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This trend toward increasing religious, political, and class differentiation

and fragmentation within the black population shows every sign of rendering

impossible any form of mass black political unity—pragmatic solidarity or otherwise. 



Books by Floyd W. Hayes, III

A Turbulent Voyage: Readings in African American Studies / Forty Acres and a Mule: The Rape of Colored Americans

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Tommie Shelby. 2005. We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity.

Cambridge: Harvard University Press.  Pp. 320. Cloth, $27.95. ISBN:0-674-01936-9.

Pragmatic Solidarity

Persuasive But Not Convincing

A Book Review  Floyd W. Hayes, III


Over the last three decades, the reawakening of philosophical pragmatism has provoked tremendous interest and controversy in the intellectual community (see Dickstein 1998; Diggins 1994; Rorty 1979; West 1989; Westbrook 2005, 1991).  As America’s unique contribution to the field of philosophy, pragmatism developed as a critique of abstractions and absolutes and as a philosophy oriented toward practice and action. 

In We Who Are Dark, Tommie Shelby attempts to situate his discussion within the framework of philosophical pragmatism. 

For he proclaims the necessity of a pragmatic black nationalism—a conception of black political philosophy that encourages black solidarity—which is conscious of the current forces of fragmentation within America’s black population.  He reviews the political philosophy of nineteenth-century radical abolitionist and black nationalist Martin R. Delany, distinguishing variants of “classical” black nationalism and “pragmatic” black nationalism.  On the one hand, Delany argued that even with the abolition of enslavement black people would never be free of white oppression or racial antagonism in America; therefore, he concluded that black people should leave America to seek democratic citizenship, self-government, and equal protection under the law. 

On the other, Shelby points out that Delany also called for blacks to cultivate solidarity with Native American and Latin American peoples as a practical necessity in the struggle against imperialism.  It is this latter conception of collective black identity, multiracial national polity, and racial justice that Shelby terms pragmatic solidarity.

Shelby examines the problem of black American class divisions by focusing on the philosophical thought of W. E. B. Du Bois with respect to the relationship among black ideals, political solidarity, self-reliance strategies, and elite leadership.  He argues that although Du Bois never completely refuted the charge of elitism, he did put forward a conception of black solidarity that fused moral principle, racial identification, and self-interest into a framework for collective action across class differences. 

After interrogating the perspective of black nationalism advocated by Malcolm X and Black Power activists of the 1960s and 1970s, Shelby rejects this conception of black unity, suggesting that it calls for black institutional autonomy and black uniformity.  Moreover, Shelby criticizes this perspective because, he maintains, it indicts white supremacy and anti-black racism as the fundamental causes of black disadvantages.

Instead Shelby argues for a conception of black solidarity that functions across multiracial political coalitions, that refuses to hold white supremacy as the source of all black disadvantages, and that embraces a network of black leadership and interest advocacy that is non-elitist.  In the last analysis, Shelby asserts that pragmatic black nationalism is a form of black unity and group self-organization, which constitute a strategy for demanding racial justice and the ideal of racial equality.

Although Shelby’s call for pragmatic black solidarity seems to be persuasive, his argument is unconvincing, especially in view of the growing segment of young and affluent African Americans who are joining the ranks of the ultra-right wing Republican Party.  Chief among those shifting to the right is a significant segment of the black church, which is being effectively co-opted by the Bush regime’s faith-based initiatives.  This trend toward increasing religious, political, and class differentiation and fragmentation within the black population shows every sign of rendering impossible any form of mass black political unity—pragmatic solidarity or otherwise.  Eschewing progressive forms of black nationalism, Shelby’s liberal conception of pragmatic nationalism scarcely possesses the strategic power necessary for channeling the forces needed for a unified struggle to overturn white supremacy and racial injustice.


Dickstein, Morris. 1998. Ed. The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law, and Culture. . Durham: Duke University Press.

Diggins, John P. 1994. The Promise of Pragmatism: Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Rorty, Richard. 1979. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

West, Cornel. 1989. The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Westbrook, Robert B. 2005. Democratic Hope: Pragmatism and the Politics of Truth. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

_____. 1991. John Dewey  and American Democracy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

posted 16 November 2005

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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