Derrick Bell’s Parable Of Afrolantica

Introduction And Posts In This Series

Chapter 3 of Derrick Bell’s Faces At The Bottom Of The Well tells the parable of Afrolantica. Out in the Atlantic Ocean a new continent suddenly begins to emerge from the water 900 miles off the coast of South Carolina. Months later when it emerges from the boiling waters and steam that surrounded its birth, it is revealed as a land mass the size of the New England States, with mountains, forests, rivers, and meadows; with plants, animals, fish; and with a whole lot of gold and silver. Nations vie for control, but the US gets a head start and tries to put people there. They are immediately sickened by a strange heavy air pressure which they cannot breathe.

It turns out that only American Black people, and not even Black people from other nations, could breathe the air just fine. A group of Black explorers reported:

… they needed neither their space suits nor special breathing equipment. In fact, the party felt exhilarated and euphoric—feelings they explained upon their reluctant return … as unlike any alcohol- or drug-induced sensations of escape. Rather, it was an invigorating experience of heightened self-esteem, of liberation, of waking up. All four agreed that, while exploring what the media were now referring to as “Afrolantica,” they felt free.

Black people begin to think of Afrolantica as the Promised Land. One minister likened it to the story of the Israelites in the land of Egypt. The Israelites, emancipated from Egyptian slavery, wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Black people lived this for hundreds of years. He urged Black people to emigrate to this Promised Land.

The arguments began. Some Black people, Remainers, argued that life in the US wasn’t as bad as the Israelite had it in their 40 years. They said Black people of today were better off than their parents and grandparents. This is our land, they said, and we don’t want to leave.

A pro-emigration group introduced a bill in Congress to give each emigrant $20K to cover expenses and start-up costs, to be repaid if the emigrant returned within 10 years. Opponents attacked it as unconstitutional because it created a race-based benefit without showing a compelling state interest as a justification.

The Remainers argued that things were definitely getting better and it would be dumb to leave just as the dream of equality was in sight. The pro-emigration people, Leavers, pointed out that the dream always favored white people, and was always hedged for Black people.

Each side quoted historical authorities. Leavers cited Abraham Lincoln who backed resettlement of freed Blacks throughout his life. Remainers cited Frederick Douglas who asserted that Black people belonged in America as much as any other immigrant.

Non-Black Americans were troubled by these events. Some saw the new confidence and pride of Blacks as arrogance or “uppity”. Racists were furious. Others were merely envious. Conservatives feared the possibility of another Cuba, a rallying point for third-world peoples who might identify more with Afrolanticans than US capitalists backed by US military and political pressure. The US government worked to undermine the Leavers, seeing them as a threat to world stability. Agents of the government tried to find Black leaders or academics to back up their conspiracy theories about this invented plot, but none were willing to sign on, which was surprising.

Meanwhile, Black people organized to leave. Even Blacks who didn’t want to go supported this movement with money and services. That frightened many white people. Governments and corporations set up barriers. Visas were denied. Threats were made of loss of citizenship. The right to return even to visit relatives. Criminal charges and civil litigation followed.

Black people banded together to fight off these attacks. A large flotilla left on July 4, in search of Black Independence.

But. As they neared Afrolantica, the mists rose, and the island began to sink back into the Atlantic. They watched it disappear. They realized they were not feeling grief or despair, but a deep satisfaction in having accomplished so much together. They spoke of the words of Frederick Douglass:

“We are Americans. We are not aliens. We are a component part of the nation. We have no disposition to renounce our nationality.”

This spirit inspired a huge number of Black people to renewed efforts to achieve their place in their America.


1. The image of the pressure Black people feel in America just trying to live their lives, and the freedom they felt in Afrolantica is striking. It’s reflected in the coverage of the confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. The hearings featured the New Racist Stylings of the Republican Party. Ted Cruz brought in posters of a baby playing with blocks to illustrate something he didn’t like about Critical Race Theory, and asked Judge Jackson whether babies are racists. Elie Mystal explains what happened next:

Jackson started to answer. She said, “Senator.” And then she sighed. And then she paused. For a long time. As the silence filled the room, I felt like I could see Jackson make the same calculation nearly every Black person and ancestor has made at some point while living in the New World. It’s the calculation enslaved people made before trying to escape to freedom, or activists made before sitting down at the white lunch counter. But it’s also the calculation a woman makes before responding to the e-mail of the failson who was just promoted ahead of her, or the calculation I make when a white executive comments on my Twitter feed but not my published columns. It’s the calculation when black people try to decide: “Am I gonna risk it all for this?”

This is what Jeneé Osterheldt, writing for the Boston Globe, saw:

Black women are familiar with the weight of white supremacy even when it cloaks itself in a polite veneer.

The GOP repeatedly has said Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings are to be fair and respectful. They tell her how “intelligent” and “articulate” she is, affirming how proud Jackson should be as they look for ways to lay pressure on her in hopes of making her chin reach her neck in shame.

Black people in, say. Kenya don’t feel the pressure Mystal and Osterheldt describe, pressure not mentioned in other coverage. That’s just for American Black people.

2. As with any parable, we have to ignore the parts that don’t match up well with reality. (Do not get me started on the Parable of the Prodigal Son.) Bell ignores the practical difficulties of living in a land with no electricity or other form of power, the problems of capitalism generally and many others not central to his concerns. We should ignore them too if we want to learn anything useful.

Taking the parable at face value, we see one of Bell’s central concerns. He believes that racism is so deeply entrenched in US society that it can not be eradicated. Black people will only make progress by working together. As I noted in my introduction to this series, he believe that the effort has to be the goal, it has to be its own satisfaction and justification.

3. As with any good parable, there are layers of meaning, and different lessons for different people. We might ask White people how they would react to the situation. I’m not at all sure how I’d react.

My first thought was that it would be great for the people who wanted to go, and I’d be delighted to help. Then I thought that I’d feel terrible that so many Black people would want to go. I’d take it too personally, as them saying I have failed to treat them right, even if #NotAllWhitePeople. But that gets really complicated. It isn’t just my fault, and I don’t know what I personally could or should have done differently. How do we even allocate fault in the situations we are born into, and only escape with the help of others? Communities of every nationality and race in our country are dysfunctional. I would gladly support any plausible effort to fix them as best I can, but I have no ideas about what to do.

Maybe Bell is asking us to think about how we get people to work together to solve common problems. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen in a real Democracy?

Egalitarianism and Markets

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

The text for the next part of this series is Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk About It). The book consists of two lectures by Anderson, four responses by others, and Anderson’s replies.

Anderson considers herself to be in the philosophical tradition of Pragmatism, the subject of several posts in this series. Pragmatism is a method with which she studies egalitarianism, which is the main theme of this book. In the first posts in this series we looked closely at her ideas of freedom and equality, which are the substrate for her justifications for egalitarianism. As a pragmatist, she does not try to create an overarching theory, as we might see in other philosophic traditions. Her analysis begins with her values, as we all should. This book examines how those values are expressed in our contemporary economy, and how they might be better implemented.

In the first lecture, Anderson gives us a short history of egalitarianism in action, beginning in the 1600s. Society was almost completely hierarchical, organized under the Church of England and the Monarchy/Aristocracy structure. Most people owed obedience to both, with no say in the matter, and were forced to support both through tithes and taxes. Gradually a number of people became “masterless men”, free of obligations to one or both. Many were criminals or vagabonds, others were impoverished, but many were artisans, small shopkeepers or yeoman farmers*. These found themselves free of domination and began to see themselves as a group, not quite a class, but separate. They formed the core of Cromwell’s army in the English Civil War, 1646-51. One faction was called the Levellers. The Levellers had a number of progressive ideas, including an elected monarchy, and abolishing the House of Lords. Some even argued for the rights of women! The movement was short-lived, ending in 1651, when the rich and powerful killed them and imprisoned their surviving leaders with impunity.

The ideas of the Levellers were egalitarian in the sense Anderson uses the term: they wanted to get rid of social hierarchies of birth, church, aristocracy, land-holdings, and perhaps even the patriarchy, and they wanted institutions that did not dominate or humiliate them because of their own birth status or employment.

Anderson says that one of their concerns was opening up monopolies granted by the Crown to aristocratic cronies, and allowing everyone to enter into any trade or business, free from interference by the Crown, the rich, and their courts. This was an attack on both royal prerogatives and the remains of the Guild system. It amounted to an attack of the prerogatives of the Church of England, which had its own courts, levied tithes, and had certain powers to discipline people.

Anderson draws from this demand the idea that people who own and manage their own capital and their own skills can meet as equals in the marketplace. It gives meaning to Adam Smith’s theory that a nation of artisans, yeoman farmers, and small retailers would be more productive and innovative than the careless and inattentive aristocracy of rich landlords and monopolists who dominated the economy. The increase in production would benefit every member of society.

In the US, Thomas Paine held similar views. There was plenty of land, so anyone could take up farming. Apprentices would become journeymen and accumulate sufficient capital to open their own businesses and eventually take on apprentices. There were no aristocracies or powerful churches in the US, so the biggest danger to this ideal was government. Anderson sees Paine as libertarian; she says that Paine’s views match those of the non-Trump conservatives.

The ideal of the US as a nation of small farms and businesses operated by self-reliant families was taken up by the Republican Party, and was embraced by Abraham Lincoln. Anderson quotes part of Lincoln’s 1859 speech to the Wisconsin Agricultural Society in which he lays out this idea. Lincoln is responding to a speech by a South Carolina Senator, James Hammond. Hammond, a wealthy plantation owner, argued that society can only advance if there are classes of people whose only role is performing menial labor, just as a house cannot stand without a mudsill, a foundation. Lincoln explains that labor is the “source by which human wants are mainly supplied”. He says that one group argues that capital is primary, that productive work is not done unless people with capital use workers to do it, and the only question is whether they hire workers or buy slaves. Others, says Lincoln

… hold that labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed — that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence they hold that labor is the superior — greatly the superior — of capital.

In [the] Free States, a large majority are neither hirers or hired. Men, with their families — wives, sons and daughters — work for themselves, on their farms, in their houses and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand, nor of hirelings or slaves on the other. … Again, as has already been said, the opponents of the “mud-sill” theory insist that there is not, of necessity, any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. There is demonstration for saying this. Many independent men, in this assembly, doubtless a few years ago were hired laborers. And their case is almost if not quite the general rule.

The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This, say its advocates, is free labor — the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all — gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all. If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune.*

Lincoln describes two competing theories of the role of capital in society: the mud-sill theory, and the Free Labor system. Anderson asks why the egalitarian vision of Free Labor died out in practice, although not in the imagination of the defenders of capital and their PR flacks. I ask why the mudsill ideology became dominant.

*In the first response, the historian Ann Hughes provides needed context on this point, as well as a more nuanced view of the Levellers and other dissidents of their time.

*The next paragraph is pure Lincoln, the reason we love him:

By the “mud-sill” theory it is assumed that labor and education are incompatible; and any practical combination of them impossible. According to that theory, a blind horse upon a tread-mill, is a perfect illustration of what a laborer should be — all the better for being blind, that he could not tread out of place, or kick understandingly. According to that theory, the education of laborers, is not only useless, but pernicious, and dangerous. In fact, it is, in some sort, deemed a misfortune that laborers should have heads at all. Those same heads are regarded as explosive materials, only to be safely kept in damp places, as far as possible from that peculiar sort of fire which ignites them. A Yankee who could invent strong handed man without a head would receive the everlasting gratitude of the “mud-sill” advocates.