In 1947, French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir came to the United States on an “intellectual tour.” In addition to giving lectures at several colleges, she met American journalists, authors, and philosophers including Richard Wright, at that time considered the main voice of African American struggle in the U.S.
Wright had already published several books—Black Boy, Native Son and 12 Million Black Voices. Beauvoir was also a well-known author, on the cusp of writing The Second Sex, her 1949 landmark work of feminist philosophy.
Lori Marso, professor of political science, has researched the connection between the two icons and how they came to reject the idea of oppression by identity to forge a solidarity at the intersections of African American and feminist aspirations. She has written an article, “Solidarity sans identity: Richard Wright and Simone de Beauvoir theorize political subjectivity,” that appeared in Contemporary Political Theory (Vol. 13, No. 3, 2014) and won the journal’s annual prize.
Their connection has relevance today, Marso says, especially during the divisive rhetoric of an election year. “What I really love about [Wright and Beauvoir] coming together is that they try to think about oppressions together,” she says. “We need that now more than ever. We have a rhetoric that excludes the poor, non-whites, and immigrants. We need to think about the intersections of oppression, rather than only about identities.”
Identity does have a place, Marso notes. For example, there is importance in the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged with the focus on police killings of African Americans. But issues of that movement should also be considered in the context of economic inequality and the status of immigrants and undocumented people.
The 1960s saw a convergence of movements: feminism, the counter culture, anti-war, civil rights and black power. But there is a danger in isolating those movements or their leaders, Marso says. Malcolm X and James Baldwin, key figures of black nationalism and civil rights, respectively, were connected by many of the same questions.
“When you separate individuals and talk about just single identity issues, you fail to see the context in which their ideas are formed … this way of thinking diminishes and impoverishes the way that we see politics happening,” Marso says.
Marso is completing a book, Politics with Beauvoir: Freedom in the Encounter (Duke University Press, forthcoming); editing a book, 51 Key Feminist Thinkers (Routledge, 2016); and co-edited (with Bonnie Honig) a special issue of the journal Theory & Event (Johns Hopkins University Press) on Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier which is being published in revised form as a book with Oxford University Press, called Gender, Power, and Politics in the Films of Lars von Trier.