On a cool and rainy autumn evening in Toronto, my wife and I took a last tour of the city before leaving home for Chicago. We popped inside Another Story Bookshop, and I noticed a book standing out — black text foregrounded on a white cover. “Vincent Lloyd!” I shouted, not realizing that his book, Black Dignity, was finally out in print. I opened it to peruse the first few pages before I decided to purchase it. I couldn’t put it down; I read Vincent W. Lloyd’s Black Dignity in a week.
Black Dignity is a must-read for anyone struggling against domination in a world constituted by anti-Blackness. For Lloyd, domination is the arbitrary exertion of one’s will over another, and its “primal scene” is the master/slave relation. For Lloyd, his use of the language of “domination” points toward a specific kind of relation that permeates the world: anti-Black violence. Lloyd specifically says the purpose of the book is “to get a sense of this new language of Black dignity, to explore how the hashtags could be filled out, linked together, and oriented toward the struggle against domination in general and anti-Blackness in particular.” Morally stimulating, energizing, probing, and clear, Black Dignity demonstrates Lloyd’s ability to weave together and synthesize Black political and religious thought.
Rather than a strict analysis, Lloyd provides us with a novel approach that explicates the moral vocabulary that has emerged in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Lloyd explains it this way: “The new moral vocabulary I found near Ferguson allowed me to put my Blackness into words and gave me a way to understand the depths of Anti-Blackness shading America.” As far as Lloyd is concerned, the moral vocabulary of the Black Lives Matter movement constitutes the philosophy of Black Americans: Black dignity.
For Lloyd, dignity is a verb. Lloyd defines Black dignity as a way of life “that opens us to discerning domination,” while “rightly [discerning] and [responding] to domination when we encounter it.” Relying on Black intellectuals like Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fredrick Douglass, and others, Lloyd demonstrates how the language of “dignity” in Black political thought has been understood as a struggle against domination.
Lloyd claims that all encounters between human beings are infected by the master/slave relation. Lloyd takes the grammar that emerged out of the Black Lives Matter movement and has circulated on social media —Black rage, Black love, Black family, Black futures, Black magic — and creatively ties them together to develop a philosophy centered on building a world that is radically free and beautiful.
These terms provide the foundation for a philosophy of Black dignity, because, as Lloyd explains, “understanding dignity in movement contexts, dignity in motion, sheds light on all the concepts that are part of the new moral vocabulary emerging around Black Lives Matter, and helps us see the coherence of this vocabulary.” “Black rage names rage directed at anti-Blackness” that generates solidarity and collective struggle against domination; “Black love” is love directed toward comrades engaged in the struggle against domination; “Black family” challenges the white patriarchal conceptions of the family while also framing family along the lines of affinity and solidarity through communal struggle; “Black futures” explores the eschatological horizon of the impossible — that is, a world free from domination; and “Black magic” explores the spirituality that makes possible the impossible, fostering the struggle against domination. For each one of these five topics, Lloyd dedicates a chapter.
The final portions of Lloyd’s book are dedicated to imagining a collective struggle for liberation and answering the question of how to live with dignity now. If dignity is the struggle against domination, Lloyd claims that the goal is “tautologically, the abolition of systems of domination.” In other words, struggling against domination means we become abolitionists. If we are struggling against the world’s systems of domination, then we must work toward the abolition of these systems that constitute our world. So, as far as Lloyd is concerned, one does not simply have dignity as much as one performs dignity through the struggle to be human. Lloyd explains that this struggle is performed on the ontological rather than ontic register.
The ontic struggle is aimed at a particular object, whereas the ontological struggle is aimed at all that constitutes the world — namely, domination. For Lloyd, anti-Blackness is “at the center of everything, for everyone. It leads to police violence but also to odd looks from colleagues; it leads to mass incarceration but also makes Black bodies especially vulnerable to disease. And it makes Black people confused about who we are.” Even when we begin to imagine a future freed from anti-Black domination, “every description is contaminated by the present.” Therefore, one must set the horizon of freedom at the “end of the world,” and struggle for a new world freed from this domination.
For an example of an ontic struggle, suppose my aim was to “end mass incarceration.” Lloyd would ask: What would prevent a new form of racialized social control from emerging in its place? Ontic struggle is not bad; it is simply not looking to end the domination that makes racialized social control possible. Therefore, the struggle against domination implies a struggle against the entire order of things.
As I was reading Black Dignity, I couldn’t help but think about the centrality of struggle in the thought of theologian James H. Cone. The cornerstone of Cone’s theology is liberation, which he understands as the “freedom to rebel against all powers that threaten human life.” Indeed, Cone writes in Spirituals and the Blues, “black history is also a record of black people’s resistance, an account of their perceptions of their existence in an oppressive society.” Lloyd agrees with Cone’s emphasis on the relationship between freedom and resistance. Yet, Lloyd creatively integrates “dignity” into this network of themes, arguing that struggling against domination is performing dignity.
Reading Lloyd’s book reminded me that whether liberation is understood politically or theologically (or both), it is a term primarily concerned with one’s freedom to resist and exist with dignity in the world.