"Thinking Philosophically About the Black Church" Why? Radio Episode with Guest J. Kameron Carter
3:32AM Oct 16, 2020
Jack Russell Weinstein
J. Kameron Carter
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Hi, welcome to wide philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'm your host, Jack Weinstein. Today we'll be talking about how to think philosophically about the black church. I am so glad December's over. I hate the holiday season. I grow weary of the alienation my Jewish family feels whenever we leave our house and I'm horrified at the stressful consumer orgy forced upon my friends. I'm also really tired of reminding others that even for an atheist, Christmas is a Christian holiday. Yes, the commemoration of the birth of Christ is and must be Christian, even for those who don't talk about Jesus. And yes, the celebration of the Second Coming excludes those who are still waiting for their own Messiah, even if they enjoy a cup of eggnog or display their friend's Christmas cards on the mantel. while they wait. We can pretend Christmas is secular, because we are so used to the Christian way of thinking that we have a hard time imagining life can be otherwise, we like our Sunday, day of rest, and we prefer to bow our heads to pray. We celebrate conversion and regard faith as a good in itself. Even our fiction is christological narrative that parallels the story of Christ. So we continually expect our heroes to die for redemption. From Gatsby to Merlin The Walking Dead, we see death as cleansing, even Harry Potter had to die, and the chapter in which he is resurrected, it's called Kings Cross. Ultimately, our most creative endeavors are largely variations on a common theme. It can be hard to accept that our imaginations are limited by culture. We want to think that we can envision anything we want, but we can't. novelty takes tremendous effort to conjure. This is why Cubism could only be invented after two point perspective, creativity is incremental, the things that we think about the aspirations that we pursue the fears that make us shutter. They're all informed by our culture, and Western culture, for better or worse, is defined by the Christian imagination. It's a wonderful thing to be raised in a worldview built on personal improvement. No matter how far we fall, the Christian imagination tells us that we can be redeemed. No matter how much we hate, we are assured that forgiveness is liberating. But the Christian imagination also traps many of us into brutal self hatred. Malcolm X learns this when he discovers his own unconscious adoption of blackness as a symbol of evil and whiteness as a symbol of purity. beliefs he tries to overcome by converting to Islam. But Malcolm X epitomizes a trap faced by many African Americans, the Christian imagination regards slavery as historically normal and economic circumstances as punishment for sins. But it also celebrates the meek and glorifies the peacemaker. So it leaves no outlet for those in terrible situation, whose only hope is to fight their way through it. Their status quo is unacceptable, but their demand for change is condemned. They are literally damned if they do and damned if they don't. It is impossible to wipe away the effects that Christianity has on our culture. And of course, many people don't want to see the only way out of this trap is through the Christian imagination itself. This is what we'll talk about on today's show. In particular, we will take a philosophical look at the black church. Why? Because our guest today argues that the very idea of blackness and whiteness are Christian inventions. If he is right, it just underscores how basic to our everyday experience the religious imagination is sure some people claim that they don't see color, but they do. We all see skin tone, and there's nothing wrong with doing so. Meaning not fact is the purview of the religious imagination. And it is the meaning we impose on the different shades that are problematic, not the fact of color itself. Before we begin, I asked that we accept two basic facts that I've been trying to articulate. First, the religious imagination is profoundly powerful even to those who don't assent to the religious tenants it assumes. Second, it can be analyzed, altered and widened, but only from within and only by utilizing the Christian tradition that holds it together. I suspect that no one is better poised to enlarge the Christian imagination than the black church. Its members are both insider and outsider. They are revolutionaries and witnesses to the original sin of the colonial eclipse of non Christian religions. But imaginative change cannot be forced any more than faith can be compelled. It is the product of long standing practices, complex texts and sophisticated theologies. The Christian imagination is the result of two millennia of religious belief and fundamental to how we want the world to be. It is a cycle, it begins and ends at the same place. The black church appears to be telling us that that place is simply not good enough.
And now our guest J. Cameron Carter is a professor at Duke University. Jay, you can exhale, you've made it you are away from the snow.
I am here.
We are glad you are here. And we all sympathize, though the winter is a is a cruel taskmaster. So if you don't mind diving right in, I would love to ask you very specifically about, I don't know the way we think about the black church. Because it seems to me that the only time the major media discusses the black church are during times of political crises and violence or like in Sister Act when gospel choirs are used for dramatic devices. This is I would assume an inadequate description of the black church. So So what do we have to know to begin a discussion about the black church in the way that you want us to start thinking about it,
to sort of begin to sort of at least cut to the quick of where I would like to take us in thinking about this question and trying to begin to, you know, approach an answer to this question. I think it's important that we think about the black church as a kind of dissident configuration of social life, right in the heart of the birth of the modern world, through frameworks of racial domination and colonial appropriation. Black Church must be understood as bearing witness to alternative socialities that are dissident within the structures of racial capitalism, the structures of settler colonial violence, the structures of political domination, that is at the heart of the modern world. And so in short, then again, to repeat myself one last time, black church bears witness to dissident and alternative forms of social life, dissonant and alternative forms of congregations, of getting together of communion of modes of being with the other alternative ecologies right in the heart, inside of this is an outside, it's on the inside inside of the violences of capitalist appropriation, the violence is of, shall we say, converting the earth into a world of property and therefore of ownership.
Okay, so now there's, there's a lot in there, right? And so, to sort of, if I understand you correctly, what you're what you're saying is that what the what the black church offers is, is an alternative vision of life, but not just a trivial alternative, rather, a way of facing and opposing the fundamental structures that we take for granted that many people consider to be problematic, but it's not an opposition from far away. It's an opposition from within, which makes it all the more powerful is that
is that right? This this is this is correct. It's not some sort of, often we think of religion, often we think of faith in terms of a transcendent that is lifted off from our world, a kind of a kind of celestial and heavenly thing. And just beyond this world. I'm interested in the transcendent, but the transcendent, that I'm talking about is a transcendence from within, it's already an on the ground, alternative practices and realities that are already in our midst. Though often they're overshadow they're seemingly overshadowed by the monumental ism, of the forms of capitalist violence, and so on and so forth, that seemed to suggest that the world as it is all that it can be black church is an is a transcendent alternative from within the very structures of domination and are mixed, it's in the break, right of the order of things.
So is it then is there? Is there a sort of multiple personality for participants of the of the black church in the sense that they live in a world and then they worship in opposition to the world? Is it hard for them to step in and out of that role? Or are members of active members of the black church, always members of the black church, whether they are worshiping or not whether they are House of Worship or not, whether they're in a congregation or not?
Maybe in order to answer that question, perhaps I need to back up just a little bit more, maybe put a couple more, maybe fine tuned a little bit more what I was saying. When I think when we think about the black church, I tried to be careful in the way in which I formulated this. I said that the black church bears witness to alternative forms of social life alternative forms of relationality that exceed the orders of capital that exceed the orders of the political as we know them. The black church does not own, it's not reductive to all those forms of social life, it just bears witness to them. It has a prophetic relationship to alternatives that are out there. And so this means then that all black churches don't necessarily live fully into the witness. The black church is accountable to something beyond itself. So you can have black churches that bear witness to the alternative to alternative forms of social life and alternative forms of getting together and you can have black churches at the same time, that certify the order of things that don't actually become a disruptive force. And so what I'm trying to do is I'm trying to walk that fine line between black church and black church at its best. Now in some of the work that I'm doing now, I've tried to like, you know, carve out a language to try and get at what I'm talking about. So I make a distinction then between dark church between black church and what I call dark church. Dark church is what black church bears witness to. Or another way to put it is this similar to this language of dark church is a language of blackness. black church, bears witness to blackness, just like black people can bear witness to blackness, but black people don't own blackness, and black church does not own alternative socialities it bears witness to alternative possibilities. The alternative can be borne witness to out of a Pulse nightclub, just as it can be borne witness to out of Mother Emanuel am me in South Carolina, right. And so you can have these are these these sites, these locations then are, are constituted kind of constellation constitute a kind of Yeah, constellation of social realities that bear witness to alternatives to the order of things as we know it. So now what this means to come back to the black church is that the black church is accountable to something beyond itself. And sometimes even black churches, concrete, empirical black churches can fall short, even as there can be black churches that actually bear witness to the prophetic possibilities of dissident social realities.
So let me let me ask about this, this phrase bearing witness, because there are a couple different meanings. And I want to make sure that that we get it right. One possible meaning of bear witness is that people see report and encounter an event. And another notion of witness the more Christian theological notion of witness is that one is reporting the possibilities. One is, is announcing prophesizing what could be, is this one or the other? or a combination of both?
Yeah, I actually like both of those. I don't see why can't be a combination of both black church, black church bears witness to, shall we say, future possibilities. Right. And at the same time, black church also, in some sense harbors the future possibilities. It both bears witness to what has come. But in some sense, it's a kind of carrier of what is to come, it's the canary, you know, bearing within itself. what is to come?
So does that mean that that when the the Emanuel church in Charleston, was the victim of this horrific crime, that they in their role as members of the black church, capital B, capital C, can take this experience and somehow use it for social change? Is that what you mean by the canary in the coal mine, presumably? Or is it is it something more to use a word you used earlier, transcendental that there's that there's something philosophical foundational principles principled, that when someone faces the the shootings in Florida that you alluded to, at the Pulse nightclub, the burnings of the churches that I talked about in my monologue, that, that there's something principled, that that guides the narrative, the story that the black church is going to tell when it tells the story of how it is, how it interacts with how it sees itself, and how it's how it's sometimes celebrated and sometimes victimized.
Let's talk about Mother Emanuel for a moment because maybe that might be a way to sort of put this on the ground a little bit. When dylann roof shows up at that church, what are the what are the parishioners doing there? engaged in, in certain practices, concrete practices, prayer and Bible study, they're engaged in study, and they're engaged in prayer, I would suggest that the practices that they are engaged in, might be formulated is this, they are practicing the alternative. That's what they're doing. They're practicing the alternative. in that church, you have people who see themselves as bound to each other, not because of the chords of blood kinship, which is the narrative of racialization that we've been schooled to live under. These are folks who come together, see themselves as belonging to each other, right. And that belonging is not predicated upon logics of racialization in some sense, right inside of a world structure to race. black church, is a community of people who say, we belong to each other. And check this out as well. In belonging to each other, the belonging is not exclusive to other folk. Now, that is the reason that in a kind of brutal sense, that is the condition of possibility of dylann roof doing what he did, right when doing when dylann roof showed up those parishioners of their church, if you if you were in the studio, you would see me now I'm holding my arms, I'm stretching my arms out, as if to love somebody, as if to embrace them in a big hug. And is it when he knocks on the door of that church, they open their arms wide and say, Come in, you two are of us, we belong to you, and you belong to us. That form of social life is what convenes this group of people. They study it Bible study, that the whole practice of study is to study this form of life. Now, when dylann roof shows up dylann roof understands the threat that that form of life represents. In fact, he said is much I'm not making this up. dylann roof said, according to the testimony of those who survived. And according to his own testimony, he said, You almost made me not want to carry out my D. Because of the way you're loving me. He said, but at the end of the day, I've got to do this. Why? Because you're taking our women. And it was the formulation uses, you're taking our women. And then I think he has some other formulation that basically says you're a threat to the country, I forget the exact language, but basically it comes down to you're taking on women. So you're a threat to kinship possibilities. Right, and you You are a threat to the country, then he says you have to go now with dylann roof targets, then is something that the members of that church or the avatars have, he is as if he shooting through the members to shoot the form of life that they represent. Because he knows if that form of social life, gains traction, and shall we say wins the day as it were, then the way in which the political functions the way in which we imagine who belongs to whom, and under what conditions, the whole logic of bordering would have to be dismantled. And that means the country as we know it, we have to undergo a fundamental revision of what we call what we call social life. So what does he do? He targets that in targeting the people. That's what he's shooting, he shoots through them to shoot that social life, I want to suggest that black church is practice its practices at its best. It's bearing witness to the alternative social life. It's not limited to black church, the black church bears witness to
it. So we were going to take a minute break in just a second. And so while we do, I'd like you to consider formulation that I'm going to offer in our listeners as well, because when we get back we're going to talk as much about whiteness as blackness, because you spent a fair amount of time talking about that, in your in your book on on a theological approach to race, if I understand what you're saying, and hopefully after the break, you can either confirm or deny my interpretation, that there's an irony in the phrase black church, that what black church allows people to do is that it creates a space for its black congregants to not have to be black to have relationships with anyone else. And so they can independent of blood independent of skin independent of kinship, they can voluntarily and possibly in one of the few places in the country where they can voluntarily voluntarily love one another and relate to one another to such an extent that they can even voluntarily open their arms to dylann roof despite the fact that he responds violently.
Yes, yes, I can respond to that on the other side.
Excellent. Great. You are listening to jack Russell Weinstein and J. Cameron Carter on we philosophical disk Questions about everyday life. We'll be back with much more of this right after this.
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you're back with why philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'm your host, jack Russell Weinstein, we're talking with Jake Cameron Carter, about thinking philosophically about the black church. And we're going to dive right into that in just a second, I do want to remind you that you can email us or tweet us to participate in the conversation, email us at ask firstname.lastname@example.org tweet us at at why radio show or post on facebook.com slash why radio show, you can always join us in our chat room at philosophy and public life.org. So, Jay, what when last we left, I suggested that, at least as I understood what you were, what you were saying that what the black church offers is a rare opportunity for African Americans to voluntarily associate with whomever they want love whomever they want. And that extends beyond their African American ness. So all people can participate theoretically, in the black church.
Yeah, yeah, this is right, maybe, maybe say more about this, in this way, two points, one, regarding the history of the emergence of that reality that we now call black church. And in two, I'm gonna say something about blackness, the history, we have to remember, black church historically, does not emerge, because black people just want something for themselves. Right? black church historically emerges, because of the way in which white churches had been functioning. That's how come it emerges, it doesn't emerges because it says, black people, you need your thing for you, white people, you need your thing for you, you know, and we can, you know, you know, ramify, this around the racial spectrum, it doesn't emerge like that, historically, black churches emerge as a response to a church that is over determined by its whiteness, and in that overdetermination becomes a church that sort of gives religious sanction, almost baptizes, segregation, segregated reality and realities of hierarchy. black church emerges as a response to that. And it emerges as a response to that it does not emerge simply to be the inverse photo negative of that. It emerges as a kind of different practice of church altogether. Now, because historically, most people in black churches historically were black people, doesn't mean that it's only for black people. That that's just the only reason that that works out historically like that that way, is because of the history of the white church.
So so we have a question from lawan in Grand Forks, who asks, Do black church have a responsibility to speak out on issues that affect black people? And if what I understand your your saying is that, in fact, that question is three steps down the road, because the very existence of black church is already a response, and it is already a speaking out. So to even say that black church exists and doesn't speak out, is a violation of the very definition.
This is this is right, but black church comes online, because of a society that is structured in white domination, white privilege, and a hierarchy with whiteness, as its Pinnacle, emerges in response to that hierarchical understanding of this of a social life and of the political, it doesn't emerge to ratify that it emerges as a kind of dissident social reality, in the breakdown of white racial hierarchy and a society structured through racism. Usually, its existence is already a response
is, is the black church, then an answer to the question as to whether or not the Masters tools can dismantle the Masters house is the black church in a sense, saying, we have our own tools and we are not going to use yours. We're going to define our tools in opposition to yours or is by virtue of its Christianity is that black church still intertwined with the Masters tools, the history that we'll talk about in just a minute of racial identification and hierarchy.
I mean, my response to this and this, this is a tricky question, or it requires a tricky answer to I love question. I love the right. Because Because the way I think about it is, it's not a matter of whether we use the Masters tools or not black church, the black church almost has to be understood as a poetics. What poetry does and what poetics does is it takes tools, right tools of language, so on and so forth. But it does something with the tools is it black churches and experimental poetics, it takes the languages of Christianity, and in a certain sense, the way in which a jazz artists, right experimental jazz artists might take, take music, and and do things with it, that otherwise would not have been done with it. Similarly, black church is a kind of improvisatory practice within the framework of Christianity. And it's in its improvisations work in the interest of shall we say, blackness,
this, this makes sense to me. And in at one point you're talking about, and I'm looking in my notes, or you're, you're talking about Frederick Douglass or Italy and Britain, hammann, some anti antebellum writers, and you describe them as trying to read narrate Christianity re narrate the story of Christ. And what I was originally going to ask you was, is this a violation of sort of the tradition to tell the story in your own way, but you're answering that already, is that the improvisational nature of the of black church is inherently regeneration, the way that jazz the way the poetry is, because you're taking the foundation, you're taking the parameters and you're playing with them poetically, artistically, and responsively. Is that isn't?
That's exactly right. You might, you might almost say, I mean, just to sort of like kind of up the ante slightly on what I'm suggesting. You might say that as a poetics, black Christianity is a kind of non Christian Christianity. Insofar as Christianity had come to be over determined by whiteness, to the extent that Christianity had come to be over determined by whiteness, it took up that Christianity in a non Christian way, and so that from the vantage point of the dominant tradition that might look at Christianity from their black Christianity, from the way I'm talking about it, they might deem it heretical, or even perhaps dissident or even non Christian, some sort of atheist mode of Christianity or something, you know, it disfigures, and renders in some sense unrecognizable of Christianity as we know it. So it's a Christianity but it's some sort of like dissident non Christian Christianity, it's some sort of a Christianity in its Christianity. Right. And so it makes more complicated Bruton of what Christianity is at this point.
This is this this is it's it's tremendously interesting and like, like your writing very complex and layered, and so I want to take this opportunity to talk a little bit about whiteness, because you say several times in your book that that the the perennial problem of the modern age is whiteness, it's not race, it's not blackness, it's whiteness. And and if I understand right, summarizing your book, then you have two main claims to view 70,000 claims, right, but but you, you have two main claims, first, at the very concept of black and white are Christian inventions. And second, that race actually comes from the Christian attempt to disassociate from the Jews, not from white versus black. Can you talk just briefly because obviously, the book is complicated you you go into incredibly interesting detail of some very sophisticated thinkers, it's, it's I will admit, it is a hard book, it is a hard book, conceptually, it is a hard book in terms of piecing it all together, but in all of the one of the best ways. So, very briefly, for our listeners who haven't had the chance, talk about how you argue that Christianity both invents whiteness and invents whiteness in response to Judaism.
Yes. Okay. Let me let me try and work it at trying to trying to streamline the argument and get it to its kind of nub and its core. The book argues and I've got more work that's about to come out I'm at the basically at the at the precipice of now turning into book manuscripts gonna elaborate this stuff even further. But basically, what I what I try and argue in my work in the horizon of my research is to show that that race, the structures of race, as we know it, have at their tap root, the creation of a hierarchy within the human, and that hierarchy has as its pentacle, the figure of the white let's call this whiteness and that whiteness comes online, inside of Christianity due to a fundamental and basic, like mistake that Christians make very early on. The mistake that they make is that when Christianity starts to get read, not as fundamentally a faith within the tradition of Jews worshipping their God, but instead gets taken up by Gentiles, who come into the faith, of the faith of the Jewish tradition, and then read that faith, as belonging to them as fundamentally their faith, not the fate of the Jews that Christian the Gentiles were invited into, but as their faith, when that happens, you got the you got the framework in place for the creation of a faith tradition that is structured through an outside and an inside. And then on top of that, when, when colonialism comes online, when transatlantic slavery out of Africa comes online, that Christian supersessionism by which Gentiles take Christianity to belong to them now, not to the Jews, gets racialized, it undergoes a political racialization. In fact, racialization is a transformation within that anti Judaism problematic. The name of that racialization, by which Europeans who are Gentiles coming out of Europe see themselves as in domination over the rest of the world, the name of that domination comes to be called whiteness. Now, something else happens, tied to this, when Gentiles take the Christian faith as belonging to them, and rather than they being received benevolently by a people who are not them, and into a faith that does not belong to them, when that changes, the European, who sees themselves now as Pinnacle as at the height, the top of the hierarchy, the second thing that they've got to do is they've got to establish the lower groups under them. One of the things that happens in establishing the lower groups under them is they imagine those groups through what we now call racial terms. Race is born of this political process. It's not native, there's nothing natural about race. The fact that we think that it is natural is a part of a history of its accomplishment. It's a part of the history of his accomplishment, there's nothing natural about it,
right? You you describe whiteness at one point as an achievement.
It's a, it's a total achievement. It's an achievement, right, or an accomplishment. And so what is whiteness, whiteness comes online, precisely through creating it's other as inferior, and then naturalizing, that through you histories of science, do medical practices, trying to naturalize that political activity. One of the chief ways in which it establishes its negative bottom to which it is the hierarchy at the top is to the invention of blackness. Now, I've got to say another thing, you're right, this is a complex argument I'm trying to make is to narrow it down,
let me just interrupt for just a second, because because there's a technical term you're using that I just want to elaborate on for just a second and provide an example, this naturalizing, what you mean by naturalizing, if I understand it correctly, is that they're taking this constructed idea, this invented idea and trying to show that it exists in nature. And then it's a physical, natural scientific view. So there's a very famous example that Stephen Jay Gould talks about in his book, The mismeasure of man, where they were doing intelligence tests, and they so they decided arbitrarily that skulls, they could measure intelligence by skulls, and they took a ball bearings, and they filled a skull of a black person with ball bearings and the skull of a white person with balls with ball bearings, and then they counted them. And whenever they got to the white person, it when it was, you know, a partial ball bearing they rounded up, so, you know, 5,000.3 was 5001. And when they got to the ball bearings in a black person, they rounded down, and 5,000.1 became 5000. And so they said, the inside of the skull of the white person is larger than the skull of the black person. Therefore, white people are more intelligent than black people, complete fictions, and totally fabricated yet naturalizing associating with the language of science. That's right.
it renders scientific in that regard. Right. And, but but the key here, and you're right, in quoting Gould's book, book Gould gives us wonderful examples of what I'm what I'm really summarizing here. But key to this is that the science the lodging of the so called truth of race of racial hierarchy, is an after effect of a political practice. The political practice of domination the political practice and economic practice. capitalist appropriation, the theft of lands, the taking of people from the continent we call Africa now to work the land that was stolen, so as to convert that land into territory of the nation state, what we now call the United States of America. That is a political process that then recruit science, to naturalize it, to legitimated to say that these things had to be. And then what Christianity also does is to say, not only do these things have to be, but that the practice political practice of European domination, right, the practices of whiteness is also a practice of salvation. Because in bringing the African over here to work the land, we are elevating the African into spheres of democracy, into fears of economic, a proper economic order around capital, and in dominating the native peoples First Nation peoples, we actually are elevating them through, engulfing them into our order of things, this engulfment through the theft of land, through the theft of labor, through the theft of lives, to work the land to convert and build the nation state as we know it, the United States of America is also a religious activity of salvation, bringing salvation to the other. This is the theological operation that is at once a political operation. Let's call it political theology. The US is a political theological nation state, the Western Hemisphere, right? Through domination of colonialism is it is the result of a political theological activity. Now, when black folk, when Latin, Latin American folk, Latino, Latina folk, when, when folk who have been on the negative side of his political activity, then take up Christianity and do something with it, they're gonna have to politicize against it. So that that Christianity, as they practice it, is going to be an improper improvisatory practice that is moving differently, it's going to be moving off be, right, if I can use musical metaphors now, right? It's gonna be moving off beat, it's gonna be moving in the breakdown, it's gonna be a non syncopated Christianity, right? It's gonna be it's gonna be it's gonna be moving off in the three fifths and in the 3535, musical register, etc, etc. And so much so that when those who've been schooled, according to the terms of the dominant Christianity, they may look at that Christianity and say, actually just don't even look Christian.
And this, and this is why you you fairly early on in the book, you end up talking about the fourth century theologian, Gregory of Nyssa. And you asked in the process of talking about him, you asked this question, how do we read against rather than with the social order and what you're interested in? And what I think I want to what we're talking about is, is how do you construct a Christianity? How do you construct a church that doesn't follow the established tradition, and the established hierarchies and the established order of things, and read it against the grain against the tradition, so it's oppositional, redefining, and I would assume, at some point, liberating
that that's exactly right. And you know, that the formulations that you just wrote, rolled out, its oppositional, redefining, liberating some sense, these are formulations that I have no beef with, as it were. But I've been migrating also to a language of trying to try to think not just in terms of black church as, as a reflex as only responding to some negative imposition against it, right? Because what I don't want to do is I don't want to get locked into, you know, black church is one side of the ping pong match to to what whiteness does, right? Because at that point, if I could switch metaphors to a photograph, at that point, black churches and blackness is nothing but the photo negative of the very problem that is responding to. And we know that the photo negative produces the fundamental image, just inverted. What I'm trying to get after is not just how black church is oppositional, I'm trying to get after how the forms of social life that black church bears witness to are actually anterior to the whiteness that it's responding to. In other words, blackness don't come second. It comes first. We even first in is here is a complicated first, it's not just a firstness of temporal firstness. It's a it's the firstness of an fundamental different way of understanding ways of getting together forms of sociality. It's a qualitative firstness not just the quantitative or temporal firstness and it's a think black church at that philosophical theoretical level is I'm contending the work that yet is yet is to be done.
You know, it's it's I don't know what the word is depressing comes to mind. But Bell Hooks talks about a debate in the 19th century among scholars as to whether or not black people were capable of love because they were considered animalistic. And what you are suggesting now, at least as I'm interpreting it is, we're still engaged in this very basic discussion of what does it mean to acknowledge a black person's agency, a black person's independent perspective, a black person's, I don't want to use the word autonomy, because that's problematic for a variety of reasons. But that we are still struggling with the very, very basic idea of recognizing people with blackness as full human beings.
Yeah, I mean, just to key off of what you said about the great bell hooks, I mean, are black people capable of love in some sense that the answer to that question in the 19th century and beyond was, in some sense? No, of course, they're capable of love. The problem is, is that they're capable of a love is deregulated. They're capable of a love that goes outside the lines. And part of what was at stake was trying to harness the sheer energy and capacity of black life. And then, you know, in some brutal, thieving type of way, funnel that energy towards capitalist labor.
So it was what was at stake,
right. So if we, if we allow the definition of what it means to be a black person to be bounded by their economic potential, their labor, their work, either as slaves or wage laborers, then they are permitted to have this identity but it's still profoundly limited and controlled by the economic forces and the forces of power,
right profoundly limited, under some sort of control, and yet, at the same time, moving promiscuously, in excess of the orders of control, right? At the same time, in other words, blackness is not reducible to the incarceration in which it finds itself. And so in some media, I'm thinking of a line of a poem by a poet that I know is his line in his poem that says, I'm in cutting my throat, and cutting my throat, I sing down better.
And, and this is, of course, why the the main character of native son is called bigger Thomas, because the because he is defined by the promiscuity by the things that can't be controlled and the fear and the envy of the people who want to have power over him but can't.
Indeed, indeed, and this is this is very crucial, because on the one hand, as I said earlier, I'm fully acknowledging that there's a blackness that whiteness creates as it's inferior. Here's the blackness that whiteness creates, but at the same time, saying, that which was named as inferior blackness, actually is pointing to a reality that exceeds that way of understanding. blackness as negative blackness is in excess of the very blackness that whiteness creates. And it's the excess that I'm interested in, it's the excess that black church bears witness to at its best, it's the excess, it's the forms of embrace communion, getting together alternative social ecologies that exceed the attempts to regulate our social lives, our lives of belonging that capitalism wants to actually bring online that the state wants to control.
Where can people turn? What do they do? What do they read? What do they watch? What do they look at? What do they listen to, to open themselves up to the idea of black church as you are describing?
Oh, okay, well, I can I can start to rattle off some texts to look at. If that's if that's what you're you're talking about. Um, of course, there's there's a book that I wrote, Raisa theological account. There's a wonderful book of my dear friend and colleague, Yale Divinity School Professor Willie James Jennings, his book, The Christian imagination, is also a wonderful resource. My colleague, who also is now at Yale, evany, Marshall Turman, she's written a wonderful book, I'm trying to think about the Incarnation in relationship to the the notion of the incarnation of Jesus Christ and relating that to black women's lives. I could give you more those are the ones that immediately come to mind. But I won't go so far as to say as well that I'm to invite our listeners, the listeners to this podcast, to actually think with some think with some of the best poetry that's going on now because I'm actually finding that it's some of the work that's being done in the terrain of experiment black experimental poetry and writing that really is starting to get it this in this regard. I would invite people to look just pick up any of the novels of Octavia Butler. Pick up any of the novels might start with Beloved, if you want a Toni Morrison, right? These writers are all thinking about what I've been calling the black social alternative that is in our midst, Toni Morrison, among poets. I'm thinking of the work of Fred Moten. I'm thinking as well of the work of my colleague here at Duke University, Nathaniel Mackey. His his his poetry collection, splay anthem is wonderful, as well as his poetry collection, blue fossa, also wonderful. All of these texts are trying to think what I call the social alternative.
Jay, I want to take a step back and talk a little bit about a chapter that for lack of a better word, really just kicked me in the head, you have a whole discussion of the philosopher Kant. Now I'm a professional philosopher, and I'm a political philosopher, and I do his history of ideas. And Kant is always held up as the Enlightenment personified The, the person who wants transcendental equality, and who doesn't think of people as individuals, but thinks of people as autonomous agents, worthy of full respect. And what you argue is that Kant is the point in the 18th century, where whiteness becomes solidified. And then it is because of him, that the modern notion of whiteness, and the modern notion of race is taken as not just scientific, but as legitimate and moral. Can you talk a little bit about what Kant is doing and why, and what I'm what Kant does, that's, that's going to be so shocking to the people who have spent their careers reading him?
yeah, it took me a minute to try and work that out with Khan. But basically, what I was trying to argue is, I don't know, I don't know, if I fully succeeded, I didn't want to make an argument that said, in effect, it's all Khan's fault. Right. Rather, I wanted to make an argument that said, Kant is the avatar of a widespread sensibility, that is that is basically coming, emerging as a kind of philosophical status quo kind of default for the philosophical mind, a kind of default for knowledge and for thought, you know, you can look at him and get a window on to a process that has been long in the making, starting with the 15th century, that is, that is now reaching a certain kind of maturity out of that early adolescent beginning. That that that's that's why caught significant cop puts on the table, the way in which the figure of the autonomous self, in effect becomes the figure of a European in relationship to a negative vision of the non European other.
And that's, and that's, and that's what I found a one of the things I found really intriguing that, that, why do we think of European ness as whiteness, because of this moment in time? Right?
Right. And also that moment, you must remember this is the constant work he's working on is a is three part as it were critical philosophy, the Critique of Pure Reason, Creek, a particular practical reason, and I'm critical judgment. He's working that out at the very end of the night, very end of the 18th century return into the 19th century. Historically, this is very significant, because this is precisely the moment when I'm European slaving out of Africa, is actually getting ready to reach its culminating point. So the culminating historical moment of European slavery, for the settling of the Americas, right is, is contiguous with happening at the same time as a figure like Kant is emerging to give voice to a certain kind of understanding of the structures of knowledge and the structures more specifically, of the autonomous mind. And the mind, the mind that is determined by itself and not determined by forces outside of itself, in contrast to those who are being enslaved, who are who are being determined by forces outside of themselves.
And he's also formalizing the notion of progress, right? The 18th century, invents this notion of generational betterment. And, as you argue, the consequence of his writing is that betterment equals whiteness, that what he wants out of the Jews, and what he wants out of extension out of non whites is to live the life of the whiteness to become whiteness is to progress and to become better.
This is exactly right. And it's important for us, I would suggest, for us to get like kind of really precise, even more precise about what we mean by whiteness at this point when cut champions, Europe as the pinnacle and the exemplar of progress and therefore, Europe as indexical of a whiteness, that is the pinnacle of the progress of the human. What that means on the ground, and politically that's talking about structures of democracy. It's talking about structures of republicanism, Republican democracy, representative democracy, this is an example of progress to higher progress at the level of economy. He's talking about the practices of capital, right? market traditions, and so on and so forth. This is when all of this stuff is starting to consolidate. That's what whiteness is, when. And so therefore, when we talk about the exportation of democracy around the world and being a defender of democracy, I'm thinking of Woodrow Wilson at the beginning of the 20th century around World War One. That's the voice of a tradition that philosophically Kant is consolidating.
And Woodrow Wilson segregates the American government, right, he is a great segregated.
That's exactly right. And so what is whiteness at this point, we've got to move past, thinking only whiteness as skin tone. whiteness bears witness to a political arrangement that tries to organize planetary, planetary relations. That's what whiteness is. whiteness is a rule of planetary relations, governed by ideas of the rights of a properly human human rights governed by ideas of the political democracy, governed by ideas of economy, markets and capital, right? So whiteness doesn't go around and say, hey, look at us where whiteness, whiteness says we champion democracy. whiteness says we chant we champion markets, whiteness says, We champion human rights, and then use those ideas, basically, to advance a globe to instantiate them globally. That's what we're talking about. So when I talk about alternative socialities, into alternative ways of being together, alternative relationality, I'm trying to think about ways in which we relate to each other, apart from the dignified notions of, shall we say, democracy, I got air quotes going on here. Insofar as democracy gets bound up with settler colonial practices, democracy gets bound up with colonial practices, economy and markets get bound up with, with colonial practices, what are the other forms of belonging, of getting together of seeing ourselves as connected to each other, that are not mediated and routed through the violence is of the normative form of the human.
And so to go back to the initial discussion, what black church as you can see if it does is allow for unmediated relations, allow for people to interact to have relationships that aren't filtered through these other economic these other political these other violent structures, they're unmediated, and they are, they're chosen, and they are they are fully, fully present.
Right? They say this, we can at least say they're not mediated by those those arranged arrangements that I've just narrated. In fact, and this is where, you know, the autonomy stuff comes in the reason why I would sort of think about blackness as not championing a kind of vision of the autonomous subject or a vision of the autonomous human is because what blackness also is doing precisely in the in his kind of recognition, so we say, of us belonging to each other in ways that exceed the way in which the political structures want to imagine and mediate our relations to each other is because it champions visions of self in which we are already, in some sense, bound to each other, that the lines between, you know, me and the other are not as clean and neat, and boarded off as we think they are. And for that matter, neither are the lines between, shall we say, the human and the animal, the human and land, the human and ecology broadly conceived, right? We're always in some sense, a kind of collage in our relations, both to ourselves and to others, we are always one and more than one, more than ourselves, even in being ourselves. Right? This goes counter to the, to the kind of imagination of the human that you get from a person like Kant, and others. I mean, we could talk about Hegel, but then that's getting us fully into the 19th century.
That's a whole other thing.
But there's a tradition of how to think the human that, that I'm suggesting that black life, black social life moves against the grain of
So so. This, this may be a naive formulation of the question, but is black church evangelical? And what I mean by that is, so much of what you are talking about, that that you're in opposition to the black church sees itself as opposition to is, is promoting homogeneity, promoting one dominant Form A telling lies or making powerplays to make people think that they're participating and evangelize, evangelizing, witnessing. sharing the gospel, in a certain sense, is about creating some form of homogeneity, although for many people, it's in the name of redemption in the name of saving their souls is can black church then be evangelical in the sense that it is seeking converts? And it is seeking people to be like them? What would it mean to evangelize from the perspective of black church?
Well, it's a great question. I'm chuckling here. Like, okay, now how am I gonna deal with this?
I like to get one or two in during during an episode.
Right? I mean, okay, I'm just trying to come at the question this way. If I ever angelical one means the very things that you described, if by angelical, one means a certain kind of practice, practicing of Christianity, that in America has this sense of making of converts, winning them over to my way of being in the world, etc, etc, etc. Um, that politically tends to be aligned to the United States of America, at least with the political right. If, if that's what you mean by I'm evangelical, and ask the question is black church of an evangelical tradition? I'll put it this way. Some black churches understand themselves as evangelical in that sense. But this show is about a kind of philosophical, and what one might even say, a theoretical understanding. And here, I'm gonna post theory to practice, but a certain kind of theoretical understanding of black church, in that kind of strict sense that I've been talking about black church, particularly in relationship to blackness. black church is it's evangelical, but in a completely different sense. It's evangelical in the sense that it is, it is a space of opening for embrace, without duplication of itself in other people. It's not trying to, shall we say, convert somebody into being just like me. So if the tap root of evangelists and evangelical is good news, the evangelists good news, I would say, what is the good news of black church? What is the good news of blackness, the good news of blackness to which black church parents witness is the fact that the thing we hold in common, is precisely our differences. So that's precisely what we hold in common. We hold in common our differences, and therefore, the good news of blackness to which black church bears witness is the embrace precisely at the focal point of our differences.
So let me ask a question. Um, I'm trying to frame it in a way that that doesn't sound skeptical, because I don't I don't, I don't want to express that in that form. But you talked about theory versus practice, how much of what you're discussing is an idealized theoretical position, that you are working out as a philosopher as a theologian as a thinker, and how much of it is a representative of black churches, or some black churches today or black theology today, as as it is experienced by people who are open to it? How much of this is is a systematic exploration of an idea, which is our jobs? Right? Or, and how much of it is an empirical evaluation of commonalities that one would find in perfectly, of course, in black churches across the country?
I would argue that it is both theoretical and it is practical. It is both. I hope that what I'm talking about is not just you know, the ideal pie in the sky thinking of an armchair academic. Right, I will hope that it's not that when, when I was growing up, my grandmother, who never finished high school, was a preacher in a Pentecostal tradition. That church that she was a part of, and that through her I participated in, she brought me into that church, this church on the ground in West Philadelphia in what we would call the ghetto in West Philadelphia. When people struggling, we found ways to provide food, provide support, provide shelter, provide housing that exceeded the ways in which the city of Philadelphia You want to regulate that stuff. And in the regulation in evitable, II left a lot, a lot of people out. So I mean, I could go into details about this, but this is on the ground. In some sense, I am trying to have my thinking try to catch up with the forms of practice that I've seen here in my State of North Carolina, North Carolina is a politically a very complicated state
in the last couple years,
especially the last couple of years, but this state has a president of the NAACP, the Reverend Dr. William Barber, Barbara's work in political activism is born through his Christian faith. And it's born through his Christian faith in such a way that it's not to the exclusion of other faith traditions, and those who don't even claim faith. That that's an underground activation of a certain kind of alternative. I could go on and on with other examples from other cities, in which this is this is this is actually on the ground happening. And this the country got a sad and painful, I witness kind of purview onto what I'm talking about, with the Mother Emanuel church, the Mother Emanuel church was a church that was actually the practice of embracing even dylann roof. And so powerful was that witness that by his own confession, dylann, roof started talking like King Agrippa. in in in Acts of the Apostles, I think it's chapter 26, farmer got my got my scriptural things, right, where King grip or St. Paul, you've almost persuaded me, right? I mean, so this is very much on the ground. The problem is, is that the structures of politics as we know them have become so monumental. And they project themselves as the only way to think ways of belonging, that they overshadow the very alternatives that are every day, locally, on the ground in our midst.
So I'm trying to let me ask this question instead, in your field of study, and in whom you work with and in your colleagues and the folks that you cite, in the book, how radical a position is this? Obviously, you're presenting it and I find this believable, right? You're, you're presenting it as radical to the dominant culture, radical to the political and economic structure. So in that regard, I think I think this question is, doesn't need to be asked, but in terms of the discourse, in terms of the people who you are talking to you, you have some responses to Cornel West. In the book, you have some responses to Foucault. You know, there's, there's, there's a to Charles long. And so you that how radical is your approach? And how, how much would other folks who are doing the kind of thing that you are doing? How much would they recognize as just a next incremental step in the discussion or an equal participant in the discussion? And how much would they recognize it as something really shifting the discourse and shifting the discussion to a new place? And I asked this just because I am not a theologian. And and and there were a lot of discussions in the book that this was my first encounter with some of the people as well. And so I'm really trying to ask as a philosopher, where is your work in the spectrum of the radicality of what people are talking about? in this in this area?
I don't know that you can answer that
question. But yeah, I mean, you took the thought right out of my head. I don't know if I can answer the question. And I don't want to pronounce
riseup radical, you know, I mean, I don't want to put you in that position. Right. I don't but but I mean, I guess I guess, you know,
don't don't don't don't get me wrong, I'm not I, I want to be radical. It's just that I don't want to be the one to declare that. I just I just what I what I want to do is I really want to think carefully about how black church can be imagined and ought to be imagined as an alternative sociality and alternative mode of social life is bearing witness to alternative relationality and otherwise forms of communion in congregation ality. And maybe, to the extent that the way in which I think black church is, um, is to try and think of black church as witnessing to something that exceeds even the black church. Maybe that's something that I'm pushing. I'm pushing the field about when I wrote the book that Raisa theological account is a 2008 book, the stuff that I'm about to release now In some sense, does push a bit beyond even what I do in that book because the notion of blackness is is very, very important to me and trying to separate the notion of blackness from its negative inflection, by which whiteness designates It is very important. And I see I see black church, as I'm as responsible to, to blackness, just as I see black people as responsible to blackness, I don't equate blackness with black people. Black people have some sort of unique, historical, unique social, realist sociological relationship to blackness, but black people don't own blackness, blackness, is eco medical, it's for all people. blackness is the sheer open, it is embrace, it exceeds every attempt to border it in as racial logics will want to do. And what black people do is bear witness to that. Similarly, black church bears witness to this alternative form of social and does so in such a way that it at the same time bears witness to an alternative imagination of the sacred with a sacred is disaggregated from property and disaggregated, from ownership. That's what black church is about. Now, to the extent that I make this separation between blackness and black church, between black church and dark church, to the extent that I make that separation and want to hold to it rigorous, rigorously, in some sense, I am trying to push the field on to my knowledge, I don't know many people who are doing this, and I'm actively trying to push the field in this direction.
You know, I'm one one last, I guess, question. And then and then we have to go through much of the of the conversations on the show. And it didn't even occur to me when I was reading the book. And I don't think you quoted this in the book. But I kept thinking about Augustine's comment about the Jews. Let them live, but don't let them thrive. Right. They had to live because they had to be there as a witness for Jesus's life. But they couldn't thrive. Because they if they if if they thrived, it would be a sign that they still had God's favor, and you can't have that favor and reject Jesus. To what extent is, and because you said, black people don't own blackness. To what extent is the the circumstance that many African Americans, if not all, African Americans find themselves in this country, simply just an extension of Augustine's demand? To what extent do our political structures basically say about, I don't know, the black community, I don't know what phrase to use, let them live, but don't let them thrive. And so black church is offering an alternative definition of thriving, because they aren't allowed to thrive in the structures that already exist,
right, not just an alternative definition of thriving, but more, for me at least more fundamentally an alternative definition of what life is by living, right. See, because in a certain sense, the insofar as our our political arrangements in the United States and I will argue throughout Western modernity more globally, to the extent that they say something like, don't let them live, they'll let them thrive, but sort of, in some sense, have let them have a kind of attenuated living, but not Don't let them thrive. to that same extent that presupposes an imagination of living, that is always poised against some sort of outside some sort of negative other, right, let's say, the opposition between life and death, what I'm interested in are forms of living, that are not predicated upon a negative outside, right, a mode of life that does not need, shall we say, death to ground itself as its negative, kind of other. Right? Can we imagine forms of living that don't require their inverted death there as a kind of bottom anchor? Right? And so when I talk about blackness, I'm trying to imagine precisely those forms of living, right, a kind of more primordial communism, if, and I'm not scared to use that word. That's what I mean that word, a primordial communism, a kind of a kind of primordial form of getting together, that actually is the sign of our living, right, a kind of primordial mode of belonging that is not regulated by who can, who I can belong to and who I can
write. And so this is why it's a theology and not a political philosophy. Because the the the the area that would you were wanting to target is so primordial is so foundational, it's in a certain way. It's pre political, it's pre economic, in some sense. It may be pre social, but it's about the Human beings relationship with life and its value. And that's why it's theological, as opposed to anything else.
Yeah, well, now, I'll make this brief because you might have to have me back for another compensate, oh, I would love that, if I lay this on you. But I will argue in some sense, it is anterior even to theology as we know, it, is anterior to, certainly to philosophy and political philosophy as we know it. And it's anterior to theology as we know, I call it para theological, it is para it moves next to, but just like the prefix Paris suggests, it moves both next to and as the internal disruption within the theological as we know it, what I've tried to argue is that the production of the racial world with whiteness as the kind of regulating ground of it all, it emerges from theology. It emerged from theology, right, and philosophy is moving along right along with it. Right, right. And so what we need then or what I'm suggesting that we need is we need a form of thinking are belonging to each other forms of life together, that exceed the theological as we know it, that exceed the philosophical as we know it, that exceed the ontological in In this sense, to speak a blackness is to speak of the power theological, it is to speak of the power ontological it is to speak of something that is anterior to the political it is, shall we say, not anti political, because that's too oppositional. It is an t, a n t, anti political, and I would locate here, social life. It's not even prior to social, the social, certainly in the way that I'm talking about it is precisely what's the threat to the political that wants to regulate it. I'm interested in the social. We don't know what sociality is sociality is a threat to the political as we know it. So in this way, the work I'm trying to do is it mobilizes theological thought forms, you know, Guilty as charged, but it's not reducible to them. It politicizes them, it's a poetics that I'm interested in what I'm doing is a certain kind of poetry, right? I'm interested in a poetics of study, I'm interested in a kind of politicization of a theological as we know it, that moves in the breakdown of theology as we know it in the breakdown of ontology and philosophy as we know it. And in that sense, it's anti theology, maybe even a theology.
I just want to say this, this is this is a really challenging concept and really difficult idea. And and what you're trying to describe is really getting at our most basic understanding of the things that we take most for granted, that the religious stories that we tell the ways that we have meaning and the ways that we define ourselves, not just in opposition to one another, but independently of one another. So I thank you so much, Jay, for taking the time to talk with us about it. And for being patient with those of us for whom we have to think a little slower, because it really is a challenge to the way that we look at the world. Thank you so much, Jay, for joining us on why honor to have been a guest Thank you. You've been listening to Jay Cameron Carter and jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life. Thank you for joining us as always, it's an honor to be with you.
Why is funded by the Institute for philosophy and public life, Prairie Public Broadcasting in the University of North Dakota is College of Arts and Sciences and division of Research and Economic Development. The music is written and performed by Mark Weinstein and can be found on his album Louis soul. For more of his music, visit jazz flute weinstein.com or myspace.com slash Mark Weinstein. Philosophy is everywhere you make it and we hope we've inspired you with our discussion today. Remember, as we say at the Institute, there is no ivory tower.