Black Visions byMichael C. Dawson (University of Chicago Press, 2001)

Reviewed by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 5/1/2001

Michael C. Dawson, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Political Science and the College, and director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago, has written an outstanding study of black political ideologies. Over the past decade Dawson has established a reputation as one of the best survey researchers in the country and the leading authority on political opinion in the African American community. Black Visions is Dawson's most ambitious work to date. Nevertheless, as in some cases of survey research, the lapse in the time of data gathering and the time of data reporting plays havoc with conceptual synchrony. Dawson has dealt with this issue by presenting a strong narrative analysis of the data and warning that we must guard against assuming that ideologies are "themselves fixed throughout time and place (p. 7).

Black Visions is a well-written book. It is lucid, clear, with a transparent narrative style that allows the reader to participate in the author's method of analysis. So the book receives high marks for presentation and style. More troubling, however, is the fact that Dawson seems ambivalent about his own data, particularly regarding the ideology of Black Nationalism. It is as if Black Nationalism, one of the ideologies discussed, should not have such importance in the African American community but since it does according to the data, it must be explained in terms that negate the data. Of all the political ideologies in his framework Black Nationalism is the only one that comes in for redefinition and re-organization. It is almost as if he is afraid to follow the data. Nearly thirty years ago, John Gwaltney's work Drylongso established in an anecdotal way the truism discovered in Dawson's interviews. The majority of African Americans see themselves as a nation within a nation, a people distinct and different from an ethnic group.

Dawson identifies "six historically important black political ideologies" (p. 14) as Radical Egalitarianism, Disillusioned Liberalism, Black Marxism, Black Conservatism, Black Feminism, and Black Nationalism. As with all classificatory schemes one could reasonably argue that Dawson's fixation on these six ideologies is based on a misreading of the data.

Unfortunately there are two problems with this classificatory scheme. In the first place Dawson misreads the notion of "black political ideologies" and analyzes instead ideologies that are accepted by some segments of the black community. Indeed it is questionable whether one could reasonably call Marxism, Liberalism, Feminism, or Conservatism, however swarthy the adjectives, black ideologies. They are Eurocentric and European ideologies that have been bought into by many black adherents. To call them "black political ideologies" is a stretch of the imagination.

Those ideologies are based essentially on the writings and philosophies of Europoean theorists and philosophers about white people. Conceivably, Black Nationalism is the only true black ideology since it finds its source in the early writings and discourses of Africans who resisted enslavement and racism. One can argue that this ideology, admittedly with many variants and interests, reflects the authentic sentiment of the overwhelming majority of black people in the United States. The second problem with Black Visions is that, even if one accepts Dawson's ideological classifications, his discussion of the nature of their relationship to each other and to the role of political life in the African American community appears incomplete. For example, to say that Black Nationalism is "the second oldest" (p. 21) ideology in the black community is to mis-state the nature of the early affirmation of culture and resistance to racism articulated by the first Africans to land in the English colonies. All indications from history are that the earliest enslaved Africans felt a burning need to return to Africa and to escape the horrible condition of servitude in which they had been brutally subjected. They were not interested in some "radical egalitarianism" with whites. This radical egalitarian type of thinking would come only after many years when some Africans had moved away from the daily routine of surviving whippings, abuse, rape, violence, and degradation during the enslavement and when they had been introduced to European concepts of equality. On the other hand, they were always nationalistic, believing as Davd Walker understood that the "white Christian Americans" were the cruelest and most barbarous people on the earth (Walker, p. 627).).

I believe that Dawson's work is driven by his conceptualization rather than the data. What I mean is that it appears that the data are forced to fit the conceptualization rather than the other way around. He has a clear idea of what it is he wants to establish and discovers in his data answers to his questions. The works of Robert C. Smith, FeFe Dunham, and Ronald Walters have frequently used other ideological themes that could have been important in Dawson's analysis. An orientation to data, not the data themselves, often reveals more about a study than anything else. In this case, the terminology long established in the African American intellectual tradition for political ideologies such as Integrationism, Accommodationism, Separatism, and Nationalism are abandoned by Dawson but may have been useful in providing a clearer understanding of how African Americans perceive themselves. Integration, Accommodation, Separatism, and Nationalism are terms that have grown out of the African American tradition; in fact, they are clearly conceptualizations from an internal agency. What is clear in Dawson's work is the absence of a conceptual framework based on Afrocentric agency. Without an appreciation of the agency of African Americans, that is, the role African people have played in defining political ideologies, it is easy for Dawson to misunderstand history and to impose an external framework on the data.

Thus, it is easy for Dawson to claim a "vulgar and brutal misogyny" (p. 41) for Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael. This terminology clearly does not apply to Carmichael and in the case of Eldridge Cleaver only applied to him prior to his "black nationalist' days. To argue that their misogyny, hatred of women, fueled the black feminist camp organizations and literatures is overreaching. The evidence does not show this conclusion. This comment on Black Nationalism, like so many misrepresentations of the dominant African American ideology, is an aggrandizing bow to feminism. I am not familiar with any theoretical or philosophical discourse in the Black Nationalist ideology that is anti-woman. On the other hand, Black Nationalists, as opposed to the radical egalitarians who tend to be mostly Christians, have advanced an African idea of gender complementarity.

Nevertheless, Dawson's l993-1994 National Black Politics Study (NBPS), developed prior to the Million Man March or the Million Woman March, is a remarkable survey. The data was obtained from telephone interviews of 1,206 people, over the age of 18. Each interview lasted about forty-five minutes. The study was conducted between November 20, 1993 and February 20, 1994. The principal aims, according to Dawson, were to provide instrumentation for the analysis of the relationships between black ideologies and their determinants and consequences, and the relationship of black worship to black public opinion.

The overwhelming conclusion in this study supports the view that the black population remains committed to the ideology of Black Nationalism. In this sense, it would have been possible, had Dawson's study been reported earlier to predict the success of the marches on Washington and Philadelphia. Given the fact that the data show a powerful ideological commitment in the African American community to Black Nationalism, Dawson seeks to create an elaborate classification of the ideological tendencies and to redefine the nature of the dominant Black Nationalism by introducing the term, "community nationalism" (p. 120). He accepts the idea that community nationalism is "black empowerment politics" (p. 120) but seeks to advance Louis Farrakhan as the model Black Nationalist.

This is problematic in and of itself inasmuch many nationalists see Farrakhan as a fringe part of the movement. More importantly, I am at a loss to see how community nationalism differs from other forms of Black Nationalism that seek to present the calling cards of self definition, self control, and self determination as the principal icons of the ideology. Trying to isolate Louis Farrakhan from the equation is unnecessary to the main argument of the data in this survey. When Dawson claims "the community nationalist variant of black "nationalism" enjoys strong mass support" he follows his data (p. 101). Delimiting separatism and withdrawal from the state from community nationalism increases the numbers of adherents. But to include separatism and withdrawal from the state in any current definition of Black Nationalism is to assume that there is no shift in the ideology. What is called community nationalism is perhaps the only salient nationalism of the 1990s. Dawson's redefinition of Black Nationalism generally and the shift to community nationalism may be more decoration than anything else in his construction of the black community's interest. Separation and withdrawal from the American state became a part of the rhetorical discourse during the intense period of KKK racial activities in the early turn of the 20th century and remained a part of the discourse until the 1960s. After the deaths of Malcolm X in 1965 and of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Black Nationalist ideology banked away from the theme of separation and withdrawal of the state due to increase participation in electoral politics. Yet the essential core concerns of the Black Nationalist ideology remained constant as Dawson's data show.

It is Dawson's aim to supply answers to questions such as what political ideologies are supported by blacks? Who is most likely to support what ideologies? How does residential location shape ideological orientations? How do black ideologies shape black public opinion? What is clear after one reads the analytical narrative is that one cannot measure what one did not conceptualize. In the dissertation "More'n a Notion: The Determinants of the Appeal of Black Nationalism in the Post Black Power Era,"and a conference paper, "Countenances of "Collective Grace and Communal Availability": The Appeal of Black Nationalism in the Post Black Power Era", National Council for Black Studies, San Diego, March, 2002, FeFe Dunham demonstrates that "the appeal of Black Nationalism is a result of that part of the culture that nourishes and affirms collective grace and communal availability" terms first used by Lerone Bennett.

Just as the African American community has undergone an evolution in self-identification from African, Negro, Colored, Afro American, Black, African American and back to African again, we have also experienced a similar movement in ideological commitments, nomenclature, and purposes. Take the term "radical egalitarianism", for example, it is referred, with the same coordinates, is "capitulation" by some Black Nationalists. What is called Black Nationalism, on the other hand, is called "black separatism" by some Radical Egalitarians. This has not been adequately sorted out in Dawson's work. This is not a criticism that needs to stand in way of appreciating the monumental way he has grappled with the issues of African American ideologies.

He admits in the preface to his book that he is a political scientist and not a historian (p. xiii) and while this is a reasonably good admission it nevertheless handicaps how one can use what he has discovered in this study.

There are many useful attributes of Black Visions. Clearly, Dawson's discussion of identity and black feminist ideology challenges the reader to rethink much of what we see as group identity politics. One would have wished, however, that Clenora Hudson-Weems' notion of Africana Womanism might have been examined more closely since Hudson-Weems argues for a pro-female stance that is not anti-male. This is certainly a growing movement among African American women who are not feminist, but who are pro-woman. Other women writing in this vein are Patricia Dixon and Yaa Asantewa Reed. Dixon's book and Reed's dissertation are two works that suggest the mass of African American women are supportive of women's rights but are also not anti-male. Concentrating on feminism as an ideological theme without attention to Africana Womanism is a major problem for many readers.The book is a triumph in many ways but it is clouded by provocative dislocations about Black Nationalism based primarily on the same old traditional canard about Black Nationalism being a response to disillusionment about being outside of white America. This is a total misunderstanding of the legitimate affirmation of culture and respect for identity and heritage that has little or nothing to do with white people. Dawson is worried that the liberals have nothing to offer because "there is little sign of a vibrant mass movement, and clearly there are high levels of disillusionment in the black community about race relations in America. As always, particularly with the collapse of the left and the isolation of the feminists, the nationalists are waiting in the wings" (p. 280).

Black Visions will be an important book despite its many flaws because it is a reasonable attempt to make sense out of very complex data. However, Dawson's work might be seen as an attempt to explain away the dominant ideological current in the Black Community as only a reaction to not being "accepted" by whites. If this is the case it is an unfortunate rendering since it means that they will never understand the internal agency of those who just plain like being who they are without reacting to anybody else!


FeFe Dunham, "Countenances of "Collective Grace and Communal Availability": The Appeal of Black Nationalism in the Post Black Power Era", National Council for Black Studies Annual Conference, San Diego, March, 2002.

David Walker, "Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World: Our Wretchedness as a Consequence of Slavery," in Molefi Asante and Abu Abarry, African Intellectual Heritage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.


Molefi Kete Asante is Professor, Department of African American Studies, Temple University, and the author of more than fifty books, including The Afrocentric Idea.

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