Kehinde Andrews explores the true roots of this tradition and connects the dots to today's struggles by showing what a renewed politics of Black radicalism might look like in the 21st century.
About the Author
Author and educator Kehinde Andrews is one of the leading Black political voices in Britain. He is associate professor in sociology at Birmingham City University, a regular writer of opinion pieces for the Guardian, Independent and Ebony magazine, and editor of the series 'Blackness in Britain'. He was part of the team that launched the first Black Studies degree in Europe, and is Co-chair of the Black Studies Association and of the Harambee Organisation of Black Unity. He regularly appears on television and radio.
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A veteran campaigner against police abuse in Black communities, Stafford Scott was in many ways the ideal person to keynote the first major Black Lives Matter (BLM) conference held in Britain, in October 2015. He battled through the notorious Broadwater Farm rebellion in Tottenham in 1985, which were sparked by the police killing Joy Gardner; and, as he explained in his keynote speech, he has been 'supporting the people who are receiving the hard face of racism' for decades. After a day of listening to speeches in solidarity with the movement that started in America it was jarring to hear some of his scepticism about how BLM had been mobilised in Britain. In comments before the conference he explained that:
When I have to talk to the parents of Jermaine Baker (shot dead by police in December 2015), and Pam Duggan, the mother of Mark Duggan and explain to them why they can't get justice and why our young people are more interested in what is happening in America, than England, it irks me.
These words highlight the dwindling community support that movements for justice for Black people killed by the police in Britain have been receiving. The police in Britain do not routinely carry guns, so in comparison to America there are very few police killings. But the problem with the police is exactly the same and I have never met anyone who doubts that if all police were armed then the streets and social media feeds in Britain would be equally stained with Black blood. But aside from the killing of Mark Duggan, which sparked protests in 2011, there has not been the same reaction as to police brutality in America in recent years.
The Black Lives Matter protest in Birmingham, which I referred to in the introduction, drew thousands people onto the streets in solidarity with America. It was planned on the same day as a march to put pressure on the authorities over the death of a local man, Kingsley Burrell, in custody. But the Kingsley Burrell march drew a fraction of the numbers of the BLM protest, and though the two eventually connected, it was not until a large proportion of the BLM protesters had gone home. It is easy to understand the frustrations of campaigners who have been fighting for justice for families, sometimes for decades, and do not feel the support of the community. Scott is also right when he argues that 'when you cannot get justice for people that look like you in your own country, you ain't got no chance for people that might look like you somewhere else'. In fairness to him, he has also been positive about the numbers on the street and has supported BLM demonstrations. However, the comments raise an important limitation on much of Black political thought in that it gets trapped within the boundaries of the nation state.
Political movements that focus their attention solely on local or national problems, accepting the enforced separation of American, British or other issues, fall outside a radical analysis. The vicious system of racial oppression causes impacts at the ground level that must be addressed. Poverty, unemployment, police brutality, mass incarceration, and the list goes on. But we cannot be so focused on the symptoms of racism that we ignore the systemic problem. The issues that we see on the streets on a daily basis are caused by the same system of racism wherever we are located in the Diaspora. There is no 'British' problem that is not an American, Caribbean or African one. BLM protesters in Britain are not being seduced by the romanticism of America, they are responding to the same racism that impacts their lives here. Perhaps the majority of Black politics have not been driven by this global concern and any discussion of Black radicalism has to begin with a separation of the concept from various Black Nationalist traditions.
Black Nationalism has become wrongly conflated with Black radicalism, and Black Nationalism itself is mostly misunderstood. The collective memory has created a set of 'Black nationalist tropes of violence and ultra-sexuality' to represent the tradition, rather than focusing on the revolutionary and liberatory forms of nationalism. In these tropes Black nationalists are portrayed as 'divisive, fanatical, dangerous, unprincipled, racist, delusional and even mad'; or 'demonized as the civil rights movement's "evil twin" and stereotyped as a politics of rage practiced by gun toting' and 'men'. The tropes are then used to discredit not only Black Nationalism but also the distinct yet conflated forms of Black radicalism.
Complicating the effort to decouple the two concepts is that Black radicals have often embraced the rhetoric of nationalism. Malcolm X declared he was a 'Black nationalist freedom fighter' and the call for Black nationhood is essential to the radical tradition. However, revolutionary forms of nationalism must be distinguished from a variety of narrow calls for nationhood that do not seek to radically transform the system.
The nation within a nation
It is wrong to speak of Black Nationalism as singular political philosophy. The label Black Nationalism has been applied to so many different contexts that Hill Collins argues we should now see it as a 'system of meaning' rather than a cohesive set of ideas. Key to this system of meaning is the belief that the Black community needs to unite and work together in order to move forward. The looseness of this idea has brought something of a banality to the term, where anything remotely pro-Black can be included as nationalist. Justice Clarence Thomas, the right-wing ideologue, has been described as Black Nationalist because he 'suggested that black middle and high schools "can function as the center and symbol of black communities, and provide examples of independent black leadership, success, and achievement"'. In one of the more surreal discussions of Black politics, Michael Jackson's They Don't Care About Us is said to be 'Black nationalist in temperament' because he talks of an 'us'. As testament to the negative view of Black Nationalism, the apparently anti-Semitic use of the word 'kike' in the song is part of this 'temperament'. When Black Nationalism is used to describe figures as diverse and incompatible as Malcolm X, Clarence Thomas and Michael Jackson, there is certainly a need for a much better understanding of the concept.
Part of the reason for the wide application of Black Nationalism is that one of its common forms is what Shelby terms 'weak Black Nationalism: the political program of black solidarity and group self'. The connection here is so weak that 'it could mean working to create a racially integrated society or even a "post racial" polity, a political order where "race" has no social or political meaning'. This form of nationalism has also been described as 'community nationalism' which 'seeks black self-determination within existing social and political arrangements'. These forms of nationalism are distinguished from the 'strong' or 'separatist' nationalisms, which aim to provide a separate nation outside of the current nation state arrangement. Black Nationalism without a call for an actual nation has a long tradition, particularly in the United States.
W.E.B. Du Bois, who early in his career was a staunch integrationist, argued that,
With the use of their political powers, power as consumers, and their brain power, added to that a chance of personal appeal which proximity and neighbourhood always give to human beings, Negroes can develop in the United States an economic nation within a nation, able to work through inner cooperation, to found its own institutions ... it must happen in our case or there is no hope for the Negro in America.
The nation within a nation thesis laid the theoretical foundation for weak Black Nationalism. The pooling of resources in order to improve the conditions for Black communities within the American system is the basis for campaigns we see in Britain to support Black business, and 'keep the Black pound circulating in the community'. This kind of Black Nationalism is not radical, it is simply rational. As a minority group, Black communities cannot rely on the wider society to support us. Any successful minority group, even White ones, have had to rely on community nationalism in order to have success in society. Little Italy in New York stands as testimony to this. When Italian Americans first settled in America, they faced discrimination and built a large community in New York full of Italian business using community support to create an economic base as a platform for success in society. Since the community has raised economic, social and cultural capital, Italians have integrated into mainstream American society and Little Italy is today a couple of streets with a lot of history. Carmichael and Hamilton captured this idea in their book Black Power:
Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks. By this we mean that group solidarity is necessary before a group can operate effectively from a bargaining position of strength in a pluralist society ... By building Irish Power, Italian Power, Polish Power or Jewish Power these groups got themselves together and operated from positions of strength.
Trying to decouple more liberal forms of nationalism from the radical ones is complicated because Black radicalism has argued for and mobilised community nationalism. Malcolm X explained that 'the economic philosophy of Black Nationalism only means that we should own and operate and control the economy of our community'. Quotes like this support the ideas of Black capitalism and pooling resources in order to have a slice of the American Dream for Black communities. However, as will be explored in Chapter 3, Malcolm is invoking community nationalism as part of a radical strategy of liberation. He famously denounced capitalists as 'bloodsuckers', and wanted no part of integration into the 'American nightmare'. For those who embrace community nationalism, building a power base within the existing nation state is the end in itself. Black economic development is key to solving the problems in African American communities. Kunjufu argues that there is a need to increase the number of Black businesses; to convince the 'talented tenth' to invest in those enterprises; and to encourage children to go into business. He even goes so far as to argue that 'we need African American institutions to emphasize economic over political development'. Even in his calls for reparatory justice he would use the capital to invest in 'college scholarships, business loans and land'; in other words, to achieve success for Black people within the American system.
Weak nationalism within the nation state is clearly not radical because it does not aim to overthrow the existing social system and is therefore perfectly compatible with liberal ideals. The malleability of Black Nationalism is similar to the way that the slogan 'Black Power' can be used to various political ends:
For some the phrase became shorthand to articulate a critique of the middle class focus of civil rights. For others, 'Black Power' was a catchphrase pushing black America to get its fair share of American capitalism. And still others saw in the phrase a call for African Americans to celebrate themselves as beautiful and their culture as significant.
In his book Dark Days, Bright Nights, Joseph attempts to link Black Power politics to the emergence of Barack Obama. There is a passage where he connects the battle for Black Studies, trade union organising, Black feminism, the Black Arts movement and prison reform into a backdrop that led to 'hundreds of thousands of ordinary local people' backing a 'new generation of Black politicians and successfully electing them as mayors of a range of urban cities in the 1960s and 1970s'. Although he is right that this history paved the way for Obama's election, it was also composed of a disparate range of movements and ideologies which are only weakly connected on the basis of Blackness. One of Joseph's arguments is that these movements transformed American democracy enough to allow Obama to be elected president. However, while they certainly made his presidency possible, neither they, nor his election, fundamentally changed the American system. Black faces on university campuses, in unions or the mayor's office do not alter the function of those spaces. Institutional racism means that no matter the amount of Black presence, if the structure is racist, so too will be the outcomes.
Obama certainly owes a debt to the array of Black social movements that came before him, but counter to the faith held by 69% of African Americans on his election, his presidency was not 'the fulfilment of Martin Luther King's dream'. The structural position of African Americans actually declined under the eight years of Obama's presidency, with a higher proportion in poverty and four million more people in Black communities dependent on food aid. Weak Black Nationalism has rallied African Americans to support a growing political class that has demonstrated a total 'inability to alter the poverty, unemployment, and housing and food insecurity their Black constituents face'. Even though there have been few tangible results from the incorporation of Black faces into the mainstream political machine, Taylor argues that Black communities hold out hope because the 'potential for Black political and economic development was a welcome alternative to decades of neglect and disinvestment'.
The pull of weak Black Nationalism, even when it is irrational, can be seen in the widespread support for Obama's presidency, even within so-called radical organisations. The New Black Panther Party (NBP), which claims to be more radical than the original Panthers, rhetorically rejects the American system and therefore the legitimacy of a president of any colour. However, it supported Obama based on the weak nationalist logic that 'every President has been a white man, now the Black man must have his time to rule'. The NBP is problematic for far more reasons than this (covered in Chapter 4) but it speaks to the banality of the idea of Black Nationalism when it is reduced to simply supporting anyone who is Black, in whatever endeavour, even if it goes against the core beliefs of your stated politics.
Arguments for creating a Black nation within a nation are not confined to America, with one of the best examples being in South Africa. One of the mechanisms used to manage the country by apartheid governments was to give a measure of self-rule to the African population. Bantustans, or homelands, for specific African ethnic groups were established in 1951, with the move to provide Black people political rights only in their designated 'homelands' completed in 1971. This was not a new idea. The British had created 'reserves' to keep the African population segregated from Whites in the nineteenth century, codified in the 1913 Native Land Act. Bantustans were a form of control used to exclude Africans from the national government of South Africa. Anxiety over the results of the 1970 census, which showed Black people significantly outnumbering Whites, led to calls to strengthen the 'homelands' and ensure that a greater proportion of the Black population was housed in them. Even given their complicity in the apartheid state there remained African leaders who supported the Bantustans as a legitimate means for Black progress.
A good example of collusion with this idea of the Bantu nation within the White nation is Chief Buthelezi, who was appointed head of the Kwa Zulu Natal homeland by the authorities. He created the Inkatha Freedom Party in 1975 as a vehicle to drive Zulu nationalism within the apartheid state. In defence of his political project he argued:
Zulu nationalism is a real factor in the context of South African politics. Nationalism is nothing to be ashamed of in a situation of cultural and linguistic heterogeneity. Therefore the emergence of Zulu self-consciousness in our attempts to develop inner directedness is inevitable in the circumstances in which fate has placed us.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Back to Black"
Copyright © 2018 Kehinde Andrews.
Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: Reclaiming Radicalism, xi,
1. Narrow Nationalism, 1,
2. Pan-Africanism, 35,
3. Black is a Country, 67,
4. Cultural Nationalism, 101,
5. Blackness, 139,
6. Black Marxism, 177,
7. Liberal Radicalism, 213,
8. Black Survival, 247,
Epilogue: It's Already Too Late, 279,