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Phenomenal Blackness

Black Power, Philosophy, and Theory

This unorthodox account of 1960s Black thought rigorously details the field’s debts to German critical theory and explores a forgotten tradition of Black singularity. 
Phenomenal Blackness examines the changing interdisciplinary investments of key mid-century Black writers and thinkers, including the growing interest in German philosophy and critical theory. Mark Christian Thompson analyzes this shift in intellectual focus across the post-war decades, placing Black Power thought in a philosophical context.

Prior to the 1960s, sociologically oriented thinkers such as W. E. B. Du Bois had understood Blackness as a singular set of socio-historical characteristics. In contrast, writers such as Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, Angela Y. Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, and Malcolm X were drawn to notions of an African essence, an ontology of Black being. With these perspectives, literary language came to be seen as the primary social expression of Blackness. For this new way of thinking, the works of philosophers such as Adorno, Habermas, and Marcuse were a vital resource, allowing for continued cultural-materialist analysis while accommodating the hermeneutical aspects of Black religious thought. Thompson argues that these efforts to reimagine Black singularity led to a phenomenological understanding of Blackness—a “Black aesthetic dimension” wherein aspirational models for Black liberation might emerge.


“Thompson’s new book focuses on major figures such as Baraka, Baldwin, Cleaver, and Davis with an admirable rigor, even austerity, that ignores the polemics and moralizing judgments that often simplify each of their reputations, the better to show the unfolding of their ideas and thinking in a new context: postwar German political thought. This demanding book is worth the reader’s effort because it yields remarkable and fresh insights as it fulfills its goal ‘to relate the brilliance of their thought in full awareness of its flaws.’”

Ross Posnock, Columbia University

Phenomenal Blackness is a text long awaited by many Black scholars—and essential to all of us—seeking to understand the complex origins of postwar Black cultural and aesthetic thought. Thompson’s deep and holistic dive into an entangled and phenomenal Blackness gives us back an intellectual history well-nigh lost.”

Michelle M. Wright, Emory University

"An important and provocative intervention. . . . What is most exciting about Thomson’s book is that his intellectual history makes it possible for us to better understand contemporary trends in Black philosophy and aesthetics. Scholars such as Hortense Spillers, Fred Moten, Saidiya Hartman, Christina Sharpe, Frank Wilderson, and Jared Sexton seem to be inheritors and innovators of the tradition set forth by the African-American thinkers Thompson discusses."

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"Mark Christian Thompson’s Phenomenal Blackness: Black Power, Philosophy, and Theory is a powerful exploration of the development of a critical literary theory that is able to properly theorize Blackness in the middle decades of the twentieth century."

Critical Inquiry

Table of Contents

Introduction • The Essence of the Matter
One • The Politics of Black Friendship: Gadamer, Baldwin, and the Black Hermeneutic
Two • The Aardvark of History: Malcom X, Language, and Power
Three • Black Aesthetic Autonomy: Ralph Ellison, Amiri Baraka, and “Literary Negro-ness”
Four • The Revolutionary Will Not Be Hypnotized: Eldridge Cleaver and Black Ideology
Five • Unrepeatable: Angela Y. Davis and Black Critical Theory
Conclusion • Black Aesthetic Theory

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