Justice  /  Book Review

The Perfectionist Tradition

The African American perfectionists offered “faith” instead of “hope”—emphasizing the struggle to realize a vision of justice.

In contrast, Rogers highlights the ideas of the “African American perfectionists,” who “asked their audience to see something as profoundly wrong with who white Americans take themselves to be in their relationship to and treatment of black people.” They offer “faith” instead of “hope”—emphasizing the struggle to realize a vision of justice rather than a passive assurance that it will prevail. It is the conviction, as Baldwin put it in 1963, “that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they really are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.” Key to that faith is the belief that white Americans can be convinced to hold their Black fellow citizens in “equal regard.” This outcome is far from guaranteed.

Abolitionists like Walker, Stewart, and Douglass argued that the brutality of slavery was dissonant with the founding principles of the United States. But rather than expecting white Americans to rediscover the American creed, they sought to highlight the contradictions and assert a new definition of American democracy that was incompatible with racism. A striking example is Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Douglass began with disavowal. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn,” he told a mostly white audience. Yet he closed with optimism drawn from the ideals and institutions of American democracy and the rising power of abolitionist and democratic movements around the globe.

Oddly, Rogers largely skips over Reconstruction, the period in American history where that faith may have been most closely realized. Both Stewart and Douglass outlived slavery, and it would be useful to know how they assessed what historian Eric Foner calls the “constitutional revolution” contained in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Yet, as Foner acknowledges, that moment was short-lived, and Rogers rightly focuses on the backlash that followed. It was in the face of racist retrenchment that the perfectionist faith was most remarkable, and most needed.

Reconstruction established a legal framework that would be critical to challenging racial discrimination over the long term, but the more immediate problems were “unwritten laws,” as journalist Ida B. Wells explained, that allowed white Americans to justify racist terror against their fellow citizens. Her point was not to remind Americans of their true creed, but to force them to confront the brutality of their actions and aspire to a more just future. “Wells and others harnessed horror to remind people of their agency rather than treating it as something over which Americans exercise no control,” Rogers writes.