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Untimely Dem Cover

Untimely Democracy: The Politics of Progress after Slavery

Oxford University Press, October 2017

From the abolition era to the Civil Rights movement to the age of Obama, the promise of perfectibility and improvement resonates in the story of American democracy. But what exactly does racial “progress” mean, and how do we recognize and achieve it? Untimely Democracy uncovers a surprising answer to this question in the writings of American authors and activists, both black and white.

Conventional narratives of democracy stretching from Thomas Jefferson’s America to our own posit a purposeful break between past and present as the key to the viability of this political form—the only way to ensure its continual development. But for Pauline E. Hopkins, Frederick Douglass, Stephen Crane, W. E. B. Du Bois, Charles W. Chesnutt, Sutton E. Griggs, Callie House, and the other figures examined in this book, the campaign to secure liberty and equality for all citizens proceeds most potently when it refuses the precepts of progressive time. Placing these authors’ post-Civil War writings into dialogue with debates about racial “optimism” and “pessimism,” tracts on progress, and accounts of ex-slave pension activism, and extending their insights into our contemporary period, Laski recovers late-nineteenth-century literature as a vibrant site for doing political theory.

Untimely Democracy ultimately shows how one of the bleakest periods in American racial history provided fertile terrain for a radical reconstruction of some of our most deeply held assumptions about this political system. Offering resources for moments when the march of progress seems to stutter and even stop, this book invites us to reconsider just what democracy can make possible.

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