Profile picture for user Desmond Jagmohan

Desmond Jagmohan

Assistant Professor of Political Science
Current Status
796 Social Sciences Building
Office Hours
Personal Statement

I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Like many Berkeley undergraduates, I have taken a circuitous path to academic life. I was born and raised in Guyana. After migrating to Chicago at age sixteen, I served in the U. S. military before and during college. I specialize in the history of African American and American political thought, and my current research and teaching interests include: the politics of deception; theories of property, slavery, and domination; and the ideas of nationalism and self-determination in black political thought. At the moment, I am completing my first book, Dark Virtues: Booker T. Washington’s Tragic Realism, which studies the politics of deception under Jim Crow. I have also begun work on my second book, The Political Thought of Harriet Jacobs, which recovers her slave narrative as a work of moral and political theory. My research has been published in the Journal of Politics, Political Theory, NOMOS, Perspectives on Politics, Politics, Groups, and IdentitiesContemporary Political Theory, and Boston Review.

I was the winner of the APSA Best Dissertation Award from the Race, Ethnicity and Politics Section (2015) and was a National Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University (2018). Prior to arriving at Berkeley, I was Assistant Professor of Politics at Princeton University, where I delivered the 2018 Constitution Day Lecture and was awarded the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Preceptorship in the University Center for Human Values. I hold an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Cornell University.

Research Interests
African American and American Political Thought
Property, domination, nationalism, and self-determination
Race and American Political Development
Ph.D., Government, Cornell University
M.A., Government, Cornell University
B.A., Philosophy and History, Northeastern Illinois University

My current book project, Dark Virtues: Booker T. Washington’s Tragic Realism (under contract with Princeton University Press), studies the politics of deception under conditions of extreme oppression. To do so it recovers Booker T. Washington (1856–­1915) as a virtue theorist of the oppressed. First, I argue that Washington not only practiced but also normatively defended equivocation (Ch. 2), concealment (Ch. 3), and deception (Ch. 4) as necessary for surviving and subverting Jim Crow, which he understood as a distinct form of race-based domination (Ch. 1). In dark times—such as slavery and Jim Crow—these dimmer dispositions can serve emancipatory ends. But since they are seen by most as unethical, one must conceal one’s use of them.  Second, I show that Washington used deceptive words to mask radical deeds. Where scholars have assumed a hidden transcript or merely read between the lines, I opt for a different approach. I base my case on several years of archival work in the Booker T. Washington’s Papers at the Library of Congress (a collection of nearly a million documents) and other locations, including Tuskegee University. This historical excavating allows me to recover his clandestine challenges to Jim Crow in three spheres of life—law (Ch. 5), economy (Ch. 6), and society (Ch. 7)—and show that his compliant public image was, indeed, a well-crafted mask. Demanding the most vulnerable be transparently radical, rather than prudentially seditious, confuses martyrdom with politics, I argue. Those under extreme domination—from Frederick Douglass (Ch. 4) to Primo Levi—have often relied on deception as a means of subversion. Third, I consider the fate of such realism by scrutinizing deception in the writings of Washington's two most important critics: W. E. B. Du Bois sketched the psychological consequences of deception (Ch. 8) and Ida B. Wells defended candor and courage as morally required because they are politically efficacious (Ch. 9). Drawing on their critiques of Washington, I conclude that his realism was, indeed, tragic (Ch. 10). So, in addition to offering the first comprehensive study of Washington’s political theory I analytically reconstruct and historically contextualize the place of deception in African American political thought between 1850 and 1915, from Douglass to Du Bois.  Ultimately, I hope to enrich our understanding of moral agency under oppression.  

My first book project resulted from a methodological question. While every text has multiple intentions I wondered what we should do when faced with an author who  uses equivocal, ambivalent, and even deceitful writings to veil his true intentions and politics? I found my answer in the history of ideas and by turning to work by colleagues in political science and history that study strategic interactions and the politics of those living in autocratic and other repressive regimes. Learning from their response to the problem of preference falsification, I turned to the archives to see beyond public performances to concealed truths. But what should we do with an author who left a single brilliant text but wrote nothing else and therefore left no real archive to aid interpreting the text or its context? 

This question motivates my second book project, The Political Thought of Harriet Jacobs, which reads her slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, as a work of moral and political theory. My approach is once again broadly contextualist, but this time I must create the archive from the discourses she assumed knowledge of. I begin with the assumption that a polemical work like Incidents requires an attention to the political and social context in which it was produced, and more particularly to the range of meanings available to Jacobs at the time. It is difficult to imagine that one could fully understand the role of, say, property and paternalism, honor and shame, deception and self-enslavement in Incidents without a fuller account of how these themes were deployed polemically in the intellectual and political crisis over slavery in mid nineteenth-century America. In Part I, I argue that Jacobs wrote Incidents to normatively rebut three proslavery arguments: enslavers are merely exercising property rights (Ch. 1), African Americans are “natural slaves” (Ch. 2), and slavery is a paternalist institution (Ch. 3). Part II recovers her account of what I call veiled agency. Scholars who celebrate fugitivity, fight or flight as the only admirable response, ignore or morally downgrade less confrontational forms of resistance, the sort most enslaved women employed. I recover Jacobs’s defense of the cunning use of shame (Ch. 4), fidelity to fellow slaves (Ch. 5), and testimony (Ch. 6) as forms of moral and political agency that center the gendered wrongs of slavery. Through deep archival dives—into newspapers, magazines, legal and popular debates, academic discourses (including receptions of the ancients), and other sources—I historically contextualize her critical response. I situate each theme in the proslavery public sphere. To distill which of her claims were representative of abolitionism at large and which broke new ground, I further contextualize each idea within the antislavery public sphere and, specifically, the political spaces in which Jacobs moved and wrote: namely, antislavery circles in New York and Massachusetts. A central part of Chapter 1 appears as “Peculiar Property: Harriet Jacobs on the Nature of Slavery,” in Journal of Politics, which argues that ownership, not domination, constitutes slavery’s unique injustice, and ownership explains why slavery is a distinct rather than merely an extreme form of domination.


"Reparations without Reconciliation," NOMOS LXIII: Reconciliation and Repair: Mending Frayed Civic Bonds, eds. Melissa Schwartzberg and Eric Beerbohm (New York University Press: Forthcoming).

"Peculiar Property: Harriet Jacobs on the Nature of Slavery," Journal of Politics, Vol. 84, No. 2 (April 2022)

“Between Race and Nation: Marcus Garvey and the Politics of Self-Determination,” Political Theory, Vol. 48, No. 3 (January 2020): 271–302. 

“Booker T. Washington and the Politics of Deception.” In African American Political Thought: A Collected History. Eds. Melvin Rogers and Jack Turner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 167–191.

“Race and the Social Contract: Charles Mills on the Consensual Foundations of White Supremacy,” Politics, Groups, and Identities, Vol. 3, No. 3 (September 2015): 488–503.

Articles Under Review

"Booker T. Washington and the Art of Equivocation."

"W. E. B. Du Bois on Deception and Self-Respect."

"Radical Virtues: Ida B. Wells and the Ethics of Truth."

“Charles Eastman on the Fate of American Republicanism.” Book chapter for the Oxford Handbook on Republicanism.

Essays and Reviews

"Racial Utopias and Moral Nightmares," Critical Exchange—Dreamworlds of Race, in Contemporary Political Theory (Forthcoming).

“Anger and the Politics of the Oppressed,” Boston Review Forum On Anger, Vol. 45, No. 1 (January 2020).

"In His Own Day: Awareness of Wilson's Duplicity," Reflections Symposium on "The Controversy over Woodrow Wilson's Legacy: A Discussion," in Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 14, No. 3 (September 2016).

"Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism," in Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 13, No. 3 (September 2015).

Book Review of Stephen H. Marshall, The City on the Hill from Below: The Crisis of Prophetic Black Politics (Temple University Press, 2011), in Contemporary Political Theory, Vol. 13 (2014).