Diversity and Inclusiveness Some Thoughts on Juliet Hooker’s Theorizing Race in the Americas

Some Thoughts on Juliet Hooker’s Theorizing Race in the Americas

By Lewis Gordon

Juliet Hooker is a political theorist in the Department of Political Science at Brown University.  Her work focuses on the contradictions of liberal democracies emerging from their ongoing denial and presumed legitimacy of black exclusion. “Black,” however, is for her, as it is for me, a relational term, which means it must be understood alongside another category—whether white, brown, Mestizo, Creole, Indigenous, class, gender, sexuality, etc. This fundamental relational aspect of the theory challenges the avowed non-relational models of others. Bringing the contradictions out offers systemic critique, which means, as well, an important other dimension of theoretical work—namely, the role of imagination and possibility.

For instance, science, as the philosopher, physicist, and political theorist Peter Caws argued, is imagination constrained by evidence. To that, I would add a willingness to go beyond received categories for the sake of (evidential) reality. In my own work, I’ve called that movement a teleological suspension of disciplinarity. I see Hooker’s work as ultimately arguing for something similar, where she uses historical case studies as evidence with a theoretical model of examining their contradictions to raise possibilities of democratic participation. This makes her approach more dialectical than she may avow, though it is one clearly rooted in what is now known as theory from the global south. Hooker is, in other words, arguing for an open dialectics instead of a closed model of dialectical application.

Oxford University Press advertises her latest work, Theorizing Race in the Americas, as “The first book to simultaneously analyze U.S. African-American and Latin American political thinkers and their ideas about race.”  This is an error on the press’ part.  Scholars in Africana Studies are aware of such connections being made among canonical figures such as Frederick Douglass, James Weldon Johnson, Anna Julia Cooper, Langston Hughes, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, among others, in North America and Anténor Firmin through to Frantz Fanon and Nicolás Cristóbal Guillén Batista in the Caribbean.  More recently, Argentinian decolonial theorist Walter Mignolo, U.S.-Panamanian philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff, Puerto Rican philosopher and decolonial theorist Nelson Maldonado-Torres, and literary theorist Claudia Milian have theorized these connections.  (See, e.g., Mignolo’s The Idea of Latin America [Blackwell, 2005], Alcoff’s Visible Identities: Race and the Formation of the Self [Oxford UP, 2005]; Maldonado-Torres’s Against War: Views from the Underside of Modernity [Duke UP, 2008]; and Milian’s Latining America: Black-Brown Passages and the Coloring of Latino/a Studies [University of Georgia Press, 2013].)

Milian’s writings in particular have addressed the suppression of black terms in Latin American discourses.  Additionally, Anani Dzidzienyo and Suzanne Oboler’s anthology Neither Enemies nor Friends: Latinos, Blacks, Afro-Latinos (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) offers discussion from a community of scholars in a variety of disciplines.

Oxford’s mistake could be connected to a problem of disciplinary identification, as Alcoff is a philosopher, Mignolo is primarily a literary theorist and semiological anthropologist, Maldonado-Torres is a philosopher and critical theorist of religion, Milian is a literary theorist. That political thought is discussed in their works may be occluded by their disciplinary identification, even when, in the case of Alcoff, one is an author from the same press that advertised Hooker’s book. To Hooker’s credit, she cites some of these authors. Her book doesn’t, however, have to be the first to be an important contribution to this intersection of disciplines, fields, and thought. What are clearly unique about Hooker’s text are the theoretical frameworks she brings to the discussion.

A unique feature of Professor Hooker’s work in general is that she challenges many of the orthodox claims on race in Latin America. For instance, her 2014 essay “Hybrid Subjectivities, Latin American Mestizaje, and Latino Political Thought on Race” offers a critique of Gloria Anzaldúa’ s notion of “mestiza consciousness” in her Borderlands/La Frontera.  To offer a critique of Anzaldúa at all goes against the grain of much recent Latino/a thought, where a form of Latin American racial exceptionalism is averred.

Hooker joins a critical community, many of whom are in the Caribbean Philosophical Association, in challenging this portrait. Acknowledging the creative directions of Anzaldúa’s work—especially with regard to queer theory and sexuality studies—Hooker critically focuses on what is elided in what is in effect cherry-picking portraits of Latin American racial models. I have been in longstanding arguments with quite a number of Latin American scholars and Caribbeanists on race as well about this issue.

Basically, empirical research and actual experience contradict their claims. Hooker points out the importance of the imperial history in and through which race and racism were produced across the Americas (that is, from North America to South America), and that although the North has become hegemonic, that doesn’t erase the initial history of racial formation in the two regions.

But more, and crucial, is her argument that the anti-racist struggles, primarily from the black and First Nation or Indigenous “bottoms” of those societies reveal more similarity than difference to the U.S. context, where black Americans, First Nations, and Indigenous peoples face racial struggles in a matrix of their identities and mixtures, which include Asians and whites.

Juliet Hooker

Hooker’s work is thus both theory and meta-theory, in that it explores also the problems in how Africana Studies, Latin American Studies, and Afro-Latin Studies are theorized. That there is a problem in these areas of study is evident in the forms of purity to which the first two sometimes appeal, which is ironic in the case of Latin American Studies since there is an avowed claim to embraced mixture in the work of scholars in the discipline.

Africana Studies suffers from a similar problem, despite its appeal to blackness. Where blackness is not understood relationally, purity is a consequence. Such a phenomenon, though avowed by some (e.g., Black nationalists and many Afrocentrists), has never been a reality at least for blacks in the Americas since it would ultimately require a form of disengagement from social reality. In other words, where race is not a biological reality, its social significance could only emerge from interaction, even when hostile. Hooker is careful not to valorize “Afro-Latin,” however, because doing that would be a commitment to stasis. She interrogates the category in conversation with the lived-reality of its formation.

There is, as well, an added dimension to her work, especially as manifested in Theorizing Race in the Americas. It is not only a work in the stated fields or disciplinary conversations but also political intellectual history, as the theoretical arguments are rooted through the portrait she offers of four iconic figures: Frederick Douglass, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, W.E. B. Du Bois, and José Vasconcelos.  The book is framed through the inaugural texts of Douglass and Sarmiento, which, for the most part, pose diametrically opposed commitments on the foundations of possibility in the Americas. Douglass’s was anti-slavery, anti-racist, and radically democratic along with a conception of fluid republicanism. Sarmiento focused on post-independence politics adulterated by his proffering of anti-indigenous racism.

That race is a primary consideration for both is the basis of Hooker’s bringing them together. This is a creative and rigorous approach, since it does not collapse the subjects into an ideological whole but instead explores their diametrically opposed positions despite a conceptual center. This divergence that paradoxically meets at a center (race) already sets the stage for a discussion of how far, in the Latin American context, is the exclusion of blackness legitimate, even where in subsequent defenses of indigeneity the initial settler racism is disavowed.

The first chapter, “‘A Black Sister to Massachusetts’: Latin America and the Fugitive Democratic Ethos of Frederick Douglass,” explores the global dimensions of Douglass’s political thought and practice. I must say that an amusing experience of reading Hooker’s work is seeing our affinities, as my discussions of Douglass include his work in the Caribbean, especially Haiti (see my discussion of Firmin and him in An Introduction to Africana Philosophy [Cambridge UP, 2008]).

Hooker correctly points out Douglass’s radical democratic commitments, which include gender rights and concerns with mixture across the Americas. Douglass thus, Hooker argues, supported the annexation of the Dominican Republic (DR), at that time Santo Domingo, not out of any U.S. nationalistic imperial aims but instead out of the hopes for what he thought that country could have offered the United States as a challenge to its racial norms. The history of DR’s antiblack racism against Haitians and other African Diasporic peoples, unfortunately, showed Douglass was in a fantasyland on this matter, but Hooker’s point is sound.

The chapter is an excellent synthesis of Douglass’s and the late political theorist Sheldon Wolin’s thought on “fugitive democracy,” where the call for democratic renewal against institutional ossification—where, that is, democracies could collapse into what Jean-Paul Sartre calls “seriality” and “inertia” at the expense of the demos—comes to the fore. Douglass, Hooker argues, locates the site of constant, critical renewal in the excluded populations of American society, similar to the argument today in which undocumented members of the U.S. often exemplify better practices of citizenship than born citizens. Wolin’s point is about the problem, as well, of legitimation.

I must say I’m not sympathetic to this argument for a variety of reasons. First, the depiction of “fugitivity,” shared by quite a number of political theorists today, including those writing on marronage, is highly problematic. Metaphorical fugitives are not identical with de facto ones. Douglass was referring to fugitives in fact, people who suffer, as did he, a longing to erase their fugitivity. Wolin, on the other hand, is more like the U.S. Founding Fathers who referred to themselves as “slaves” of the British Empire and experienced their fugitivity when they were, in effect, in a civil war with Britain. For them, enslavement was a metaphor, not reality (as many of them actually owned slaves), though their fugitivity was a fact.

The problem I see here extends not only beyond fact versus metaphor but also in the metaphor. Fugitivity, after all, requires an illicit ascription to the fugitive. Though a case could have been made at the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the events leading to the formation of the 1789 Constitution and subsequent Bill of Rights and amendments are another story. The call for democratic renewal is a critique of the status quo as suffering a legitimation crisis. Thus, the argument is ultimately, as is nearly all arguments from a left perspective, about seeking a better possibility. The legitimate, in other words, is placed in an elsewhere or other time of transformed conditions.

Nothing in the argument requires the future to be illicit or intrinsically illegitimate except for those who are patently against the future, which are, often, the conservative or, worse, ultra-right and fascist elements. In effect, then, the U.S. Founding Fathers, as an example, created a “left” possibility for themselves but imposed a “right-wing” element of a foreclosed future for black and Indigenous peoples.

Moving from the semiology of the “right” and “left” in the argument, there is, as well, the question of the lived-reality of fugitivity. No fugitive wants to remain fugitive, except where the concept has been commodified and made sexy, in which case it is, in fact, a contradiction of terms.

Finally, there is a basic fact: fugitive and maroon communities are often authoritarian, and they are so for good reason; their lives often depend upon unanimity.

Despite these criticisms, I do think, however, the argument seeks something that is insightful, and that could be found in the concepts of double consciousness and potentiated double consciousness.

The first points to the status quo conditions that make the fugitive illicit. The second offers a critique of the societal conditions that make certain people such. Where that is the case, the call is, as Frantz Fanon argued, for a transformation of sociogenic conditions. It is in that sense that a revolutionary appeal emerges. Fanon’s argument is not, however, in celebration of fugitivity but instead in praise of possibilities of justice and, even broader, social health. It is patently a critique of the present. Instead of black fugitivity as a way of rethinking democratic theory, with which Hooker’s chapter on Douglass concludes, I would argue that a properly epistemic concept such as potentiated double consciousness will be more fruitful, especially because of the goal of imaginative thinking.

An objection to these criticisms could be made through appealing to a political practice, but I don’t see how that could work since such (fugitivity) is a practice that is by definition what most people cannot do because it fails as a maxim of action. This is where thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, and even the phenomenological sociologist Alfred Schütz (who was a critic of the Sartre) are useful: They raise the question of the need for a genuinely dialectical conception of dialectical practice. Their critique—similar to but not identical with the fugitivity critique—is that orthodox dialectics isn’t dialectical. The openness needed addresses problems of evacuating “practice” of its contingent features in the form of “practico-inertia.” Democracies, in other words, need agency, contingency, and creativity.

Theorizing Race in the Americas is not a mere application of the theory of fugitivity, however, since Hooker also broadens the argument into a meta-theoretical reflexivity of structured “otherness” from each context. Thus, the subtextual framing of Latin American racial discourses is the United States and those for the United States is Latin America. Race discourse between the two, in other words, has an imagined third, which is how each understands the other. This is a rich theoretical move that enables Hooker to theorize at multiple levels in her argument. It is this aspect that is the genuine “first” and originality of the book. Du Bois and Vasconcelos are then paired, in dialectical fashion, as an expansion of the discourse on race and politics from the polar opposites as “hemispheric thinkers.”

That Du Bois and Vasconcelos are giants in the study of race is without question, and more like Hooker, they placed the discussion on levels not only about race and racism but also about the study of race and racism. In short, they contextualize what many race theorists have taken on, and they are properly foundational thinkers for what could be called critical metatheory of race. To this list I would add Firmin, who preceded Du Bois, but that wouldn’t change Hooker’s overall argument, so I won’t belabor that point.

The third theoretical contribution of Theorizing Race in the Americas is the decentering of nationalistic readings of these four figures. Hooker in effect places them in relation to each other and offers, in that practice, an example of relational reading. This approach brings her in conversation with another contemporary political theorist, Jane Anna Gordon, who, in her Creolizing Political Theory: Reading Rousseau through Fanon (Fordham UP, 2014), reads French and Francophone, Africana and Latin American, and a variety of theorists across the humanities and social sciences in a similar way, except her focus is not on race as the center (though it is a leitmotif of her argument) but instead on the question of the general will re-read as national consciousness instead of nationalism.  Both theorists, Hooker and Gordon, bring these questions to bear on possibility, through Du Boisian potentiated double consciousness (not Hooker’s term but Gordon’s by way of Paget Henry, but I’m using it since I see a connection with what Hooker is up to in her appeal to black fugitivity).

This question of relational reading Gordon calls creolization (since it brings “dark” / the black in relation to other racialized terms and challenges of contradiction with theoretical models that disavowed them) and creolizing. Both theorists argue against nationalist readings of figures in political theory, especially those of the global south.

The fourth contribution of Theorizing Race in the Americas is that it re-reads standard discussions in race theory, such as critical work on racist science (racial and racist biologism) and social constructivism, through the hemispheric perspective Hooker avers.  Hooker also shows some of the amusing dilemmas of the Latin American context, in which rationalizations of rule by a European elite encountered its logical problem when faced by hemispheric rule from the United States’ white elites.

This fourth contribution leads to the fifth, where Hooker offers her theory of hemispheric juxtaposition instead of “comparison.” This fifth element also places her in further conversation with Jane Anna Gordon, who advanced the creolizing of theory as a response to the limitations of comparative political theory as well. In Gordon’s case, her concern was about the erasure of African elements in “comparative” political theoretical work that seemed to see only Asia and Europe, mediated by the Middle East—that is, an East-West movement instead of South-North—as sources of theoretical reflection. For Gordon, this occlusion affected Latin America as well.

Hooker begins with Latin America (South-North), which already places her outside of hegemonic comparative political theory (East-West), which is why, at the metatheoretical level, she also had to think through an actual methodology.

What I offer here is a smidgen of the value of Hooker’s important work. The details along the way are rich and offer a model of how to do race theory beyond the unfortunate formalism that has beset much analytical liberal political theory and poststructuralist ones in the field. Theorizing Race in the Americas is an excellent book that will no doubt be well read and garner great influence in several fields, such as critical race theory, Africana political thought, Latin American political thought, theory of methods in the social sciences, and, of course, social and political theory.


Lewis R. Gordon is Executive Editor of Black Issues in Philosophy and Professor of Philosophy at UCONN-Storrs; Honorary President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies; the 2018–2019 Boaventura de Sousa Santos Chair in Faculty of Economics of the University of Coimbra, Portugal; Honorary Professor in the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University, South Africa; and chair of the Awards Committee for the Caribbean Philosophical Association.  His recent books include, with Fernanda Frizzo Bragato, Geopolitics and Decolonization: Perspectives from the Global South (London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018).


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