As 2022 turned to 2023 with an arctic storm across the US, Vincent Lloyd and Benjamin Davis sat down to have a conversation about Lloyd’s new book, Black Dignity: The Struggle against Domination (Yale University Press, 2022), as well as about Black Lives Matter and the longer radical tradition of struggle that motivated the book.
Benjamin Davis (BD): Your thesis, or at least perhaps your strongest claim in the book, is: “Black philosophy must be the starting point of all philosophy.” Why is Black philosophy first philosophy?
Vincent Lloyd (VL): I’m very skeptical about the ability of people in positions of power and privilege, and that includes intellectuals, to name truths about the world. Ordinary people, particularly those without power and privilege, who are less contaminated by the ideas of the rich and powerful, are better at doing that. I have more confidence in intellectuals to help us understand false claims about the world. To help us understand the ploys of the privileged, known and unknown to themselves. In other words: to name the tools of mastery, the tools of domination.
Indeed, I think too often intellectuals and academics take it upon themselves to address first-order questions when they ought to stick to second-order questions, that is, to offering tools for social movement participants to see and judge more clearly.
Bourgeois philosophy, white philosophy, naturalizes and mystifies the ideas of the wealthy and powerful, entrenching projects of domination. The experts at challenging domination are those who have been dominated. Their insights are essential, though they ought to be treated as conversation starters, not conversation stoppers. The closest thing we find to the primal scene of domination is the Atlantic slave trade. Nearly pure mastery, nearly pure servitude—as the enslaved are stripped of identity markers, culture, and relationships.
The starting point for philosophy, then, is Black philosophy. Here, Blackness names that which approaches closest to pure domination, and so marks a fount of expertise on domination.
BD: Could you elaborate on the specificity of “Blackness” here? If Black philosophy is a political category (“closest to pure domination”) and not an ancestral one, for instance, as I am hearing your answer suggesting here, then would first philosophy in other contexts be different? For instance, would first philosophy in the nation-state of Israel be Palestinian philosophy, or in so-called British Columbia be Indigenous philosophy?
VL: Black studies theorists have made quite strong claims for anti-Blackness as qualitatively different from other forms of oppression, and for anti-Blackness as tied up in the fabric of the world, not only in the US but, in subtle ways, in Europe, Africa, and beyond. I think some of the claims in these directions are overly ambitious. And yet, it does seem right to see anti-Blackness infecting habits of thought, operating outside the US, and offering the closest thing we have to a view of domination in laboratory conditions.
It also seems important to carefully parse the forms of harm we encounter, especially at a cultural moment when harm talk is used widely and loosely. The will to dominate is not the will to eliminate: genocide follows its own logic, and requires its own mode of response, politically and philosophically.
You are right that I am not talking about Blackness as ancestry (or skin color, or culture). Afropessimists talk about Blackness as the constitutive exclusion of the modern West. That’s a powerful insight, but I want to ground it in the empirical world and stretch it across time to think about Blackness as a tradition. A tradition ties together a community and its history, together with characteristic ways of imagining and feeling and reasoning. What is distinctive about the Black tradition is that it is anchored not in empirical facts about people or their history; it is anchored, rather, in the experience of domination, with the characteristic features of Blackness developing in response to that experience, out of struggle against domination.
BD: You start the book by telling your reader about your own recent Freedom Summer, if I may put it that way, where you drove from Philadelphia to Ferguson in August 2018 “to spend a year near the neighborhood that had become a symbol of Black protest” in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown. What inspired your decision to go to St. Louis?
VL: After Trayvon Martin was murdered, I saw my Black students politicizing and mobilizing in an entirely new way. This transformation further accelerated at the time of the Ferguson uprising. I was trained to teach about race, I was writing about race; but the political consciousness shown by Black youths mismatched what I knew how to talk about. That political consciousness struck me as true, as good, and as beautiful. I wanted to know more.
I discovered that my intuition was right. The shift in how race was talked about before and after the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown moment is just as dramatic as the shift between the civil rights movement and the Black power movement. It wasn’t just that folks got “woke,” now noticing incidents of anti-Black violence that had previously been overlooked. The meaning of Blackness changed. No longer were Black Americans one among the rainbow of ethnic groups that make up multicultural America. Now, Black youths recognized anti-Blackness as qualitatively different than other forms of racism, and they affirmed Blackness in all its facets: Black joy, Black girl magic, Black excellence, Black love.
So I was basically just trying to catch up, to figure out how I had to transform my own thinking about race—in my classroom, and in my own identity—as I took in the insights developed in today’s Black justice movements.
I also wanted to write in a way that fit our moment. A generation ago, exposing the depths of anti-Blackness ran so counter to the prevailing discourse that technical vocabulary may have been necessary to reorient readers to a new way of looking at the world. Today, anti-Blackness is not a secret that needs to be revealed; it is widely acknowledged, at least on the political center and left. What we need is to think through the implications of anti-Blackness, not only for how we understand race relations but for how we understand ethics and politics as such. That requires clear thinking, and it requires welcoming readers into a project.
BD: In Ferguson you found a connection between what you just called ethics and politics. What united the two was struggle motivated by “a commitment to Black dignity.” How was this commitment, in an everyday sense, motivating people?
VL: One way to answer this question is to reflect on dignity’s opposite, indignity. When we feel indignant, it is because we or those we care about have been harmed in a particular way. To put it starkly, someone has acted as if they are our master and we are their slave. Indignity leads to righteous indignation, a form of anger at domination, but it also leads to other feelings, like feelings of love for those with whom we share in the experience of indignity.
Activists in Ferguson and elsewhere were talking about Black dignity, and I tried to understand what it meant. It was self-consciously opposed to respectability: Black dignity was not some sort of haughty, aristocratic status. It also was not something shared equally by everyone; or, describing dignity as a universally shared property conceals more than it reveals. I concluded that dignity is, quite simply, the flip side of indignity: when one is treated as a slave, dignity means struggling against the master.
That is what Frederick Douglass concluded when he literally grappled with the slave-breaker Covey, and it is how we ought to interpret tweets and Instagram posts when they use Black dignity as a hashtag.
BD: On your analysis, dignity is not just an abstract ideal. It is a practice. What do you mean when you say that dignity is “something you do … a performance, a way of engaging with the world”?
VL: Respectability is a status. It is a possession. We could even say, a form of capital. We often treat dignity and respectability as near synonyms. But one of the great polemical points made over the last decade by Black justice movements is that respectability does not equal dignity. Respectability is a hollow copy of dignity. It is static rather than dynamic, two-dimensional rather than three-dimensional.
A snapshot of dignity may be confused with respectability, but if we look at dignity in time, no confusion is possible. To rest comfortably in one’s position of mastery (or servitude: think of Malcolm X’s “house Negro”) looks like respectability. Doing what one does, which means supporting the status quo. Dignity means challenging mastery, whether through physical struggle or through political organizing or through aesthetic production or through jokes, or even through silence. During the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. found dignity in walking—walking instead of riding segregated buses.
BD: You separate dignity from its usual sites: the halls of power, the philanthropic nobility, the respectable academics, the UN documents. When you talk about the Scottsboro Boys, I am reminded that Claudia Jones became a communist because it was the communists who defended the Scottsboro boys. Is this Marxist tradition important to how you think about dignity?
VL: Theorists of Blackness in the US often make quite radical-sounding claims about politics, but then applaud liberal Democrats. And have affective investments in US electoral politics. This is an indication of how strong a hold respectability politics has: even those who voice a disdain for respectability politics act politically in ways aligned with respectability. (Don’t get me started on supposed critics of respectability who insist on being addressed by fancy titles and laud the latest appointment of a dean or college president who is Black.)
I am a revolutionary socialist. In a sense, Black Dignity is my attempt to understand today’s racial justice protests from the perspective of revolutionary socialism, while avoiding tiresome and unproductive debates about the relative priority of class or race. Socialists want a world without domination, where we all have our basic needs met and can flourish. Revolutionary socialists believe that domination so pervades the world that dramatic, systemic changes are necessary before we can have a world without domination.
Domination can look different, but ultimately it always boils down to the relationship between master and slave. Whether it is a prison guard, a police officer, a boss, or a billionaire, the facts and the feelings involved boil down to mastery.
BD: In the conclusion (“Against Pessimism”) to one of your previous books, Black Natural Law, you wrote that black natural law “most centrally entails” two components: “ideology critique and social movement organizing.”
In this conversation, we have talked about how Black dignity was part of organizing a recent social movement. Was it also part of an ideology critique? If so, what was that critique?
“We need to rid ourselves of the way we normally talk about love, anger, hope, and religion. Instead, we need to embrace new versions of them that grow out of the struggle against domination.”
VL: The distinctive discourse on race that emerges from recent Black justice movements has two sides. One side is an unequivocal affirmation of Blackness in all its facets, from bodies to feelings to histories. The other side is a distinctive style of critique. Anti-Black racism is not only about feelings or acts of individuals; it is not only about institutional vices; and it is not only about biased laws and social norms. All of these are woven together, and with much else, in anti-Blackness: described by some theorists as a “metaphysical” or “ontological” condition characteristic of modernity, or even of all human history.
As I see it, anti-Blackness is a system of domination, distinct yet entangled with other systems of domination. We can tell a story that links anti-Blackness to the primal scene of slavery, to the first (and then ongoing) efforts required to convince white Americans to treat Blacks as less than human, as slaves. To do so, in fact, demanded that a host of laws, norms, habits, feelings, ways of seeing, and styles of reasoning had to be developed, naturalized, and mystified.
That is why just changing a law or reforming a policy will not end anti-Blackness. Indeed, anti-Blackness is so foundational to our contemporary world that it may be impossible to imagine an end to anti-Blackness without imagining an end to the world.
BD: You argue early in the book that disagreement strengthens struggle. How does it do so?
VL: This is a great paradox of justice work. It requires a disposition to challenge conventional wisdom, to suspect the status quo. That same disposition can lead to self-immolation in justice movements: everyone suspects everyone else. Or, a certain sort of rhetorical posturing—virtually or verbally retweeting the right slogans—becomes necessary, in order to avoid coming under suspicion.
It is clear that there are times in social justice work when you need to have a thoughtful discussion of an open question. Likewise, there are other times when you need to line up, march, and chant in unison. Now, the boundaries are blurring in organizing culture between deliberation among comrades and action against enemies (in part because of the pervasiveness of social media in our lives today). It is an open secret just how much toxicity this produces.
Intellectual work, at its best, aims to clarify where domination is happening and points to resources for struggle. This requires vigorous debate. You might tell one story about domination, linking one complex, murky context to the primal scene of domination; I might respond with a different story. You might point to some resources for struggle that you find in history or in another part of the world; I might point to others that I think are more fitting for our current context.
We try to out-narrate each other until we find the stories and resources that are the most compelling. We do this fueled by righteous indignation directed at domination and bound together by the comradely love felt by those who struggle together.
BD: Are there some categories, concepts, or narrations you have noticed that are particularly dynamic or limiting? Yours is perhaps the only book I’ve read that engages both Frank Wilderson and Adolph Reed (at least in a footnote: p. 178, n. 20). Are you trying to bring together these ontological and political emphases?
VL: If there is one thinker who is at the center of Black Dignity, whose ideas animate several of the chapters, it is Audre Lorde. Her work—which so eloquently links the ethical and the political, the personal and the social, the racial and the human—is rightly being rediscovered by a new generation.
One of the things that I find so compelling about her work is that she trusts elegant writing and critical thinking to go hand in hand. She is interested in questions as deep as what we might call the “ontological” as pressing as what we might call “political,” but both must be worked through the imperative to beauty, dark beauty, at the level of the sentence and paragraph and essay. James Baldwin had similar writerly instincts, but his view of love was distorted by secularized Pentecostal tendencies that ended up skewing his thought.
It sounds like a cliché, but it’s often forgotten: every thinker gets some things right and some things wrong. Every Black thinker is, at some moments in their life, at some places in their work, close to the rich core of the Black tradition, and at other moments far from that core. My task is to read any particular figure—be it Wilderson or Reed, Lorde or Baldwin—with that tradition as a whole in mind: bringing out the best moments in a particular thinker while, at the same time, using them to deepen our understanding of the tradition.
BD: If I have a disagreement with the book, it would be about how you frame “moralizing.” I think the stakes here are high, particularly regarding what you return to at the end of the book, namely, the push for abolition.
You and I are both from Minnesota. In November 2021, 56% of Minneapolis voters rejected a measure to replace the police department with a new department of public safety. The measure had a chance to be on the 2020 ballot, but the Minneapolis Charter Commission blocked it. One Star Tribune reader noted that the city council didn’t offer a plan for the public safety department, and thus voters were unsure about what would happen, after the defunding, if, for instance, someone broke into their homes during the night.
Is there a role for intellectuals to drop what they are doing and contribute to this kind of public safety policy—perhaps in the spirit of Du Bois’s dropping everything to write Color and Democracy, as the United Nations was being formed?
VL: What I worry about when I say “moralizing” is the use of moral language untethered to questions of domination. The Black radical tradition, on my account, voids our moral concepts of content—dismissing it as contaminated by the interests of the wealthy, powerful, and white—and, instead, fills up those moral concepts with new content tethered to the primal scene of domination: slave confronting master.
Put more plainly, we need to rid ourselves of the way we normally talk about love, anger, hope, and religion. Instead, we need to embrace new versions of them that grow out of the struggle against domination.
Once you have identified domination and intend to confront it, you ought to use whatever tools at hand are most effective. These tools might include public policy proposals, villainizing CEOs and political leaders, aesthetic production, or rhetoric, including moral rhetoric. On my account, moral rhetoric is not moralizing; it is using particular words and phrases to persuade particular people that they ought to struggle against domination. I do think it is important for everyone, including intellectuals, to participate in both conceptual work and practical political work; the two are not as distinct as they might sound, and engagement on both levels is a sort of cross-training.
There is no discernable path from our world to a world free of domination. Indeed, given that our world is filled with layer upon layer of entangled systems of domination, and that those systems partially form us, our situation seems quite dire.
Yet we have the capacity to imagine a world without domination, and we do this best in an aesthetic register, in music and poetry and painting and, perhaps, prayer. Imagining that other world motivates struggle in this world. That’s one of the insights the recent embrace of abolitionism as a political framework has helped to clarify.
But that cycle of despair, imagination, and struggle happens in a different register than that of practical politics. In fact, confusing the two can actually impede the struggle against domination.
BD: Who is the “we” needing to find new ways of talking about love and religion here?
VL: We all—in some aspects of our lives, in some moments in time—dominate; in others, we are dominated. That is what it means to be human.
The more our life differs from the primal scene of domination, master and slave, the murkier it gets: the harder it is to discern in what ways we are formed by domination, in what ways we dominate, in what ways we are dominated. So we all need to meditate on that primal scene of domination, to learn from those whose lives approach that primal scene, and to discern how domination is at work in our own lives.
Domination distorts the soul and inhibits flourishing. We ignore it at our own peril.
BD: Engaging the work of Robin Kelley, you question the academy’s place as a site of struggle. You also write about your experience as an organizer, including fighting cutbacks to funding in education. Could you say more about what a place of study might look like if it learned from “the Black tradition” you outline in this book?
VL: During the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s in the United States, radical politics in the academy operated in a different universe from radical politics on the ground.
For decades, to the mainstream media, radical politics was effectively invisible: the “left-right” spectrum represented in media meant only liberals and conservatives; this excluded actual leftists, who organized on the fringes of society.
For those decades, radicalism was much more visible in the academy: literature professors toyed with Marx, some historians turned their attention to marginalized communities, and cultural studies legitimized directing academic attention at the working class. But radical politics in the academy was rarely linked with political organizing out in the world, or with social movements. Radical ideas disconnected from radical practice become misshapen and, ultimately, impotent.
The situation changed after the 2008 financial crisis, and the transformations in higher education that accelerated after that crisis. The material interests of doctoral students and the ever-growing corps of contingent faculty resulted in a convergence of a practical interest in political organizing, and intellectual interests across the disciplines in questions of domination. The academy was thus primed for Black Lives Matter, ready for the movement to fuel research programs into anti-Blackness, and for academic theories to enter into movement spaces, since the distance between universities and social movements had shrunk considerably.
Is this a good thing? The conceptual, historical, and comparative tools developed in the academy can certainly resource racial justice movements in important ways. But the academy remains, essentially, an institution that functions to hoard privilege and to reproduce the upper-middle class: once white, now multicultural.
We must be wary of treating the resources of the academy as special or essential, and of allowing academic language, conventions, and personalities to enter the bloodstream of justice work. As you point out, I worry about attempts to lament the vices of the academy and its anti-Blackness while, at the same time, allowing it to occupy the center of our political imagination, by searching for redemption in its interstices.
BD: I ask because I find it difficult, in our neoliberal times, to advise students—in particular, students who have taken on upwards of six digits of student loan debt to get an education. If they fight for dignity through struggle, those loans are not getting repaid. I dream of a university where everyone is paid the same relatively modest salary, where the janitorial labor is shared amongst instructors and students, where administrative duties are rotated among the instructors, and therefore where the students can pursue their questions without guilt, because they would be without massive debt (because there wouldn’t be celebrity academics demanding new offices or administrators with inflated salaries). This would also be a place where the discussions, reading lists (books, art, music, etc.), and writing/creating/performance requirements are rigorous. Is such a university possible beyond “informal study groups that operate at universities’ edges”?
VL: I agree that it is important to push the academy to take healthier, more just forms. But even more important than reforming the university is affirming and developing spaces unconnected to the university where rigorous, rewarding intellectual work can happen.
Again, I worry about centering the academy in our political imagination, and I worry about believing that we can chart a course to a world without domination.
I think your phrasing, with the language of dreaming, is apt: a world without domination takes place in an imaginative register, in poetry rather than in prose. That eschatological vision motivates the work of assembling the tools and strategies needed here, now, to challenge domination. As a matter of practical judgment, I am not sure devoting resources to reforming the university is the most effective path to challenging domination.
More generally, I think most of us, most writers and readers and teachers, inhabit a tragic position. We are not the proletariat. Regardless of race, regardless of our bank account balance, we are indelibly stained by the systems of domination which formed us, and which we inhabit. Instead of trying to save ourselves, we ought to try to save the world, recognizing that our souls are most likely lost.
That means directing our intellectual and affective investments to struggles against domination at its most acute: against anti-Blackness, against patriarchy, against capitalism, against domination of land and animals.
In other words, it is fine to want to inhabit more comfortable workplaces and homes, to want more diverse students and to buy organic coffee and to drive electric cars. We just shouldn’t invest redemptive significance in these practices. Nor should we feel angsty about the limits of our personal or institutional virtue. People like us are all damned!
We can embrace respectability, and live in ways that will bring us praise in the eyes of this world. Or we can embrace dignity, and struggle for a new world we can only imagine.