Melvin L. Rogers, "The Darkened Light of Faith: Race, Democracy, and Freedom in African American Political Thought" (Princeton UP, 2023)


Political Theorist Melvin L. Rogers has a deep and rich new book delving into the work of a host of different African American political thinkers. But this work is much more than an exploration of some of the writings by African American thinkers, it importantly tells the story of America. The Darkened Light of Faith: Race, Democracy, and Freedom in African American Political Thought (Princeton UP, 2023) takes the reader on a journey through distinct work and pieces by David Walker, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Billie Holiday, James Baldwin, and others not in an effort to be exhaustive or completist in examining their work, but in teasing out vital thematic approaches to consider race, democracy, and freedom in the American republic. Rogers starts from a foundation in considering the idea of democracy—what are the habits and sensibilities that are located in the people who compose a democracy, or, more precisely, “who are we?” in the understanding of “we the people” or in the we of “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” While there is attention to the institutions that structure our democracy, Rogers reads many of these authors to expand that focus, to think about what the culture, the societal concepts, and the community define as who we are and who we might hope to be. Thus, as Rogers weaves together chronological approaches to considering these ideas from the authors and artists included in the conversation, he is also toggling together components that are often considered separately: political standing and culture standing, and how individuals, particularly black individuals, are situated in each.

The Darkened Light of Faith is deeply engaged with the conceptual duality of a place and an idea – the United States – that is at once mired in the tragic history of enslavement and, at the same time, moving (maybe?) towards the promise of a democracy that holds freedom among its most important qualities. This tension is also the darkened light of faith and hope that the thinkers, activists, and artists wrap themselves and their work in as they consider the opportunities and problematics that are America. Rogers does not confine his analysis to the written word. There is an exploration of anti-slavery pamphlets by abolitionist David Walker, who wrote and advocated against slavery in the 1820s and 1803s. The anti-republican nature of enslavement in the United States is another dimension of the book, examining the conflict inherent in a republican society that incorporates racial domination. Furthering this discussion, Rogers considers the idea of “the people” and how this concept is complicated by the exclusionary nature of slavery and categorization of individuals into groups of citizens who are included and others who are excluded based on race. The second part of the book pivots to the 20th century and expands the dimensions of thinking about these tensions and conflicts that are at the heart of the United States. The Darkened Light of Faith explores not just the extra-judicial nature of lynching, but how this is also a site of invisible laws that make lynching, by white Americans, possible without any threat or potential for penalties. This section weaves together work and advocacy by Ida B. Well, Billie Holiday’s song and performances of Strange Fruit, and the NAACP’s campaign using images of lynched bodies to focus on the horror of lynching and the undermining of democratic ethos in the U.S. The final sections of the book take up work by W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin as they write about and comment on the complexity of American life, noting that charting a path forward towards the promise of the American experiment cannot leave untold or unknown the history in slavery and domination. I have not really done justice to Melvin Roger’s The Darkened Light of Faith: Race, Democracy, and Freedom in African American Political Thought since it is a much more complex and important reading of African American thought than I have been able to condense here. This book is a seminal work about African American political thought, but more broadly, about the United States and about how we think about the country itself, the people who inhabit this country, and the concept of the United States of America.

Lilly J. Goren is a professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-host of the New Books in Political Science channel at the New Books Network. She is co-editor of The Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (University Press of Kansas, 2022), as well as co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012). She can be reached

Your Host

Lilly Goren

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

View Profile