Liberty Matters

To Celebrate Black History, Dispense with The Need for Approval: A Response to ‘Liberty Matters

Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employments for my time and strength than such arguments would imply. . . . What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot. The time for such argument is passed.
                                     -Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?
I appreciate the essays written by Brandon Davis, Susan Love Brown, and Rachel Ferguson for their honest and thorough—though necessarily brief—takes on the relationship between Liberty and Black History. I especially resonated with Davis’ piece and his astute reference to Frederick Douglass to make the point that too much interference from the government or well-meaning abolitionists can actually be detrimental to blacks. I am inclined to agree. In fact, as Davis points out, many initiatives only work to keep Black Americans from gaining the necessary agency to attain and maintain upward mobility. Davis is clear that what the government should do first and foremost is provide blacks with “an unfettered opportunity to stand,” for government has “a positive obligation to protect and enforce the rights and privileges of Africans to ensure that others “do nothing” to them.” (Emphasis mine.) I focus on this section of Davis’ piece because it drives home a personal belief induced in me by all the essays: as long as I am afforded the same rights and privileges as the most well-off white people, as long as I can enjoy recognition and equality before the law, I am all good. Regarding anything else, I implore society to “do nothing.”
A thread that runs through all three of the aforementioned authors’ essays is an explicit or implicit argument for the importance of recognition and respect from white society. Clearly, this is an understandable argument. However, I am less concerned about what white people think of me than I am about how they may impede my life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. I don’t need their respect or approval as much as I need them to recognize the laws that prohibit them from acting on any lack of respect or approval they may have for me. I may want their respect and approval, but all I need is for them to refrain from blocking my upward mobility, my quest to achieve my goals, and my right to personal dignity and livelihood. Believing one is superior to someone and acting on that sense of superiority are two different things. Unless you hold a position in which your views could hinder my hopes and dreams (a supervisor, a police officer, a local politician), I really don’t care what you think. Just get out of my way.
I am reminded of the arguments put forth by scholars of African philosophy when asked to argue for the legitimacy or mere existence of philosophical thought derived from the African continent. Jennifer Lisa Vest, a professor of philosophy, calls such an endeavor a “perverse preoccupation” with white, Western culture’s approval; it smacks of pleading for respect from people whose opinions may matter less than popularly perceived.  Vest is worth quoting at length. 
Am I a human being? Are my thoughts rational? Am I capable of philosophical thought? Is it possible for me to be both an individual woman and a philosopher? Or does my particular identity as Woman? As Black? As African? As Native? foreclose any possibility of my being considered in more general or universal terms as a thinker? These are perverse questions. Others may ask them of me but I will not ask them of myself. Nor will I spend valuable time in dialogue to resolve them. I must begin my intellectual career with certain assumptions about my own capacities, integrity, self worth, and importance in the world. So too should be the case with African philosophy. . . . I argue, we must not devote all of our intellectual energy to convincing the world that African philosophy is a worthwhile endeavor. To engage and respond to questions about the intellectual capabilities of African thinkers or the possible existence of philosophical resources in African cultures is to respond to perverse questions. To engage in academic dialogues implicitly or explicitly guided by a request or a felt need to justify and defend the very possibility of African philosophy or African rationality is to engage in perverse and unnecessary dialogues. Because these perverse debates often precede, prevent, or condition the formulation of necessary debates, it is important that they be identified and critically assessed, and when possible, dispensed with.[1]
I, too, resolve to dispense with the need for white approval. I have enough approval from myself and others to go around. 
Vest even cites Frederick Douglass’ disapproval of perverse questions or preoccupations like the concern for white approval. Douglass, even in the midst of legal slavery, insisted that the need to argue for his humanity was an absurd endeavor. “To do so,” he said, “would make myself ridiculous.”[2] How much more ridiculous would it be to do so today? As Douglass said in 1852, “The time for such an argument has passed.”[3] 
To be clear, I don’t think my fellow “Liberty Matters” authors are pleading for white approval. I do, however, see a slippery slope toward putting forth example after example of black achievement for the express purpose of justifying our humanity to white people. The beauty and triumph of black Americans should be celebrated, but the disapproval or lack of recognition from whites does not erase that beauty or triumph. I don’t need them to love Black History. We love it. I don’t need them to love African American vernacular. We love it. I don’t need them to recognize me as a peer. I recognize myself just fine. All I need from them, from anyone, is to not block my road to self-actualization, to life, liberty, and happiness. 
I think much contemporary anti-racism, what some call “wokeness” and others, following John McWhorter’s lead, call “third-wave antiracism,” is motivated by perverse preoccupations with what white people think. This leads to the contemporary “witch hunt driven by the personal benefits of virtue signaling, obsessed with unconscious and subconscious bias” McWhorter laments.[4] Thus, I believe contemporary antiracist activists and pedagogues who follow the leads of the Kendis and Diangelos of the world, are not motivated by pride, empowerment, or justice as much as they are motivated by insecurity and the need for white approval. Even egregiously insulting sentiments like “white people are demons” are kinds of reaction formations—defense mechanism meant to stave off feelings of fear, inferiority or shame. Such statements are said in order to fill a hole in people’s hearts where self-respect should be. 
I like and respect myself too much to be “woke.”
[1] Jennifer Lisa Vest, “Perverse and Necessary Dialogues in African Philosophy,” Thought and Practice: The Journal of the Philosophical Association of Kenya, 1.2 (2009), 2-3.
[2] Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” The Frederick Douglass Reader, Ed. William L. Andrews, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, 118.
[3] Ibid.
[4] John McWhorter, “The Virtue Signalers Won’t Change the World,” The Atlantic, 23 Dec. 2008.