After Ferguson, Sandra Bland, Charlotte, NC, Bresha Meadows, and a host of recent black victims of the injustice of our criminal legal system, can one have faith in the law of the land? If it had not been already, many are beginning to see the failure of the criminal legal system and appeals to justice from the law as inescapably fraught. The inability of the judges, juries, lawyers and politicians tasked with ensuring justice to discern instances of injustice that seem so clear to black people, the law’s inability to indict or convict police officers who are caught on tape murdering black people—either directly or through neglect—seems to be a sign of the law’s collusion (and perhaps fundamental alignment) with antiblackness in the United States. Still, in the wake of the law’s failure, where can we turn? Is there any hope of things changing if the state and its legal systems are fundamental incapable of providing justice? If the notion of justice that the state appeals to is fundamentally unjust and reproduces injustice as a way of life, must the law simply be discarded?
Vincent Lloyd’s Black Natural Law provides one response to this impasse by turning to an under-explored element of well known black thinkers—their appeals to natural law. Against both conservative, European understandings of natural law and secular multicultural narrations of law and religion, Lloyd argues that attending to the black natural law tradition and its fracturing will enable us to better know and do justice here and now. Rather than a notion of law that is reduced to either law and order or to individualistic notions of love, Lloyd argues for a complex texture to black natural law tradition that understands the importance of uniting action, affect, and reason for the advancement of social justice. Thus, the black natural law tradition has two aims which guide its expression: ideology critique and social movement organizing. By examining the interplay between these two, Lloyd seeks to shake off the impoverished notions of justice that remain when we accept secular or conservative Christian notions of law and tradition. For Lloyd, this creates more room for a rich engagement with black religious thought.
“Educate, agitate, organize” is a common principle in movement building and grassroots organizing. In Black Natural Law, Lloyd gives us an illustration of how black thinkers can be said to constitute a black natural law tradition in a way that aligns with these principles. Considering four foundational figures in black political thought (Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. DuBois, and Martin Luther King Jr.), Lloyd uses the black natural law tradition as a focus point to make the compelling case for blackness as the primary starting point for all political action and work against injustice. The black natural law tradition thus becomes a means of educating the reader on the uses of natural law in black politics and religion, and also serves to contest the understanding of the natural law tradition as promulgated by white, conservative reason. Against the flattening of natural law discourse into a conservatizing impulse, Lloyd shows how multiple traditions of natural law can be accounted for by showing how black natural law is a useful and necessary tradition (indeed, the most significant natural law tradition) that theologians and activists concerned with justice should draw from, recover, and expand. In so doing, Lloyd compelling argues that “affect, ideology critique, and performance must all be part of a story about justice—about injustice in the world we have and about how we can move toward a more just world” (xiv).
Within this story about justice, each figure taken for consideration reveals something about how black natural law informs understandings of affect, ideology critique, and performance to engender more justice—its discernment and its practice. Frederick Douglas is shown to be a skilled orator whose speeches effectively challenge the slaveholding law of the land through appeals to a higher law. These proclamations, grounded in a uniting of emotion and reason, work hand in hand in the pursuit of God’s law—that is, the abolition of slavery and black freedom. Anna Julia Cooper’s skill as an educator and organizer is brought to the fore in a way that takes her seriously as a strategist whose appeals to God’s law ground her claims that black women have a privileged role to play in the struggle for justice. Against readings of her as simply beholden to respectability politics, Lloyd shows how her negotiation of gender politics reveal an astute and creative leader who utilized claims about God’s law as a way of educating others in the practice of negotiating complex political terrain. In some ways, this aligns with an argument like Delores Williams’ regarding a quality of life/survival ethic as a central insight of black women’s history. Lloyd finds that Du Bois’ work on the soul and religion reveals the connection between natural law and the perception of humanity and injustices against humanity. Du Bois’ exploration of the souls of black folks shows that the black condition reveals a higher law which grants black people an epistemic privilege in recognizing the apophatic nature of humanity and the white lie that black people are objects rather than human. Du Bois’ use of natural law thus reveals the souls of white folks as deformed by racism and unable to perceive the reality of humanity and injustice. Consequently, whites are incapable of knowing the good, the true, and the beautiful without becoming educated by the black condition and subject to the black struggle for freedom. Finally, Lloyd recovers the radicalism of King’s appeals to natural law against the secular narration of him which would reduce his religious concepts and rhetoric to political opportunism. Instead, Lloyd highlights an adept and astute intellectual and rhetorician who contributes to the black natural law tradition by highlighting the necessity of continual discernment of a higher law which may require we become maladjusted to the status quo—a maladjustment which can aid us in refusing arrogance in maintain critical reflection as we strategically organize for justice.
Whether the book makes good on its intention to reveal this tradition’s relevance for today is what primarily concerns the respondents to Lloyd’s monograph. Luke Bretherton wonders about the accuracy of Lloyd’s depiction of black natural law as the predominant framework for the figures he considers and whether Lloyd loses something of the specific theological content of appeals to natural law traditions by relying on an abstract metaphysics. Still, Bretherton finds reading Lloyd’s work as performing a black natural law critique in its style and argument clarifies his treatment of his subjects. Courtney Bryant contends that the diversity of black responses to oppression gets lost in Lloyd’s narration of them as a coherent black natural law tradition. This leads her to wonder how authority gets deployed in such a narration and the importance of negotiating between a plurality of incongruent black visions for justice. Carol Wayne White extends the critical engagement with Lloyd by questioning the theological nature of Lloyd’s argument. She takes issue, especially, with the absence of naturalism and non-theistic humanism and animism in his account of figures like Anna Julia Cooper. Gregory Williams sees much promise in Lloyd’s advancement of a black natural law tradition and hopes this text will lead to a greater development of this tradition—especially its “apophatic humanism.” Finally, Andre C. Willis is welcoming of Lloyd’s illumination of the strategic and affective dimensions of a black natural law tradition but wonders if the appeal to a higher law falls back into a problematic Christian metaphysic and whether Lloyd’s reading of his chosen figures overdetermines their use of natural law rather than showing its strategic deployment. In their responses to the book and Lloyd’s conversation with each author, it becomes clear that Black Natural Law provides a fruitful (if contentious) site for further clarifying black conceptions of justice, organizing, strategy, critique, and the role of theology in black struggle.
While Black Natural Law might appear to simply reproduce a declension narrative, Lloyd is attempting something more interesting here and eschews Rod Dreher-esque handwringing and nostalgia for a lost time. Instead, as Bretherton also points out, Lloyd is out to perform something of what he’s writing about and so reinvigorate our ability to imagine the black natural law tradition as an aid to failing better in the struggle for justice and liberation. Thus Black Natural Law reads as an attempt to persuade, to educate the mind and the emotions, to reveal injustice, and point to a way forward through organizing and ideology critique. This becomes most clear when Lloyd closes out the book with a rousing abolitionist call:
The challenge of America’s racist legal system offers an opportunity to confirm and refine the black natural law tradition. Focusing on one or another law to be fixed tempts us to forget what is most basic in that tradition: ideology critique and social movement organizing. Confronting the racist legal system teaches blacks to look suspiciously on the wisdom of the world, to work together to build power, and to patiently wait until the right moment to rise up and destroy the demonic forces that hold more than a million of our black brothers and sisters in cage. (147)
Thus, part of the aim of this book is to contribute to a tradition, black natural law, that can account for human nature in such a way that it can strike a powerful blow and speak a powerful word against the injustices found in our current criminal legal system. These actions would not seek to either discard the law or sacralize the unjust law of the current order. Instead, Black Natural Law presents resources for making the case against the laws of this world without appealing to a superssessionist logic—a force that comes from outside the world to violently fix the world through overcoming the law. In the appeal to natural law, the black condition becomes a privileged site of revelation of God’s law. Still, like blackness, this higher law is always opaque, requiring discernment, critique, and organizing that educates our reason, emotions, and actions in the true, the good, and the beautiful. Further, since this law is found through discernment, organizing, and education on the black condition it refuses an ideal triune harmony or sovereign state that sets the world right. Rather than deploying a narration of justice that requires an overcoming of blackness through participation in a divinity or a legal structure that erases the black condition, Lloyd shows how it is only in and through an education in the black condition that an account of the human and natural law can be given. When taken as an anti-supersessionist account of law, the desire to recover a black natural law tradition becomes clearer. For, without the appeal to a higher law, a divine law, it seems that life and death, especially black life and death, is stuck—subject to the whims of the laws of this world, stuck appealing to a state that shows no ability to recognize the humanity of black people. Turning to a black natural law tradition, then, is one way of both indicting the current criminal legal structure with its reproduction of injustice and, at the same time, advancing a conception of God and the human person—her actions, intellect, and affect—that can affirm a black abolitionist struggle for justice.