A Partial Introduction to Black Conservatism
Black Conservatism, a collection edited by Peter Eisenstadt, is an introduction to the lives of lesser-known figures who can be categorized as some strain of black conservative. When assessed as singular pieces, the essays are elegant and informative, which is unsurprising given that they are written by experts in their fields; however, the collection is hampered by its grievous inattention to some of the most important figures in the history of black conservatism. How one compiles essays in the “intellectual and political history of black conservatism” without the inclusion of pieces on Frederick Douglass, Carter G. Woodson, Thomas Sowell, and Zora Neale Hurston is beyond comprehension. All of these acknowledged heavyweights of the black right are relegated to inconsequential footnotes in this book. It is no excuse to casually say that the book is not intended to be comprehensive, as Eisenstadt does in his introductory essay. The book could have included more essays and still would have been of manageable size. Focusing on lesser-known figures would make sense regarding a topic that has been heavily researched. The fact that black conservatism remains an understudied topic makes this volume’s lack of inclusion of its leading lights all the more awkward.
The book’s framing of “black conservatism” also raises concerns. Eisenstadt’s characterization of black conservatism as an ideology chiefly premised on the reverence of Western civilization and American culture is questionable. While it is true that many black conservatives respect the admirable aspects of Western civilization and American culture, the history of racial discrimination leaves little to respect or admire. As a result of this ignominious racial history, black conservative thinkers have always balanced respect for the worthwhile parts of American society with a healthy skepticism. Depicting the principal tenet of black conservatism as reverencing American culture and Western civilization is an oversimplification and misreading of a rich tradition of thought. Black conservatism has more basic principles.
Some forms of conservatism occasionally seem to border on a fetishistic regard for America and the West, but this has never been a “basic tenet” of black conservatism, and viewing such adoration as the primary precept of black conservatism is flawed. First, it conflates jingoism with conservatism. Many parts of American society and culture are not conservative. Several ideologies that are antithetical to conservatism are equally Western and, indeed, American. Second, black conservatives exist outside of America and the West. It is entirely possible to hold conservative principles without an unqualified respect for the culture of America and the West. The fact that respect for American society and Western civilization can be found among conservatives of many stripes does not make it the most basic tenet of conservatism—particularly black conservatism.
Another theme of this book is that conservatism is defined by anti-utopianism. While this is accurate, its framing is flawed in a manner that reflects a broader problem with the mainstream conservative conceptualization of what it means to be “anti-utopian.” Eisenstadt writes: “Most black conservatives are anti-Utopian, less interested in constructing an ideal society than in getting by in the society in which they find themselves.” Later in this essay, Jupiter Hammon, a poet and one of the earliest black writers in the United States, is discussed. It is pointed out that Hammon accepted the institution of slavery under the pseudo-Christian guise of slavery being the will of God. While some may consider this anti-utopianism, it is rather anti-blackness clothed in the language of spirituality. The argument that agitating for an end to the barbarism of chattel slavery of Africans can be equated with a pie-in-the-sky wish for a perfect world is nauseatingly anti-black and a grotesque caricature of a conservative worldview. The role of the conservative is not merely to preserve old institutions; it is to uphold old moral institutions. Taking an insouciant stance regarding demonstrable immorality and dehumanization is not anti-utopianism or conservatism. It is moral slothfulness and sheer iniquity. This is a point that should have been forcefully articulated in the book.
Continuing with the theme of anti-utopianism, in the first chapter on abolitionist and businessman James Forten we see a picture of a conservative radical. Forten believed in equality of opportunity and not equality of results. But this popular “conservative” refrain is actually itself utopian. The notion of equal opportunity is revealed on examination as a fiction. Some people are blessed with native talents in areas that others do not possess. Some people are born into social positions that practically guarantee their success, whereas others are not. In holding to the absurdist position of “equal opportunity,” the conservative is engaging in one utopianism to combat another. Neither equality of opportunity or equality of results are conservative positions. The conservative position is that humans have unequally distributed talents and social positions and must do their best to strive with what they have been given. The idea that every human being has the same opportunity for success in life is egalitarian codswallop. Does this mean that conservatives ought to euphorically accept structural inequality and discriminatory constructs? Certainly not. But the concept of equal opportunity rests on the palpably faulty premise that life can be engineered and opportunity can be fairly distributed. Conservatives can believe in maximum opportunity, but opportunity can never be equal.
The most intriguing chapter in the book is that on Henry McNeal Turner by Stephen W. Angell. Turner was one of the most significant figures in the African American church, and his Afrocentric worldview and advocacy of black emigrationism to escape the injustices of America make him an interesting conservative figure. Moreover, as one of the influential icons of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Turner helped to advance African Methodism in countries like South Africa, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The vicious terroristic attack in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, where nine blacks were killed by white supremacist Dylann Roof was a great tragedy. The location was probably chosen because of the storied black history of the AME church—a history created by prominent clergymen like Turner. Roof, who wore the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa on his jacket in one picture, was a seemingly bookish white supremacist likely familiar with the recherché emblems of international white racism. The fact that only studied white supremacists and black conservatives are familiar with the work of Turner is unfortunate.
Turner’s ideological style, as described by Angell, was “independent, idiosyncratic, [and] often unorthodox in his approach toward many issues during rapidly changing times. At times his positions could have been better categorized as radical than conservative.” One point to remember here is that there is no manual on how to be a perfect conservative. One man’s conservatism is another’s radicalism. As argued earlier, the notion that it is a conservative position to be cravenly mum in the face of subjugation in order to be seen as “conserving” ancient, wicked institutions is not a definition of conservatism that accords with any degree of human decency or morality. Turner’s brand of conservatism should be an example to many black conservatives today. Distancing oneself from Africa and engaging in adulation of the West are not conservative essentials, nor is there any reason for black conservatives to read from the script of mainstream conservatives in order to be considered legitimate. Black conservatism, as Turner demonstrated, can look different from mainstream conservatism—and that is a perfectly acceptable reality.
The great moments in this book further highlight the glaring omissions. An essay on Carter G. Woodson, his creation of Negro History Week in 1926, and his Afrocentric reasons behind creating it would have been perfectly complementary to the enjoyable essay on Turner. The chapter on African-American business by Walter A. Friedman was far too short. Attention to Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 would have given the essay the elongation it desperately needs. An essay on Madam C. J. Walker alongside the Friedman chapter would also have been an excellent improvement—and it would have partially remedied the lack of representation of black female conservative figures in the book. Alas, Walker is relegated to footnote status.
There are no poor essays here, but the book provides less of a complete look at the intellectual and political history of black conservatism than its title indicates. It would work better as a second or third book in a series. Eisenstadt writes that “the contributors to this volume see it as a beginning of a new current in African-American historiography.” This book is worth reading for information on lesser-known black conservative figures, but it cannot be recommended as an introduction to the political and philosophical history of black conservatism.
Chidike Okeem is a writer. He was born in Igboland (Southeastern Nigeria) and raised in London, England. After a decade in Northern California, he now lives in Dallas, Texas.
Posted: July 10, 2016
Francis P. Sempa