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Talking to Strangers

Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education

"Don't talk to strangers" is the advice long given to children by parents of all classes and races. Today it has blossomed into a fundamental precept of civic education, reflecting interracial distrust, personal and political alienation, and a profound suspicion of others. In this powerful and eloquent essay, Danielle Allen, a 2002 MacArthur Fellow, takes this maxim back to Little Rock, rooting out the seeds of distrust to replace them with "a citizenship of political friendship."

Returning to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 and to the famous photograph of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, being cursed by fellow "citizen" Hazel Bryan, Allen argues that we have yet to complete the transition to political friendship that this moment offered. By combining brief readings of philosophers and political theorists with personal reflections on race politics in Chicago, Allen proposes strikingly practical techniques of citizenship. These tools of political friendship, Allen contends, can help us become more trustworthy to others and overcome the fossilized distrust among us.

Sacrifice is the key concept that bridges citizenship and trust, according to Allen. She uncovers the ordinary, daily sacrifices citizens make to keep democracy working—and offers methods for recognizing and reciprocating those sacrifices. Trenchant, incisive, and ultimately hopeful, Talking to Strangers is nothing less than a manifesto for a revitalized democratic citizenry.

Read an excerpt and an interview with the author.

286 pages | 13 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2004

Ancient Studies

Black Studies

History: American History

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature

Political Science: Classic Political Thought, Political and Social Theory


"A profound meditation on citizenship, race, and the astonishing transformative power of true democracy."

Toni Morrison

"Danielle Allen has given us a foundational work for the reconsideration of the meaning of citizenship in our time. She is a worldly Rawls, a Myrdal from our midst, and like them she is not afraid to see the world anew."

Earl N. Shorris

"Working with Ellison, Aristotle, Hobbes, and Habermas, Danielle Allen reignites contemporary political imaginations with her deft prose. Allen shifts democracy’s lexicon, seeking to replace old political etiquettes of dominance and acquiescence with new habits of mutuality, reciprocity, and solidarity. Taking up the project begun by Alexis de Tocqueville and furthered by James Baldwin, Allen asks: How can we generate trust among citizens riven by race, self-interest, and bad habits? How can vulnerable and disempowered citizens claim their political majority? Part political theory, part how-to book, Talking to Strangers will inspire friends and strangers alike to recommit themselves to the true spirit of democracy."

Bonnie Honig, author of Democracy and the Foreigner

“Allen understands that democracy originates in the subjective dimension of everyday life, and she focuses on what she calls our ‘habits of citizenship’—the ways we often unconsciously regard and interact with fellow citizens. If democracy resides in ‘the very soul of subjectivity,’ then for Allen subjectivity itself cannot be understood apart from relationships. . . . Borrowing from Aristotle, the solution she proposes is friendship. ‘Only the concept of friendship,’ Allen writes, ‘captures the conjunction of faculties—the orientation toward others, knowledge of the world, developed practices, and psychological effects—that must be activated in democratic citizenship.’”

Nick Bromell | Boston Review

"The task of this book is to find ways for citizens to trust one another in these unsettled times. Doing so, Allen argues, requires developing habits of political friendship. The challenge of democratic politics, ironically, is to turn strangers into friends. . . . Talking to Strangers is engaging, well written, and tightly argued. Its interpretations of texts are excellent. . . . An important contribution to democratic theory."

Joel Olson | Perspectives on Politics

"It's an important book; best read and discussed with a friend. Don't miss this if you are concerned about the state of democracy, schooling, or our climate of civility."--Deborah Meier

Deborah Meier

Table of Contents

Key to Brief Citations
Part One: Loss
1: Little Rock, a New Beginning
2: Old Myths and New Epiphanies
3: Sacrifice, a Democratic Fact
4: Sacrifice and Citizenship
Part Two: Why We Have Bad Habits
5: Imperfect Democracy
6: Imperfect People
7: Imperfect Pearls/Imperfect Ideals
Part Three: New Democratic Vistas
8: Beyond Invisible Citizens
9: Brotherhood, Love, and Political Friendship
10: Rhetoric, a Good Thing
Epilogue: Powerful Citizens

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