Cover: We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity, from Harvard University PressCover: We Who Are Dark in PAPERBACK

We Who Are Dark

The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity

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$31.00 • £26.95 • €28.95

ISBN 9780674025714

Publication Date: 09/15/2007


336 pages

5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches

Belknap Press


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It isn’t easy being a philosopher committed to making critical reflections on African-American identity. Those about whom you write have little time for abstractions and even less patience with criticism. The philosophers for whom you write often refuse to take seriously a subject so outlandishly removed from all that has preoccupied them for the past two and a half millenniums. And the experience upon which you reflect is largely bereft of earlier models to build upon. Only a few intrepid souls have plowed this virgin intellectual field. Add to them now Tommie Shelby, a sparkling new talent with all the boldness and intellectual self-assurance necessary for such an effort… Although black Americans have led the way in practical matters, insightful theoretical reflections on identity politics are still wanting. Shelby’s We Who Are Dark is respectful of such politics, but severely critical as well. His book contests the movement’s central claims at a level of sociophilosophical sophistication that one rarely encounters.—Orlando Patterson, The New York Times Book Review

Shelby, a rising star who teaches African-American studies at Harvard, argues for black solidarity without black racial identity. If that seems paradoxical at first blush, it won’t after you have read this account of black political thought from W.E.B. Du Bois to Malcolm X.—Jim Holt, New York Magazine

On what grounds—and to what ends—are marginalized or oppressed social groups constituted as a group? Specifically, how should those who identify as black in the present-day United States conceive of their sense of solidarity, and what should be the guiding norms of such conception? Tommie Shelby’s We Who Are Dark offers a lucid and rigorous treatment of these questions. His argument rests on two initial assumptions: one, that there is indeed a demonstrable sense of solidarity—that is, of ‘we-ness’—among those who identify as black in North America, and two, that identifying and/or being identified as black in North America is still the basis for continued socio-economic and political oppression, marginalization, and exclusion. The question that follows from these assumptions is whether and how black solidarity could be instrumental in resisting and overcoming such oppression, marginalization, and exclusion… A brief summary such as this fails to do justice to the scope, depth, and elegance of Shelby’s argumentation throughout his book. We Who Are Dark makes an important contribution to the field of African-American Studies in particular and political philosophy in general. The sympathetic yet incisive analysis of the problematic aims and assumptions that inform classical nationalism and identity politics is likely to find an audience both within and beyond the circle of scholars with a specific interest in theorizing black identity. Moreover, while Shelby writes from within the dual traditions of mainstream Anglophone philosophy and African-American studies, and constantly enters into dialogue with thinkers from both traditions, he remains an original voice. His thoughtful engagement with thinkers such as Du Bois, Garvey, Delaney, et al, does not merely re-tread the conceptual pathways laid down by them, but mines their work for unacknowledged contradictions and hidden digressions. Despite aligning himself with Rawlsian political liberalism, his book is much more than merely a rehashed version of Rawls. His argument for solidarity for the sake of justice rather than for the sake of maintaining an essential ideal of blackness deserves consideration in its own right.—Vasti Roodt, Ethical Perspectives

An elegant, superb, and timely little book… It immediately secures Shelby’s place among the most significant thinkers working at the interface of philosophy and black studies. This groundbreaking work enlarges the field, rethinking our ideas on a variety of matters heretofore understudied but now readied for philosophical analysis… Shelby is of the generation for whom black power was their parents’ idea. They can face it with fresh eyes as young intellectuals looking back on received opinion, and here Shelby subjects black nationalism (BN) to searching examination and sometimes withering criticism, even while wanting to believe and defend it by isolating what he sees as its central and strongest claims… Shelby manages to find (or, perhaps, to conjure) the little-noticed liberal hidden within a variety of militant black activists, orators, and authors. Throughout, his tone and style are analytic, measured, soberly realistic, and fair-minded… I think the ultimate value in Shelby’s indispensable book may be to help remind us (perhaps unintentionally) that what we mainly need in combating continuing racial injustices against African Americans is a firmer and more clearheaded commitment to justice, not to race or blackness or a supposed nation of African America.—J. L. A. Garcia, Ethics

The intellectual and strategic moorings of contemporary black political solidarity are increasingly unstable. As the political memory of the race-specific Civil Rights movement fades further into history, intraracial differences that have always existed, such as gender, religion, sexuality, multiracial identification, immigration, region, cultural affiliation, political ideology, and generation, are being highlighted by race scholars from a variety of fields as reasons for rethinking race-based political cohesion. Tommie Shelby acknowledges all of these internal pressures, but sees the widening gap between poor and more affluent blacks as the intraracial fissure that most threatens political cohesion among today’s African Americans. From this sociological premise, Shelby sets out to articulate a ‘progressive,’ philosophically sound basis for black political organization that appeals both to the class interests of poor and working-class blacks and to those of middleand upper-class blacks. By ‘progressive,’ Shelby means a recognition that basic social injustices linger, and can and should be corrected through state intervention and/or collective political action.—Hawley Fogg-Davis, Perspectives on Politics

A philosophical defense of black political solidarity as a tool for defeating racism, eliminating racial inequality and improving opportunities for those racialized as ‘black.’—Sandra L. Jamison, Black Issues Book Review

Shelby interprets Black nationalist thinking in six elegant, novel chapters… A progressive notion of Black political solidarity in the post-civil rights era has to come to grips with the unique challenges facing us today. For this reason, We Who Are Dark must be required reading for anyone pragmatically concerned with the future of the souls of Black folk, the souls of a people.—Neil Roberts, Souls

From his training in political philosophy, Shelby argues that there is a need for black political solidarity as a continuing tool of emancipation. Drawing on the ideas of Martin Delaney, W. E. B. DuBois, Malcolm X, Black Power, and black cultural nationalism, Shelby concludes that the transcending unifying factor now is the ‘pragmatic nationalist conception of political solidarity.’ This provocative, stimulating, and readable book can offer a fresh understanding of the virtue of black solidarity and introduce readers to the thinking ways of philosophers.—J. H. Smith, Choice

Shelby dissects the history of black political thought from W.E.B. Du Bois to Malcolm X in order to arrive at a new political philosophy that takes black solidarity as its foundation… Shelby finds merits and flaws in almost every political theory he discusses, leading to an evenhanded, meticulously thought-out argument that builds upon the best elements of black political thought.Publishers Weekly

Shelby’s aim is to show that one can achieve a robust form of black solidarity without a commitment to black identity. He identifies robust solidarity as entailing: identification between group members, shared values or goals, group loyalty and mutual trust. I think the arguments that he offers that all these elements of robust solidarity are possible without the sort of distinctive black identity required by collective identity theory are compelling. This is important, because many people take it for granted that the pursuit of solidarity entails the need for identity. In articulating the necessary analytic distinctions, Shelby makes the kind of contribution that I believe is characteristic of the most useful philosophical interventions in African American studies (and in many other fields): he shows that there is conceptual space for more options than the current debate presupposes.—K. Anthony Appiah, author of The Ethics of Identity

As an interdisciplinary enterprise, African-American studies is thriving, but philosophy’s contribution has until recently been next to non-existent. The field’s image is still an overwhelmingly ‘white’ one—a discipline that has nothing to say about the specific concerns of blacks. Tommie Shelby’s book, addressing as it does a long-standing set of issues in the black tradition, is a welcome proof of the subject’s relevance and importance for African-American interests. Employing the apparatus of contemporary analytic philosophy with rigor, sophistication, and the use of a remarkable range of sources, he sets out to defend a qualified version of the classic black nationalist thesis that a distinctive ‘black’ politics predicated on black solidarity is morally and politically justifiable. Not only does he succeed splendidly in this task, but he provides in the process a model of how the ‘unwhitening’ of philosophy can eventually be achieved.—Charles W. Mills, author of The Racial Contract

Awards & Accolades

  • A New York Magazine Best Academic Book, 2005

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