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The Brink

Theorizing Domination Itself: Philosophy, Organizing Movements, and Vincent Lloyd’s Black Dignity

The need for rigor in our organizing movements is clear. The obverse of this is also true: there is a deep need for struggle in our philosophy.

In this book, I sketch out the vision of today’s racial justice movement. I also think with that vision, probe it, and give it shape and coherence that I did not find in the words of movement participants, even as I take those words as a starting point. … I take risks to dive deeper: challenge the conventional wisdom of public discourse and movement discourse, turning not only to revered Black leaders of the past but also to those overlooked and dismissed as suspect, and making arguments about how best to live and to struggle that are not perfectly aligned with activists, although I believe we are motivated by the same imperatives. This is philosophy: asking tough questions that push beyond platitudes. You may disagree on this point or that, but I invite you into the rough-and-tumble of ideas, guided by the call of justice

Lloyd, Black Dignity, viii-ix, emphasis added

Does philosophy matter for activists struggle? Vincent Lloyd thinks so, but the relationship between philosophy and struggle is best had between Black philosophy and an activist struggle that furthers Black dignity. After spending a year in Ferguson, Missouri with Black Lives Matter activists, Lloyd wrote Black Dignity to chart a new moral discourse he found there: the language of domination and dignity.

In Black Dignity, Lloyd writes that philosophy can “give shape and coherence” to the vision of movements. Black dignity is struggle against domination. Struggle, rightly carried out, leads to human flourishing — a flourishing that brings us closer to God. Black Dignity comes in a new political moment with new political theological possibilities, but it also offers itself as an example of right relationship between philosophy and activist struggle.

Such a relationship is not easily had, as Lloyd has written about in other contexts such as Compact Magazine. I imagine most Political Theology Network readers are more familiar with his Compact Magazine piece than Black Dignity, but in both places, Lloyd is interested in getting this relationship right and furthering struggle against domination. In Black Dignity, Lloyd does this by exploring several terrains in current racial justice movements and highlighting the role of Black dignity. He has chapters on Black rage, Black love, Black family, Black futures, and Black magic, but the book itself begins and ends with Lloyd commenting about Black philosophy and its relationship to struggle. After reviewing the central argument of the book, I conclude by returning to these points, which raise the question of voice and accountability in Black Dignity and beyond.

To say that our world is broken by domination is to avoid distractions about particular issues without forsaking the individual experience of domination. Lloyd wants us to see the whole picture. It is not enough to focus on matters of oppression, exploitation, suffering, or marginalization. Those are useful tools and concepts of analysis, certainly, but in the end inept and ill-suited for our fallen world fundamentally characterized by relationships of domination.

Domination exists in a relationship where one can arbitrarily exercise his will on another. For example, bosses dominate workers; patriarchy dominates women; colonial settlers dominate colonial subjects and indigenous people. Such relationships easily offer reasons for various ontic struggles, each proclaiming that their struggle is the primary and most important. By “ontic” Lloyd means struggle that “aims at a particular object” (10). But Lloyd wants to focus on the ontological relationship that grounds all other ontic struggles. By “ontological” Lloyd means struggle “aimed at domination” (10). What’s important here for Lloyd — more than the terminology — is that he wants to ground his account of struggle against racial domination in a register more primary than others, a register that defines domination as it actually is and helps us see what struggle and dignity truly are.

Masters exist, benevolent or not. Whenever anyone is in the position of a master there are slaves who are dominated. That relationship is at its basest, and so domination at its apex, in the relationship between the white master and the Black slave. Lloyd does not argue that anti-Black racism is the only relationship of domination or that worthy struggle only exists when it takes aim at anti-Black racism. But when domination is at its purest we can gain a deeper and clearer sense of how it infects our world and, in turn, we gain a truer sense of struggles of dignity.

Nowhere else is the relationship of master and slave as clear as it is in Black slavery. Nowhere else is the struggle against domination more worthy of dignity as it is in the struggle against racial domination. Anti-Black racism is the paradigm of domination. Black dignity is the paradigm of dignity.

Black Dignity is a story about individuals living in and experiencing societies that are so structured that they reproduce conditions of domination and their struggles for dignity range from the political, to the aesthetic, to the bodily. Dignity is a struggle against domination. It is not about status, but about action. True, the outcome of the struggle is already a foregone conclusion: in this world, domination never goes away (15). To assume that merely certain social practices and norms need to be corrected misses the true nature of domination. Freedom can only be gestured at by poetry rather than prose, in “dancing rather than sitting” (4).

As Lloyd has told his story of Black dignity, pushing the conversation on racial domination to the ontological level, he has found agreement on both the political left and the right. His recent exchange with John McWhorter and Glenn Loury is illustrative. Thus, placing Lloyd’s work as either politically right or left is difficult. It seems he has found agreement with the ontological claims: “I want a world free of domination. I think we all do, ” he says in another context. It is at the ontic where things become interesting, however, because that is where social movements in the struggle against domination build their worldly, institutional power.

In Black Dignity, Lloyd offers a version of the abolitionist political strategy of non-reformist reforms (not his words) as the best way forward on worldly issues. The strategies he advises, whether ascesis or abolitionist politics engage the world in a way that builds transitionary structures. Transition and the work of building solidarity is a deeply tension-ridden and emergent space, as it is caught up in the back and forth between the ontological and ontic. Lloyd is not new to abolitionist politics, nor its potential for grassroots democratic movements. But throughout Black Dignity, Lloyd aims to out narrate domination wherever he sees it, to tell stories that draw people in, and to pair philosophy and rhetoric “jointly [to] narrate the connections between primal scenes of domination and domination manifesting in the world” (163). Time will tell whether Lloyd’s story is persuasive. But Lloyd’s rhetoric is inviting — summoning, even. It is difficult to read Lloyd’s work and not have a response, either critical or generous.

The work of storytelling, of narrating struggle is best done in a community consisting of relationships of accountability that can call us back into the struggle when we go astray. This point returns us to the question of how philosophy matters to activists struggle and what sort of philosophy gets this relationship right. These are ultimately questions of voice: who is doing what kind philosophy and for what end?

Black Dignity is a work of Black philosophy, not a social scientific approach to racial justice movements, like an ethnography. We do not come across interviews, quotations, case studies, or an appendix on research methods, all of which are scholarly tools used to situate multiple voices in the text. Ethnographic research methods are not without their problems — to rehearse them here is beyond the point; I am not trying to defend them; I am raising a comparison to ask a question. In Black Dignity, we do not hear from those organizers Lloyd met, organized with, and whom he claims are doing Black philosophy best (152). This may be intentional. Lloyd is clear that Black philosophy has a distinct role to play. Its role is not to rigorously analyze race, nor to theorize Blackness as fugitivity or Black culture. Nor, even, is it the role of Black philosophy to reflect on activist’s experience in the struggle. Instead, Black philosophy develops an analysis of anti-Blackness as the paradigm of domination itself (152). Certainly, Lloyd’s conversation partners are vast — ranging from voices such as Angela Davis to Adrienne Marie Brown to Audre Lorde to Aimee Cesaire. And, in the introduction Lloyd reflects on his own organizing experience. But in the rest of the book, we do not hear directly from those Black philosophers, making “visible the ontological difference of domination” (152).

Philosophy is ambiguous: it can help either domination or the struggle. How does it avoid escapism, comfort, or pragmatism (the three primary philosophical temptations noted by Lloyd)? (163). Join the struggle. Can, then, philosophy be accountable to the ontological register of domination? Lloyd offers his work as an example, which makes his method of Black philosophy all the more intriguing. He holds himself accountable to “organic Black intellectuals getting it right” and he holds them accountable to his vision of Black dignity (36), even if there hasn’t been much Black philosophy until recently (152). And, even if we are left without their voice to contend with his in the text, Lloyd claims that philosophy can play a crucial rigorous role in struggle: refining our analysis, gaining clarity in our terms, helping to distinguish the ways domination shows up in the ontological level and in the ontic issues in our world today. In the end, however, it all depends on accountability, whether or not what Lloyd has described as Black Dignity has earned the deference of those he organized with.

It seems to me the best way to test this is to create the community that Lloyd is calling for — spaces where struggle is more deeply a part of our philosophizing. Lloyd claims those who are deepest in the struggle can have the keenest sense of how to transform our world. I agree. The need for rigor in our organizing movements is clear. The obverse of this is also true: there is a deep need for struggle in our philosophy. We need more spaces of struggle where philosophy and organizing are caught up together.

Matters of knowledge production inevitably arise in such communities: those who are in the struggle need to form and shape and correct the imaginings and philosophizing done to help imagine a world otherwise. But it is also a matter of voice and accountability, as Lloyd well knows. If we are truly to build a movement where Black love and Black rage are equally present, then we need communities that foster struggle like Black Dignity, communities where people can find themselves alongside others organizing and philosophizing against domination itself and the world it sustains.

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