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Black Dignity: A Conversation with Vincent W. Lloyd

Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination exposes how Black dignity is the paradigm of all dignity and Black philosophy is the starting point of all philosophy. In what might be called a work of observational philosophy—an effort to describe the philosophy underlying the Black Lives Matter movement—Vincent W. Lloyd defines dignity as something performative, not an essential quality but an action: struggle against domination. Here, Lloyd talks to us about the religious resonance of dignity and the end of multiculturalism in America.

Black Dignity discusses several works of fiction by Black authors. What do you believe is fiction’s political role (if any), and which recent literary forms are most promising to you?

VL: The work of politics, at its best, is imaginative: dreaming new worlds free from domination. For Black political thought, this necessarily approaches fiction, given the pervasiveness of racial domination in our world. The best works of Black fiction—the Great Black Books, from Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston to Alice Walker and James Baldwin—offer indispensable lessons in how domination works, how to imagine a world beyond domination, and how to form our souls for struggle aimed at achieving that world.

In terms of contemporary writing, I have found Bryan Washington’s extraordinary short story collection Lot, focused on working-class life in Houston and probing questions of place, race, and sexuality, a great way to open introductory Black studies classes. I am excited about recent African fiction by authors such as Imbolo Mbue, Akwaeke Emezi, and Uwem Akpan that complicates conversations about transnational Blackness. This summer I returned to Charles Chesnutt and fell in love again with the power of his prose and the care he takes in centering community and relationship.

You write about the pressures facing Black academics, particularly those whose scholarship is housed in Black Studies departments. Do you see a future for organizing involving the university in any capacity, and if so, what might such organizing look like?

VL: In many ways, we are living in a golden age of Black studies scholarship. Black studies is today what French theory was two or three decades ago: energizing, powerful, introducing essential new questions and approaches that are challenging disciplines across the humanities. Also: trendy, esoteric, sometimes vacuous, and fueling a troubling culture of academic celebrity.

Fetishizing French theory was a way for white U.S. academics to displace their disappointed aspirations for social transformation at a moment when it felt like there were few options for real change. In contrast, Black studies presents itself as a way to connect live social movements with the life of the mind—and to allow Black academics to bring their scholarly work, personal lives, and political commitments into alignment. I worry that finding the key to one’s identity in a particular scholarly discourse, subject to the whims and pathologies of the academy, is a recipe for disappointment and abuse. At the same time, the insights being produced in Black studies spaces in the last decade are incredibly important for understanding not only the Black experience, but the human condition.

Oddly, what I have been talking about as “Black studies” rarely happens in Black studies departments and programs. The scholarly discourse ran way ahead of the institutional form, and in the next decade we will see divisive conflicts over how Black studies departments and programs need to change, or whether it is best to ignore or abandon them in the interest of cultivating extra-institutional intellectual production.

You co-edit the journal Political Theology and teach religious studies. How did this background inform your work on Black Dignity?

VL: The concept of dignity has a deep religious resonance. It often points to something ineffable, that spiritual communities label the image of God, found in each human being. After the Second World War, Catholic intellectuals pushed the language of human dignity into the ostensibly secular context of international law. In short, religious traditions provide rich veins of insight into dignity, and they are particularly well-positioned to appreciate the connections between theory and practice.

Troublingly, our public conversations about racial justice often happen in the register of politics when these conversations must address the spiritual and the moral if they are to have any hope of achieving real transformation. I was curious what would happen if we listened to the spiritual and moral insights swirling around Black Lives Matter. Just as important, I was interested in what would happen if we critically engaged with those insights, analyzing them and arguing with them rather than merely reverencing them.

Eldridge Cleaver’s letters to his lawyer, letter-writing in The Color Purple, Baldwin’s letters to his nephew—is there something particularly effective about the epistolary form for either the Black literary tradition at large or your reading of it?

VL: We are in a cultural moment when racial justice risks becoming dogma. There are a set of propositions that count as orthodoxy and a set that count as heresy—and everything in between is suspect. Yet the greatest insights into racial justice (and the greatest insights tout court) are found in exchange, in unfolding relationships. In dialectic. Correspondence spotlights our iterative, never-ending struggles, in dialogue with others, to understand our world, our communities, and ourselves. We are all getting things wrong, all the time, but we can push each other to fail better. I hope that watching the greatest Black thinkers participate in and dramatize this risky process can invite readers into the fray themselves, and build a culture of serious, justice-oriented intellectual engagement.

You write that the era of multiculturalism ended with Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, but we still see multiculturalist representation discourse play out in the public sphere, perhaps most prominently in the media and political industries. What’s an appropriate way to respond to such lines of argument?

VL: For the forty-odd years between the end of the Black Power movement and the murder of Trayvon Martin, multiculturalism was the way the United States managed difference. I mean multiculturalism at the level of social imagination: we “grappled” with difference but we ultimately “celebrated” difference, with the two modes of engagement curiously entangled. On multicultural nights, school auditoriums filled up with an array of tasty foods and colorful clothes.

The era of multiculturalism is over, but we are still in a moment of transition. The Black Lives Matter movement brought to the nation’s attention the qualitative difference of anti-Black racism: Blackness is unlike other cultural differences. From libraries and universities to corporations and activist groups, institutions long-invested in the multiculturalist paradigm are struggling to transform—struggling to understand what responding rightly to anti-Black racism means concretely in their context. Adding Juneteenth to the calendar and reading Ibram X. Kendi are clearly not enough; indeed, the concrete proposals put forward are often still colored by multiculturalist habits.

Vincent W. Lloyd is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His previous books include Black Natural Law and the coedited Race and Secularism in America. He coedits the journal Political Theology.

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