Sunday, December 28, 2008

Top 10 African-American Political Thinkers

Because I like lists. Obviously, this is wholly subjective, and is my own special blend of "influential" and "correct". It also was created in the space of about five minutes:

Honorable mentions: Alain Locke, George Schuyler, Derrick Bell, James Cone, Kimberle Crenshaw

10) James Cone Huey P. Newton
9) Huey P. Newton Thomas Sowell
8) Thomas Sowell bell hooks
7) Marcus Garvey
6) Stokely Carmichael
5) Booker T. Washington
4) Malcolm X
3) Frederick Douglass
2) Martin Luther King, Jr.
1) W.E.B. Du Bois

A very diverse list, I think. You have liberals (King and Du Bois and hooks), conservatives (Washington and Sowell), nationalists (Garvey and Malcolm), Black Power enthusiasts (Cone and Carmichael), a communist (Newton), and the uncategorizable Frederick Douglass. Nice set.

UPDATE: This is why I need commenters -- to point out ridiculous oversights like bell hooks.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm sure that it was a simple oversight on your part that this list is 100% male. Try again, only this time spend more than five minutes and include some women (no bell hooks? seriously?)

Matthew C said...

What do you make of political thinkers who worked in mediums out side of explicit legal and political commentary? If it's "thought" and not "theory" that we're concerned with, I think you're list of obvious oversights gets a bit longer.

Here I am thinking specifically of James Baldwin. His writings deal with political and spiritual issues, and fairly overtly in some of his non-fiction. "Notes of a Native Son", "The Fire Next Time", "The Price of the Ticket", and "The Evidence of Things Not Seen" come to mind as particularly important here. Baldwin should definitely get a top 10 airing.

And if novelist/commentators are eligible, then I think Toni Morrison deserves at least an honorable mention.

And a nod to Cornel West too? I wouldn't Top 10 him, but I'd put him on the shortlist.

Matthew C said...

OHHHHHH. And Audre Lorde.

PG said...

I agree with the addition of bell hooks, but would be skeptical of adding Toni Morrison or Cornel West. West because I don't think he's sufficiently influential (I'd certainly rank him below Derrick Bell and especially Kimberle Crenshaw, whose intersectionality work has been so crucial in defining how race links with other aspects of subordination), and Morrison because she's not precisely a political writer.

She's definitely a social writer, but politics seems almost too crude for what Morrison does. I want to say that she's "better" than that, but I'm not sure it captures what I mean. In the balance of making you think and making you feel, Morrison's emphasis is on making you feel first -- on reaching your emotions through literary tools -- and secondarily on making you think. She isn't promoting any particular politics, partly evidenced by her preference for setting her writing in the past. She is less concerned with how government treats people than how people treat people.

Matthew C said...

I think your point about Morrison is reasonable. My suggesting her stems from a difference in thinking about the scope of political thought - I think "how people treat people" is just as important a political topic as "how government treats people." I know this is sort of a minority report, and that for most students of politics it goes without saying that the state is the center of political thinking. But I'm not alone - there's a lot of affinity between my way about politics and Judith Shklar's approach, which makes moral psychology the central edifice of political theory and makes the weak and the powerful its basic units. If one adopts that view, then I think Morrison is a shoo in. She is certainly affective more than argumentative, but the overwhelming point of her work is to dramatize the moral and historical fact of slavery, a legal/political institution. And far from doing this to avoid discussion of contemporary social and political issues, she is, like Faulkner, aware that the past is never really past - she narrates from history as a way of getting at the moral dilemmas of the present. I suggested Baldwin most forcefully because I think his work has this quality AND a much more contemporary, explicitly political component.

As to West, I'd agree that he'd be near the bottom of the honorable mention pile, though I think the popular influence of "Race Matters" at least entitles him to a mention. And I don't want to dispute Crenshaw's significance, but if it's intersectionality that grants her berth, I think a contemporary like Patricia Hill Collins has as much standing, and a progenitor like Audre Lord probably more... though I think all three are distant seconds to hooks when it comes to theorizing intersectionality in politics.

PG said...

I think "how people treat people" is just as important a political topic as "how government treats people." I know this is sort of a minority report, and that for most students of politics it goes without saying that the state is the center of political thinking. But I'm not alone - there's a lot of affinity between my way about politics and Judith Shklar's approach, which makes moral psychology the central edifice of political theory and makes the weak and the powerful its basic units.

I don't want to underestimate the importance of moral psychology in ethics, or the importance of ethics in political theory, but I'm doubtful of a political theory in which moral psychology is the "central edifice." I'm not familiar with Shklar's work, but it seems that often the sense of revulsion isn't associated with morality so much as habit. That is, people are disgusted by the idea of eating a collie not because there is a rational basis for it to be considered worse than eating a pig, but due to their cultural biases. I find myself very often opposed to those who want to preserve moral revulsion as a basis for legislation.

Matthew C said...

Making moral psychology central to political theory doesn't mean being a moral intuitionist in ethics (and I agree with your reasoning as to why we ought not be, especially in terms of law). It's really a much more mundane point about the ordering of questions. A political theorist operating in the vein of moral psychology would say that questions like "why do we tolerate injustices?" and "why do people oppress one another?" are more important than questions like "why is the state legitimate?" or "what is popular sovereignty?" And, truly, its a question of priority that I don't think has a right or wrong answer; I was just trying to explain why, for someone who answers the way I do, reading Morrison might be a better exercise in political thought than reading some of the other folks on David's list.