The Spirit of “Post-Soul Politics”: A Covenant with Black America
[An excerpt from the 2007 book, In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America, published in the U.S. by the University of Chicago Press. ©2007 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.]
“Every generation has to accomplish democracy over again for itself; … its very nature, its essence, is something that cannot be handed from one person or one generation to another, but has to be worked out in terms of needs, problems, and conditions of social life.” John Dewey, Democracy and Education in the World of Today
“We have come to the end of a language and are now about the business of forging a new one. For we have survived, children, the very last white country the world will ever see.” James Baldwin, “Notes on the House of Bondage”
I hold the view, and perhaps this reflects that I was born in 1968 and came of age during the Reagan years, that much of contemporary African American politics suffers from a woeful lack of imagination. We simply find ourselves, more often than not, imitating the methods of struggle forged in the 1960s and 1970s, and waiting, as if for Godot, for the next great leader, the next Martin or Malcolm, to deliver us to yet another promised land.*
Since February 2006, however, I have had the opportunity to be intimately involved in a moment that exemplifies what I mean by post-soul politics. Over the past eight years, Tavis Smiley, the powerful and prophetic African American media personality, has convened what he calls the State of the Black Union, a major discussion among various African American experts, thought leaders, policy makers, and activists about the conditions of African American living. The event airs on C-Span every February and draws regularly a viewership of over 55 million people worldwide.
What is particularly striking about this gathering is that it has constituted a sort of yearly ritual. Folks gather around their televisions for an entire day literally glued to the discussion. The discussions take place live in front of large audiences who are invited to ask questions and to take the panelists to task. In short, the State of the Black Union constitutes a kind of public deliberative space, if only for a day, in which many African Americans (and others) throughout the nation sit and reflect with one another about their circumstances and, by extension, about the nation. It is a powerful illustration of democracy at work. But, again, the event is only one day.
In 2006, in conjunction with the State of the Black Union in Houston, Smiley released a book entitled The Covenant with Black America, a text that takes up ten important issues confronting African Americans in this country. The book turns out to be more than another top-down attempt to define the interests of African Americans. Instead, Smiley (perhaps the first African American with a social conscience to have a substantial presence in television, radio, and print) had gone on The Tom Joyner Morning Show, a black radio show with an audience of 10 million people, and asked African Americans to write in and list the most compelling problems they experienced. Issues emerged ranging from health to education to criminal justice to the digital divide, and Smiley convened a group of experts to write on these issues, collected a body of facts about them, listed best practices in response to the issues, and insisted that individuals hold themselves as well as politicians accountable in relation to them.
The book materializes, then, out of a communicative space mediated by radio; its content reflects a broad-based consensus about particular problems faced and the need for conversation and debate about how best to respond to them.
A National Conversation
On February 25, 2006, Smiley walked on stage, book in hand, to thunderous applause and proceeded to engage in this yearly rite of black democratic action. The difference, however, was that the deliberative space made possible by the State of the Black Union was now between the covers of a book and could move beyond a single day. In fact, Smiley organized what he called the Covenant Tour, in which town-hall meetings in local churches were held in twenty cities throughout the country to localize the book The Covenant with Black America.
I had the privilege to participate in most of these meetings and witnessed firsthand the power of participatory democracy. Thousands of people gathered to discuss the content of the book and its relevance to their daily lives. In Baltimore and Washington, D.C., the issue of gentrification came to the fore. In Indianapolis, concerns over the state of African American children emerged as a central preoccupation. In Los Angeles, the issue of homelessness was important. In each city, some issue particular to the members of the community shaped the discussion of the Covenant, giving it special resonance and relevance to the participants.
Moreover, sustained criticisms of black leadership emerged. African Americans across the United States voiced a deep displeasure with the current black political class and demanded more account- ability and responsibility. But the demands for accountability went beyond electoral processes; they involved a set of commitments, as evidenced in the Covenant meetings, to democracy as a way of living together.
In each city, Smiley would say, quoting Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), that “we are the leaders that we’ve been looking for.” He would go on to paraphrase Ella Baker about not needing a strong, savior-like leader. In each instance, the crowds erupted with applause. The Covenant with Black America affirmed that each individual indeed had the capacity to transform his or her circumstances. In fact, the orientation of the book and of those of us who support it is based on a profound trust that everyday black folk can in fact engage in intelligent action if proper conditions are furnished. It assumes, with John Dewey, that democracy is “the road which places the greatest burden of responsibility upon the greatest number of human beings.”1 As such, the book rejects outright the politics of racial custodianship and approximates the post-soul politics I commend.
While on tour we also acknowledged the generational divide—that many of us struggle with the burden of the symbolic weight of the 1960s. Smiley and I talked of our feelings of being born out of place and out of time: we did not march with Martin or organize with the students of SNCC; we did not stand post for Malcolm or serve breakfasts with the Black Panthers. Many young people nodded their heads in agreement and expressed their dismay along with the challenge of asserting their own voice.
But The Covenant with Black America offers an occasion to reimagine African American politics. Thus a book stands at the center of this effort. That in itself is unusual. Moreover, the innovative ways in which information and communication technology have been deployed to forge solidarities around specific issues is unique in African American politics. But perhaps more important is the insistence on the centrality of the deliberative process, a commitment to participatory democracy, ensuring, as far as possible, that everyday people, with varied interests, aims, and ends, engage one another in efforts to secure goods that are commonly shared.
The meetings also occasioned moments of dissent. In Harlem, a young woman, about twenty-five years of age, stepped to the microphone and declared in a powerful voice that people her age were not reading The Covenant with Black America; that the book was not a “how-to guide” for getting paid and thus was of little interest to many young people; and, perhaps most startling to the people in the room, that she would not vote in the upcoming election. The crowd moaned. What followed, how ever, was a remarkable exchange. The young woman explained herself. She did not care to vote, because she believed her vote would not count. The panel, which included Marc Morial of the Urban League and Bruce Gordon of the NAACP, offered counter-arguments. I believed her conclusions represented an intelligible and reasonable judgment that our democracy was dysfunctional.
Tavis Smiley then made an amazing gesture. He had announced earlier, as he did in every city, that the Republican and Democratic parties had agreed to host a conversation about the Covenant with their presidential candidates. Now he not only offered her tickets for the events but proposed to fly her to them. The young woman ran back to the microphone and declared with amazing confidence, “I will do you one better. If you get me tickets to the events I will fly myself.” She was not out to “hustle” her way into the forums or looking for some handout from Smiley; instead, like so many young African Americans, she simply wanted to participate meaningfully in a genuine process. This moment, for me, illustrated the power of the deliberative space afforded by the Covenant.
What I experienced throughout black America over the course of the tour was an extraordinary expression of civic energy, something very unusual in these dark political times. To be sure, we have witnessed over the past few decades a civic power outage in our country. Many of our fellow citizens are too busy trying to make ends meet or too preoccupied with their own selfish pursuits to engage in public matters. Moreover, moralists who are seemingly not committed to the democratic virtues of open and free exchange have sought to hijack American public life. They want to cultivate instead a pernicious provinciality that results not in the formation of democratic character but in blind dogmatism. I am reminded of the powerful words of William James: “A mind too narrow has room but for one kind of affection.” This one kind of affection is often wrapped in the garments of piety. But as James says, “Piety is the mask, the inner force is tribal instinct.”2
These realities should not lead us to retreat into separatist enclaves. Instead, those of us, few though we may be, must find the energy to draw on the resources of this powerful but fragile experiment in democracy, to save our country. The words of Ralph Waldo Emerson come to mind:
The existing world is not a dream, and cannot with impunity be treated as a dream; neither is it a disease; but it is the ground on which you stand, it is the mother of whom you were born. Reform converses with possibilities, perchance with impossibilities; but here is sacred fact. This was also true, or it could not be: it had life in it, or it could not have existed; it has life in it, or it could not continue.3
We must believe, not in a naive way, that our nation has life in it. The Covenant with Black America demonstrates that this is so and, in our current moment, constitutes a space where democratic hope can be found.
A Blues People
The Covenant with Black America stands within a particular tradition of struggle, a struggle of a blues people who found resources for democratic hope in the extraordinary capacities of ordinary people in spite of a wicked nation committed to wicked practices. The ideals of democracy inspired those who had been denied freedom and education to dream dreams, to imagine possibilities, and to hold on in the face of the withering storm to will themselves into a new day. This tradition never believed the lie that this country was an example of democracy achieved but, rather, understood intimately its failures and shortcomings, its blindnesses and deformities. This tradition saw nevertheless not simply disease but possibility, understanding that the nation could have life if it would only learn to swing Duke Ellington style. It is a tradition that, at its best, cultivated democratic dispositions in the face of strange fruit dangling from poplar trees, insisted on effective freedom as African Americans imagined a day that their children and children’s children would be able to actualize their capacities and potentialities, and struggled to ensure that every child would have access to the opportunity and skills to make good on the promise that is America.
In these trying times we must turn to the power of Emerson’s insight and the enduring purchase of traditions of struggle to muster the democratic hope and courage to challenge our nation and insist on a better future for our children—to educate them and ourselves into the habits of democracy so that this nation can be saved. I am convinced that the Covenant provides such an occasion—not one mired in the nostalgic longing of a glorious past but, rather, one that looks into a distant future to ensure a better life for those yet unborn.
In “Notes on the House of Bondage”, James Baldwin reflected, among other things, on the challenges that young African American children face. He wrote, “What we see in the children is what they have seen in us—or, more accurately perhaps, what they see in us.”4 Baldwin understood fully the task before him: to raise children in such a way as to make certain that “the American guile and cowardice [could not] destroy them.”5
His was a form of piety that was attuned to the lessons of tragedy in American life and forward-looking in its orientation, even until his last days. The epigraph to The Covenant with Black America reflects this orientation. The words of Terry Tempest Williams frame the ambition of the book: “The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time.” The Covenant instantiates a form of piety that begins with the dark side of American life; it confronts candidly the racialized experiences of this fragile experiment in democracy that cut short the lives of so many of our fellow citizens. The piety it commends is also forward-looking in its commitment to participatory democracy, in its insistence on speaking to the particulars of our current moment in a language in formed by the past but shaped by the present, and in its steady resolve to secure a better world for our children and our children’s children.
This sentiment was given powerful expression in a town-hall meeting in Baltimore. The last question was from a young shy girl, about eight years of age. She asked timidly, “What can I do to help the Covenant?” Some answered saying stand proud and never let anyone threaten your spirit. Others said make being smart cool. I simply said, in the democratic spirit of the Covenant, “Keep asking that question and tell us what you hear.”
*Editor’s note: In his book, Glaude describes post-soul politics: “On the one hand, the term simply refers to the period after the civil rights movement and black power era. It includes the political activity of persons born after the major legislative victories of the civil rights movement, the first of whom came of age during the Reagan years.” On the other hand, Glaude writes, post-soul refers to conditions and sensibilities emerging in black America since the turmoil-filled mid-1970s: “That new phase was marked both by many African Americans experiencing unprecedented inclusion in American society, which altered the nature of their political commitments and actions, and by heightening levels of poverty and unimaginable violence, which circumscribed the life chances of large numbers of African American men, women, and children.”
1. John Dewey, “Democracy and Education in the World Today” (1938), in Dewey, Later Works, 13:154.
2. William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Random House, 1994), 370.
3. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Conservative,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of Congress, 1983, 177).
4. James Baldwin, “Notes on the House of Bondage,” in Price of the Ticket, 667.
5. Ibid., 668.
Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., teaches in the Department of Religion at Princeton University. He is the author of Exodus!: Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).