African American Political Thought: Past and Present

African American Political Thought is a two-day conference taking place at the Simpson Center May 2-3, 2014. Organized by Jack Turner (Political Science), this conference convenes nationally recognized scholars from political science, philosophy, English, history, and black studies to reflect on historical meaning and contemporary significance of African American political thought.

The conference brings the texts of figures ranging from Frederick Douglass to Toni Morrison into conversation with the abiding concerns of political theory: the meanings of justice, freedom, and equality, as well as the nature of power and obligation. According to Turner, such an encounter allows for deeper understanding of African American intellectual traditions as well as enhanced understanding of political theory’s core concepts.

One of the outcomes of this conference is a book with the working title “African American Political Thought: A Collected History.” The University of Chicago Press has offered Turner and his co-collaborator Melvin Rogers (Philosophy, Emory University) an advance contract for the book, which will include thirty-two chapters on thinkers ranging from Phillis Wheatley to David Walker to Zora Neale Hurston to Clarence Thomas. Turner says they are planning a publication date of 2016.

Turner and Rogers have had the idea for this project since they completed graduate school in 2006, deciding that—once each finished their first books—they would collaborate on putting together a collected history of African American political thought. The two envisioned a conference component from the earliest stages of the project. Turner explains, “Since the field hasn't yet really defined itself through disciplinary conventions, we thought that the whole project could be a collective conversation about what makes this area of study distinctive.”

Several notable scholars—including Cedric Johnson (University of Illinois, Chicago), Naomi Murakawa (Princeton University), and Nikhil Singh (New York University)—will visit the UW to take part in this conversation. Though their presentations will provide historical interpretations of their subjects, the presenters will also reflect on the political present. View a complete list of participants and their topics.

Turner is eager for the ways in which the conference and book will expand his personal research interests. “Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin all played big parts in my first book on individualism and racial justice in America; however, one way I was dissatisfied with that book was its insufficient engagement with the black feminist tradition,” he says. “The conference and the larger volume have become an occasion for me to delve into that tradition and get to know it.”

Turner is co-teaching a graduate microseminar this quarter with Habiba Ibrahim (English) in conjunction with the conference. The course, “African American Political Thought: Freedom, Gender, and Political Action,” is designed to give students an opportunity to consider the interrelation between freedom, gender, and political action through some of the major texts to be considered at the conference—in particular, those by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Marcus Garvey, Toni Morrison, and Angela Davis.

Turner hopes that those attending the conference come to understand the seriousness of African American political thought as a tradition, as well as its usefulness as a resource for thinking through contemporary challenges in America such as mass incarceration and imperial decline. He also hopes that attendees understand this project as a collective intellectual “work in progress.” He explains, “This is a centuries-old tradition that we're still trying to recover and make sense of. We're really at the beginning of a very large project of interpretation that will take decades to play out.”

African American Political Thought is sponsored by the Simpson Center for the Humanities, Department of Political Science, Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, & Sexuality (WISER), College of Arts & Sciences, and the Diversity Research Institute.

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