Melvin B. Tolson's Ethical Experiment

and the

The Philosophy of Otherness

Grant Jenkins

      During the years between the publication of Rendezvous with America in 1944 and Libretto for the Republic of Liberia in 1953, Melvin B. Tolson developed an ethos of experimentation, a difficult and counter-intuitive ethics that gives purpose and poignancy to his demanding style. This ethics is not a mere morality that tells someone how to live—though he did that too, particularly with his students—it is an ethics that courageously courts contradiction and explores what has been left out of both dominant white and black views of the world. In his ethics, Tolson rejects the position that to be the Other is anathema; instead, he embraces the position of otherness (or alterity) as ethical and welcomes what is other by encouraging the incommensurate within his writing both in terms of identifiable content and difficult Modernist form. But my purpose in this paper is not to demonstrate fully Tolson's poetics of otherness, which is the task of the longer work this talk is part of, but simply to show that he was part of a larger discourse by black writers of African descent that engages the dynamics of otherness. I will refer to this tradition as "Other-consciousness," which I will explain later. But for now, allow me to articulate the warrant—to use Stephen Toulmin's rhetorical term for main assumption—that undergirds my argument: Just as modernism has its African (American) sources, notions of alterity must too, and black writers draw on the African (American) tradition of these non-dialectical understandings in their poetry.

     It's difficult to locate the ethics or morality of poets, especially if they don't write much prose (like, say, George Oppen) that would locate their philosophy or ideology. Though very much a public figure who wrote columns between 1937-1944 for the Washington Tribune, Tolson only published some criticism and very little of what might be called his poetics, let alone ethics. One can, however, piece together some of Tolson's ethical ideology from his peripheral work and archival materials. An example of such prose work comes from a report in the Pittsburgh Courier on a fiery speech Tolson gave at UT-Austin in 1946. The article quotes Tolson:

"Civilization is made up first of economics, out of which come laws and ethics. The 'upperdogs' regard laws as number one; the underdogs, ethics as number one. The 'Haves' enact laws. The 'Havenots' use moral appeal. A man at the top of a mountain can never see what the man at the foot of the mountain sees. Therefore, morality is the weapon of the weak to curb the power of the strong. That's the reason the southern highways are crowded with Negro leaders on their way to the Supreme Court of the United States. The makers of jim-crow laws were ignorant men, therefore, they left the laws full of loopholes."
                              ("Myths of Race and Class Blasted by Poet-Scholar," Pittsburgh Courier. Nov, 1946.)

     Through his seeming priority of economics over ethics, we can see Tolson's Marxist leanings in this passage, but the connection I would like to point out here is the one he makes between ethics and dispossession. Something unsaid is happening: In this passage, ethics, though fashioned after economic inequality, returns as "the weapon of the weak," who take the ethical high-ground because they have been othered by a dominant white society. In a sense, an ethics that arises from being the Other comes first and foremost for Tolson before economic or political equality. The ethical is an older and deeper appeal that can level the mountain and bring the democratic equality that he so dearly longed for.

     In addition to their words, one may also judge the ethics of writers by their actions including and in addition to writing—this may be perhaps the most time-tested way of measuring morality—and certainly Tolson's social activism as a member of the NAACP, organizer of sharecropper farming labor, poet laureate of Liberia, and 4-term mayor of Langston, OK lend much action to weigh in any consideration of Tolson as a man of ethical action. But looking solely at an author's prose or biography for ethical evidence brings us back to the New Critical problem of judging a work by the person. Thus, the methodological problem I've faced is finding a way to consider the ethics of a poet without excluding life or non-literary writings. This approach would require that we somehow combine a way of reading biography and poetry in the context of history and culture, and such a reading would require that we locate Tolson intertextually in a larger context of ethical discourse. In this case, that context includes writing on alterity by such black thinkers W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, George Lamming, and Leopold Senghor, just to name a few.

     My hypothesis is that, based on the work of such black writers, the ethical insistence of literary works written by those of traditionally marginalized groups inheres not primarily in laws and morés but more in the experience of being othered by a dominant culture. In sum, the dynamic I am describing here is the inverse of Franz Fanon's "psychoexistential" inferiority complex (Black Skin, White Masks, 11-12) or Sander Gilman's Jewish Self-Hatred, wherein the subordinate person internalizes the hatred of the dominant group towards him and turns that hatred on itself. Instead, what I see in writers like Tolson (usually ones who embrace Modernist poetic techniques) is that the being othered by a dominant group actually creates a kind of empathy with the Other.1 That empathy not only allows a subaltern writer to identify with others who have been subordinated but also to embrace the idea of being other in general, that is: outside the law, beyond thought, and exceeding so-called rational categories of Western knowledge. In short, the Other takes on a positive valence in the work of these writers, a valence that resembles Emmanuel Levinas's ethical notion of the Other more than it does Plato, Kant, Marx, or Hegel's dialectical definitions. In Hegel's philosophy (which was admittedly highly influential on many black writers like CLR James), the European self achieves historical consciousness by excluding and then sublimating the Other. Contrarily, for Levinas, the Other holds the moral high-ground and demands ethical response, responsibility, from the self. In my view, this latter Levinasian dynamic more closely resembles Tolson's ethics, as well as many of the black modernist writers from the Twentieth Century who engage this issue.

     Black poet and critic Nathaniel Mackey was the one of the first to recognize this dynamic in African American culture. In his essay "Other: From Noun to Verb," he redefines the term by verbalizing the noun:

…so we need to make it clear that when we speak of otherness we are not positing static, intrinsic attributes or characteristics. We need instead to highlight the dy-namics of agency and attribution by way of which otherness is brought about and maintained, the fact that other is something people do, more importantly a verb than an adjective or a noun. (51)

     The verb "to other" that Mackey invokes here is not only the kind of othering used in much multicultural or postcolonial theory wherein a dominant subject subordinates someone by "othering them." In addition, "othering" for Mackey is a way of defamiliarizing what the dominant group takes for granted as normal. Like Tolson and Levinas, Mackey locates in this second kind of "artistic othering" an ethos from which the othered writer might "resist" and demand accountability from the forces of domination (53). In other words, the black writer can make ethically aesthetic lemonade out of the lemons of domination and oppression.

     Tolson's reaction to his othered social position was to engage in what Aldon Nielsen calls "the deterritorialization of Modernism" in order to "other" the man at the top of the mountain, to use his terms. Tolson employs this othering or deterritorialization in the context of Modern ethics by spelling out the political ramifications of "positive, active" otherness and grounds it in his particular historical circumstances (i.e. the Freedom Riders against segregation he mentions before). To use Tolson's formulation from the speech at UT-Austin, the Self = the "man on the mountain" while the Other = the "weak" but righteous. Tolson's identity with and obligation to the Other can be seen throughout his work and reinforced in his archive (which I'll do just briefly here before I contextualize his thinking in a larger tradition of black writers engaging positively with otherness). For an example of Tolson's sense of responsibility for the Other, in the draft of an unpublished speech given at Langston University, he extols the "catholicity" of the "Apes of God," the title figure he uses for the "freedom-loving" poet. Given in honor of Rev. John W. Coleman, the chaplain at Langston, this speech draws deeply upon the African American sermon tradition (Tolson's father was a minister) as well as the liberal tradition of American Judeo-Christian ethics. He praises Thoreau for going to jail refusing to "pay taxes to a slave government" and to Whitman for "taking a run-away slave into his house" and giving him his bed. These poets, among others like ex-slave Phillis Wheatley and the African-descended Pushkin, exemplify for Tolson an ethical catholicity, which is "empathy—that imaginative quality which enables him to reach out, out, out; empathy which enables him to reach down, down, down to every human creature" (10.5). Also on the subject of empathy, Tolson writes in a journal: "Eliot's impersonality of the poet comes through empathy alone. Golden Rule. Shakespeare. Projection of feeling is empathy, the lack of which produces provincial mediocrity. Feeling involved both sympathy and empathy. Catharsis comes from empathy: Milton's Satin [sic] better than his God. Is it sympathy or empathy? that enables man to depict evil? or is it the drama inherent in evil? Then what about Job, a good man? Also Christ in the Gospels?" (LOC 9.18).

     Tolson's musing on morality and the relationship between self and other may be situated in an international context of black writers engaging the issue of alterity non-dialectically. I want to elaborate a few examples from this tradition in order to show that Tolson's work was participating intertextually in a larger discourse on alterity from his time that I argue exhibits an other-consciousness.

     The first black writer of Twentieth Century to consider a possible non-dialectic dynamic of otherness may perhaps be W.E.B. Dubois, which may seem counter-intuitive since Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk is endlessly cited for its dialectical notion of "double consciousness." However, I'd like to briefly re-read that book to point to his contribution to the long history of alterity as an obliging force in African and African American ethical thought, a tradition that includes Melvin B. Tolson. The first example comes from the very first sentence of Du Bois's book's "Forethought" in which he addresses "the strange meaning of being black" (5 italics mine). Now I certainly won't argue that Du Bois likes this "strange" alterity because he explicitly cites, here and elsewhere, his purpose as making that meaning less strange and more understandable to the "Gentle Reader." Yet Du Bois does not want to totally devoid blackness of that "strangeness," which brings us to my second example. Although he seeks to "merge his double self into a truer and better self…he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost" (11). In other words, the estrangement of the black from the American must be preserved. A third instance of allowing otherness to remain at the heart of his project may also be seen the most famous passage from the book in which Du Bois discusses his idea of double-consciousness,2 hence my term "other-consciousness." In essence, Du Bois creates a tripartite self in which the undesired "twoness" of black experience—being both black and American—is integrated, not assimilated, into a whole. This three-part subject retains the original split, and thus its multiple, differentiated, and variable identity that [points] back to the uncertainty and strangeness the book begins with. Although Du Bois seems to reject what Mackey would call the social othering that blacks in America have faced-—racist exclusion that has resulted in double consciousness-—Du Bois in fact embraces formal othering in the very structure of his book. "I have sought here," he writes, "to sketch, in vague, uncertain outline" (5). In what appears to be the conventional (false) modesty that prefaces many previous writings by African Americans, Du Bois also outlines the formal strategies of his book that include focusing on indeterminate things, like the meaning of the sorrow songs and his uncertainty about the leadership of Booker T. Washington. Later, these sorrow songs themselves are praised for their own "dimly understood theology" and use of "a strange word or unknown tongue," among other elements of otherness (159). In addition, the juxtaposition of poetic epigrams and samplings of staves of Negro spirituals creates a paratactic form wherein the thematic relationships are left somewhat ambiguous, provisional, and open-ended. This form is analogous to Tolson's poetic Modernism. Formally, Du Bois embraces alterity and indeed others, in Mackey's sense of the verb, the very subject matter of his book.

     This concern with otherness was not limited to the United States and, in fact, may be labeled an international, Diasporic concern as black thinkers all over the world began to respond to new European understandings of human existence and to develop their own philosophies.

     Contemporaneously with Tolson's ethical experimentation, Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks (1952) further theorizes Du Bois's double consciousness through existential philosophy and psychoanalysis.3 Although Fanon stubbornly clings to a Hegelian dialectic that sees the black man's freedom as the synthesis of black and white transcendence, Fanon's philosophical writings mark a deepening reliance of this black tradition on notions of otherness. In a critique of Sartre's famous 1948 essay on African poetry, "Black Orpheus," Fanon reminds the existentialist philosopher that the lived situation of the black man is not relative but a result of a dialectic of consciousness with "the night of the absolute" and of self with the other. However, this dialectic has a de-centering effect for Fanon on the self: "The dialectic that brings necessity into the foundation of my freedom drives me out of myself. It shatters my unreflected position" (135 italics mine). The upshot of his critique of Sartre is not just the resurrection of the dialectic but a realization of a forgotten middle term: "Not yet white, no longer wholly black, I was damned. Jean-Paul Sartre had forgotten that the Negro suffers in his body quite differently from the white man" (138). That purgatory between white and black shows Fanon has fallen between two stools, as it were, and become wholly Other, even to himself. Similarly, the difference in bodily suffering of the Negro of which Fanon writes is exactly the kind of alterity that marks the other-consciousness of this tradition. But this other-consciousness has a purpose for Fanon, and that purpose is to empathize and take responsibility for the Other, not just define oneself against him. In an earlier passage on the equation between anti-Negro sentiments and anti-Semitism, Fanon writes that realizing this equation "meant that I was answerable in my body and in my heart for what was done to my brother" (122). Empathy for others who have been socially othered, in this case Jews, elicits for Fanon an ethical responsibility wherein I am my brother's keeper.

     Picking up on this issue of alterity where Du Bois and Fanon leave off with dialectics, Léopold Sédar Senghor meticulously analyzes the African phenomenology of otherness in comparison with that of European tradition, showing that there is not just one kind of otherness in this tradition based on negativity. In "Of Negritude: the Psychology of the Black African" (1962), Senghor characterizes the European approach to the Other as cannibalistic, where the subject distinguishes himself from the Other in order to objectify it, fix it, kill it, and ultimately consume it. The African4 on the other hand "does not begin by distinguishing himself from the object, the tree or stone, the man or animal or social event." Instead, he "discovers the Other. He is moved to his bowels, going out in a centrifugal movement from the subject to the object on the waves sent out from the Other" (Prose and Poetry 30, italics mine). That the movement the African subject feels emanates from the Other is instructive. Instead of the power of movement and intellect lying in the subject, for Senghor it arises in the independent alterity of the Other. In fact, the subject only "discovers" the Other, who exists before and after the event. Because of the diction Senghor uses in each characterization, this analysis is clearly an ethical judgment: in African phenomenology, one does not "kill" the Other, one benignly "discovers" him/her, knowing that power comes from the Other, not from the self. Aptly, African philosopher J. Obi Oguejiofor refers to this way of relating with the Other, among other things, as "good-neighborliness" (90). In Senghor's sensitivity to and neighborliness with the Other, I hear echoes of Tolson's empathy with the Other.

     In my longer work on Tolson, I sketch out a few more philosophical contexts--particularly the work of C.L.R. James, Aimé Césaire, and Nathaniel Mackey-—that reveal more of this black tradition of a different way of thinking about the effects of being othered by the dominant white, Euro-American culture. I then, in light of that context, read the content and experimental form of Tolson's poetry as the culmination and commencement of that tradition in poetry written by blacks after World War II. In this poetry, I argue, we will find the most developed and demanding ethical othering that seeks to change the world.


1. Those who write in more traditional, referential forms (such as early Gwendolyn Brooks) tend to also be the ones who seek to belong to the dominant group, relying on a humanist notion of sameness as a justification for ethics.

2. Cf. Gates' re-reading of this term in Signifyin(g) Monkey through Ishmael Reed who, he argues, demystifies the essential notion of Negro consciousness by revealing it as constructed by the trope, the signifier of "double-consciousness" itself.

3. Nine years later in The Wretched of the Earth (1961), Fanon's work becomes even more grounded in agonism, as he promotes violent struggle as a means of attaining "national consciousness" (73, 146-7, 244-48). However, this book is also heavily concerned with ethics (40-1, 45, 81), moral responsibility (85, 253), and otherness (40-1, 45-7, 92-5, 139, 146). He is against mystification both from the colonizer and the tribal elements (55) of a people.

4. Although Senghor purports an essentialist view of subjectivity rooted in physio-psychology, I am only referring to his view of otherness as part of a cultural, historical tradition.

Works Cited
Farnsworth, Robert M. Melvin B. Tolson, 1898-1966 Plain Talk and Poetic Prophecy. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984.

Flasch, Joy. Melvin B. Tolson. Twayne's United States Authors Series; Tusas 215. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.

Gilman, Sander. Jewish Self-Hatred : Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Lenhart, Gary. "Caviar and Cabbage: The Voracious Appetite of Melvin B. Tolson," The American Poetry Review (March/April 2000): 35-40.

Mackey, Nathaniel. "Other: From Noun to Verb," Representations 39 (Summer 1992): 51-70.

Nielsen, Aldon L. "Melvin B. Tolson and the Deterritorialization of Modernism," African American Review 26.2 (1992): 241-255.

Oguejiofor, J. Obi. "Negritude as Hermeneutics: A Reinterpretation of Léopold Sédar Senghor's Philosophy." American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 83.1 (2009): 79-94. Online

Tolson, Melvin Beaunorus. "Harlem Gallery", and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson, Ed. Nelson, Raymond. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.
     _____. Library of Congress. "Papers of Melvin Beaunorus Tolson, 1932-1975 (Bulk 1940-1966)."
                    4,000 items. 13 containers. 5 linear feet.