Cross-reflection on Black Dignity – Reading Vincent Lloyd and Norman Ajari
** This is the third in our Black Dignity and Death forum, focusing on Vincent Lloyd’s Black Dignity: The Struggle against Domination and Norman Ajari’s Dignity Or Death: Ethics and Politics of Race. Each day this week one article from a different scholar will be published
Previous posts include:
Black Dignity vs. Liberal Anti-Racism by Vincent Lloyd
Dignity, police killing, and France’s racial uprising by Norman Ajari
Subsequent posts include:
Racial Symbols and Black Death by Dalitso Ruwe**
Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination, by Vincent L. Lloyd, explores the domination confronted by Black Americans. Lloyd anchors his reflection on the hashtag and movement Black Lives Matter (BLM). The slogan and activism that result from the movement open an epistemic horizon: “the ideas animating today’s racial justice movement. I name these ideas the philosophy of Black dignity” (BD, 34). Lloyd develops a social, political, and cultural ontology that reveals a human group rooted in its ability to struggle against domination: “Black dignity names not a status but rather the struggle against racial domination and the embrace of a forever distant, opaque possibility of a world without domination” (BD, 35).
“Domination” is an omnipresent concept in Lloyd’s work. It gives the impression of a demiurgic, invisible, or omnipotent force. Yet, his analysis emphasizes above all the struggle against domination’s ubiquity: “But domination never has the last word. The master never owns the souls of those he enslaves” (BD, 41).
We live in a world of interlocking systems of domination. But neither is the world the sum of all systems of domination, nor is a person’s existence defined only by the sum of her entanglements in systems of domination. But if we look at ordinary people, and at practices rather than words, we find domination stretched, fragmented, incomplete. (BD, 116)
Lloyd insists on the ability and potential of human action in the face of the contingent reality of domination. It is in this dialectical relationship that a human with black skin, while representing the possibilities and challenges of freedom, also remains the recipient of centuries-old violence. BLM provides a breath of creative and liberating energy that Black Dignity captures. Lloyd rejects fatality, pessimism, and nihilism without adopting a blissful optimism alienated from reality.
Within the framework of this dialogue with Lloyd, one particular question strikes me: the Black intellectual or researcher’s role in the struggle against domination. Although the theologian does not devote a chapter to this figure’s status, she appears regularly from the beginning to the end of the work. A brief autobiographical meditation precedes Lloyd’s analysis. He evokes his exploration of identity, his activism, and his interest in philosophers such as Badiou, Hegel, Nietzsche, Derrida, and Levinas. The author wishes to reconcile identity, Black people’s struggle for freedom, and academic research. It is in Ferguson, Missouri that he finds a vocabulary that allows him to conceptualize his Blackness. Whereas his first writings focused more on a philosophy of transcendence, he now develops a way of thinking that comes to grips with the material conditions of Black people’s existence. Black Dignity expresses the necessity and the urgency to produce theory that is tightly fastened to the lived experience of Black people and their continual efforts to be free.
This preoccupation is not new. The presence of Black Studies in the academy was born in a context of the struggle for liberation by people of African descent in the United States and throughout the world: “Black Studies entered universities through collective struggle aligned with the Black power movement” (29). The DNA of this field of study is anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist. Lloyd explains how the gradual institutionalization of the discipline, the promotion of multiculturalism, and the ambivalent status of the Black intellectual deprive Black Studies of its revolutionary character. The increasingly bourgeois quality of this field of study underlines a loss of contact with its primary subject, a divorce from the radicalism of its origins. Lloyd writes: “Revolutionary potential rests with those struggling in the ground against domination, […]. In James’s view, intellectuals work alongside those on the front lines of struggle to offer conceptual and material resources, connect struggles, […] but intellectuals are structurally compromised. […] they had to be formed in the world of those who dominate, […], and no amount of struggle can purge that formation.[…]. In short, James and those like him, myself included, are blocked from fully realizing dignity.” (BD, 145-146)
The distinction established by Lloyd is real. Yet, why not explicitly analyze the problem of diverging class interest: is it the intellectual’s education or desire for social climbing within an oppressive system that separates her from revolutionary populations? Is it a matter of differentiating the loyal intellectual – motivated by the cause of the people – from the disloyal intellectual motivated by personal interest? Lloyd writes: “Rather, she is a sympathizer and propagandist who takes her lead from the struggles of those enslaved but whose lifestyle depends on the comfort provided by slave labor. […] At worst, the professional Black intellectual is not a friend of the slave but a slave catcher. She is tasked with explaining the world of Blacks and our struggles to a largely white audience” (BD, 146-147). Race lends a homogeneity of identity to Black people of all classes that masks their unequal relationships with power and capital. Lloyd denounces the commodification and the fungibility of impoverished Black people’s lives. The suffering and deprivation of a brutalized and marginalized human group makes possible the social climbing of the Black intellectual within the white academy. The theologian criticizes the Black “Professional Managerial Class” (PMC) that proliferates within the university system. To Lloyd, this social class has left behind the struggle for freedom, forged in plantations and in the streets, for individual capitalist success. According to Catherine Liu: “the PMC gradually shifted its allegiance from workers to capital. Since that time, the most successful and visible segments of the PMC have brazenly put their smarts at the service of the bosses.” Liu uses a Marxist approach based on class struggle. Lloyd, in contrast, opts for a slavery metaphor in a post-slavery and neoliberal period. It is less a matter of slavery than of the confrontation between the bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat within the Black community: two economically distinct but racially homogeneous classes. Lloyd criticizes the emergence of concepts that legitimize the offsite production of knowledge, which is in total rupture with the political work of organization and mobilization necessitated by Black liberation: “Recently, another species has appeared: those who pose as runaways, embracing the language of fugitivity while capturing with concepts (fugitive concepts!) the political aesthetic performances of the fugitive for display at Negrophilic academic presses and conferences. To be clear, the problem is not that contemporary intellectuals are writing about Black people. It is that they produce scholarship on Black people that is antiquarian or monumental, that is not oriented by struggle or accountable to those who struggle.” (BD, 147)
Lloyd observes the propagation, in the academic world, of a performative epistemology that is divorced from the material conditions of ordinary people’s struggles. Black Studies today reveal, not the massive depoliticization of a field of study, but its politicization against the interests of impoverished Black populations. Talking about the problem of social class without ever naming it causes blindness to class. The Black researcher must situate herself either as an individual with bourgeois aspirations or in solidarity with a dominated group struggling for its liberation. Is this researcher a homo economicus or a class traitor? By choosing the second option, the Black intellectual does not get rid of her economic status. Instead of defending her personal interests, she produces knowledge that endangers her privileged position in the name of collective liberation. In agreement with the new generation of activists, Lloyd affirms that: “The only possibility of flourishing will be after the end of the world. Racism and other forms of domination so contaminate the world that only after it ends will be free” (BD, 93-94). This eschatological language suspends political imagination, turning instead to poetic mysticism.
Lloyd’s work insists on the creative energy of BLM, its ability to unify and to generate new configurations of Black dignity, Black love, Black joy, and Black rage. Still, the political feeling elicited by the slogan BLM is distinct from the problems inherent to contemporary activism: “The massive outpouring of financial support from mainstream institutions was an instance of convergence – between the militant racial liberalism of Black Lives Matter and the operational racial liberalism of the investor class.” If we join Lloyd in appreciating the collective dynamism of BLM, the concrete actions to be taken in the struggle for freedom remain to be determined. Describing Black lumpen proletarians, Eldridge Cleaver specifies that they fight in the street, outside of the institutional framework of negotiation. The Black intellectual must locate the episteme of liberation in the public spaces taken over by a marginalized youth in search of social and economic justice. Conscious of these essential stakes, Lloyd recognizes the contradictions inherent in the situation of instructors and students. In their efforts to transpose this transformational energy to the heart of the university, they find themselves imprisoned by a paradox. The university is simultaneously a place for challenging and for reproducing mechanisms of domination: “Protesters often call for them to provide more resources for Black students and Black scholarship, but the effect is inevitably to grow rather than shrink the mechanisms of domination” (BD, 147). Several decades ago, Robert L. Allen identified this paradox. Black students possess a genuine ability to rebel and resist. Yet, “the black student is crucial to corporate America’s neocolonial plans. It is the educated trained blacks who are slated to become the new managers of the ghetto, the administrators of the black colony”. The current obsession with diversity, equity, and inclusion allows a political economy of race whose final consequence is to promote bourgeois respectability disguised as political radicalism. Anti-racist liberalism and inclusive capitalism’s principal underpinnings are: an affirmative action empire (as formulated by Dr. Matthew Quest), a multi-ethnic police state, and activists funded by private foundations. A radical social change within this system is impossible. I choose to focus on the role of the Black intellectual in the struggle against domination because like Lloyd, I continuously question my positionality in relation to Black Studies, its institutionalization, and its consequent collaboration with the empire of capital. I respect Lloyd’s honesty and his willingness to challenge the figure of the Black scholar. Her haunting presence throughout the book shows that Lloyd is fully aware of her existential and political conundrum. Indirectly, the theologian addresses the class character of the Black liberation struggle. Although his analytical framework centers on Blackness, racism, and domination, the need for a radical examination of the class component of Black liberation remains an eerie presence throughout the book.
In his work Dignity or Death: Ethics and Politics of Race, Norman Ajari, just like Lloyd, notes the post-George Floyd effect: that is, the globalization of the anti-racist struggle and of opposition to state violence, which victimizes the proletariat and the Black lumpenproletariat in particular. According to the philosopher: The Black condition is defined today by indignity” (DOD, 1). He adds: “A key argument of this book is that there is a Black condition and a Black history unique to the modern period that is common both to Africa and its diasporas. This condition and history are defined by the political and social violence that disproportionately affects Black people, and by the constant need, in response, to a variety of cultures, national distinctions, and identity affiliations, there is a shared condition, which can be described as life contaminated by death.” (DOD, 2)
Starting from a hermeneutics of death, the philosopher reflects on life. The centrality of death does not lead him to theorize life as an uninterrupted series of fatalities. Ajari puts forward the paradox of a life in death and through death, a life struggling against death. This distinguishes him from Afropessimists. If the Black condition is indissociable from indignity, Black subjectivity is tied up in an ethics of dignity driven by action. It does not give in to a nihilist defeatism, even if the total destruction of the capitalist and racist system seems hopeless. Victory is situated in the effort and the ability to continue the struggle. Without romanticizing or minimizing this Sisyphean battle, Ajari shows that it restores our dignity and humanity. The philosopher explores the permanent tension between, on the one hand, the racist world into which a Black person is thrown and, on the other, her historical becoming. Ajari investigates race through a sociological prism as well as examining redistributive identity politics that authorize the integration of the minority elite into a capitalist system. Through these inquiries, Ajari stresses that: “It is state violence and global structural inequality that produce race, not the discipline of sociology. It is death and dehumanization that produce Black people, not an ‘essentializing’ discourse” (DOD, 3). Dignity or Death explores the difficult duty to exist in the voracious flood of death, the permanent back-and-forth between nonbeing and the imperative of being: “daring to affirm a Black humanity and forcing one’s adversary to recognize one’s dignity entails passing from the zone of nonbeing to that of being” (DOD, 71). Two ideas particularly spoke to me in Ajari’s analysis: the problem of recognition and that of the politicization of Black suffering. Why do Black people live in unlivable conditions? Whether she is a citizen of the U.S, France, or of a country located south of the Sahara, what prevents her recognition? How does the politicization of Black suffering give birth to a notion of the political that exists beyond democracy and elections? For people of African descent, the problem of recognition implicitly contains a suffering caused by existing and that is reduced to silence. For more than four hundred years, Black people have experienced a range of violence whose most extreme manifestation is wanton murder. If couleur [color] rhymes with douleur [pain], it is because the latter remains inaudible: unrecognized by those who inflict it. On this point, Ajari emphasizes: “Insensitivity is the ability to inflict suffering on another human being, or to witness it, without feeling any desire to stop it or attenuate it. In any racist social organization, this quality is highly valued, if not indispensable. Understood in this way, insensitivity is one of the conditions of possibility for producing indignity.” (DOD, 51)
The philosopher evokes “insensitivity”, an essential question that has been rendered voiceless. It persists in the white world’s relationship to Black people. Faced by Black suffering, racist societies feel nothing. Some brandish benevolent actions by NGOs and charitable organizations. Yet, the indignity of the Black condition is indispensable to the flourishing of guilt-assuaging capitalist philanthropy. It is not a matter of saving Black people, but of creating a world in which, because their physical, moral, cultural, social, and economic sufferings are taken into account, they no longer need to be saved. Centuries of transgenerational conditioning create individuals who are, at best, without empathy and, at worst, sadistic. Instead of seriously examining the psychic mechanisms that permit a theater of barbarity, the discussion centers on white fragility, inclusion, and diversity. Indifference and detachment are the prerequisites of the enslaving and colonizing enterprise. George Floyd and Jordan Neely both bore the mark of indignity before the final act of violence that put an end to their lives. Their public murders were paroxysmal expressions of a slow and socially programmed destruction. In the United States, the lives and deaths of individuals born into the lumpenproletariat count little or not at all. Floyd and Neely were living unlivable lives: “Another constitutive characteristic of the condition of everyday indignity is its vulnerability to a thanato-political death sentence or to necropolitical conditions under which it is literally impossible to live” (DOD, 63). The concepts of “systemic racism” and “institutional racism” may be useful, but they function as totalitarian entities or crushing abstractions, outside of human action. It is, however, a world of social relations that creates systems and institutions. They are the reflection of a society whose members are cold monsters who agree not to be troubled by the suffering of others: “[…] while institutionalized racism is primarily a function of the state, it can only work on this structural level precisely because it is constantly embraced, reinforced, and practiced by ordinary individuals. Racism and imperialism crystallized into a lifestyle.” (DOD, 60)
So-called democratic nations practiced slavery and colonization. Today, progressive ideology would like to convince us to accept that, even though the situation isn’t perfect, it’s getting better. Black populations, going forward, will be part of the political community. Given the unlivable living conditions of Black people and omnipresent violence, Calvin Warren puts out a call for “political apostasy”. Even if Black people can now vote, the democratic game is a clever scam. It establishes hope that will never be realized. Participation in the electoral process does not change the material conditions of the brutalized and impoverished Black lumpenproletariat. While disaffection leads Warren to reject politics, Saidya Hartman does not see political possibilities among the enslaved. Since they are not citizens, their efforts are useless. Where Ajari examines “the politicization of Black agency” (BD, 68), Warren would doubtless see: “the nihilist response to trauma as the only form of ‘agency’ in and absurd anti-black world.” Ajari proposes an understanding of politics that defies the paradigms of the nation-state, humanism, and western democracy:
But such a position seems misguided insofar as it assumes as universal an extremely restrictive conception of politics. Rather than frame the situation of slaves and of the oppressed within a modern paradigm of bourgeois citizenship, the concept of dignity invites a re-evaluation of the very idea of politics by taking Black uprisings, such as that of the Haitian revolution, as its point of departure. (BD, 71)
Later, he adds: “For Hartman, slave practices couldn’t be qualified strictly speaking as political since, as chattel, they lacked the rights of citizens. This assumes that the arena of politics is defined by the norms established and reinforced by state and legal institutions, rather than seeing political action as a sort of collective mobilization designed to bring about fundamental social change.” (BD, 119)
The philosopher underlines the ontological and revolutionary dimension of Black suffering’s politicization. Black people’s liberation cannot happen in accordance with the criteria established by the society that oppresses them. Starting from his concept of dignity, Ajari shows that western democracies have not exhausted all possible innovations in the field of politics. Rather, they have diminished them. In such a context, advocating for recognition demonstrates a failure of political imagination. The political structure that causes non-recognition also delimits the terms of the exchange that would lead to recognition: “Fighting to gain recognition from this kind of society serves to legitimize it” (DOD, 172). More than once, Ajari mentions the proletariat and the Black lumpenproletariat. The democratic/capitalist institutional and state structures are incapable of producing circumstances conducive to their liberation. Black people rebel out of this position of exclusion from the political community. Whether slave revolts or race riots, Black awakening is organic and collective. The conditions of non-life catalyze a rebellion, an aspiration to live outside of the norms established by a political-economic system that condemns them to social death. Through the concept of dignity, Ajari reveals how the efforts of Black people extend the political imagination, outlining the possibilities of another way of living together outside of the western episteme. He notably proposes Ubuntu without, however, neglecting to mention the limits of this societal model in a South Africa at prey to violence and socio-economic disparities. On the basis of the conflicts generated by the indignity of the Black condition, Ajari produces knowledge focused on the ability of Black people to convert the energy of suffering into a liberating political project. Faced by the task’s immensity, victory is never definitive. Even though defeat is usually waiting at the end, defeat is not always what it seems. And even though they are alive, many living Black people are defeated by “revolutionary suicide”: “a spiritual death that has been the experience of millions of Black people in the United States. […] Its victims have ceased to fight forms of oppression. […] many Blacks have been driven to a death of the spirit rather than of the flesh, lapsing into lives of quiet desperation. Yet all the while, in the heart of every Black, there is hope that life will somehow change in the future. […] Before we die, how shall we live? I say with hope and dignity; and if premature death is the result, that death has a meaning reactionary suicide can never have. It is the price of self-respect.”
Oppression and racism throw a dark veil on the lives of Black people that prevents them from fully living. Huey Newton fights against this zombification of existence. His relationship to death expresses hope and absolute dignity. By sacrificing himself in the name of freedom, he derives self-worth and a revolutionary’s destiny from his social death. If Newton incarnates radical dignity, there is also, in efforts made from day to day, a victory that does not result from the ability to reconcile reality and becoming. Rather, it derives from a sort of perseverance and a transgenerational duty to exist. The presence among us of those who came before is not summarized by their victories or their defeats but by their efforts:
But, in the end, no matter how hopeless it may at first appear or how fleeting its victories, doesn’t the very effort embody Black dignity and the life of the spirit? Sovereign dignity is above all the ability to stay standing amid these setbacks. (BD, 182)
Nathalie Etoke is an Associate Professor of Francophone and Africana Studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of Black Existential Freedom ( Rowman and Littlefield, 2022) Shades of Black (2021); and L’Écriture du corps féminin dans la littérature de l’Afrique francophone au sud du Sahara and Melancholia Africana l’indispensable dépassement de la condition noire (2010), which won the 2012 Franz Fanon Prize from the Caribbean Philosophical Association, and has also been published in English as Melancholia Africana: The Indispensable Overcoming of the Black Condition ( 2019). Her articles have appeared in numerous journals on French, African, and Diasporic literatures. In 2011, she directed Afro Diasporic French Identities, a documentary on race, identity, and citizenship in contemporary France.