of reciprocal expectations that bind subjects in social life and represent the conditions for the realization of their intermeshed individual goals. In order to reach individual aims that realize key dimensions of their autonomy, each social subject has to assume that there are others who share with him a similar normative attitude, so that it is only by recognizing one another in that capacity that these interlocked individual goals can be realized.


Although less psychological than previously, Honneth's theory may be more social than ever; as such, he is far more concerned than Rancière with the ongoingness of politics, or with politics as an "everyday" activity. Moreover, the beings who compose a society for Honneth are always persons, humans, subjects. He remains faithful to Hegel's early belief that society is essentially a matter of inter-subjective relations sustained—though contested and modified—through time. This is why he cannot drop the question of motives: what is it that drives a person to seek to be recognized by others in a different way, one more in accord with the realization of her self-description and individual goals? Honneth's answer, as we have seen, is "suffering"—specifically, injuries to self-respect, self-esteem, or self-worth.

The Need for Normative Grounds

Honneth places himself in a genealogy that goes back through Weber to Marx, Hegel, and Rousseau. In his view, thinkers in this tradition have always presupposed preferred alternatives to their object of critique, which [End Page 265] is the social order as they find it; therefore, its practitioners have felt obligated to justify their critique by making plain what this alternative is and why they are committed to it, i.e., to define and defend the "normative grounds," or "foundations," of their critique. For Rousseau, those grounds were to be found in an anthropological account of the human in a state of nature. For Marx, they were found in humankind's species characteristic as working beings whose self-realization could be achieved only through unalienated forms of labor. As these examples indicate, Honneth believes that this tradition goes "beyond the mere investigation of a social form of life with regard to its political-moral legitimacy" and examines as well "the structural limitations it imposes on the goal of human self-realization" (emphasis added).11 In his own work, Honneth builds upon the early Hegel of the Jena period to argue that such self-realization requires recognition and respect from others, i.e., institutional and personal behavior that supports each person's sense of self-respect, self-esteem, and self-worth.12 Politics, in his view, is in essence a struggle to gain the recognition that secures these goods.

Rancière, not surprisingly, recoils from the very idea of "normative foundations," just as he shuns the matter of political motivation and deliberately avoids reflecting on the content of the political subject and the wellbeing of the self. All of these concepts and representations of an "alternative," he argues, can appear only in forms made possible by a particular distribution of the sensible. Therefore, we should not even attempt to articulate them in advance of the irruption of a political moment. Only within that moment, i.e., within the act of disidentification and subjectivization, does the political subject come into being, name her motivations, and justify her actions. Any a priori or antecedent establishing of grounds and foundations to justify such rebellion is necessarily enclosed within the "staging" constructed by the current distribution of the sensible. Viewed in this light, normative grounds are aspects of the problem, not useful justifications of a solution.

Political Temporality

We come now to the last of their linked differences that emerged over the course of their debate: the nature of political temporality. As we have already noted, Rancière emphasizes and repeatedly employs the metaphor of the moment of irruption, when the political presupposition of radical [End Page 266] equality opposes itself to the uneven distribution of competency to rule and the hierarchy such inequality establishes. "Political demonstrations," he writes in a typical expression of his temporality, "are . . . always of the moment and their subjects always provisional. Political difference is always on the shore of its own disappearance."13

In sharp contrast, Honneth's struggle for recognition is a process; it unfolds over time as oppressed persons or groups claim the right to be recognized and respected for who they are, and as society as a whole moves from indifference to such claims, to engagement with, and finally to acceptance of them. In general, Honneth views such processes—and the history of political thought also—as progressive in nature, referring without embarrassment, for example, to Europe's "advanced societies."14

African-American Perspectives on These Disagreements

Most black political thinkers have been well aware of the topics we find Rancière and Honneth disagreeing about: the nature of the political subject, the nature of political temporality, and the need for normative grounds to justify political dissent. Black thinkers, too, disagree about these matters. Black political thought is not one thing, but many, and (like continental political philosophy) it is riven by tensions and disagreements. Nonetheless, we may accurately say of all black political thought that it is a "philosophy born of struggle."15 It does not see itself as having emerged in a vacuum occupied only by other ideas and arguments; rather, it has always knowingly had to push against the strong headwinds of anti-black racism, with its denigration of black personhood and its oppression of black life. Most black philosophers are always conscious of engaging in a struggle. To be sure, something like this can be said of some Marxist thinkers, among others in the continental tradition. But there is something distinctive about the nature of the struggle against racism that characterizes most black political thought, and so before we ask how black political thinkers might view the problems that vex Honneth and Rancière we need to ask: what is the difference that race makes, or, what is distinctive about oppression mediated by the idea of race?

The key difference is that anti-black racism attacks the full human personhood of blacks; indeed, it is founded upon the assertion of innate black inferiority. Consequently, black thinkers and activists in resistance to white racism very often find themselves in the absurd position of [End Page 267] having to argue first that they are persons. Their predicament conforms to Rancière's theory insofar as they do have to contest a distribution of the visible that renders black equality invisible; however, their situation is radically different insofar as they have to assert much more than what Rancière would call their equal competence to govern. They have to assert their full and equal human personhood. This assertion resembles what Honneth would call a "struggle for recognition," so in this respect, at least, their predicament conforms more closely to Honneth's theory than to Rancière's. However, a crucial difference emerges here as well. Honneth argues, following the early Hegel, that the very nature of human sociality produces "expectations" of recognition among those who compose a society. This recognition need not be of equal power, status, or rights, but at bottom it must be a recognition of others as human persons; that is, in order for this assemblage of creatures to be a society, however stratified and hierarchical, it must be composed of creatures who recognize each other—and can expect recognition of each other—as human persons. This is precisely what anti-black racism refuses to those it designates as "black"; this is the expectation it seeks to short circuit.

From these distinctive attributes of the struggle against racial domination have emerged different ways of thinking about (or imagining) the political subject, normative grounds of resistance, and political temporality. As I identify and discuss these differences in the pages that follow, I do not mean to imply that all black political thinkers share a single conception of, or position on, these matters. (No more, as we have seen, do Rancière and Honneth.) Just as individual continental thinkers have had different ways of inflecting a common condition of being unmarked by racial difference, of being privileged to be unaware of the workings of race, and of being relatively secure in their expectation that all others will recognize them as full and equal human persons, so most black thinkers have had different ways of struggling against their condition of being marked by racial difference, of being constantly reminded of the workings of race, and of being unable to assume that all others will recognize their full and equal person-hood. Most have been committed to unmasking, opposing, and defeating anti-black racism; some have concluded that anti-black racism cannot be defeated, and that the task of black philosophy is to sort through what this means; and a few believe that anti-black racism is a black problem caused by blacks' refusal to embrace the norms of a white majority. Despite these differences, however, most black political thinkers have had in common [End Page 268] a felt sense of thinking and speaking as racially marked black persons. Rancìere and Honneth seldom if ever speak as persons who know themselves to be marked as white.

Equal Personhood in African-American Thought

Like Honneth, many African-American political thinkers have regarded humanness and personhood as precisely what is most at stake in their political struggle. For them, there is something already present in "their given identity" that eventually compels them to resist or revolt. What is that something? Many suggest that it is the personhood, or humanness–precisely what the slaveholder and the racist claim is missing from black identity. As Charles Mills has recently insisted, unlike (say) class injustice, "Racial injustice is, most fundamentally, a refusal to respect equal person-hood, whether in the original rights violations or in the legacy of such violations."16 The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, frequently invokes the values of "dignity" and "respect." Yet, at the very same time, racism's attack on black personhood also helps explain the longstanding tradition of black performance and performativity that de-essentializes the black subject; it is at once a refusal to play the game of asserting or proving black personhood, an insistence on retaining blackness as style not substance, and a shrewd finessing of the choice between black subject and black post-subject, one nicely epitomized by Marlon Riggs's 1994 documentary, Black Is . . . Black Ain't.17 We might summarize the difference between Honneth and Rancière on the one hand and between Mills and Riggs on the other in this way: the first two can inquire into the status of the subject; the second two have been put in a situation where they must inquire into the status of the black subject.

Moreover, when a philosopher takes up an observational position and implicitly locates himself outside any specific struggle—as Honneth and Rancière usually do—it can seem reasonable to claim that individuals create themselves as political subjects only in their moments of political action. But to the individuals engaged in such struggle, political action appears and feels to be an expression—not just a "verification"—of what already exists. This antecedent self does not feel self-created in the moment of political action; yet, it need not feel like a unitary, mystical essence either. Rather, as George Yancy writes—summarizing what he takes to be a view characteristic of black philosophy—the black self "is always already [End Page 269] ensconced within a larger historical context of prejudices and value-laden assumptions that mediate and shape self-understanding and the understanding of the world and Others." If Yancy is right, black philosophy spans this divide that separates Honneth and Rancière: it does not dismiss the ontological altogether, but it does insist that the ontological is infused with the social and historical: "African-American philosophy presupposes a social ontology where the self, in this case the Black self, is positioned by anti-Black racist forces in terms of which the Black self must contend."18

These commitments to the black human subject, to his or her unique standpoint, and to the fundamental value of human personhood, originated as a response to the distinctive injuries inflicted first by U.S. chattel slavery, and then by Jim Crow's regime of racial separation and black denigration of blacks. David Walker, for example, repeatedly emphasized, in his (1829) Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, that the U.S. slavery system was far crueler than those of Greece, Rome, and Egypt because it aimed not just to exploit its slaves but to "insult" them by denying and crushing their very humanity:

But to prove farther that the condition of the Israelites was better under the Egyptians than ours is under the whites, I call upon the professing Christians, I call upon the philanthropist, I call upon the very tyrant himself, to show me a page of history, either sacred or profane, on which a verse can be found, which maintains, that the Egyptians heaped the insupportable insult upon the children of Israel, by telling them that they were not of the human family. . . .(12) Have you not, Americans, having subjected us under you, added to these miseries, by insulting us in telling us to our face, because we are helpless, that we are not of the human family? I ask you, O! Americans, I ask you, in the name of the Lord, can you deny these charges?19

Not surprisingly, then, the U.S. slavery system's relentless attack on black humanity and personhood set up a counter-effort of resistance that centered on maintaining one's full human personhood at all cost and on bearing witness to the injuries of having one's humanity degraded and denied.

The commitment of many black thinkers and activists to the idea of inviolable human personhood was sustained, and perhaps grew even stronger, as African Americans struggled against the Jim Crow regime of racial segregation that replaced the slavery system. One material purpose [End Page 270] of Jim Crow laws was to weaken the power of labor in the South by dividing white from black laborers. A congruent material purpose was to give poor white laborers a status "wage" that compensated for their low monetary wages: no matter how poor they might be, they could still be proud of their white skin.20 Such pride in whiteness could be produced only through continual, systematic degradation of blackness. Therefore, many of the Jim Crow laws were designed not just to keep blacks and whites apart, but to demean and humiliate African Americans by withholding (white) recognition of their fundamental value as human beings. This denial of respect—which political theorist Christopher J. Lebron has recently described as "a problem of social value," and political theorist Eddie S. Glaude has recently called "a value gap"—was not expunged by the legal gains made by the civil rights movement.21 On the contrary, in becoming less visible, it has grown more subtle and tenacious, as Claudia Rankine's American Citizen has so notably made plain. A long history, then, lies behind the claim made by leaders of the Black Lives Matters movement that, "The Black Lives Matter Network advocates for dignity, justice, and respect." In this particular statement of its principles, the authors expand that struggle to include expressions of—demands for—other kinds of recognition also:

We are committed to collectively, lovingly and courageously working vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension all people. . . . We are committed to embracing and making space for trans brothers and sisters to participate and lead. We are committed to being self-reflexive and doing the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.22

In sum, for particular historical reasons stemming from the distinctive nature of racial oppression, many African-American political thinkers have understood the struggle against racism more in the terms Honneth proposes than as a Rancièrian battle of abstract "bodies" or "entities" against a faceless order that has assigned them certain "social positions." For these thinkers, the bodies in question have been black bodies (and, more recently, black queer and black trans bodies); for these thinkers, the entities in question have been black persons, and for that reason their understanding of political struggle has been intensely interpersonal, affective, and psychological.23 [End Page 271]

However, while the black struggle against slavery, Jim Crow, and present-day white racism resembles in these important ways Honneth's "struggle for recognition," there are also important differences. Honneth tends to conceive of such struggle as a uni-directional bringing of claims by petitioners to those who disesteem them; the oppressors, for their part, either grant or deny those claims. A number of black thinkers have had such long experience of whites refusing to grant such claims—long in their own personal experience, and long because they have inherited the historical memory of earlier black oppression—that they pose this question: why do whites need racism? That is, what work must be done within the psyches of white persons before they are able to grant recognition of full personhood to blacks? Honneth is not unaware of this aspect of the struggle for recognition, but he does not focus on it—a distribution of attention that reflects both his social position as one who is racially unmarked and his seeming unconsciousness of that fact.

By contrast, James Baldwin (for one) perceived the struggle for recognition through precisely this lens. As he put the matter in a 1963 interview:

Now here in this country we've got something called a nigger. It doesn't in such terms . . . exist in any other country in the world. We have invented the nigger. I didn't invent him. White people invented him. I've always known—I had to know by the time I was 17 years old—that what you were describing was not me, and what you were afraid of was not me. It had to be something else. You had invented it, so it had to be something you were afraid of . . . I've always known—and really, always, that's part of the agony—I've always known that I'm not a nigger. But if I am not the nigger, and if it's true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger?24

Baldwin then answered his own question: "You [whites] still think, I gather, that the nigger is necessary. But it's unnecessary to me, so it must be necessary to you. So I give you your problem back. You're the nigger, baby. It isn't me." In thus giving "your problem back," Baldwin reverses in two ways what I have called the "unidirectional" flow of force implicit in Honneth's theory. He reverses it by "giving back" to whites instead of "appealing to" them or "struggling for" their recognition. He reverses it also by taking the problem out of a contested public terrain and placing it firmly within the white psyche, radically recasting the nature of the problem itself.25 [End Page 272]

Complicating still further what is involved in blacks' struggles for recognition, a number of African-American writers have suggested that one obstacle to white self-knowledge has been precisely such insight by blacks into what Du Bois called "the souls of white folks." In this view, African-American recognition of whites might actually trigger a defensive reaction to shame that then blocks whites from acknowledging their racism and thereby becoming able to recognize African Americans. As Du Bois put it: "I know their thoughts and they know that I know. This knowledge makes them now embarrassed, now furious. They deny my right to live and be and call me misbirth!"26

However, African-American reflections on white racism do more than complicate in these two ways Honneth's model of the struggle for recognition. They also cut against his theory in a way that is remarkably congruent with Rancière's analysis. Honneth believes that when the oppressed make appeals on the basis of normative expectations shared by their oppressors, they "contain a critical potential that can engage a dynamic of social transformation."27 But in a racist order, as we have seen, appeals to these "normative expectations" are not easily made and are often ignored.28 When it comes to race, at least, such expectations cannot be presupposed; they must be created. That change depends less on blacks asserting their "value"—which they have done for centuries—than on whites foregoing their investment in their own presupposed superiority.

Consequently, a great many black political thinkers have been aware that it is in the very nature of a racist distribution of the sensible to rule out in advance the appearance of those whom it has rendered unequal and invisible. Their words are not recognized as words, their complaint is not recognized as admissible.29 As the black American abolitionist David Walker's acknowledged in his 1829 Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, he was likely to be dismissed out of hand by the slaveholder, who would regard him as insubordinate, ignorant, and impudent:

I say, I . . . expect to be held up to the public as an ignorant, impudent and the restless disturber of the public peace, by such avaricious creatures, as well as a mover of insubordination--and perhaps put in prison or to death, for giving a superficial exposition of our miseries, and exposing tyrants.30

Walker's word "impudent" was a favorite accusation lodged by slaveholders against their slaves. The word succinctly expressed their belief that [End Page 273] any complaint, demurral, or resistance was guilty not just by virtue of its content, but as an act in itself. Often, according to the testimony of the enslaved, the slave masters and overseers would deliberately construe a perfectly innocent act as an "impudent" one. Their purpose was not to punish the individual slave for a particular transgression, but to re-inscribe their own right to regulate the distribution of the sensible. This racist insistence on denigrating blacks' humanity by controlling the space of public appearance flourished in Jim Crow and lives on today in racial profiling and the everyday behavior of many U.S. police departments.

Therefore, although many African-American thinkers have sought to secure recognition of blacks' personhood and dignity, they have also shared Rancière's attunement to the power of a given partition of the sensible to take control of, and set the terms for, any such struggle. Rancière's and Honneth's theories might appear incommensurable insofar as one emphasizes "staging" and the other "recognition," but many African-American political thinkers have seen considerable truth and usefulness in both accounts.31 That tells us something about the specific nature of racial oppression and resistance to it; it also tells us something about the contours and limits of Rancière's and Honneth's theories.

Let us turn now to the question of what catalyzes a person to become a political subject in Rancière's sense—that is, a subject who self-invents in the action of asserting her equality and thereby disrupting the current regime of the sensible. Perhaps the most famous representation of such an action in African-American political thought is Frederick Douglass's description of his physical resistance to the slave driver Edward Covey. As we shall see, his account is consistent with both Honneth's theory of recognition and Rancière's theory of dis-identification; it thus provides another instance of an African-American thinker holding in tension differences considered to be antinomies by Honneth and Rancière.

On the one hand, Douglass writes that his physical resistance was a sudden break that took Covey completely by surprise: "my resistance was entirely unexpected and Covey was taken aback by it" (283), he writes. Later, in wondering why Covey did not subsequently turn him over to the authorities for severe punishment, Douglass speculates that doing so would have destroyed Covey's reputation as a "first rate overseer and negro breaker" (287): "for his bearing should, in the estimation of slaveholders, be that of an imperial order that should make such an occurrence impossible" (287). In other words, Covey and other slaveholders had established and depended upon a distribution of the sensible ("imperial order") that peremptorily [End Page 274] ruled out in advance the very possibility of slave resistance. Douglass had defied that order and reconfigured what was possible—not with respect to the slavery system as a whole, of course, but at least on Covey's farm. Finally, Douglass writes a number of sentences that depict this moment as an utterly radical break with his past, one that brought into being an entirely new subject: "I was a changed man after that fight. I was nothing before; I WAS A MAN NOW" (286). That is, his change did not occur before the fight; the fight itself produced the change: "this battle with Mr. Covey . . . was the turning point in my 'life as a slave.'" (286).

Douglass's account appears, in short, to be a classic instantiation of Rancière's "moment" of political subjectivization." However, Douglass himself thwarts such a conclusion by complicating his claim that he "was nothing before." He writes that the fight "rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore dreams, and revived a sense of my own manhood" (286, emphases added). All of this wording suggests that the fight was the culmination of a process with a long background, one in which he had already experienced the heat of a desire for liberty, had already had dreams of such a transformation, and had already possessed a sense of his own humanity. Douglass also indicates that there were experiential and motivational links between the person he had been before the fight and the political subject he became during it. Indeed, his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom is deeply concerned to identify and trace those links in order to understand how he became a political actor. Those links include the numerous moments of quasi-recognition of him by both blacks and whites that abound in this book: his grandmother's love for him, his mother's indignant defense of him, the kindness toward him of Lucretia Lloyd, the early behavior toward him of Mrs. Hugh Auld, and his conversation with an Irish dockworker who said, "'it was a pity so fine a little fellow as myself should be a slave for life" (233). In all these moments, others recognized Douglass's worth as a person, thereby supported his ability to recognize his own worth, and thus provided him with the motivation for his resistance to Covey: to assert and defend that nascent sense of his personal worth, or dignity. His account is therefore congruent with both Honneth's process of struggle for recognition and with Rancière's moment of political subjectivization.32 Rancière and Honneth would be free to dispute and reject this formulation, which holds both their theories in its embrace; but since Douglass had firsthand experience of the phenomenon they are describing theoretically, they might be wise to consider his testimony authoritative. [End Page 275]

Political Temporality: The Ever-Present Now

Many African-American activists and writers have emphasized the importance of the "moment" of political resistance or rebellion. That moment is frequently figured as the present, this moment, this now. Frederick Douglass repeatedly referred to "the ever-present now"; Martin Luther King Jr. famously invoked "the fierce urgency of now"; Charlie Parker insisted that "now is the time," and James Baldwin likewise insisted that, the time is always now: "There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now."33 Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X Kendi have more recently used the same language: "If there ever was a time we needed to boldly declare, without fear and intimidation, that 'Black lives matter,' it is now."34

Although the political temporality implied by these invocations of the "now" clearly resembles Rancière's "moment" when politics comes into being, it is also very different, as Douglass's phrase "ever-present" and Baldwin's adjective "always" signal. For Rancière, a "moment" is strictly a fragment of historical time; it is preceded and followed by other such fragments. Most of these are devoid of politics as he defines it; only rarely is one moment seized and transformed into a political moment. By contrast, for most of the black thinkers I've quoted above, the very idea of "the moment" reconfigures the category of time itself by simultaneously fusing historical time with eternal time. This formulation is at once practical and subtly metaphysical. It means that we cannot wait to act, so we must act now. Yet it also calls us to step into a temporality in which human time and history unfold alongside (or within) eternity. To say, "the time is always now" is to say that there is no past or future: there is only now. And yet, if "now" is "always" or "ever-present," it is identical with eternity, which is time at rest rather than time in motion.

Nathan Wright, a theologian who affiliated with the Black Power movement in the 1960s, described such a conception of political temporality as an intersection of historical time and eternity:

Philosophically, life does not move upward toward the end of time. Time and eternity are not time sequences. Life does not historically improve as time goes on. There is always conflict, and never in the broadest sense is there 'enduring peace.' Time and eternity are like two horizontal though infinitely unequal lines, which are close [End Page 276] enough to be in a kind of tension. Whenever the power of the eternal is appropriated and realized in human life, at such precise points the lines of time and eternity converge and become as one.35

Such a view of time holds in tension two temporalities that have operated throughout African-American history. On the one hand, the imperative to endure and survive centuries of oppression called forth a deep theodical orientation, a profound belief that human history and divine justice would eventually coincide. As King so famously put it, paraphrasing the antebellum Unitarian minister Theodore Parker: "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." On the other hand, because theodicy so often encourages quiescence, patience, and submission, black thinkers and activists have frequently called for anger, urgency, and rebellion now. To quote King again: because "progress does not roll in on wheels of inevitability," we must act now.

This twofold view of political time is not just different from Ranciere's moment and Honneth's process; it also reveals an unacknowledged ambiguity, or doubleness, in their conceptions of political time. Let us examine first the temporality implicit in Rancière's key idea of equality. "Equality is what I have called a presupposition," he writes. "It is not, let it be understood, a founding ontological principle but a condition that only functions when it is put into action."36 The metaphor he uses to try to name this presupposition is that of an "axiom" that is always true but can be "verified" only in experience, when it is asserted and enacted: "If equality is axiomatic, a given, it is clear that this axiom is entirely undetermined in its principle—that it is anterior to the constitution of a determined political field, since it makes the latter possible in the first place."37 Equality, for Rancière, therefore has the paradoxical temporal quality of being both "anterior" to any "determined political field" and at the same time becoming "verified" only in the political act that opposes a given socio-political order. As a "condition," it pre-exists politics; but it can "function" only "when it is put into action" in a given historical moment. Equality is both outside time (as an axiomatic pre-supposition) and yet visible only within historical time. Nathan Wright's metaphor of "intersection" is thus strikingly apt for such an account; we might say that Rancière's equality manifests itself only when the timeless presupposition of it intersects with the historical human enactment of it, in the "ever-present now." [End Page 277]

A similarly unacknowledged temporal ambiguity haunts Honneth's commitment to a background of normative expectations to which citizens orient themselves in their struggles for recognition. Obviously, the texture and shape of this shared background must be relatively stable. Citizens would be unable to adjudicate their differences and negotiate over mutual recognition if this normative background were in continual and rapid flux. Therefore, they have to agree that certain values must be set apart and sheltered from the winds of political and social conflict. They may allow themselves to disagree about which sails to raise and lower during a tempest, but they have to agree that the keel of the ship should remain beyond the reach of their debate. However, even the agreed upon norms must be allowed to change over time, as the meanings of, say, "person," "justice," "equality," "freedom," and other key words in their shared vocabulary of norms are re-interpreted. Yet some notion or perhaps myth of their relative permanence must be maintained. Any normative framework must therefore occupy a temporality that stands apart from that of the myriad conflicts and debates it serves to adjudicate, while at the same time remaining in historical time with them. Honneth's political temporality, too, is more ambiguous and complex, and more of an intersection of time with eternity, than he acknowledges.

The Question of Normative Grounds

Honneth's and Rancière's silence about, or unawareness of, the temporal ambiguity embedded in their work forestalls a line of inquiry that might otherwise be implied or instigated by their own theories. Such an inquiry would explore the ways politics occurs at the intersection of temporal incommensurables; it would also ask what kind of disposition would be required in order to hold such different notions of time in tension with each other.

Many African-American thinkers have undertaken just such an inquiry.38 This is hardly surprising if we consider the religious underpinnings of America's political "creed" and the crucial role religious faith has played in African-American political struggle. In both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, many African Americans invoked the truths of natural law, the truths of Christianity, and the "self-evident" truths of the Declaration of Independence as they tried to win equal rights and dignity for their race. They insisted that such truths were true [End Page 278] everywhere and for all time, with no exceptions. Frederick Douglass, for example, declared:

Such is the truth of man's right to liberty. It existed in the very idea of man's creation. It was his before he comprehended it. He was created with it, endowed with it, and it can never be taken from him. No laws, no statutes, no compacts, no covenants, no compromises, no constitutions, can abrogate or destroy it.39

Some African-American thinkers point to a second reason why faith, not just principled assent to an axiom of a normative background, is required by those who engage in politics—whether it is understood as a verification of equality or as a struggle for recognition. Both verification of equality and struggle for recognition require an effort that must be sustained for years, decades, or even centuries. To remain committed to such struggle, many African-American political actors have relied on faith that a supra-human and transcendental order has fashioned the universe in accordance with moral laws that make racism and racial domination unjust. Pauli Murray, an early civil rights activist, emphasizes how "sustaining" it is to know that one's efforts are "linked to a higher force." Yet, at the same time, such theodical faith in cosmic justice must not replace political action now:

If there were moments of deep despair in those years, there was also the sustaining knowledge that the quest for human dignity is part of a continuous movement through time and history linked to a higher force. Years later Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed the same concept when he said that in the struggle for justice one has 'cosmic companionship.' Pitting my intelligence against the ludicrous authorities who enforced an irrational set of arrangements and, above all, learning to harness my emotions to an innovative power instead of exploding in a fury of destructive waste were challenges I could respond to.40

Most political theorists today are allergic to such intense avowals of faith in eternal verities, believing that they must constitute a serious threat to religious and political pluralism. But some African-American thinkers have developed two safeguards against this risk. The first is an intense [End Page 279] consciousness of human fallibility, an awareness rooted in the historical experience of witnessing oppressors who have seized and distorted such truths to serve their own purpose. Anna Julia Cooper, for example, writes:

I do not mean by faith the holding of correct views and unimpeachable opinions on mooted questions, merely; nor do I understand it to be the ability to forge cast-iron formulas and dub them TRUTH. For while I do not deny that absolute and eternal truth is,—still truth must be infinite, and as incapable as infinite space, of being encompassed and confined by one age or nation, sect or country—much less by one little creature's finite brain.41

Or as W. E. B. Du Bois asserts in an editorial in the Crisis:

He [the young Negro] should see in the church an expression of the desire for full and ultimate truth; that desire for goodness and beauty, which is ingrained in every human being; and on the other hand, and just as clearly, he should frankly denounce all attempts on the part of any organized body of human beings when they declare that they know it all and that God has personally told them about it. That is a plain lie and they know it and everybody else ought to know it. We must have religion in the sense of striving for the infinite, the ultimate, and the best. But just as truly we must straitly curb the effort of any exclusive guild to be the single and final arbiter of individual interpretation of desired and desirable truth.42

Some African-American thinkers have pointed toward a s second way that the danger eternal truths pose to pluralism and difference might be mitigated: by an acceptance of, and commitment to, standpoint epistemology—the belief, that, as Patricia Hill Collins has put it, "It is impossible to separate the structure and thematic content of thought from the historical and material conditions shaping the lives of its producers."43 Like a consciousness of human fallibility, such awareness of the ineluctability of standpoint may come more readily to the oppressed, who have had ample opportunity to reflect on the discrepancies between their own perspective and that of their oppressors. George Yancy has proposed that such standpoint awareness is a characteristic of black American thought in general because it knows itself to arise not in a neutral space abstracted from history and political struggle, but "within the muck and mire of raced embodied existence."44 [End Page 280]

These braided commitments to fallibility and standpoint suggest that a philosophical aversion (like Rancière's) to the concept of "grounds" and "foundations" might be triggered more by these metaphors' connotations than by what they are trying to name. Words like "foundations" and "grounds" are figures of speech; they evoke substantiality, universality, and permanence, and with them a drastic closure of political possibilities. (Rancière's own metaphor of equality as an "axiom" seeks to avoid these evocations but succeeds only partially in doing so.) What if, instead of relying on nouns that stand for things, we used words that connote an attitude or a disposition toward such things? Du Bois names that disposition as one of "striving for the infinite, the ultimate, and the best" (emphasis added). The metaphor suggests that the normative "groundwork" is not a thing achieved and set in place; it is instead an active effort to approximate more closely normative ideals ("the ultimate and the best") all the while knowing that one can never finally arrive at a complete possession or even comprehension of them. Du Bois's formulation expresses his awareness that that such truths are (to use Cooper's words again), "as incapable as infinite space, of being encompassed and confined by one age or nation, sect or country—much less by one little creature's finite brain." When viewed in this light, political critique and action are not "based upon" or "justified by" norms or "presupposed by" axioms; they are a striving toward them, a striving that accepts its conditions of fallibility and perpetual, open-ended struggle. Such a disposition is far more likely to promote pluralism than to curtail it.


What is gained, then, by bringing a range of African-American political thinkers into the debate between Rancière and Honneth? Most importantly, such an encounter reveals certain contours and limitations of their thought that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Chief among these is their unawareness of, or indifference to, their own racial positionality. In a word, Rancière and Honneth do not see that they are white in the sense Charles Mills intends when he writes that, "insofar as . . . persons are conceived of as having their personhood uncontested, insofar as their culture and cognition are unhesitatingly respected, insofar as their moral prescriptions take for granted an already achieved citizenship and a history of freedom—insofar, that is, as race is not an issue for them, then they are already tacitly positioned as white persons, culturally and cognitively European, racially privileged members of the West."45 [End Page 281]

Why does this matter? Why should we—and why should Rancière and Honneth—be concerned about their apparent indifference to race?

Here we might distinguish between theorists who write about African-American and black diasporic history and thought, and theorists whose work and research focuses on other topics. It seems plain to me that the former group, especially those who have used or might use Rancière or Honneth to explicate black thought and history, have a compelling reason to be concerned about these two thinkers' blindness to race. As I hope to have shown, it subtly limits and shapes their theories—including their notions of the political subject, political temporality, and the normative—in ways that should be acknowledged and worked through. Moreover, theorists who simply apply Rancière and Honneth to black thought and experience forego the opportunity to enrich their own arguments through a more dialectical approach that probes the limits of Rancière's and Honneth's theories instead of just using them. And in certain worst-case scenarios, they risk fundamentally misconstruing black thought by explicating it with a theory that is so radically innocent, in Baldwin's sense of that word, of race in general and its own whiteness in particular. Instead of treating black thought as a text whose import is best discerned and expressed through the lens of Anglo-European theories, why not attend also to the ways it doesn't just lend itself to explication by these theories, but also challenges and even transforms them?

Less plainly but just as surely, theorists and philosophers whose interests lie elsewhere have something to gain by becoming more aware of Rancière's and Honneth's deepest assumptions. Some of these, as we have seen, would become more visible—to others and to themselves perhaps--if they engaged with virtually any black thinker. Such engagement would do more than expose the occlusions and limitations of much European philosophy. It would also point to new possibilities, reconfiguring with fresh metaphors and ideas some of the traditional debates and dilemmas that have constituted European philosophy. To date, moreover, most European political philosophers have failed to address Europe's own race problems because a longstanding distribution of the sensible has kept race out of their traditions of political philosophy. A dialectical encounter with black political thought could change that. [End Page 282]

Nick Bromell
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Nick Bromell

nick bromell is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His most recent book is The Time Is Always Now: Black Thought and the Transformation of US Democracy (Oxford). He is the editor of A Political Companion to W. E. B. Du Bois (Kentucky) and the coeditor of the forthcoming Norton Critical Edition of My Bondage and My Freedom. He is currently completing a study of Frederick Douglass's political thought for Duke University Press.


1. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), 207.

2. Of course, my use of "tradition" here is merely heuristic, since neither thinker can be accurately located in any single genealogy of political thought or critical theory. Both are too mobile. Nor do the two of them, when taken together, represent the whole of the Anglo-European tradition, since no such unitary whole actually exists except, again, as a heuristic. The field of African-American political thought is equally varied, but there is a single point of concern toward which virtually all thinkers orient themselves: racial oppression and how to overcome it.

3. See especially The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, trans. Joel Anderson (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995).

4. Theorists and critics who recently have used Rancière's theory to discuss African-American culture and politics include (among others) Jonathan Havercroft and David Owen, "Soul-Blindness, Police Order, and Black Lives Matter: Wittgenstein, Cavell, and Rancière," Political Theory 44 (6) (2016), 739–63; Jason Frank, Constituent Moments: Enacting the People in Postrevolutionary America (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010), 209–36; Jenny Spencer, "Emancipated Spectatorship in Adrienne Kennedy's Plays," Modern Drama 55 (1) (Spring 2012), 19–39; George Shulman, American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Political Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 15–20; Lloyd Pratt, The Stranger's Book: The Human of African American Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 92–96. Illuminating and varied as their discussions are, none of these critics considers the ways African-American thought might elude or challenge Rancière's theory. The case is somewhat different with Honneth. Not many critics and theorists have used his work in relation to African-American thought and activism, while a considerable number have pointed to lacunae and weaknesses in his theory of recognition. In addition to Melvin Rogers (cited below), see Shana Almeida, "(Re)cognition: A Move to Explicate Race in Axel Honneth's Critical Theory of Social Justice," Critical Social Work 14 (2) (2013): 83–97. It is worth noting that in his discussion of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, the text itself is an entirely passive recipient of an analysis that draws on Honneth's own work, on Kant, and on the work of several psychologists, including Daniel Stern. Honneth gives no indication that he feels that something new or distinctive can be learned about recognition from Invisible Man itself. Axel Honneth, "Invisibility: On the Epistemology of 'Recognition,'" in Axel Honneth and Avishai Margalit, "Recognition," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society S75 (2001): 111–39.

5. This seems to be especially true, recently, of critics and political theorists who employ Rancière's ideas of "the part that is no part" and "distribution of the sensible" as if these terms named phenomena not already identified and analyzed—differently—by black political thinkers.

6. Katia Genel and Jean-Philippe Deranty, eds., Recognition or Disagreement: A Critical Encounter on the Politics of Freedom, Equality, and Identity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

7. To these three disagreements one should perhaps add a fourth. As Devin Zane Shaw has demonstrated in a critique of the way this volume frames Rancière, its editors seem to be bent on figuring "recognition" as a point where these two very different thinkers meet and overlap. Shaw argues cogently that the very opposite is the case: recognition is more usefully and accurately taken to be a point of radical disagreement between them: whereas for Honneth political and social institutions mediate an ongoing process of recognition, for Rancière they constitute a key part of the distribution of the sensible that enforces inequality. Thus, Shaw argues, "far from endorsing a theory of recognition, Rancière has redefined recognition as a politics of dissensus and disagreement." Although foregrounded in this volume by the editors' misprision of Rancière, this particular disagreement is just one of many that arise from their differing theories. More fundamental, I believe, are their disagreements over the need for normative justifications and over the proper way to conceive of the political subject. Devin Zane Shaw, "Disagreement and Recognition between Rancière and Honneth," Boundary2, March 13, 2017,ère-and-honneth/.

8. "I now propose to reserve the term politics for an extremely determined activity antagonistic to policing: whatever breaks with the tangible configuration whereby parties and parts or lack of them are defined by a presupposition that, by definition, has no place in that configuration—that of the part of those who have no part. . . . Political activity is whatever shifts a body from the place assigned to it or changes a place's destination. It makes visible what had no business being seen, and makes heard a discourse where once there was only place for noise; it makes understood as discourse what was once only heard as noise." Jacques Rancière, Dis-Agreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 30–31.

9. To give an example (that is mine, not his): within a particular distribution of the sensible it was simply not thinkable that women could suffer because they were limited to the role of housewives. Women who rejected their confinement to domesticity were not, in the eyes of society, sufferers; they were malcontents, complainers, eccentric disturbers of the peace. And in their own eyes, what were they? Here we might recall Betty Friedan's phrase in The Feminine Mystique: "the problem that has no name." According to Friedan, in the decade after World War Two, many American housewives felt a kind of malaise, a generalized feeling of dissatisfaction. But they could point to no specific cause for it, nor could they find a name for it. Rancière helps us see that the reason why their complaint was unnamable was that the current distribution of the sensible didn't allow for its appearance, didn't accord it any validity, didn't define "suffering" in a way that linked up to, or included, this vague feeling of discontent. So, precisely as Rancière writes: "What is at the core of politics and emancipation is the invention of other ways of being, including even other ways of suffering" (126).

10. As Devin Zane Shaw has argued, this tendency to abstraction Rancière is sometimes unfairly criticized as needless when it fact it is indispensable to his project. Of the phrase "the part with no part," for example, Shaw writes: "when [Rancière] defines those subjects who confront the established order as the part with no part, this definition is far more abstract than saying marginalized and oppressed. But Rancière relies on this level of abstraction in order to avoid delimiting conditions of political agency that could delimit who this part is because it could exclude groups who have yet to emerge and who we cannot foresee." Shaw, "Disagreement and Recognition between Rancière and Honneth."

11. Axel Honneth, Disrespect: The Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), 10.

12. A concise version of this argument can be found in Disrespect (129–43). See also The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts tr. Joel Anderson (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), especially 31–63. It is important to note that the recognition theory Hegel developed in the Jena period is concerned primarily to explain how, in a Hobbesian state of nature, individuals in competition with each other could arrive at the idea of granting themselves legal personhood and thereby enter into a social contract. Hegel's answer is a re-description of the state of nature as one in which inter-subjective relations among individuals are already present; this is the root-stock onto which Honneth grafts his own theory of recognition. By contrast, most critics who have used Hegel to explicate African-American literature and experience have drawn on the later version of Hegel's recognition theory formulated in the master-bondsman struggle over labor. See especially Orlando Patterson's Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982). More critical discussions of Hegel, revising or showing the limitations of his recognition theory (at least as epitomized in the master-bondsman dialectic), include Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 60–64; Cynthia Willett, "The Master-Slave Dialectic: Hegel vs. Douglass," in Subjugation and Bondage: Critical Essays on Slavery and Social Philosophy, ed. Tommie L. Lott (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), 151–70.

13. Jacques Rancière, "The Theses on Politics," Theory and Event 5 (3) (2001): n.p. Jason Frank persuasively argues that Rancière's early work proposes a less abstract notion of subjectivization, one that is less "eventual" and more temporally attenuated. "Logical Revolts: Jacques Rancière and Political Subjectivization," Political Theory 43 (2): 249–61. Nonetheless, this is not how Rancière has described subjectivization more recently; nor (as Frank points out) is it how he has been understood by most of his readers. Correctly or not, he is identified with a theory that emphasizes momentary and episodic breaks in the current order of things, not the means through which the recently self-created political subject sustains or secures her new identity as equal in the face of continued repression and denial. Indeed, I would argue that Rancière's aversion to psychological and phenomenological accounts of politics disposes him to look away from such matters.

14. Freedom's Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life, tr. Joseph Ganahl (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 96. This work incorporates the structure and thematic concerns of Hegel's The Philosophy of Right, with its narrative of progress from strictly abstract, legal personhood (and freedom), through the development of moral personhood (and freedom), to a third stage of social personhood (and freedom). See also Honneth's brilliant reading of The Philosophy of Right in The Pathologies of Individual Freedom: Hegel's Social Theory, trans. Ladislaus Lob (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

15. I take the phrase from the pioneering work in the field, Leonard Harris, ed., Philosophy Born of Struggle: Anthology of Afro-American Philosophy from 1917 (Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt, 1983).

16. Charles W. Mills, "A Critique of Tommie Shelby," Critical Philosophy of Race 1 (1): 20.

17. The phrase itself is Ralph Ellison's, of course. I am indebted here to Casey Hayman's nuanced discussion of this dynamic in, "'Black Is . . . Black Ain't': Ralph Ellison's Meta-Black Aesthetic and the 'End' of African-American Literature," American Studies 54 (3): 127–52.

18. George Yancy, "African-American Philosophy: Through the Lens of Socio-Existential Struggle," Philosophy and Social Criticism 35 (5): 554, 555.

19. David Walker, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829), 16. Text available at

20. See W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1 880 (New York: Free Press, 1998), 17–31.

21. Christopher J. Lebron, The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice in Our Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) and Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (New York: Broadway Books, 2016).

22. The website states, "This is the Official #BlackLivesMatter Organization founded by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza.".

23. To be fair to Rancière, as Zane points out, I must acknowledge that he has a good reason for keeping the "bodies" and "entities" he refers to so highly abstract: such abstraction is a capacious envelope that does not implicitly exclude some bodies and entities by specifying others. However, as justifiable as it may be, such abstraction also reflects Rancière's own social position as one who has never been marked as a racial other. This fact, and his apparent blindness to it, is precisely what a juxtaposition of his thought to that of African-American thinkers makes visible. All this is changing somewhat, however, as analyses of racism as "systemic" and "structural" displace those that view it as fundamentally interpersonal.

24. James Baldwin from a 1963 Interview. Quoted by Robert Jensen in White Self-Criticality beyond Anti-Racism: How Does It Feel to Be a White Problem?, ed. George Yancy (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015), 87.

25. This reversal is one Baldwin repeatedly effected by addressing his white readers directly. As Lawrie Balfour has written: "One aim of Baldwin's essays is to force an unwilling readership to acknowledge, truly, the humanity of African Americans. Yet recognition of black Americans by whites does not alone suffice. Baldwin contends that white Americans will not have accepted the equal humanity of blacks until they are able to admit the racial construction of their own identities and ask how that construction affects their commitments." Lawrie Balfour, The Evidence of Things Not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 56

26. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Oxford W. E. B. Du Bois Reader, ed. Eric J. Sundquist (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 497.

27. As Deranty observes, "For Honneth the normative expectations of individuals, which are expectations of recognition, contain a critical potential that can engage a dynamic of social transformation." Disagreement or Recognition?, 16.

28. Honneth acknowledges this difficulty, up to a point. As he writes in The Struggle for Recognition: "In modern societies, relations of social esteem are subject to a permanent struggle, in which different groups attempt, by means of symbolic force and with reference to general goals, to raise the value of the abilities associated with their way of life" (127). A full account of the strengths and limitations of Honneth's theory of recognition (when viewed from the perspective of black American political thought) lies well beyond the reach of this article. By way of a provisional summary, I would say that one main strength stems from Honneth's method: he infers the contours of social recognition and of what is being seen in acts of such recognition from its opposite: insult, or the willful refusal to accord recognition to others. The second main strength is his awareness that struggle and conflict are permanent features of social formation and politics. The weaknesses stem from the optimism that infuses his account, i.e., from his implicit belief that modernity itself will usher in the "ethical life" characterized by consensual social respect.

29. Moreover, as Melvin Rogers has argued, Honneth's theory does not and cannot account for "alternative forms" of recognition the oppressed can generate when denied formal recognition by a society that excludes them: "Herein lies the paradox of recognition [in Honneth's theory]: our moral and psychological development and stability comes to depend too much on precisely those institutions and individuals that are the source of insult and injury. As such, [Honneth] is unable to seriously consider alternative forms of mutuality, whose success depends on reconstructing the symbols of identity in which one's self-worth develops." "Rereading Honneth: Exodus Politics and the Paradox of Recognition," European Journal of Political Theory 8 (2) (2009): 185.

30. David Walker, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, 5.

31. A significant number of African-American thinkers regard the white racist order as too powerful to overcome; it may make occasional concessions, but only when whites' material interests are thereby served. See Derrick A. Bell, "Brown v Board of Education and the Interest Convergence Dilemma," Harvard Law Review 93 (1979–80): 518–33; Stephen S. Best and Saidiya Hartman, "Fugitive Justice," Representations 92 (1) (Fall 2005): 1–15.

32. Indeed, Douglass neither avoids the question of his motivation nor resolves it; writing years after the wrestling match occurred, he is still intrigued and mystified by it: "Whence came the daring spirit necessary to grapple with a man who, eight and forty hours before, could, with his slightest word have made me tremble like a leaf in a storm [?]" he asks, and immediately answers, "I do not know" (283). The very language here—"whence came the spirit"—suggests the possibility of a divine intervention, of the eternal intersecting with and transforming the historical. Douglass gives further weight to such an explanation by invoking the possibility that a transcendent force intervened in the form of the "roots" with purportedly "magic powers" given to him two days beforehand by his fellow slave Sandy. However, in the end Douglass does not settle on any one explanation for his decision to resist Covey, leaving his readers only with a sense that this question is as irresolvable as it is important.

33. James Baldwin, Collected Essays (New York: The Library of America, 1998), 214.

34. Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X. Kendi, "With Love and Respect: #Scholars Respond to a Vision for Black Lives, the African American Intellectual History Society blog,

35. Nathan Wright, "Black Power: A Religious Opportunity," in Gayraud S. Wilmore and James H. Cone eds., Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1966–1979 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979), 60.

36. Quoted in Samuel A. Chambers, The Lessons of Rancière (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 29.

37. Ibid., 25.

38. The literature on Black existentialism is both relevant here and extensive. See, by way of introduction, Lewis R. Gordon, ed. Existence in Black: An Anthology of Black Existential Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 1997).

39. John W. Blassingame, The Fredrick Douglass Papers, Series One; Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, vol. 2, 1847–54 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982), 261.

40. Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), 231.

41. Anna Julia Cooper, The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper, ed. Charles Lemert and Esme Bhan (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 1998), 193.

42. W. E. B. Du Bois, "The Church and Religion," Crisis 40 (October 1933): 720.

43. Patricia Hill Collins, "Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought," Social Problems 33 (6) (1986): S16.

44. Yancy, "African-American Philosophy," 552.

45. Charles Mills, Blackness Visible, xv.

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