UC Berkeley Professor Lectures on Frederick Douglass’s Theory of Resistance

The political science department welcomed Dr. Desmond Jagmohan, a leading scholar of African-American political thought and assistant professor of political science at the University of California Berkeley, to give a lecture titled “Frederick Douglass on the Nature of Resistance” on Wednesday, March 15. 

Co-sponsored by the President’s Fund for Racial Justice, the Lang Center, and the Black Studies program, the lecture drew a large and diverse audience of students, faculty, and community members. The event was opened by Associate Professor of Political Science Jonny Thakkar, who invited Jaghoman to deliver the talk. In his introduction, Thakkar praised Jagmohan’s work and his ability to bring attention to issues that have been overlooked by political theorists despite their crucial importance in a country still grappling with the legacy of slavery.  

Jagmohan focused on the often-overlooked theory of resistance developed by Frederick Douglass. Jagmohan’s research and forthcoming book project delves deeply into Douglass’s second and lesser-known slave narrative, “My Bondage, My Freedom,” which explores his transition from a fugitive slave to a prominent abolitionist and author.  

He began by posing a question to the audience: “How can we see the politics of those who have had life or death reasons to conceal from us their truth?” 

Jagmohan went on to argue that Douglass’s theory emphasized three key reasons for resistance: minimizing oppression, preserving self-respect or moral worth, and expressing opposition and condemnation of justice. He explained that Douglass believed that the more extreme the oppression, the more likely the three ends would come apart. Therefore, resistance may take a more indirect form because of the high risks of openly challenging an institution. In these cases, the oppressed might choose less “visible” strategies, making it harder to recognize their actions as resistance.  

Jagmohan also highlighted the concept of “secret radicalism,” which he argued was often employed by figures like Booker T. Washington, who are frequently characterized as being conservative or accommodationist. Some of these individuals, Jagmohan explained, actually worked behind the scenes to resist oppression and lay the groundwork for improvements in racial equality.  

Attendees engaged in a lively discussion with Jagmohan after his presentation. He fielded a variety of questions and underlined especially the challenges of recognizing and acknowledging less apparent forms of resistance, urging attendees to reevaluate their understanding of the concept. Using the example of undocumented immigrants in the USA, which are often seen as a relatively powerless community, he explained that this group does in fact use less visible strategies to push back against their oppressors. In the same way, he explained, we should not be overly celebratory of the more visible forms of resistance that privileged groups and individuals are able to take part in.

Attendees praised the event for shedding light on an important aspect of the fight against oppression and injustice, particularly in the current political climate.  The event was followed by a reception where community members were able to continue the conversation with Jagmohan. 

“The concept of hidden modes of resistance strikes me as very relevant today,” reflected Thakkar in an email to The Phoenix, “given the ever-growing temptation to understand resistance as a kind of performance for which we earn social credit.”

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