This fall you taught the political science course “Democracy’s Discontents.” What was the driving question of that course?
It was also your first experience teaching at Amherst. How was that?
Students do the readings! It's amazing. I think students intensely want to feel like they are part of a shared intellectual community. I learned from them just as much as they learned from me.
Prophet of Discontent began with what you call “an open-ended search in the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr collection.” How did that search evolve into a pointed idea?
Andrew J. Douglas, my mentor at Morehouse, reached out to me and said there was an opportunity to publish either a series of articles or a book on Martin Luther King Jr. He asked if I would co-author with him. Even as I had my own dissertation going on, I thought it was an important project, in part because, at Morehouse, King has a kind of mythical presence; a lot of folks lionize him in the service of liberal individualist narratives. Beyond the Morehouse community, historians, political theorists and sociologists consider King an important thinker and leader. Not to mention, King has been maligned by conservatives as someone solely interested in personal behavioral questions about the content of one's character or about lifting oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. What Andrew and I saw in the archive and in recent work on King’s radicalism was this sense that he was deeply collectivist, that he was not just a mobilizer and a dreamer, that he was deeply invested in structurally re-organizing society and developing an analysis in light of this vision. He knew keenly that we had to change a system that was not going to change on its own.
Andrew and I began by looking at speeches that King had given to labor unions and to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and at statements that he was making about racial domination and apartheid. What came from that was this sense that King had a sophisticated analysis of racial capitalism, of the way that capitalism requires racial inequality and reproduces it as a matter of course. This is what he saw in Memphis in 1968 and in Chicago in 1966, for example. And all this poses a challenge to folks who want to paint King as an idealist or moral philosopher.
In Marxist lingo, we might say that King was a materialist, and this materialism drove him to be dissatisfied with the conditions under which people were living. King recognized that it was not enough to merely think of morality. Even if we love our neighbors, under racial capitalism we are structurally compelled and conscripted to reproduce inequality.
Is this book in part an effort to correct misconceptions about King’s ideas and arguments?
Yes. It is important to push back not only against the willful misinterpretations of King that I already mentioned but also against the way in which King is understood by the left merely as a strategist. Part of what we want to say in the book is that King is an intellectual. He is grappling with ideas. Importantly, his grappling with ideas is consistent with the ordinary struggles of the Black poor and working classes. So yes, he is someone who understands the importance of analysis. But he also recognizes that whatever he has had to say about the domination of the poor and working classes, they had already said it thousands of times before.
Also, there are misconceptions about King as this narrowly colorblind liberal who wanted everyone to simply get along. While he did want people to get along (part of his rich Christian theological sensibilities), he had something more specific in mind: he was targeting a set of structural conditions that get in the way of our ability to live together. King often talked about building a “beloved community,” a “people-oriented society” rather than a “thing-oriented society.” In thing-oriented societies, we're concerned with pursuing our own competitive advantage and accumulating capital. There are whole communities of people who live on the underside of the American Dream, who have only experienced that dream as a nightmare. King talked about the two Americas: the land of milk and honey, and the land of desolation, despair, disregard, disrespect. He believed nothing less than a structural transformation can change the reality of these two Americas.
Your book shines a light on King’s implicit criticisms of capitalism. Why do you think King chose to work in that implicit mode of discourse?
King became increasingly radical, as a cohort of scholars such as Cornel West, Michael Honey and Sylvie Laurent have suggested. At the same time, there are other figures in the movement who were more radical than King, like Malcolm X, who said explicitly, “You can’t have capitalism without racism.” King never spoke in those terms. He saw himself as a consensus builder, and he was also always looking over his shoulder: He was under surveillance by the FBI, and he was facing anti-communism from the state and from some of his counterparts within the movement. At the same time, his anti-capitalism was there all along. He’d read Marx in 1949, he’d confessed his socialist vision in a letter to Coretta in 1952. And of course, a week before his death in 1968, King was explicitly standing with militant young people in the North against capitalism, “a system that is choking the breath out of their lives,” as he put it.
Also, King had retrogressive patriarchal ideas, particularly when thinking about the role of women in the family, in the labor struggle, the civil rights movement leadership and the Black church. He was pushed to embrace a more egalitarian gender politics by Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Johnnie Tillmon and a host of women in the movement who are less well known. King is a part of what we might call ‘a problem space’. That is, a space of debate and deliberation over a set of questions and identifiable stakes. In problem spaces, there are disagreements over vision and direction, over the terms of community itself. This problem space, in King’s case, sharpens him and leads to the embrace of a more capacious vision of the beloved community.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of writing and publishing this work?
It’s been amazing to write a book with a mentor-turned-friend. We often think about the production of scholarly work as a singular, isolated experience, but we were in conversation all along. The book was really an extended intellectual exchange among comrades. We talk in the final chapter about “Black study,” the cultivation of ideas as part of what it means to build radical forms of community. This was Black study in action.
It's been rewarding to talk to people who didn't see that this King was there, and was always there. It's been rewarding to challenge misconceptions and convince people that King is richer than the distortions would suggest.
I have also been increasingly interested in the question of how a book like this can be useful for the contemporary moment. What does it mean for organizers, for activists to read a book like this? Many of the problems organizers on the ground face today–about the carceral state, the housing crisis, policing in Black and brown neighborhoods–King understood deeply. The book is saying to contemporary organizers and actors: here's a thinker who shares so much with you, who anticipated a lot of the crises contemporary organizers wrestle with. Now more than ever, we should be thinking about the ancestors from whom we can draw wisdom.
How do you think about Martin Luther King Day?
It's weird that we call it a holiday, which invokes celebration–in particular, the celebration of capitalist ideals. This holiday is all about celebrating the promise of American prosperity, or at least that’s how many on the political left and right would want to tell the story. But what are we celebrating exactly? I'm ambivalent about the day, partly because, when we look around, we can see how far away we are from the beloved community King talked about.
Many people live in absolute hell. Just more than a week ago, we witnessed a massive fire that killed 19 people in the Bronx after residents had complained persistently about conditions in the building. This was exactly like what King faced in Chicago and Newark, when he saw the poor conditions people rendered vulnerable and disposable by landlords and the state were forced to live under. This same story in the Bronx is everywhere. And then, there is the pandemic in which so many have totally given up on the sacrifice of protecting each other. It is profit over people. We can't celebrate the King holiday as an achievement or victory. Our society remains very much an atomistic, racial capitalist society; I see no reason to celebrate.
So if anything, on this day, we have to renew our commitment to struggling towards the beloved community, which means dealing with the structural problems that prevent its realization. Maybe there's a distant future in which we can celebrate the King holiday as a great achievement. But we're not there yet, not even close.