Posts Tagged Neil Roberts

“Historian Links Obama With Frederick Douglass” (Lyn Schoch for ‘The Juilliard Journal’)

As part of the Liberal Arts department’s speaker series, Neil Roberts, assistant professor of Africana Studies and faculty affiliate of political science at Williams College, presented a compelling lecture titled “Frederick Douglass and Barack Obama: Fugitive Refashioning of American Democracy,” in Juilliard’s new Writing Center on February 20.

Historian Neil Roberts

Historian Neil Roberts, a professor at Williams College, presented a lecture on February 20 titled “Frederick Douglass and Barack Obama: Fugitive Refashioning of American Democracy,” for the Liberal Arts speaker series.
 (Photo by Lyn Schoch)

Roberts, who holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago, is the recipient of fellowships from the Andrew Mellon Foundation and Social Science Research Council, and is a member of the Caribbean Philosophical Association board of directors. His present writings deal with the intersection of Caribbean, continental, and North American political theory with respect to theorizing the concepts of freedom and agency.

Roberts began his lecture by saying that even if one does not care about American abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), it is probably safe to say that he or she has an opinion on Barack Obama. Expressing his discomfort with the intense comparisons being made between President Obama and Abraham Lincoln, Roberts suggested that people were perhaps a little too quick to make those connections; after all, George W. Bush, in his glory days, was also compared to Lincoln. The first work to explore the connection between Douglass and Lincoln was just published in 2007. Roberts takes another step and suggests that, since Douglass was compared to Lincoln and Lincoln was compared to Obama, perhaps Douglass might be connected to Obama.

According to Roberts, we must first discuss how we think about democracy. The word itself originates from two Greek roots: demos, or “people,” and kratia, or “rule, strength.” Interestingly enough, as Roberts pointed out, if you look at Plato’s Republic, the original Greek word that was used actually means “constitution.” There was an elite conception of how citizens were viewed; for example, Aristotle is now viewed as representing high philosophy, whereas in his day he was technically a resident alien. In other words, Aristotle was never actually a citizen of Athens, and therefore would not have been able to vote—he only lived and worked there.

Even before Obama won the primaries, he seemed invincible, just as Frederick Douglass, who was also biracial, was “the one” in his time. Roberts remarked that, like Douglass, Obama is a biracial black leader who has culturally adopted his African-American heritage. But what makes him different is that he represents a multiracial America.

As expressed in his narratives, Frederick Douglass saw that there was a difference between “in fact” and “in form.”

Form relates to moral psychology, or how you view yourself regardless of the law, while fact refers to the actual law itself. Douglass writes about being a free man in fact, versus being a free man in form. In his life, he made the transition from being a slave by law, as well as in his own view of himself, to legally being a free man and seeing himself as such. In between these two extremes, Douglass went through a period when he was legally a slave, yet he thought of himself as a free man. Even today, individuals are constantly faced with moments in which their identity is challenged, and people can accept many different kinds of identity. Roberts summed it up in his remark: “Some people are free in the law but they are enslaved to their own ill wills.” The most ideal situation, he said, is to be free in fact and in form, but even today, this can be a challenge.

At the conclusion of the lecture, an audience member asked Roberts how he felt President Obama would feel about this connection to Douglass. Scholars (and Obama himself) have pushed the Lincoln-Obama comparison too far, in Roberts’s opinion—for his inauguration, Obama requested the same Bible on which Abraham Lincoln was sworn in—but even so, the president didn’t mention Lincoln anywhere in his acceptance speech, and in terms of actual principles, the connection isn’t explicitly clear. How does it serve us to say that Obama is like Lincoln, when the markets are collapsing and the arts are continuing to be devalued? Besides rhetorical appeal, Roberts said, he is not sure what this comparison to Lincoln does besides suggest a figure that can lead a country at a trying time.

“Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will,” said Frederick Douglass in 1857. There must be a struggle before there is progress, and Douglass understood this, just as President Obama recognizes it today. Roberts quoted President Obama’s election victory speech from November 4, 2008: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

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Another book about “political philosophy” of Douglass -> “A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass” (University of Kentucky Press, 2018)

I was sent information after the fold by Williams College Professor Neil Roberts, the books’s editor, and responded with an inquiry clarifying how the alleged “rising scholars” were selected.

I’ve heard of Angela Davis and Nicolas Bucolla (when I told an intern of his I would not do pro-bono research for her into the New National Era) but otherwise I’ve never heard of nor corresponded with any of the scholars.

Professor Roberts said he was familiar with my work and not bound by the academic insularity that, in my opinion, has suppressed the field of Douglass Studies for generations.

I decided even as the book appears to be a compilation of mumbo-jumbo academic word salad scholarship — i.e. “hemispheric thinker” as descriptive praise — it is a new work of Douglass Studies. Therefore it deserves attention on principle of uplifting scholarship.

Personally, this philosophical scholarship appears a striking resemblance to its first-cousin … speculative scholarship.

We’ve been here before:

Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man (2018)
The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass (2012)
Frederick Douglass: Race and Birth of American Liberalism (2008)
The Mind of Frederick Douglass (1986)

We hope A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass (2018) mentions at least two Supreme Court Justices, three Senators, four Congressmen and a President other than Lincoln. The political network of Douglass and its implication has yet to be advanced by scholars. We hope. We always do.

Prof. Roberts is a young Douglassonian scholar. This generation of Douglassonians, and the next, must build an entire infrastructure of Douglass Studies that scholars of Lincoln, Twain, Dickens, Dickinson, Poe, Whitman and others have enjoyed for decades.

In our limited understanding of the nascent field of Douglass Studies, Prof. Roberts and Johns Hopkins University Prof. Lawrence Jackson are the only two men of African descent engaged in the work of uplifting scholarship.

We understand the limitations of the university and commend these two scholars for their important work.

Lastly, we have on open invitation to Prof. Roberts, and all other educators, to walk Old Anacostia and see what Dr. Douglass saw.


Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) was a prolific writer and public speaker whose impact on American literature and history has been long studied by historians and literary critics. Yet as political theorists have focused on the legacies of such notables as W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, Douglass’s profound influence on Afro-modern and American political thought has often been undervalued.

In an effort to fill this gap in the scholarship on Douglass, editor Neil Roberts and an exciting group of established and rising scholars examine the author’s autobiographies, essays, speeches, and novella. Together, they illuminate his genius for analyzing and articulating core American ideals such as independence, liberation, individualism, and freedom, particularly in the context of slavery. The contributors explore Douglass’s understanding of the self-made American and the way in which he expanded the notion of individual potential by arguing that citizens had a responsibility to improve not only their own situations but also those of their communities.

A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass
 also considers the idea of agency, investigating Douglass’s passionate insistence that every person in a democracy, even a slave, possesses an innate ability to act. Various essays illuminate Douglass’s complex racial politics, deconstructing what seems at first to be his surprising aversion to racial pride, and others explore and critique concepts of masculinity, gender, and judgment in his oeuvre. The volume concludes with a discussion of Douglass’s contributions to pre– and post–Civil War jurisprudence.

Neil Roberts is associate professor of Africana studies, political theory, and the philosophy of religion at Williams College. His book Freedom as Marronage is the recipient of awards from the American Political Science Association Foundations of Political Theory section and Choice magazine, and the Association for College and Research Libraries selected the work as a Top 25 book for 2015. He is president of the Caribbean Philosophical Association.

“Frederick Douglass’s identity as a major voice in black American thought has long been recognized, but his significance has usually been ghettoized. Neil Roberts’s important anthology is a valuable contribution to the growing body of work seeking to establish Douglass as one of the most important political theorists in US history—an interlocutor with whom we should all be urgently engaging, given the legacy of slavery and racial injustice in the United States.” — Charles W. Mills, Distinguished Professor, CUNY Graduate Center, and author of Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism

“Through the careful, probing, and insightful work of an incredibly distinguished group of contributors, A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass sets a new bar for scholarly writing on Douglass’ political thought. This groundbreaking and rich text is essential reading.” — Tommie Shelby, Harvard University

“The beauty and brilliance of Frederick Douglass’s political thought is brought to life in Neil Roberts’ outstanding volume. Offering readers a rare opportunity to engage Douglass’s work in all its variety and complexity, A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass reveals him as a hemispheric thinker whose analyses of freedom, power, slavery, and white supremacy are enmeshed in current questions of affect, aesthetics, resistance, and the very nature of political membership. This book’s extraordinary social and political theorists remind us that democracy’s promise requires confronting the practices of unfreedom that haunt us still.” — Cristina Beltrán, New York University

For ordering please contact www.kentuckypress.com or call 1-800-537-5487 and use DISCOUNT CODE FS30 to receive a 30% discount through September 1, 2018

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