- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
Historian Robin D. G. Kelley recently published a new edition of his book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. The book explores a vast terrain of African American radicalism, from the followers of Marcus Garvey to the Communists who challenged racial oppression and the neglected stories of the civil rights movement.
What was the context in which you first published the book in 2002, and how did things differ by the time of its republication twenty years later?
It was before 9/11 when the idea for Freedom Dreams came into fruition. A lot of it centered around a couple of things. When there was police violence, the Amadou Diallo case was important. He had been killed by police in New York. A lot of us were protesting the fact that the cops had been exonerated.
In fact, the killing of Amadou Diallo came on the tails of a whole range of police killings. In other words, there’s not a season where there’s no police killings or beatings. The case of Abner Louima, for example, was a big thing in New York. So that’s one of the contexts.
The other context that was really important for the ’90s is that a lot of the radical movements that emerged in that decade were arrayed against the Clinton administration. One of the things that I’m always reminded of, whether we’re talking about [Barack] Obama or [Bill] Clinton or the [Lyndon] Johnson administration, is that liberal administrations are often the worst in terms of creating the conditions for what becomes a neoliberal agenda.
Think about what it meant for Clinton to ultimately back welfare reform — stripping poor people of welfare, moving toward workfare, as well as some of the housing policies and the expansion of mass incarceration under Clinton. The fact that he ended up signing NAFTA, even if he doesn’t take responsibility for it, became part of his whole schtick.
We were coming out of a situation where there was a lot of pessimism, especially among my students, because they were fighting against a liberal government, and they didn’t see how they could win, and they didn’t see social movements in the way that they imagined them to be. They had a romantic sense of the days of the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and people in the streets fighting the police.
I was working with these students, trying to reveal to them that there is a long history of struggles that don’t always look like they succeed because we’re trapped in this idea of what success looks like. I wrote the book really for undergraduates, who were looking for models of revolutionary activity. I was saying they don’t always look like what you think they look like, and more importantly, they don’t always win, if we think of that very narrow definition of what winning is — that is, achieving a certain objective.
But the most important thing is that whatever their agenda is, their vision is not something that’s made ahead of time. It is made in struggle and movement. If anything, the basic lesson of Freedom Dreams is not that people need to go to sleep, dream, and wake up in the morning with a new idea, but that what we think of as future thinking — dreams of possibility — comes out of struggle. It doesn’t come out of think tanks or out of taking mushrooms.
Why did I come up with the new edition? Part of it was that I felt compelled to take stock of where we are today in the wake of the 2020 protests. I had been thinking about a new edition for a while, but especially after 2020, I was thinking about the long history of anti-state violence and what we witnessed, because the 2020 protests were a culmination of lots of things.
That upsurge was a culmination of the Occupy movement. It had its roots in the anti-police protests erupting after Trayvon Martin and [Michael] Brown, the 2013-2014-2015 season. The other context, of course, is that we’re facing a resurgent fascism. I say resurgent because fascism has a long history in the US.
One thing I didn’t mention, though, is the other context, which is 9/11. Nine-eleven led to a disruption in the writing of the book because we’d obviously been experiencing a kind of suppression of movements, not just civil liberties, but actual movements. With the [George W.] Bush administration, the possibility of creative repression emerged with the creation of the Homeland Security matrix.
With 9/11, it felt like a sea change. There was a false patriotism that erupted. There was a sense that the radical movements were derailed, and you really couldn’t say anything critical of the United States. At the same time, a vibrant antiwar movement did emerge after the invasion of Afghanistan and especially after the invasion of Iraq. That movement was faced with what became an expansion of the national security state.
I was writing this book about radical movements at a time when radical movements, in whatever form they took, were under not just greater suspicion and repression, but a whole apparatus of new technology geared toward surveillance and attacks on whistleblowers. This was not necessarily limited to the Bush administration. It continued under Obama, and it continues as we speak.
That context is important, because when I talk about the resurgence of fascism, it’s a mistake to think about fascism merely as a group of military personnel, ex-cops, or active-duty cops trying to overthrow the Congress or take over the Capitol. They’re not a fringe group. The state itself is moving in this direction, even if the state has been targeted by other fascists in the streets.
How did you first encounter black nationalism? What role did its internationalism — particularly its relationship to Africa, present and past — play in how you experienced it?
My first encounter with politics was as a child growing up in Harlem. No one living on 157th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam, or anywhere in Saint Nicholas, would be able to avoid soapbox speakers and black nationalist organizations. It was everywhere, and that’s how I understood politics.
By the time I got to college in California, I jumped into black studies. The authors I read didn’t agree on everything, but what they all did agree upon fundamentally was that African people, no matter where they are, are connected somehow and have a right to self-determination. There were a lot of romantic ideas of what precolonial Africa was like, with an assumption that communalism was the default situation and the natural culture of African peoples.
However, I also encountered other thinkers and movements that said yes, we had certain traditions that colonialism tried to destroy, yet at the same time, we had class distinctions and forms of power. Some of these forms of power existed before colonialism, but they really took off during and after the colonial period.
I’m of the generation where we read Frantz Fanon and The Wretched the Earth. Nowadays, no one wants to read that. They want to read Black Skin, White Masks, which is a very important book. But it was foundational to read in The Wretched of the Earth about the African national bourgeoisie, or in Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa about the role that African elites played in the perpetuation of neocolonial domination.
These texts enabled us to hold on to a form of black nationalism without falling into the trap of seeing the roots of exploitation and inequality strictly in terms of racial difference. We saw those roots in terms of class difference, in terms of economic exploitation, in terms of the way capitalism unfolded. Those are the politics that were important to me. We were surrounded by a lot of thinkers who believed that nationalism and Marxism were not antithetical — they could come together.
Why did Ethiopia in particular for so long play such a critical role in the black American and also black international political imagination?
Ethiopianism initially had very little to do with Ethiopia itself. The region we know today as Ethiopia was a mythological place in the minds of European Christians. They believed that there was a religious leader named Prester John, who was white or at least nonblack. The Prester John myth created an exception, even in the minds of European Christians, because Ethiopia, which wasn’t a nation yet, had adopted Christianity before any other part of Africa. In fact, Coptic Christianity in Ethiopia predates the spread of Christianity to much of Europe.
That alone was proof in the minds of European and Christian supremacists that Ethiopia was more civilized. That story was shaping the narrative around Ethiopianism. On the one hand, you had Europeans claiming Ethiopia as a civilized place. On the other, you had Africans in North America and throughout the western hemisphere reading the Bible, saying Ethiopia was a land of redemption and that they were not trying to build alliances with Europe. They were trying to overthrow an oppressive system in which the pharaoh was on the other side of the Mediterranean. That was where Ethiopianism as a religious movement met Ethiopian history.
The Battle of Adwa in 1896 was a very important symbol in black American consciousness. This was before the Japanese defeated Russia in 1904–5. You had an African country defeating Italy. What did this mean for black Americans? There were musical theater shows, novels, and other writings and performances that celebrated the victory against the Italians. It hyped up the importance of Ethiopia as one of two regions that were, at least in theory, not colonized by Europeans — the other being Liberia; but of course, Liberia was a colony of the United States.
It created a myth that Ethiopia somehow resisted colonialism. In fact, all around it there was a negotiation with colonists — not just the Italians, but also the British — and it was a nation-state that continued to practice slavery until the 1930s. That was something people didn’t want to talk about, although a figure like George Padmore was criticizing Ethiopia in the 1930s, saying whatever we think about it, they still have slavery; we have to defend Ethiopia’s right to self-determination, but we have to fight Haile Selassie in terms of class forces. That was a realistic approach to understanding the actual Ethiopia versus the symbolic Ethiopia.
Finally, Ethiopia was invaded again in 1935. World War II began with the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy and the colonial slaughter that followed. The black world mobilized to defend both the physical land and culture of Ethiopia, as well as the sacred and symbolic land of Ethiopia.
The idea of going back to Africa was one part of a larger “emigrationist” politics that has been pervasive in a lot of different ways that you describe throughout the long arc of black American history. What does that form of politics tell us about how black people have imagined freedom?
There are two things that are really important in this. One is land, because part of emigration is about being able to access land, wherever that land might be. It’s not like you’re moving from one ownership of land to another. You’re actually trying to establish some land for yourself.
The second thing, of course, is freedom from a government that at one point you might have believed was designed to protect you and your people, but that actually turns out not to be the case. Self-determination in terms of land and governmental authority is part of what made emigration, or at least the dream of emigration, attractive.
What I was trying to get at in discussing this wasn’t the question of whether it was effective or a good strategy. It was about trying to tap desire and what people thought freedom might look and feel like. It was never about being able to integrate into mainstream white liberal society so you could live in suburbs with white people.
When you think about what it means to have land, it opens up a different set of conversations about what happens once you are able to establish a free space with autonomy and something like self-determination. What does it look like in terms of organizing society?
We have a lot of scholarship now thinking about maroon societies as a precursor or an example of that kind of freedom. But what we find, of course, is that sometimes the most revolutionary intentions could turn into new forms of hierarchy. Maroon societies were often ones that had their own hierarchy, with rulers that made deals with colonial states or slave plantation societies to give back runaways.
Once you get the land, once you get self-determination, what does that mean in terms of social relations within that community? That to me is really the crucial question.
No discussion of black emigration as politics would be complete without Marcus Garvey, the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). How did Garvey’s movement emerge and then catch such incredible fire among black people? And what were the ideological and theological precepts of the movement that Garvey called black Zionism?
Garvey himself was an amazing journalist and organizer. He traveled around Latin America and elsewhere, before ending up in Europe, where he found himself in conversation with Irish nationalists. The Irish, of course, took great pride in their culture, language, and right to land. It was a case of anti-colonialism par excellence as far as Garvey and others were concerned.
Garvey was also inspired by Zionism. Jamaica had a number of Jewish entrepreneurs who were themselves Jamaican and helped fund the UNIA. Garvey even toyed with the idea of Judaism becoming the official religion of the black nationalist movement. He quickly moved away from that and developed his own African Orthodox Church. But one of his main lieutenants was Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford, who converted to Judaism and eventually ended up taking a congregation to Ethiopia, settling there, and creating a new movement of Ethiopian Jews from the US who are all black.
Remember, Zionism wasn’t exactly a religious movement in the way we might think of it. It was a political, nationalist movement, based on the idea of the right to land, and the idea that the Jews, as a dispersed people, had not only a right, but an obligation to find a homeland. In those days, Zionism wasn’t necessarily always linked to historical Palestine. Uganda was one of the possible locations being talked about.
That’s not to say that Palestine wasn’t relevant — it was very relevant — but the most important thing about Zionism was the idea that land was necessary for an oppressed people to thrive. For Garvey, black Zionism was the black version of the political movement that we know of as Zionism.
Why did it expand so rapidly? There are many different reasons. One has to do with the power of print culture. As Benedict Anderson says, print culture is a crucial part of developing nationalism. Whether that nationalism is tied to a state or not doesn’t matter. If you have a paper like the Negro World, publishing in different languages, with a circulation around the globe, then you can develop followers.
The second point was that it tapped into the sense of needing a homeland, of feeling alienated from citizenship and from basic rights, of being treated like a second-class citizen and having to face lynching and violence at every turn. Black intellectuals called that period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the nadir of African American history. The Supreme Court was ruling against the rights of black people, while state governments were supporting white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan was resurrected.
In that context, there was something attractive about the idea of a homeland as well as the idea of power, with the spectacle of Garveyism in the streets of New York. Marcus Garvey was dressed like a general and you had black men dressed in military uniforms as if they were going to redeem Africa through violence. This was the era of imperialism, and they were saying “we’re going to have our own imperialism — we’re going to take back Africa.” That was very attractive to people.
Another reason for its appeal was that the UNIA was so decentralized that people could write their own rules. The biggest, most active chapters in North America were not in cities, but in the countryside. In those rural chapters, people were fighting to receive a decent wage for chopping and picking cotton, or their fair share of cotton production, and opposition to lynching was the order of the day.
A lot of people who were Garveyites had no intention of leaving the US. They intended to fight, and they were fighting on many different fronts with the belief that they were part of an international movement that would support them. It’s no accident that many of the Garveyites in places like Harlem and Chicago ended up joining the Communist Party after Garveyism collapsed.
In the book, you write: “If the Third International or the Comintern proved more sympathetic and sensitive to the racial nature of American class struggle, it is largely because black folk made it so.” A good place to start is with a group called the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), which was founded in 1918. What perspective did they and other black communists bring to the movement?
The ABB was initially a secret organization made up of socialists. Its leaders included people like Cyril Briggs and W. A. Domingo. Many of them were of Caribbean descent, like Garvey, though not all. Unlike Garvey, they had no intention of going anywhere: they were focused on the fight against lynching and disenfranchisement in the US.
They had chapters in places like Oklahoma and Virginia. They were a black communist organization before there was a Communist Party, because they went back at least a couple of years before the Communist Party was formed in the US. World War I was a crucial moment for their formation.
Some of them joined the Communist Party before the ABB folded. They joined in secret. People like Harry Haywood, for example, were in the ABB and then the Communist Party. They saw their positions as being identical. That led to a split in the Brotherhood because there were those who felt that they should remain independent, even if they were sympathetic to the Communist Party.
It wasn’t until 1922 or 1923 that the Communist Party was consolidated into a single party, after a series of splits, when the Comintern forced some of the different tendencies to come together. It didn’t make a lot of sense for the ABB, which was itself a coherent radical organization, to fold into a movement that was divided. Another point to bear in mind is that there were other black socialists who were not in the ABB, such as Hubert Harrison and Ben Fletcher. They represented another independent black radical or communist presence.
The ideological orientation of the Bolsheviks around national self-determination and colonialism had an obvious appeal to black American communists like Harry Haywood and Claude McKay, who then in turn pushed communists to embrace the so-called Black Belt thesis, which posited that black Americans in the South constituted a colonized nation with the right to self-determination. What did the Black Belt thesis concretely mean for black communists and for American communism more generally?
The party actually did not work very hard to promote the Black Belt thesis in the streets or in the countryside. When you read the party newspapers — the Daily Worker or the Southern Worker — it wasn’t a major part of their organizing or propaganda work. If you read the more theoretical communist publications, there was some debate around it, but it wasn’t necessarily an organizing slogan.
However, it did help secure the right of black communists to have some control over communist print culture and some independent autonomous organizations that could fight for black liberation, such as the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, the American Negro Labor Congress, and publications like the Liberator. Self-determination meant that there was an independent black struggle that was related to class oppression — in fact, fundamental to class oppression — while being specific to the conditions and experiences of black people.
The communists included in the category of “class-war prisoners” black youth like the Scottsboro Nine, who hadn’t been arrested because they were leading a union or fighting with the police around strike activity, but rather because they were falsely accused of raping two white women while traveling on a train. To redefine them as class-war prisoners meant rethinking the nature of the class struggle.
That’s what made the Communist Party unique, no matter what people might say. The CPUSA [the Communist Party of the United States of America] was the first organization on the American left that wasn’t all-black that said black people’s struggles mattered in and of themselves and did not occupy a subordinate or secondary place in terms of class struggle. That was a huge breakthrough, and it was black radicals themselves who promoted it, going back to Clyde McKay when he addressed the Comintern, or Harry Haywood.
At the same time, the South African communists were pushing for what was called the Native Republic thesis — the right of self-determination for African people in South Africa. This was very significant because there had been a miners’ strike known as the Rand Revolt, in which white miners raised the slogan “Workers of the World, Unite and Fight for a White South Africa.” But that strike was overshadowed by a much larger African miners’ strike.
All of those developments led to a real process of rethinking. It produced the idea that class struggle must include the independent struggles of black people, because of the unique position they occupy within a racialized class hierarchy.
After the heyday of the CPUSA, Maoist China became a strong reference point for black radicals. Closer to home, Cuba also loomed large. One important figure here was the president of the NAACP [the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] chapter in Monroe, North Carolina, Robert Williams, who called for armed self-defense and then sought political asylum in Cuba in 1961. Who was Williams, and what sort of politics did he practice and advocate?
Robert Williams was a former veteran who had served in the Marines. He was familiar with left organizations and would read publications like the Daily Worker. He and his wife, Mabel Williams, settled in Greenville, North Carolina.
As an advocate of armed self-defense, he was not exceptional. Armed self-defense was, generally speaking, the default position of black organizers, not just in the nineteenth century, but the twentieth century as well. Don’t forget that Martin Luther King kept a pistol in his house until Bayard Rustin, I think, convinced him not to.
In fact, it was the idea of nonviolent passive resistance that was a rupture in the history of black radical movements or civil rights movements. What Williams was doing wasn’t unique and in fact was replicated throughout the South, especially in places like Mississippi. I don’t want to exceptionalize Rob Williams, except to say that what made him and Mabel Williams exceptional was their internationalism.
He was organizing armed self-defense groups against the Klan composed of men and women, and he was expelled from the NAACP as a result of doing that work. Rob and Mabel Williams saved the lives of a white couple who supported the Klan and had come to the black district of Monroe to cause trouble, but they were charged with kidnapping the pair and fled the country, ending up in Cuba.
Rob already had a relationship with Cuba because he was a supporter of the Cuban Revolution. He became close to Che Guevara but later left Cuba and went first to Vietnam, then to China, where he and Mabel encountered another amazing black radical, Vicki Garvin. There had already been many black visitors to China in support of its revolution, including W. E. B. Du Bois.
Let’s talk about the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), a black nationalist organization which declared its support for Marxism-Leninism under the leadership of Max Stanford. What kind of arguments was Stanford making?
His arguments were specific to the social formation of RAM itself and the fact that it initially emerged as a student-based organization. This group was reading The Wretched of the Earth in French before it was translated into English and had a critique of Fanon, partly to do with the fact that they felt Fanon wasn’t really aware of the situation in North America.
Stanford embraced what Amilcar Cabral later called the idea of “class suicide.” He said there was no guarantee that students would adopt the path of revolution, or that the intelligentsia was even capable of leading a true revolution. Stanford himself came out of the black intelligentsia. He was making what was actually quite a popular argument at the time, saying that only the working class is the revolutionary class, but for black people, the working class isn’t always in the factories or in the mines — sometimes its members are unemployed.
Why was this significant? This was the period of the Great Society, when there was a mythology that all boats had risen, everyone was employed, and life was good. But the very structural conditions that led to the expansion of white suburbia, enabling a segment of working-class whites to make the leap into middle-class homeownership, also led to the organized abandonment of cities that left a lot of black people (and black youth in particular) unemployed.
The focus of the Black Panther Party was on organizing the so-called lumpenproletariat — those people who are often outside of the formal market, who don’t have jobs, who hustle for a living. There was a romanticization of that class or at least certainly an interest in it. Social scientists called it the “underclass.”
Again, it’s open to debate whether or not it was actually a revolutionary class. But this was the discourse at the time. It was one of the reasons why a lot of American radicals, and not just black ones, decided by the early 1970s that there was no future for them in the university as a knowledge worker. They ended up going into the factories, doing industrial work, organizing unions, and saying that’s where the working class is, that’s where the revolution will happen.
One really important influence on this generation was Harold Cruse. Who was Cruse, and where does he fit into black radical intellectual history?
Harold Cruse was a member of the CPUSA in the 1950s, before he left the party. He was the theater critic for the Daily Worker. This was significant, because he took the position that the Left had failed at the level of culture, especially black liberals and black leftists. He eventually went on to write an essay called “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual,” which was published in 1967. RAM really dug what he was saying.
There were two strands to his argument. The first strand echoed Fanon’s point that Marxism has to be stretched to be relevant to the conditions of black people. Cruse said that we could not just accept an inherited Marxism rooted in European class relations. The second strand argued that the revolutionary initiative now lay with the Third World (or the Global South, as we would call it today). That was the force that would bring about world revolution, while the US was trying to suppress this revolution against materialism and racism.
You can see why Cruse’s argument would be so appealing, especially to RAM, which made the argument that we were not just talking about international colonialism, but also domestic colonialism — that is to say, black people had more in common with colonized peoples around the world as they were a colonized people within the United States. RAM was arguing that revolution in the US would be led by black people, often the lumpenproletariat.
You write that urban rebellions in organizations like RAM laid the foundation for the Black Panther Party’s emergence in Oakland, and that the Panthers diverged not only from cultural nationalists but also from other revolutionary nationalists on the left. What made the revolutionary vision of the Panthers so distinct?
Bobby Seale and others were members of RAM. In some ways, the Black Panther Party adopted almost all the elements of RAM’s thinking as a ten-point program. What made them distinctive was their embrace of Cruse’s idea of internal colonialism, recognizing black people as a colonized people. They were anti-capitalist and socialist. Not only did they support self-determination, but they also turned to the United Nations as a greater authority than the US state and talked about having a plebiscite for the right of black people to secede.
The Black Panther Party was also formed against the ongoing state violence that black people were experiencing. One way that they argued for to reduce police violence was to replace the police with elected groups for public safety that would help and protect people in the neighborhoods, as opposed to just reforming the police. From the very beginning, the Panthers believed in building alliances across racial lines. The rainbow coalition that emerged in Chicago under the leadership of Fred Hampton was an example of Panther politics moving in that direction.
Medgar Evers only joined the NAACP after abandoning plans to wage a guerrilla insurgency inspired by national liberation movements in the Mississippi River Delta, and he named his first child after the Kenyan anti-colonial leader Jomo Kenyatta.
With examples like that to think about, where do we get the idea that is often put forward that there was a “good” civil rights movement that later tipped over into the more extremist and counterproductive Black Power phase? Where does that distorted picture come from and what function does it serve?
Where it comes from, I couldn’t tell you exactly, but I do know the work it does. It creates a sharp break between what’s considered to be the good, liberal movement and the bad, nationalist movement. The break usually begins with the Watts Rebellion in 1965. That’s ironic, because it’s not as if the Watts Rebellion was a nationalist insurgency.
In many ways, it’s a narrative produced by liberals who felt that the movement had become too militant, that they weren’t grateful enough to white liberals for the work they did and their support. There was a decision on the part of the new SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] leadership, when Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown came to power, to tell the white folks: “Okay, we’re still going to build with you, but you need to work in your own communities.” That is also considered to have been a significant break and a source of pain for white liberals.
Part of the myth is that there was one thing called the civil rights movement, rather than multiple movements at multiple levels and scales all at the same time. Black nationalism had been a consistent presence within the United States since the early nineteenth century. There was never a moment when it didn’t exist. This divide obscures much more than it reveals. It makes a bit more sense if we think about all these movements together as the black freedom movement, because they didn’t all agree on what “black freedom” means.
Watts wasn’t the first major rebellion, although it might have been the biggest. Look at a place such as Cambridge, Maryland, for example, where Gloria Richardson led what was essentially a rebellion in 1960. That was an amazing movement where you had the federal government step in and try to maintain peace in a city that was essentially overturning basic civil rights laws.
Richardson and the members of the Cambridge [Nonviolent Action Committee] were fighting for basic rights — they were not fighting for integration. They were fighting for better schools and for the right to move and live wherever they wanted to live. They were fighting for the repeal of discriminatory laws. Many members of the movement carried guns to protect them, including Richardson.
You argue that black radical movements of the 1960s and ’70s were obviously impacted severely by state repression, but you also say that they fell into a fetishization of revolutionary violence that was sometimes dangerous. That’s not just a retrospective assessment: many militants at the time made similar arguments, like Ken Cockrell of the Detroit League of Revolutionary Black Workers, for example.
There is definitely a distinction between armed self-defense and revolutionary violence. That’s not to say that revolutionary violence was limited to the North. In fact, Mississippi, the very place where armed self-defense was probably the most pervasive, also had bombings of courthouses and things like that — retaliatory violence. But I think the distinction is important for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, Ken Cockrell and others were not rejecting the right of armed self-defense. That’s a different matter. When people are coming for you, including the police, for reasons that are basically illegal or extralegal, then you have the right to defend yourself. But they were criticizing the adventurism of some organizations that were engaged in what they perceived to be guerrilla warfare or kidnappings or robberies. That didn’t help if movements had to spend all their time bailing people out.
Doing these defense campaigns was tricky because most of the people they were trying to bail out or defend in court were not the people who had actually committed the crimes. When you think about some of the most high-profile defense cases, there were people who didn’t really do what they were said to have done. Nevertheless, I understand the concern, because it was getting to be very costly to have these defense campaigns.
Secondly, the whole history of black people in North America involves assessing the strategic and tactical choices that are going to be most effective. That’s why you didn’t have a lot of massive slave insurrections during the nineteenth century in the US. You saw revolts like that in the seventeenth and part of the eighteenth century, because it was more feasible in terms of security, surveillance, and policing.
When those barriers are weak, you can engage in revolt, but when they’re strong, you have to come up with something different. It’s not about fear, it’s not about cowardice. It’s not about trying to support liberalism. It’s about what’s tactically smart and effective. That was a sharp line of division in some of the movements that ended up attempting robberies or other tactics based on direct revolutionary violence. They were the ones that got derailed.
How did anti-imperialist solidarity serve both to stitch together these various black visions for freedom, but also ultimately to tear them apart?
Class was always a factor in black freedom movements, but especially during the period of the African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC) in the 1970s. They were supporting the armed movements against Portuguese rule in Africa as well as against white-settler rule in Zimbabwe and in South Africa. In the Portuguese colonies, the big divide was around class and Marxism.
This was a period of protracted armed struggle going back to the late 1950s. In the process, those armed struggles led to the creation of liberated zones. There were debates within those organizations about how to build a new society and what it should be based on. The PAIGC [African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde] in Guinea-Bissau, the MPLA [People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola] in Angola, and FRELIMO [Liberation Front of Mozambique] in Mozambique were organizations that had adopted Marxism by the time the ALSC began to meet with some of these revolutionaries after 1971.
At the same time, black radicals in the US were saying “we need a class analysis.” There was a major split between those who said “black liberation means all of us, and we need to do that first before we attend to class,” and those who said “we need to embrace Marxism and class analysis.” Some would say that the split along those lines led to the demise of the ALSC.
Amiri Baraka is an interesting figure here because he eventually came to embrace Marxism during this time. His poetry and the arguments he was making changed as he moved away from the cultural nationalism that had shaped his politics up to that point. Baraka broke with Kenneth Gibson, who was the first black mayor of Newark. Overall, it was a significant split in the movement that is still with us to this day.
Remember the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that King was supporting when he was assassinated. The sanitation workers were trying to get better wages and working conditions for mostly black poor workers against the mayor, Henry Loeb, who opposed them. Fast forward to 1977, and you had Maynard Jackson, the black mayor of Atlanta and a civil rights supporter, also facing a sanitation workers’ strike.
It was the same situation as in Memphis. They were living with poverty wages, and some of them had to go on welfare to survive, so they went on strike. Jackson broke the strike and refused to negotiate with the union. When the sanitation workers came back and said, “look, let’s just get our jobs back, we won’t even ask for anything in return,” he refused.
Who did he get support from? The NAACP, the Urban League, the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] — that’s King’s own organization. King’s father, Daddy King, supported Maynard Jackson. In the space of eleven years, the radical vision of a working-class insurgency that could change the nation was replaced by a black leadership class promoting neoliberal policies and embodying the very danger that Fanon, Cabral, and others had warned against — in other words, a black petty bourgeoisie in power who would be junior partners in the maintenance of racial capitalism.
What sort of relationships were there between black radical visions and more mainstream black political visions as the power and influence of various forms of black politics shifted over time?
I think it is easy to identify those relationships, such as what Booker T. Washington and Malcolm X might have had in common. However, I also think that the differences are starker than we might think. For example, the Malcolm X of 1955 is not the Malcolm X of 1963 or the Malcolm X of January 1965. Having spoken in terms of black economic power through business, he began to question it, as did King.
There’s a sharp distinction between a figure like Wilson Goode, say, on the other hand, and Mumia Abu-Jamal, on the other — two people out of Philadelphia, as it were. Now, there are moments in electoral politics where those radical possibilities do emerge and erupt. Here are a couple of examples.
In Jackson, Mississippi, there has been a movement around Chokwe Lumumba and his son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, trying to implement some form of black economic self-determination based on horizontalism and redistribution. Father and son have both served as mayor of Jackson, and they’re still trying to achieve that goal, but it’s very hard.
When you have outside organizations that are saying “we don’t accept compromise” and making demands, that helps keep political leaders honest in government; or if not honest, it certainly keeps them under pressure. It’s a constant tension.
Amiri Baraka’s son, Ras Baraka, has served for a long time as mayor of Newark, trying to implement some radical ideas, but again, he’s been constrained by the limits of government. He has had to make choices that progressive and radical people in Newark don’t agree with.
No matter what your ideology is, governing is always going to be a challenge. It’s also a challenge when you run an institution versus just running a small organization, where you can pretty much say and do anything you want.
If you’re dependent on funding and being reelected, relying on support from a constituency that may not share your politics, then you have to compromise. There’s no easy answer, because even if you are a committed revolutionary, you have to make strategic decisions based on an assessment of the forces behind you.
The black feminist movement has become extremely consequential in recent years. What, in the broad sweep of these histories you tell, does this signify?
It is very significant. This is not the first time we’ve had queer trans leadership — it’s just the first time it’s been quite open and acknowledged as a key part of the political vision that people are fighting for. The Movement for Black Lives, which of course is a coalition of a hundred or more different organizations, has made black feminism, LGBTQ politics, and disability justice a critical part of black freedom or black liberation. That’s new.
This was what Barbara Smith always meant by identity politics. To the Combahee River Collective, identity politics never meant that your individual identity was going to define your interests, needs, and wants. It was about the way that the structures of oppression intersected.
When we talk about “class first,” for example, you can’t have “class first” unless you can define who the class is. If the class is seen as including those who are female or femme, queer or trans, immigrants as well as native-born workers, indigenous and racialized people, then the analysis of oppression and what liberation looks like is going to include all of those connections and identities, not just your individual interests. That’s what the Combahee River Collective and other organizations brought to the table.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re out of the woods, because these are people who took a huge leap of faith and courage and are now facing a backlash, precisely because we have greater visibility. The test for us is whether or not we’re going to choose a form of identity politics that recognizes the way that people who are not us are oppressed and exploited.
That’s also the power of black feminism. Black feminists have always adopted the position that capitalism is not helping anyone, patriarchy is not helping anyone, and racism is not helping anyone. They’re imagining and fighting for a new world without patriarchy and gendered violence, without state violence and class oppression. That is the world they’re trying to build, not a private, exclusive world in which black women and black men alone would benefit.
You can have identity politics as a revolutionary phenomenon, and then you can have identity movements that sometimes impose a litmus test on political participation. We’re dealing with situations where people in movements may make mistakes. They may not be as educated on using gender pronouns or on how to interact with others in a way that allows them the opportunity to speak freely. Those are things that people have to learn. We have to build movements that allow people who make mistakes to learn, advance, and participate.
You build movements in struggle. This goes back to the original theme of the book. Solidarity is not a market exchange. What we’re seeing in these new movements is a principle of solidarity without the expectation that you’re going to get something in return. You show up at Standing Rock, you show up at the border, or you show up in front of a Los Angeles Police Department station. You show up wherever you need to show up for others because you know your liberation is tied not just to your needs, but to the needs of others with whom you may not have any necessary identification.
As the old-fashioned slogan goes, an injury to one is an injury to all. You don’t need to be empathetic — you need to be in solidarity. You don’t need to understand what people feel, but you do need to stand there for them, because you know that oppression is oppression no matter what.
How does utopian imagining relate to the work of evaluating our successes and failures and developing plans for our movements to win?
It all works together. Let me just say a couple of things. I’m not against the language of winning. But so many organizations now depend on the nonprofit-industrial complex. Sometimes the work involves the ability to establish a base, a culture, a sense of community in which people stick together for the long term. Yet if you cannot prove within a short period of time that you are winning a campaign, then you lose your funding. It’s that simple. If funders put their money behind winnable campaigns, then some of the more long-term work doesn’t get funded.
If you’re building a movement around housing, there are several things you could do. One thing, of course, is to make sure that people are not evicted immediately. That’s a win. But if all you’re doing is running around to make sure people don’t get evicted, then you don’t really have the time or the luxury to think about social housing and how to win that.
Du Bois said at one point that socialist states have a right to fail. To fail is not the end, because failure is part of the process of creating the new world. Often, we only want to write about the movements that we think won, because who cares about the ones that didn’t? Part of my argument in the book is that there were all kinds of different movements that laid some foundations and built visions of a new society that we need to pay attention to. We just don’t know about them because they didn’t win.
That’s not the same thing as saying we should not build campaigns that have a tangible outcome, because if you don’t have campaigns like that, you won’t hold people. That’s obvious. But there are multiple ways to solve people’s problems and build movements. Along each one of those paths, you are bound to fail at some point, so don’t turn failure into an end. You should turn failure into part of the dialectic of producing new forms of social knowledge, which is the whole point of being in a social movement in the first place.