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Opinion | How Black Political Thought Shapes My Work

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By Jamelle Bouie

Opinion Columnist

One of the works I cited in my column this week is the volume “African-American Political Thought: A Collected History,” edited by the political theorists Melvin L. Rogers and Jack Turner.

The book is a series of essays on the luminaries of African-American political thought, across the history of the United States, by some of the most impressive scholars currently working. It is as close to a comprehensive overview of the African-American political tradition as I’ve read, with chapters on figures from Phillis Wheatley and David Walker (two of the most important Black political thinkers of the early American republic) to Angela Davis and Clarence Thomas.

Standout chapters, in my view, are Carol Wayne White’s essay on Anna Julia Cooper, “Radical Relationality and the Ethics of Interdependence”; Michael McCann’s chapter on A. Philip Randolph, “Radicalizing Rights at the Intersection of Class and Race”; and George Shulman’s chapter on Bayard Rustin, “Between Democratic Theory and Black Political Thought.”

One of the things I hope to do this year is engage with African-American political thought even more than I already have in the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written for my column. The reason relates to my interest in the past, present and future of American democracy.

The African-American political tradition is deeply engaged with the experience of — and the requirements for — life in a democracy. And while it certainly speaks, like the Anglo-American political tradition, to the nature of freedom in this country, it also speaks in profound ways to the experience of unfreedom and inequality that has defined life in America for many millions of its subjects and citizens. “Because of its sharp focus on the life and afterlife of slavery, African-American political thought brings the American experience of tyranny into sharp relief,” Rogers and Turner write in their introductory essay to the volume.

African-American political thought is also concerned with democracy as something more and greater than just the sum of certain rules, institutions and procedures. What runs throughout the African-American political tradition, Rogers and Turner note, “is the sense that while the formal practices of democracy such as voting matter, it is a mistake to treat democracy merely as a form rather than a way of life that extends well beyond the voting booths.” Democracy in this vision is “a cultural enterprise” in which “each citizen faces pressure to “affirm the equal standing of his or her fellows.”

Rights matter, but they aren’t “self-executing.” Instead, “they depend on a set of supports — human, economic and political — to help sustain them.” In the African-American political tradition, even natural rights “amount to statuses that one enjoys because of societal affirmation,” an insight tied to the experience of race hierarchy and racial domination in the United States.

Regular readers will quickly see the relevance of these themes in my writing for The Times. It makes sense — Black thinkers have been part of my intellectual life since I first picked up “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” in high school. But as I make democracy the focus of the column this year, I intend to make these influences all the more apparent, and explore them in even greater depth.

What I Wrote

With all of that in mind, my Friday column was on transgender rights, Frederick Douglass and the question of dignity in American politics.

The denial of dignity to one segment of the political community, then, threatens the dignity of all. This was true for Douglass and his time — it inspired his support for women’s suffrage and his opposition to the Chinese Exclusion Act — and it is true for us and ours as well. To deny equal respect and dignity to any part of the citizenry is to place the entire country on the road to tiered citizenship and limited rights, to liberty for some and hierarchy for the rest.

I was also on “The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell,” discussing recent events as well as a few of my most recent columns.

Now Reading

Zoe Hu on the “tradlife” fantasy for Dissent magazine.

Wesley Lowery on the racial reckoning that never happened, for The Atlantic.

Gina Prince-Bythewood on Black women’s struggle for recognition in the filmmaking industry, for The Hollywood Reporter.

Hannah Appel on the academic worker strike at the University of California for The New York Review of Books.

Sam Adler-Bell on the recent crop of “eat the rich” fantasy films for New York.

Photo of the Week

Charlottesville is lucky enough to have a full-service camera shop and, unsurprisingly, I spend a lot of time there. Here is a photo of the shop, which is called Pro Camera. I also took one of the photos that is on the wall.

Now Eating: Black-Eyed Peas With Collard Greens

If I need to make a meal that I know my kids will eat, I always go for some variation on beans and greens. For whatever reason, both of my children will happily eat a bowl of spiced and richly flavored legumes with a green, whether it’s spinach or chard or in this case, collards. I know this sounds Southern, but this recipe, from Martha Rose Shulman of the NYT Cooking section, is a variation on a Greek dish, which is why it’s finished with plenty of dill, lemon juice and feta cheese. I also added mint and thinly sliced red onions, lightly pickled in red wine vinegar.

And while this recipe isn’t from the American South, I cannot eat peas and greens without cornbread, so we had cornbread, too.


½ pound black-eyed peas, rinsed

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

3 large garlic cloves, minced

1 bay leaf

Salt to taste

1 large bunch collard greens (1½ to 2 pounds), stemmed, washed well and chopped or cut in ribbons

2 tablespoons tomato paste dissolved in ½ cup water

¼ to ½ cup chopped fresh dill (to taste)

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Fresh lemon juice (optional)

Feta cheese (optional)


Place the black-eyed peas in a large saucepan, cover with water by two inches, bring to a boil and then drain. Combine with half the onion and one of the garlic cloves in the saucepan. Add water to cover by two inches, and bring to a simmer. Add the bay leaf, and reduce the heat. Add salt to taste, cover and simmer 30 minutes, until the beans are just tender. Drain through a strainer set over a bowl.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large, ovenproof lidded skillet or Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat and add the remaining onion. Cook, stirring, until tender, about five minutes, and add the remaining garlic. Stir together for 30 seconds to a minute, until fragrant. A handful at a time, stir in the greens. As the greens wilt, stir in another handful, until all the greens have been added and have collapsed in the pan. Add the dissolved tomato paste and stir together. Add salt to taste. Add the beans and enough cooking liquid to barely cover everything, cover and place in the oven for 30 minutes, until the collards are tender and the beans very soft.

Uncover the pot, and add a bit of liquid if the beans are dry. Stir in the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and the dill, cover and continue to simmer for another 10 minutes. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Serve warm or hot. If you wish, top with crumbled feta or a squeeze of lemon.

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