Mark Christian Thompson. Phenomenal Blackness: Black Power, Philosophy, and Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022. 208 pp.
Review by Julius L. Jones
Mark Christian Thompson’s Phenomenal Blackness: Black Power, Philosophy, and Theory is a powerful exploration of the development of a critical literary theory that is able to properly theorize Blackness in the middle decades of the twentieth century. For Thompson, exploring the ability to use language and its power to fashion a world in which a liberatory Blackness could be actualized is the core of this important work of African American literary theory. The Black thinkers whose writings constitute Thompson’s source materials in Phenomenal Blackness engage with the leading German theorists of the era and their works, albeit to varying degrees. James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka, Ralph Ellison, Eldridge Cleaver, and Angela Y. Davis engage with the ideas of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jürgen Habermas, Herbert Marcuse, and Theodore Adorno to form a constellation of theoretical frameworks in an attempt to understand Black life.
The first chapter focuses on James Baldwin’s efforts to create a Black hermeneutic in the field of literature. For Baldwin, Gadamer’s concept of Bildung animated his attempt to craft a Black literary theory while grappling with the inherently fraught relationship between Black literature and the European hegemony evident in the King’s English, personified by Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Baldwin recounts his initial aversion to these texts before coming to the realization that it is only through grappling with standard English that a unique Black English vernacular can come into existence. The Black literary production then, according to Baldwin, becomes a site of self-fashioning and liberatory potential.
The following chapter investigates Malcolm X’s commitment to fashioning a language based on power. Over the course of his early life, Malcolm X failed to learn how to write and speak articulately, a deficit that frustrated him as he tried to learn the teachings of Elijah Muhammad while incarcerated. Ultimately, Malcolm wanted to develop a command of the English language not to reject it but to wield it and its power in service to the liberation of Black people. For him, language constituted a realm where combat could be waged between oppressor and oppressed, with the oppressed able to achieve liberation by effectively wielding his words. Next, Thompson turns his focus to Amiri Baraka and Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963) in chapter three. Baraka’s work is criticized by Ralph Ellison who, while appreciative of Baraka, is against the racial essentialism that animates Blues People. Baraka is seeking to articulate a theory of Blues music that argues that it, and all African American artistic expression, is in its purest form an authentic representation of Black identity and must be protected from appropriation and corruption by corporate (in other words, white) interests.
Eldridge Cleaver’s writings—as the Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and while incarcerated—are the basis of chapter four. Cleaver’s writings align with those of Marcuse to theorize the experience of a largely Black population of unemployed or incarcerated persons whose marginalization made them part of the lumpenproletariat, or Lumpen, and thus outside of the proletariat/capitalist dichotomy of the ideological left. To resolve this marginalization, Cleaver, on behalf of the Black Panthers, offers full employment as a solution to this problem, which would merely elevate African Americans to the proletariat within the decadent capitalist system. Thompson notes that Cleaver appears to “speak out of both sides of his mouth,” making it difficult to ascertain any ideological coherence from his writings (p. 122). In Cleaver, we see the difficulty of articulating a coherent theory of Blackness that accounts for all of the contingencies and inherent (il)logics of an identity fashioned in racial subjugation and oppression.
Angela Y. Davis is the subject of the final chapter. Davis’s academic career, studying in Frankfurt, embodies the phenomenon at the heart of Thompson’s book. While earning her doctorate, Davis attends seminars and studies with Habermas, Adorno, and Marcuse, who supervises her dissertation. It is this theoretical grounding that allows Davis, through her close reading of the three biographies of Frederick Douglass in a series of lectures, to fuse together Black hermeneutics with critical theory. For Davis, Douglass’s life serves as an important illustration of a negative dialectic in which a history of oppression, personified in the false consciousness of the slave/master dichotomy, has the potential to be negated by a type of Blackness that can become a liberatory practice in some of its aesthetic forms. Ultimately, the power of philosophical theory to understand Black life comes to an end. Instead, the early 1970s saw the rise of new theories that sought to assert the primacy of a racialized existence of people of African descent, as personified in the development of Black and Africana Studies programs in academia, rejecting notions of universal applicability that undergirded the German philosophy and critical theory of the past.
While Thompson makes it clear that Phenomenal Blackness is not a history, the book charts the moment in Black History from the middle of the 1950s to the beginning of the 1970s when new thinkers emerged with bold ideas about how best to conceptualize and articulate the condition of Blackness. That the evolution of thought described by Thompson follows along the Civil Rights Movement and its demise is clear, offering an intellectual parallel to the mass movement to improve the lives of people of African descent in the United States in the middle of the twentieth century.
This is not to say, by any means, that the book attempts to engage with the movement, either in the affirmative or negative; nearly all of Thompson’s protagonists—Malcolm X, Baraka, Cleaver, and Davis—all occupy, at different moments, an intellectual posture deeply critical of the aims and tactics of the Civil Rights Movement. But, reading Phenomenal Blackness, it becomes clear that the search for a literary Black hermeneutic was vital to the historical moment for people of African descent at the time, and as such is vital to our understanding of Blackness in the mid-twentieth century.