Sampling New Black Radical Scholarship

Against the Current, No. 108, January/February 2004

Alan Wald

SCHOLARSHIP ABOUT THE African American Left, a hearty subject area for many decades, has taken a quantum leap forward with Barbara Ransby’s Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University
of North Carolina Press, 2003).

This monumental biography of the most consequential female activist in the U.S. Civil Rights movement has been lovingly crafted by a passionately committed leader of the Black Radical Congress and longtime anti-racist militant. Ransby knows her subject intimately, and writes with meticulous care and accuracy because she appreciates just how indispensable Baker’s story is to all those consecrated to the overthrow of racial privilege and the system it serves.

In twelve lucid and chronologically-organized chapters, Ransby records Baker’s eighty-three years from her birth, the granddaughter of slaves, in Norfolk, Virginia, through her final days in New York City, where Baker was a notable influence on Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers, and the emerging women’s liberation movement.

The heart of the narrative, of course, is the period starting in 1957 when Baker organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. At first Baker collaborated with Martin Luther King, Jr., but eventually they separated over his centralized leadership methods. In 1960 Baker helped bring into existence the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Ransby reveals that Baker’s exceptional skills and long-term vision in the 1950s and 1960s did not spring forth by chance. Her years of Civil Rights activism owe a debt to the Great Depression era when she became a leader of the Young Negroes Cooperative League (a coalition of cooperatives and buying clubs led by George Schuyler), worked for the WPA (Works Progress Administration of the New Deal) as a literacy educator, and served six years (1940-1946) on the staff of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

What was concordant in all facets of Baker’s career was her pledge to grassroots, democratic politics, and direct action. Neither pro- nor anti-Communist, Baker exemplifies a strain of left-wing social activism that requires extensive consideration and attention. As Ransby explains:

“Ella Baker’s political work from the late 1930s onward was consistent with a worldview that she constructed from the wide range of ideologies and traditions she had engaged with over the years. She combined the black Baptist missionary values of charity, humility, and service with the economic theories of Marxists and socialists of various stripes who advocated a redistribution of society’s wealth and a transfer of power from capitalist elites to the poor and working classes. Added to the mix was Baker’s popular democratic pedagogy, which emphasized the importance of tapping oppressed communities for knowledge, strength, and leadership in constructing models for social change.” (74)

Ransby’s assessment of Baker is further enhanced by the engaging portraits she provides of her numerous friends and associates — from Black conservative George Schuyler on the Right, to African American Communist Marvel Cooke on the Left.

Spectres of 1919

A very different genus of scholarly intervention is found in Barbara Foley’s historical and cultural exegesis, Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro (Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2003).

Foley, a prominent figure in the Radical Caucus of the Modern Languages Association, is best known for her 1993 study of Left literature, Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941. One of the most compelling sections of that book was apportioned to “Race, Class, and the `Negro Question,'” and “Spectres of 1919” is wholly devoted to a reconsideration of that same issue in the previous decades.

More precisely, focusing on the “Red Summer” of 1919, Foley deftly “combines archival investigation with political theory, literary criticism with intellectual history” to explain the transit of the radical New Negro Movement into what she calls the “culturalism” of the Harlem Renaissance. (ix)

In her characteristically incisive style, Foley presents five tightly-knit chapters that treat the appearance of a class and economic analysis in the post-World War I years; the insufficiently critical attitude of the Left toward nationalism; the contradictions of “New Negro Radicalism” that produced a “cultural nationalism”; the failure of the Left to mount an effective challenge to capitalism; and a final “consideration of the metamorphosis of the New Negro radicalism of 1919 into the quietism of [Alain] Locke’s culturalist manifesto of 1925 [The New Negro].” (x)

A debatable feature of Foley’s analysis is her characterization of “reactionary” and “putatively progressive” nationalisms, which she terms “bad” and “good.” The former is racist and imperialist, and the later is in support of self-determination yet nevertheless complicit in “the tragic consequences wrought in the twentieth century by nationalism, both the reactionary and putatively progressive kinds.” (166)

Freedom Dreams

Foley’s wholesale rejection of all versions of nationalism, those of the oppressed as well as the oppressors, stands in contrast to the view of Robin Kelley, in his new book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radicalism Imagination (Boston: Beacon, 2002). Kelley unabashedly endorses the 1945 statement of Trinidad-born Marxist C.L.R. James: “The Negro is nationalist to his heart and is perfectly right to be so.” (49)

In my own view, James’s insight is critical to the anti-racist political strategy within the socialist tradition in the United States. It is also a principal theme of the writings of Left-wing African American novelists, poets, and playwrights in the mid-20th century — Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ann Petry, Margaret Walker, William Gardner Smith, John Oliver Killens, Lorraine Hansberry — who yearned to reconcile pledges to national liberation and international class solidarity.

Kelley’s book, very much a work of cultural studies, is of a different order from, yet by no means incompatible with, treatises on social policy that aim to promote a radical anti-racist agenda, such as Adolph Reed’s brilliant Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era (1999).

Kelley assembled Freedom Dreams “as a preliminary effort to recover ideas — visions fashioned mainly by those marginalized black activists who proposed a different way out of our constrictions.” (xii) In that regard he unveils many new vistas for the enhancement of the Left tradition.

Two chapters, “‘The Negro Question’: Red Dreams of Black Liberation” and “‘Roaring From the East’: Third World Dreaming” (the latter of which was partially co-written with ATC editor Betsy Esch), provide a magisterial survey of the interrelationship between U.S. Marxism and the movement for Black Liberation.

Kelley begins with the formation of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1848 and concludes with a study of Maoist trends in the 1970s. Freedom Dreams closes with an analysis of the reparations movement (an excerpt from which was published in Against the Current 102, January-February 2003), an appreciation of Black feminism, and
an astonishing exploration of the ways in which Black radicalism “shaped the development of surrealism as a self-conscious political movement, as well as the impact surrealism has had on modern political and cultural movements throughout the African diaspora.” (159)

Black Vernacular Intellectuals

Another memorable intervention into radical Black cultural studies, Grant Farred’s What’s My Name: Black Vernacular Intellectuals (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), likewise treats U.S. concerns in the larger context of the African Diaspora.

The term “vernacular” refers to non-literary language, often regional or a dialect associated with a group or class. In cultural studies “vernacular” connotes the popular and non-dominant, usually linked to expressions of political resistance in cultural

Farred’s unique contribution is to rework Antonio Gramsci’s notion of intellectuals, traditional as well as organic, by positing “popular culture as a primary site of politics.” (3)

Farred’s four central chapters explore Muhammad Ali, C.L.R. James, Stuart Hall, and Bob Marley. His focus is on creating new definitions of “intellectuals” beyond Gramscian notions (such as spokespersons for parties and trade unions) to include musicians and sports figures who produce popular culture, as well as theoreticians who likewise grasp social inequity from outside established academic or political domains.

Transnational Black Studies

“Transnational Black Studies” is now perhaps the predominant theme in Left scholarship, and an excellent compendium of the latest research can be found in the Fall 2003 issue of the journal Radical History Review, guest-edited by Lisa Brock, Robin Kelley, and Karen Sotiropoulos.

The journal presents a major survey of “The Rise of the Reparations Movement” by Martha Bondi, as well as innovative research into Afro-Cuban and African-American relations; Zora Neale Hurston’s approach to community in the U.S. South and the Caribbean; the U.S. occupation of Trinidad; and the relationship of new information technology to Black studies.

In addition to informative interviews with Amiri Baraka and Bill Fletcher, there are a variety of research proposals and guides to teaching topics such as “Radical Africana Political Thought and Intellectual History.” This issue concludes with a scintillating book review essay by Kevin Gaines discussing the latest works by Tom Holt, David Levering Lewis, and Gary Gerstle.

ATC 108, January-February 2004