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We Who Are DarkReview - We Who Are Dark
The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity
by Tommie Shelby
Belknap Press, 2005
Review by Sharin N. Elkholy, Ph.D.
Mar 1st 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 9)

In We Who are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Cultural Solidarity, Tommie Shelby appeals to blacks to come together under the banner of a "Pragmatic Black Solidarity" to overcome anti-black racism and social injustice for blacks in the United States. The distinguishing feature of his form of solidarity is that it entails no commitment to any positive notion of black identity or to black culture.  To highlight its uniqueness, Shelby contrasts his model of solidarity to that proposed by "classical nationalism."

Shelby lists eight tenets of black cultural nationalism: the claim to a distinct black culture, a call to reclaim, preserve and actively reproduce this culture, along with commercial and interpretative rights over its products; the demand for government support and recognition of black cultural contributions and the significance of community for black self-esteem, economic prosperity and emancipation from anti-black forms of racism. Shelby subsequently challenges each tenet with criticisms that range from questioning the coherence of a "unitary black plural subject" and the reification of race as the ground for black identity, to the legitimacy of black cultural exclusivity. But his principal problem with black nationalism is its demand that blacks feel an obligation to identify with, reclaim, preserve and belong to a distinct black culture. "The trouble with the position under consideration is not that blacks are not a people but rather that it does not follow that blacks have a duty to embrace black culture simply because they are racially black" (175). 

 On Shelby's model of pragmatic solidarity blacks are to come together strictly on the basis of their shared experiences as "victims of anti-black racial oppression" (238). Shelby makes no pretense of hiding the fact that his call for solidarity is based in victimhood. "[R]acial blackness should be understood in terms of one's vulnerability to anti-black racism" and only that (251). Vulnerability to anti-black produces empathy and a "mutual identification and special concern among blacks" to eradicate all forms of racial injustice. Once this task is accomplished blacks are then free to disband (241-242). However, Shelby's call for unity might benefit from bell hooks' observation of how the white feminist movement's emphasis on victimization excludes women who refuse to conceive of themselves as victims and "directly reflects male supremacist thinking" by teaching women to be victims ( bell hooks, Feminist Theory (Boston: South End Press,  1984) pg. 45).  Does Shelby really want to suggest that blacks identify as victims and unite solely on the basis of victimhood?

On the other hand, the desire to preserve and support black culture is not contrary to his model of pragmatic black nationalism. Shelby's claim is simply that organizing as a black to fight against racial injustice does not entail a commitment to a black cultural identity and, likewise, engaging with black culture does not require blacks to identify it as exclusively one's own. Rather, black culture may and should be seen as a collective good that belongs to society at large. But interestingly, in his struggle to free black solidarity from black cultural identity, Shelby assumes the very thing he is struggling so hard to free blacks from: black culture. What then is black culture? According to "racist ideology," Shelby notes, "blacks have no worthwhile culture of their own--neither past nor present" (168).  In his constant and relentless call to "abandon" the "misleading discourse" of classical nationalism with its emphasis on "cultural purity and distinctiveness" might Shelby's "thin" notion of black identity be threatening the very status of black culture itself?

I would suggest, to the contrary, that a primary objective of Shelby's book is, ironically, to fix and solidify a conception of black culture precisely by challenging whether or not it is obligatory for blacks to identify with such a culture. In saying that blacks need not feel the "duty" to identify with black culture, Shelby commits himself to the very existence of black culture. However, this is a difficult line for him to hold, as Shelby believes that blacks are a people "tied by the stigma of race--but not a cohesive cultural or national unit" (252).  "In fact," he states, "what is culturally black is one of the most contested issues within the greater black population" (224). Yet, what arises from his attack against the eight tenets of black nationalism is a list of positive concessions that all lead toward securing the boundaries of black culture.

"Even if," Shelby concedes, "the fate of black culture should rest largely in black hands, this would not, by itself, entail a duty on the part of blacks to embrace a black cultural identity." (172).  And, "even if we accept" that blacks had a more significant role in creating various cultural artifacts and practices, for example jazz and slang, "this would not entail that blacks have an obligation to perpetuate black culture," etc. (171). Indeed, Shelby is adamant about defending the integrity of black culture, albeit from his own unique perspective. "Granted, if black culture were to come under unjustified siege or suppression...then there arguably would be an obligation on the part of blacks to act to preserve it[.]" (172) But significantly, the preservation of black culture by blacks does not arise from any identification with black culture. "Here the obligation to keep black culture alive would spring from the obligation to resist the injustice of cultural intolerance." (172) 

In fact, Shelby is not interested in the ongoing practice of black cultural life or in the fruits of what black culture may deliver in the future, but in the preservation of what blacks have already contributed to culture up to date. Indeed, it appears Shelby does not just borrow the notion of the "talented tenth" from Du Bois, whom he engages along with Delany in the first half of his book, but also Du Bois' fear that blacks will not be deemed equal members of the world community until they have contributed to the stock of world culture. The duty to preserve black culture, as with the duty to bring forth social justice, Shelby argues, falls upon the "black elites," but not without qualification.

Shelby takes heed of the black power movement's distrust and fear of the cooptation of black elites by white power structures. Tempering his belief that "it is imperative that more-affluent blacks extend special concern to the least advantaged," is the recognition that this elite be accountable to black communities. (246). But the black power movement did not only fear the corruption of black elites, they had a suspicion of the very institutions of power that these elites were appealing to. Indeed, the black power movement's primary realization was that there is a direct parallel between black political struggles in the United States and anti-colonial liberation struggles around the world, a fact Shelby notes but gives little credence to. Believing that freedom for blacks in the United States is integrally bound to the condition of those who are dark living around the world, black power called for an international solidarity among all oppressed people of color. While Shelby's argument that black solidarity need not entail a commitment to black identity or culture is theoretically sound, well argued and well written, it fails practically as it does not engage the real problematic posed by classic black nationalism of whether or not, in the words of Audre Lorde: "the master's tools" can ever "dismantle the master's house[?]"

 

© 2006 Sharin N. Elkholy

 

Sharin N. Elkholy, Ph.D., teaches Philosophy and Women's Studies at Hunter College in New York.  Her areas of specialization are 19th - 20th Century Continental Philosophy with a strong interest in Gender and Race Theory. Currently she is completing an article on Authenticity in the Films of Martin Scorsese for the upcoming Philosophy and Popular Culture series, Scorsese and Philosophy (University Press of Kentucky).  


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