The Limits of What Is Thinkable

One viewer at the Democratic Primary debate in Des Moines last October asked the candidates a question: “Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?” The same question has been on the lips of many ...

One viewer at the Democratic Primary debate in Des Moines last October asked the candidates a question: “Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?” The same question has been on the lips of many thoughtful Americans for more than two years. Yet even as it percolated up to the nation’s aspirational power brokers and across the airwaves and Internet memes, where democracy’s affects incubate, the stakes of the question continued to be dogged by misconstrual.

Black lives or all lives? To some, it would seem that choosing the second alternative would also entail choosing the first—because black lives are lives, logic dictates that they would be included in the encompassing “all.” The particular urgency of the question, however, and the reason that the only politically defensible answer is to insist that black lives matter, has to do with how feebly that encompassing “all” has historically included the particular “black.” Just because a whole is made of up many constituent parts, nothing necessitates that those parts be distributed evenly, valued equally, or regarded fairly. Inclusion isn’t equity, and sometimes, to hit that point home, you have to refuse inclusion. As a phrase, “black lives matter” deliberately refuses the inclusive promise of the “all.”

The force of this refusal has been underappreciated. Instead, social media over the last year and a half has honed the corollary: insisting that all lives matter occludes attention to the struggles particular to black Americans living in a racist society. As Senator Bernie Sanders observed at the October debate, after answering that black lives matter, “the African American community knows that on any given day, some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car, and then three days later she’s going to end up dead in jail.” Sanders is correct that the horrific structural violence that disproportionately affects black Americans requires urgent redress. But coming from a presidential hopeful, this sentiment seeks to reconfigure the national “all” more justly. It does not—and, from the perspective of a structurally racist society, perhaps cannot—take seriously that inclusion in the “all” might be refused.

There is a history for such refusals. A significant political and moral examination of the stakes stands at the core of Lloyd Pratt’s bracing new monograph, The Strangers Book: The Human in African American Literature. Pratt’s particular attention to two antebellum texts penned by free black men in 1845—the poetry anthology Les Cenelles: Choix de poésies indigènes and Frederick Douglass’s first autobiographical Narrative—would seem at first a world apart from contemporary political debate, social media activism, and the Black Lives Matter movement. And, to Pratt’s enormous credit, he doesn’t confuse 1845 with the present. The book is not a genealogy, though it offers a searching attempt to think about how different things exist together.

The book pays careful attention to a style of refusing the “all” that Pratt names “stranger humanism.” Rather than make the familiar claim on behalf of the fundamental sameness of all people, stranger humanism postulates that people are different from each other. In order for such different people to live together—in, say, a democratic society—stranger humanism demands social and political conditions where solidarity, aid, witness, and recognition do not require commonality. Difference, not sameness, becomes the grounds for ethics and politics.

In Pratt’s account, stranger humanism imagines a version of democratic life where different people co-participate and co-construct their political and social worlds, not because they have overcome their differences, but because the irreducibility of those differences is taken as axiomatic. The precise rules of stranger-humanist engagement may vary from time to time and place to place, but, Pratt imagines, “the rules must evolve through accretion and addition rather than by a forgetful overturning of what has been.” Taking for granted that African Americans are fully human and merit fuller recognition as human than they sometimes receive by law or custom, The Strangers Book shows how, historically, some African Americans have articulated alternative claims on behalf of their humanness. These claims are alternative in the sense that they move in conceptual directions and find their mooring in terms that are distinct from those of dominant white (and, through the 19th century, increasingly nationalist) claims for the human. In more contemporary terms, we might say that black lives matter because they are lives, not because they are like all other lives.

Pratt asks an excellent question: why do we organize our curricula such that inclusion and exclusion become the paradigm for curricular reform?

The chapters run through a range of examples. In addition to Douglass’s Narrative and Les Cenelles, they engage Edward P. Jones’s contemporary historical novel The Known World (2003) in relation to other historical writings by 19th-century black Americans, as well as two unique 19th-century manuscripts: one documenting free people of color in New Orleans between 1840 and 1864, and one kept by the Nantucket Atheneum to register attendants who were not shareholders. This diversity of examples presents the book’s argument in miniature. Though not like one another, these texts all reward the scholarly attention that Pratt’s analyses lavish upon them. And yet, their distinctions show that what we talk about when we talk about “the human” is never one, incontestable thing. Each of these texts offers a different vision of the human (and, often, a different critique of normative meanings for this category). However, the different chapters of this book—by virtue of their differences—come together into an uncommonly coherent critical vision, where the terms of debate and the rights to contestation become a central good in a political act of making meaning.

In brisk and committed prose, The Strangers Book makes a pointed intervention with broad implications. Those implications become clearest at the book’s epilogue, where we turn most explicitly to the question of how to study literature. Such a methodological turn is warranted by the argument of the foregoing chapters. That is to say, if African American literature articulates alternatives to the conception of “the human” ensconced in “the humanities,” then African American literature isn’t something that can simply be added to existing university curricula.

This conclusion comes out against most conventional understandings of multicultural literature, or, to employ the current watchword, of “diversity.” Rather than insist on the inclusion of diverse texts on syllabi and exam lists, Pratt argues for diverse methods of considering what a text is, finding “canonizing projects antithetical to the kind of work that makes possible a rich, politicized, historically informed understanding of, say, Jupiter Hammon, Michael Wigglesworth, or even Anne Bradstreet.” The question we’re used to asking is, how can we include African American literature in our curriculum? Pratt seems to think a better question is, why do we organize our curricula such that inclusion and exclusion become the paradigm for curricular reform? That’s an excellent question.

A lot of academic monographs are credited with offering a critique, but The Strangers Book is the rare book that really and profoundly assesses the limits of what is thinkable. Like black lives, black texts matter. But it rings hollow to claim that both things matters without also disaffirming the existing structures of power—and the categories of person and text that power has established—that create the need to say such things in the first place. Like the Black Lives Matter movement, The Strangers Book offers a utopian affirmation of difference couched in a language of refusal, where the particular matters more than the universal toward which it supposedly should add. icon

Featured image: Black Lives Matter protest march, Minneapolis, MN, November 15, 2015. Photograph by Fibonacci Blue / Flickr