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The Ethnic Ethical Turn

[By Jerry W. Ward]

Nature extracts a high cost for beauty.  From an amoral aesthetic perspective,
Hurricane Isaac’s performance of a logarithmic spiral is beautiful.  The sublime beauty of a hurricane kills
people.  Does the beauty of our cultural
studies and theories participate in such murder?
The amorality of nature is a foil for the presence
or absence of ethics in the works of human nature.  No doubt, Western philosophy is capable of
arguing that deadly forms of behavior are ethical entities.  A few thinkers might say that capability is
reprehensible.  We have no survey of
Western philosophy that offers necessary and sufficient proof that perverse ethical
entities are not operative in global societies, in the Diaspora, in the United
States.  It is prudent to think
cautiously when we talk about the nihilist dimensions of African American
cultural expressions and when we participate in the production of discursive
beauty.

I believe Lawrence P. Jackson’s brilliant study, The Indignant Generation: A Narrative
History of
African American Writers
and Critics, 1934-1960
(Princeton University Press 2011), is a warrant for
my plea for caution. In his poignant introduction, Jackson details the high
cost J. Saunders Redding paid for “his own immobilizing feelings of guilt
toward his ethnic inheritance, self-loathing, distorted patriotism, and rage” (2).
To some degree, Jackson’s introduction is a call to which a small number of
thinkers might want to respond by way of an ethnic ethical turn in their work,
in the logarithmic spiral of critical thought. Bell hooks’ “pedagogy and
political commitment: a comment” (98-104) in Talking Back: thinking feminist, thinking black (South End Press
1989) described an ethnic ethical turn slightly more than two decades ago. I
believe more of us should listen carefully to Jackson and hooks.
It is necessary to acknowledge the existence of
perverse ethical entities, but I think we still have enough free will and
freedom to choose not to duplicate those entities in our intellectual work and
in our everyday lives.