The James Brown Theory of Black Liberation

We shouldn’t reduce historical narratives solely to questions of black agency. It’s bad history — and can lead to even worse politics.

After decades of frustration with what Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay calls “white savior” narratives, antiracist progressives appear to have settled on an ideologically more appealing alternative — what we might call the James Brown Theory of Black Liberation.

In 1969, after Brown had aligned himself politically with President Richard M. Nixon, he released the paean to black self-help, “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself).” In the nearly half-century since, especially during the last two decades of neoliberal hegemony, that self-help perspective has become the righteous antiracists’ standard for cultural criticism and political judgment.

Typically under the sign of acknowledging and respecting black people’s agency, it has become unacceptable to suggest that black Americans’ advances have depended significantly on anything other than, against all odds, the perseverance and will of black people themselves and a small cast of white allies.

But this interpretive approach, which blends the several meanings of self-help, is totally consistent with neoliberal premises that eschew collective action in favor of individual voluntarism and deny the significance of social structures in shaping political opportunities. It masks the important fact that every advance black Americans have made toward equality, full citizenship, and racial justice has been enmeshed with broader struggles to advance egalitarian interests.

And so, in the past quarter century of neoliberalism’s rise, the James Brown Theory has entrenched itself as the normative foundation of antiracist cultural criticism.

Nowhere is this clearer than in some of the discussions around the 150th anniversary of Emancipation and the crushing of the slave owners’ rebellion.

Such ruminations are, after all, typically guided by presentist concerns. For example, the fiftieth and seventy-fifth anniversaries of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg centered on pageantry of surviving veterans of both armies in service to an overarching message of sectional reconciliation. D. W. Griffith’s scurrilous Birth of a Nation, released fifty years after the Confederate defeat, also carried the message of sectional reconciliation but on explicitly and savagely white supremacist terms.

In recent decades those anniversary ruminations have become more likely to consider what the struggle meant for black people, both slave and free, and more likely to center on the relation between successful defeat of the insurrection and the abolition of slavery in the United States, and the larger significance of Emancipation for black Americans.

The commentary around two very different 2012 films: Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln provide a striking example. It concerned the relative merits of each movie’s characterization of the source of Emancipation. Django Unchained was a live-action cartoon in which the entirely fictional story of a rebellious slave is the prop of Tarantino’s homage to the spaghetti westerns of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Whereas the Spielberg production aspires to historically faithful, or at least respectful, examination of Lincoln’s desperate effort to pass the Thirteenth Amendment — which abolished slavery — through Congress before the hostilities ended.

That so many critics and commentators nevertheless were inclined to compare these two films indicated that the question of how slavery’s abolition should be narrated had become disconnected from concern with the actual history and politics of the mid-nineteenth century. Rather, the controversy centered on the centrality of black people’s “agency” in the story of Emancipation. That is how juxtaposition of Tarantino’s cartoonish fantasy to a film with historical pretensions like Lincoln could ever seem reasonable.

Exploring the story of Emancipation — or the nature of slavery for that matter — was subordinate to an ideological program of racial recognition, validation of the depths and pandemic extent of white racism and celebration of black overcoming.

The controversy reduced to whether a film focusing on Lincoln’s role in pushing the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress objectionably overlooked — even denied — the contributions of black slaves to their own “self-emancipation.” In Spielberg’s film, according to the Nation’s Jon Wiener, “old white men make history, and black people thank them for giving them their freedom.” To polish off the comparison, Wiener observes, “In Tarantino’s [film], a black gunslinger goes after the white slavemaster with homicidal vengeance.”

As Wiener’s bumper sticker analysis makes clear, this debate wasn’t really about how slavery ended in the United States. It was about how it would seem most gratifying now to want slavery to have ended. That very presentist concern underlies the repeated insistence of Lincoln’s critics that Lincoln didn’t free the slaves and that they instead “freed themselves.” But, putting to one side for a moment the issue of historical accuracy, that is a questionable view even by the standard of honoring black Americans’ agency and autonomous action.

In a way it’s like what Maoists called “using the red book to defeat the red book.” In the name of lauding black agency in the abstract, the “slaves freed themselves” perspective actually diminishes or disparages the concrete expressions of political agency among the legions of black people, slave and free, who enthusiastically supported and strove to participate in the collective project of dealing a deathblow to the institution.

In that light it is interesting to consider Edward Zwick’s 1989 film Glory and how it throws this change into bold relief. Glory — which may be, from the standpoint of egalitarian sensibilities, the greatest film ever made on the “Civil War” — tells the story of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the all-black regiment that famously led an unsuccessful assault on South Carolina’s heavily entrenched Fort Wagner. It was this same fort that defended Charleston, the birthplace of the master class’s insurrection, from seaborne attack.

Although Glory depicts the regiment as made up largely of runaway slaves, the Fifty-Fourth was comprised only of free black volunteers and — by official stipulation — commanded by white officers. In addition to the story of the Fifty-Fourth in general, Glory also focuses on the story of Robert Gould Shaw, the young scion of a prominent family of Boston abolitionists who commanded the regiment and died in the attack on Fort Wagner.

In fact, Shaw’s character is the central thread running through the film, and Zwick — and Matthew Broderick in the role of Shaw — affectingly show the young officer’s ambivalences, limitations, and growth into an effective regimental commander and resolute advocate for his troops as well as in his convictions of the equal humanity of black people. As he writes in a letter to his mother: “We fight for men and women whose poetry is not yet written but which will presently be as enviable and as renowned as any.”

However, the story is not only — or even principally — about Shaw. Glory’s power as a film is that it captures that particular historical moment when the military action to suppress the slaveholders’ insurrection openly condensed as a war to destroy slavery and the crucially important role that black men played in creating that moment and seeing its promise through to fruition. Zwick also uses the war film’s convention of the brothers-in-the-foxhole narrative to good effect in giving the black soldiers individuality, depth, and breadth.

All of that background makes even more powerful the James Island battle scene, where the Fifty-Fourth is able to engage the enemy for the first time. It doesn’t take much to imagine what an extraordinary experience that must have been for those men.

Yet by the time of the DjangoLincoln controversy, Glory had become for some an instance of the unacceptable denial of full black agency. The director George Lucas quipped while hyping Red Tails — a travesty purporting to honor World War II’s black Tuskegee Airmen — that his abomination was a real hero film, unlike “Glory, where you have a lot of white officers running those guys into cannon fodder.”

Over the years, I’ve encountered a number of versions of that sort of objection, generally from Gen-Xers with professional backgrounds. The desire to see the Black Hero — “black agency” — often seems to overwhelm considerations of historical plausibility. But how could a film about the Fifty-Fourth not have white officers?

Roger Ebert, while generally praising the film highly in his 1990 review, “didn’t understand why it had to be told so often from the point of view of the Fifty-Fourth’s white commanding officer. Why did we see the black troops through his eyes — instead of seeing him through theirs?”

Ebert’s question is reasonable, especially be­cause two years earlier Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom determined to tell the story of Stephen Biko (played in the film by Denzel Washington), the Black Consciousness Movement activist killed by South African police while in custody in the aftermath of the Soweto uprising, almost exclusively through the saga of Biko’s white journalist friend (played by Kevin Kline) who was terrorized while attempting to investigate Biko’s murder.

Attenborough defended his narrative choice by saying that he wanted to reach and educate a white audience.

Then, in the year between Cry Freedom and Glory, Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning depicted a case loosely based on the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. However, not only was Parker’s film told through the eyes of FBI agents — who were its heroes — but not a single black actor was considered important enough in the story to warrant being credited in the promotional materials. So it’s understandable that a hair-trigger skepticism might develop about any film about race in which the central characters were white.

But it is revealing in this respect that Ebert also loved 1989’s other big release exploring race and “race relations” (a counterproductive, essentializing euphemism for hierarchy) Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy. Ebert rhapsodized about that human-interest examination of the bonds of intimacy that could develop between mistress and servant in Jim Crow Atlanta and its transition to the post-segregation era. His enthusiasm for the film was unqualified.

Glory, however, is a very different sort of film, and the contrast of Ebert’s concern about representation of black agency in it and his lack of concern with that issue in Miss Daisy may help to illuminate the difference in a way that is especially important for the current moment.

When Driving Miss Daisy came out, I was shocked, as I assumed there was only one thing a movie like that could be, but I found it a little difficult to imagine that that film could be so highly touted at the end of the 1980s. So I polled people I knew who had seen it — including several whose views I had trusted up until that point and several who had lived through the Jim Crow era as adults — concerning my skepticism, only to be reassured that it wasn’t that film at all.

So I went to see it in the theater, and within the first ten minutes I realized that of course it was that film. There was nothing else it possibly could have been. The master trope of Driving Miss Daisy is the development of a personal relationship between mistress and servant that screens out — though I’m sure the film’s director and advocates would prefer “transcends” — the mundane realities of class and racial hierarchy within which that intimacy was structured.

Driving Miss Daisy left such a lingering bad taste in my mouth that I took what was for me the unusual step of going back to the theater within a week or so to see Glory, hoping that the vicarious experience of black men taking up arms against slavery would cleanse my palate. It did that and much more.

The punch line of this personal account is not simply that I appreciated Glory as an antidote to Driving Miss Daisy. More than that, it’s something of a cautionary tale about perspectives that reduce political concerns to whether or not the oppressed or the “marginalized” are able to express their agency. Driving Miss Daisy is all about the agency of the two central characters. And that agency is enacted up close and personal, in a world in which there are only personal transactions between individuals and their mutual regard.

But we can envisage such a world only to the extent that concern with individual action and relationships blocks from view or overrides the structures of inequality rooted in political economy — whether expressed through racial hierarchies or not — that constrain the sphere of personal interaction. We have no sense whatsoever of driver Hoke’s life outside of his employment in Miss Daisy’s service or of what would have to have been the stark differences in their material circumstances.

Even The Help makes a gesture at depicting that contrast. Yet it does so in a way that illustrates the ideological impact of an additional twenty-five years of neoliberal hegemony. Now it is no longer necessary to shy away from displaying the class contradictions. Instead, class becomes just another “identity” to be celebrated as part of a progressive commitment to “diversity.”

In The Help the maids live where they live and are poor as a matter of fact. The arc of the narrative bends toward their empowering themselves by finding their individual voices, not improving their material conditions. And at no point does the white ingénue Skeeter — as she forms bonds of friendship, learns the maids’ perspectives and advocates for their voices — ever connect their poverty with her own class’s wealth and power.

Thus the film’s happy ending resolves to an equivalence posited between Skeeter’s departing Jackson for New York and the uncertain challenge of seeking her fortune in the publishing industry and the maid Aibileen’s walking off equally cheerfully toward the exciting challenges of an uncertain future given to her by the opportunity of unemployment.

The Help is thus an expression of its historical moment. It is no longer necessary to obscure the asymmetries of social and economic power that separate masters and servants, like what was done in Driving Miss Daisy, in order to have a feel-good story. A multiculturalist lameness trivializes recognition of class hierarchy as respect for “difference,” yet another way in which fetishizing agency is at bottom a Thatcherite project.

And that takes us back to the political sensibility that underlay the Lincoln versus Django Unchained debates. First of all, the claim that slaves abolished the institution through their self-emancipation — soothing as it may be to those who want history to be like spaghetti westerns — is simply incorrect. In fact, the best predictor of slaves’ efforts to escape from their plantations during the conflict was the proximity of federal troops.

Moreover, slaves and free black people alike were emboldened by Lincoln’s election and the national government’s commitment to suppressing the slaveholders’ insurrection. And why wouldn’t they have been? They, like Southern elites, understood that the Republican Party was fundamentally committed to the destruction of slavery.

Republicans, largely, did not call for slavery’s immediate abolition, to be sure. But that fact does not undermine the seriousness of the party’s antislavery commitment. While antislavery Whigs and Republicans were convinced that the national government had the authority to prohibit slavery’s expansion, they did not believe that it had constitutional authority to attack slavery where the institution was protected by state law. The one exception to that limitation was military emancipation, and the slaveholders’ insurrection put that option on the table.

It is also true that antislavery forces overestimated the ease with which the Border States could be weaned from the institution. None of those limitations, though, justifies the contention that their opposition to slavery was impure and therefore bogus.

Finally, we must ask, what is the appeal of this moralistic denunciation of Republican hypocrisies about slavery, and of the assertion that black people single-handedly freed themselves? And to whom does it appeal? How does one see Glory not as a powerful story of black men — slave and free — joining in a much larger collective military project aimed at destroying the institution of slavery and see instead only the travesty of white officers leading them to their death?

What approach to political action can follow from the contention that the Thirteenth Amendment was empty window dressing and that black slaves’ emancipation was like James Brown’s backward, Nixonian ideal of self-help?

The perspective that shrivels the scope of black political concern to expressing racial “agency” similarly diminishes the significance of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the US Supreme Court’s 1944 Smith v. Allwright decision that outlawed the infamous “white primary” (and exponentially increased black voting in the South), the 1954 Brown decision, 1964 Civil Rights law, and 1965 Voting Rights Act as if all were in some twisted way racially inauthentic because acknowledging their significance as moments in the struggle for social justice detracts from the James Brown Theory of Black Liberation.

That ideological commitment is what impelled Ava DuVernay to make the seemingly gratuitous move of falsifying Martin Luther King Jr’s relationship with the Johnson administration around the Selma campaign: “I wasn’t interested in making a white savior movie,” she replied to critics, “I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma.”

Of course, she doesn’t do the latter either, but her commitment to not “making a white savior movie” also led her to misconstrue the tension between the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Selma, which stemmed precisely from the SNCC activists’ objection that King and his organization maintained secret, backdoor dealings with the Johnson administration.

The psychobabbling bromides that elevate recognition and celebration of black agency rest on an ideological perspective that in practical terms rejects effective black political action in favor of expressive display. It is the worldview of an element of the contemporary black professional stratum anchored in the academy, blogosphere, and the world of mass media chat whose standing in public life is bound up with establishing a professional authority in speaking for the race. This is the occupational niche of the so-called black public intellectuals.

The torrent of faddish chattering-class blather and trivial debate sparked by Michael Eric Dyson’s recent attack on Cornel West in the New Republic illustrates the utter fatuity of this domain, as if there were any reason to care about a squabble between two freelance Racial Voices with no constituency or links to radical institutions between them.

In an illustration of what this game is all about, the Nation, sensing space for competing brands, projected some Alternative Black Voices into this circus of spurious racial representation in a piece entitled “6 Scholars Who Are ‘Reimagining Black Politics.’ ”

Twenty years practically to the week before publication of Dyson’s essay, I took stock of what was then the newly confected category of the Black Public Intellectual and noted that the notion’s definitive irony was that its avatars were quite specifically not organically rooted in any dynamic political activity and in fact emerged only after opportunities for real connection to political movements had disappeared. Nor were the “public intellectuals” connected to any particular strain of scholarship or criticism.

Rather, their status was no more than a posture and a brand. By the early 2000s, it was possible to see young people entering doctoral programs with their sights on the academy as a venue for pursuing careers as public intellectuals — i.e. among the free-floating racial commentariat. And that was before the explosion of the blogosphere and Twitterverse, which have exponentially increased both avenues for realizing such aspirations and the numbers of people pursuing them.

But the politics enacted in those venues is by and large an ersatz politics, and the controversies that sustain them are by and large ephemeral, vacant bullshit — the “feud” between Iggy Azalea and Azealia Banks, whether black people were dissed because Selma wasn’t nominated for/didn’t win enough Oscars, and so on.

In the context of this sort of non-stop idiotic bread and circuses — and this may be an apt moment to remind that the blogosphere is open to any fool with a computer and Internet access — it is good to reflect on one of the crucial moments in American history when the linking of social and political forces presented a clear choice between egalitarian and inegalitarian interests, and masses of black people joined with others to strike a consequential blow for social justice and to wipe the scourge of slavery from the United States.

No, it wasn’t a final victory over inequality — it didn’t usher in a utopian order, and the greatest promises opened by the triumph were unfulfilled or largely undone. But it was one of the most important victories that egalitarian forces have won, along with those of the twentieth-century labor, civil rights, and women’s movements, and it is worth reflecting on it and the ways it changed the country for the better.

That struggle against the slaveholders’ insurrection, along with those latter movements, also underscores the fact that the path to winning the kind of just world to which a left should aspire requires building a politics that seeks, as the old saying goes, to unite the many to defeat the few. Any other focus is either unserious or retrograde.