Review by Tommy Kim
Not long after the publication of “Imagined Communities,” Benedict Anderson often found himself in a rather curious situation. Whenever he would speak in front of a multi-disciplinary, academic audience, he would be confronted with questions that often began with the phrase, “I’m intrigued by your analysis of ‘X,’ but I’m disconcerted about your approach to ‘Y.’” ‘X’ could be anything from a general point to Anderson’s overall argument; however, ‘Y’ would always be the questioner’s own field of expertise. In other words, “Imagined Communities” presented an intriguing and provocative argument that seemed limited only within the reader’s particular field of expertise.
Nikhil Pal Singh’s “Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy” may not have the widespread impact as Anderson’s tome but much like “Imagined Communities,” Singh presents an intriguing set of ideas that work best when looked at from afar. While most Americans might identify the civil rights movement as being the decade bookended by 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Singh expands this into what he calls “the long civil rights era.” For Singh, the movement really begins in the 1930s and extends to the mid-1970s. Within this extended framework, “Black is a Country” examines the tension between an emerging American universalism with the African-American antiracist rhetoric that encouraged a seemingly non-universalist black consciousness. Additionally, Singh suggests that the black nationalism of the 1960s was, to a great extent, a reworking of earlier ideas and not a radical departure.
On this last point, Singh seems to be going very much against the grain. As we move into an era of “post-race” studies, there has been an increased emphasis on seeing racial politics as being very much in tune with some form of American Universalism (or what in a less cynical age we might have called “color blindness”). William Julius Wilson’s “Bridge Over the Racial Divide” and Ross Posnock’s “Color and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual” are just two very recent examples of this. While one could certainly sit and poke holes into Singh’s arguments, it is this particular interpretation of African American intellectual history that I find most fascinating.
While works such as Wilson’s and Posnock’s move everyone towards a more centrist, coalition politics, Singh ultimately implies that what is needed is a move towards not only understanding black, radical politics but, in fact, embracing and assimilating oneself into its ethos. Simply put, political and social equality will emerge not when race is abandoned but, rather, embraced in its most radical form..