Race & Democracy in America
Transcript for Student Voices
Andre Willis/Aaron Cooper
You’re listening to Student Voices, a podcast featuring student-led interviews of Brown University faculty based on the Race & in America panel discussion series, curated by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America in partnership with the Office of the Provost.
Aaron Cooper: Hey, everyone, my name is Aaron Cooper, I'm a senior with a concentration in history as well as religious studies. Today, I'm speaking with Associate Professor of Religious Studies Andre Willis about the recent panel discussion on Race & Democracy in America. Dr. Willis, how are you today?
Professor Andre Willis: Man, I'm always glad to be in dialogue with you, bro.
Aaron Cooper: Likewise, likewise. I appreciate you coming to have this conversation with me. Well, Professor Willis, I want to start off by talking through some of the responses that your colleagues gave and sort of thinking through how their work and your work runs with and against each other. First I want to speak on or ask you about, rather, Professor [Juliet] Hooker's work. Professor Hooker spoke a great deal about Black mourning for democracy and the paradoxical relationship in particular between Black sacrifice and the always untimely arrival of justice in U.S. American democracy where Black suffering is always wanting of and belatedly granted recognition. In a move which to me sounded pretty complementary to your post-democratic thinking, Professor Hooker drew on Christina Sharpe's metaphor of "[in] the wake of Black death” to also emphasize the need to separate what she called "Black freedom dreams" from what she also called "democratic repair." And I'm wondering if you find Professor Hooker's framing to be complementary to your thinking on Black post-democracy? And if so, do you think there are questions which post-democratic thinking generates and poses for Professor Hooker's framework that would otherwise go underemphasized, unrecognized, or perhaps even unthought?
Professor Andre Willis: Whew! Man, that's a beautiful set of formulations in there though, man. My own sense is that it’s always a matter of angles and framings and choices to accentuate certain features of Black political experience over others. So in my own view I think that we are very much on the same page, right? Her own emphasis on, as you say, “the wake of Black mourning” and being "in the wake" very much comports with my own sense of Black suffering and the limitations of framing the African American experience as a quest for democracy. I just think that's a bit too narrow. But again, we're talking about angles, frames, and perspectives more than we are talking about historical facts or normative values. Right?
So the framing I want to make would want to confirm Professor Hooker's analysis, but then supplement it by saying something like, if one is serious about Black folk being “in the wake,” in the wake of an experience of violence and suffering, and one takes Black mourning seriously, then what does one do? How does one generate a project from inside of that analysis? And what I want to generate is a project that's about Black community, that's about developing an ethical disposition or a moral conviction. That's about practicing community without being obsessed by the authority of democratic powers -- be they elections, constitutions, and the police -- that is the law. That is more concerned with how folks aim to develop the habits to organize themselves outside of the impact of those forms of authority that are dominating. Right? Did that make any sense, man?
Aaron Cooper: Yeah, that made a lot of sense to me. And I appreciate the emphasis on thinking of Black community making, I would say even, you know, Black world making. Perhaps even emphasizing, I suppose, the role of these facts of life, these facts of Black life as sources for just completely reorienting what we may even be open to in terms of things like governance and other powers that may be that we are willing to let leverage themselves over us in some sort of interest that is hopefully our own.
Professor Andre Willis: Yes. Yes. Because, see, my fear is that the overwhelming focus on working in or under the framework and rubrics of democracy and democratic habits leads us to submitting and subordinating to forms of authority which have never fully acknowledged the humanity of Black people. You see, so I want to shift to say, okay, well, let's take ourselves, to the extent that we can and we know that’s to some extent not completely possible, but to the extent that we can, to take ourselves away from a kind of being underneath these forms of hierarchical authorities and social domination that is democracy. Right? So that we can organize ourselves autonomously and spontaneously.
Aaron Cooper: Yeah, I think that conversation actually opens up another one of the questions that I had for you today pretty well, pertaining to your colleague, Professor [Melvin] Rogers. I wanted to just also give you an opportunity to respond to his critiques from the [Race &] panel of your project. I think that, just by way of time and whatnot, things got cut short, but just in the last about 3 1/2 minutes we have now to talk about this stuff I was wondering if you could maybe, thinking about what you've just spoken on, respond to Professor Rogers. Just to remind everyone who's listening, Professor Rogers leveraged two critiques against Dr. Willis. One being that Dr. Willis’s reading of United States history over-determines the extent to which anti-Blackness defines the essence of U.S. liberal democracy, which erases the definitions that have been created by Black freedom fighters who allegedly have equal claim to these institutions. And the second critique from Professor Rogers being that, all of that being said, "Professor Willis provided no path forward," I think was the language, and sort of left us hanging. And I'm wondering, Professor Willis, if you could respond to that -- it sounds a lot like what you were just talking about, about Black community building and the spontaneity of Black life -- sort of speak to these sensibilities that Professor Rogers was drawing on and I'm just wondering what you have to say [now that you have] this platform.
Professor Andre Willis: Yeah, I appreciate it again. See, I want to emphasize that this is about angles and emphasis and modes of framing discursively more than it is about historical fact and normative values. His criticism was that I over-determined the extent of which anti-Blackness defines the essence of the U.S. You see I would say, well, wait a minute, he's not necessarily wrong, but I disagree with his emphasis. So I don't feel like I'm over-determining the extent to which anti-Blackness is the essence of the U.S. I feel like it's fair to say, and this is always an interpretive project for him and for myself, an interpretive project which is leading towards a generative and constructive project, and my interpretation is to say we must start with considering the extent to which American democracy is an anti-Black project, has been, and it probably will be.
So now that gives me the opportunity to make a different move, right? That is, to work outside of the constraints of a sort of democratic vision and that opens up my constructive project for different habits of organizing. You see, he spoke about the habits and, if you remember, his last comment was, “Maybe democracy requires too much of us.” And we agree there one hundred percent because he thinks the democratic habits are just sort of impossible, right? It's too heavy a burden, right? And we've seen that recently in the terrorist uprising in D.C. So the question becomes then, if the democratic habits are too much of a burden, where do we turn as Black folk? Well, my response is to turn inward. And the path that I want to offer is to a kind of a free agreement for Black folk to assert their dignity in community over and against our democratic forces, that is elections, constitutions and legal systems. Now that doesn't mean I'm calling for an assault on the powers that be. I'm calling for work underneath it that allows us to come to mutual aid and to the kind of practices that support this ethical disposition towards community sustenance. So our community is always under siege, remember that was one of my premises. Black communities under siege, how do we then sustain? I don't think working from the vision of democracy that Professor Rogers wants is the way to sustain Black community. It is important for us to make an inward turn, that is always be outward-looking at our introspection, but the inward turn is what I'm calling for and I want that turn to be a turn that emphasizes a post-democratic ethical disposition.
Aaron Cooper: Well, Professor Willis, thank you for that. I want to thank you for your thoughtful answers. You know, it's always a pleasure.
Professor Andre Willis: A pleasure to get your questions, man.
Student Voices is a feature of the Race & in America digital publication series developed by the Brown University Library. Our theme music is “see the unseen” by Butter. Explore the series at DigitalPublications.Brown.edu