A Problematic Diagnosis

Against the Current, No. 206, May/June 2020

Michael Tee

Back to Black
Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century
By Kehinde Andrews
Zed Books, 2018; distributed by University of Chicago Press, 256 pages, $14.95 paperback.

“Black national oppression, based as it is on the slave trade and the enslaving of African Americans, has created an obvious and even ‘justifiable’ ground for Black nationalism. The fact that white supremacy has been the most easily defined instrument in that national oppression creates a situation where Black nationalism can flourish. But even so, the majority of African Americans are not nationalists.” —Amiri Baraka (1982 essay in Black Scholar)

IN A BOOK full of too many political contradictions and superficial “analyses” of deep, complex historical phenomena, author Kehinda Andrews — a native of Britain — writes in his sixth chapter, titled “Black Marxism:” “The Panthers always prioritized the issues of racism.”

As a former member of the original Black Panther Party in the United States, I know that the idea that we “prioritized” our antiracist orientation rather than our anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism does our movement a disservice. It can give people the erroneous notion that the BPP was not much more than a run-of-the-mill Civil Rights organization, just more “militant.”

Nevertheless, I found some useful observations in Back to Black. In his epilogue, for example, Andrews quotes Malcolm X accurately enough by writing, “revolution overturns everything we have come to accept.” Apparently he recognizes the need to “break beyond the limits of the colonial national state.”

Having said that, Andrews misses the political mark more often than not. To his credit he appears to acknowledge this shortcoming by saying, “It is important to critique the limitations of my own position.” Those limitations could be capsulized within a passage from “Black Marxism”:

“Black radicalism is based on seeing the fundamental contradiction in society as that of racism, whiteness and hierarchy.”

This “fundamental contradiction” is the theme pursued throughout the author’s successive chapters on “Narrow Nationalism,” “Pan-Africanism,” “Black is a Country,” “Cultural Nationalism,” “Blackness,” “Black Marxism,” “Liberal Radicalism,” “Black Survival” and the Epilogue, “It’s Already Too Late.”

If we define radical as “reaching to the roots of things” (as Marx did) Andrews fails to break ground.

Mythology of Race

First, we need to debunk the race theory altogether, something even the American Association of Anthropology (AAA) has done, even if some of the left — let alone the right — has failed to do:

“Today scholars in many fields argue that ‘race’ as it is understood in the United States of America was a social mechanism invented during the 18th century to refer to those populations brought together in colonial America — the English settlers, the conquered Indian peoples and those peoples of Africa, brought in to provide slave labor.” (AAA Statement on Race, 1998)

As far as “whiteness” is concerned, justifications for human subjugation based on their supposedly inferiority can be traced back to the ancient (old) world. However, there seems to be no evidence that an actual social system, based on white “supremacy,” ever existed before the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

In her book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz points out how various papal bulls facilitated the justifications:

“From the mid-fifteenth century most of the non-European world was colonized under the ‘Doctrine of Discovery,’ one of the first principles of international law promulgated by Christian European monarchies, to legitimize investigating, mapping and claiming lands belonging to peoples outside Europe.”

In The Invention of the White Race, Theodore Allen writes that the notion of a “superior,” white race — and, conversely, of “inferior” ones — initially emerged during the conquest of Ireland by the British. The latter justified the cruel exploitation of the former by claiming that, contrary to their skin color, they were not part of the white “race.” Radical activist-educator Noel Ignatin (Ignatiev) explains how, at some point after they’d been in America for a while, the Irish became (socially and politically) white. (How the Irish Became White)

Moreover, Allen elucidates in his book that there was apparently no natural enmity between the exploited and oppressed in early colonial American populations. They often not only cohabitated, married and reproduced together, but also rebelled together. He cites Bacon’s Rebellion as one powerful historical example of this class solidarity.

After a year-long rebellion in the Virginia colony, in which the governor was forced to flee the wrath of hundreds of armed Africans and Englishmen, leading chattel slave owners concocted the specious idea of separate races — “white” being the dominant one.

It was a strategy born of the necessity to maintain social control, by encouraging and consolidating “white” working class collaboration with the ruling class.

Accentuate Solidarity

Fortunately, in spite of all that there have always been significant numbers of people, classified as white, who throughout U.S. history have struggled individually and collectively against racism and white supremacy.

Rather than emphasizing the social divisions, it behooves us to accentuate the history of solidarity. Yet Andrews tells us:

“What I have tried to do is dust off, repackage and rearticulate the radical basis for the black revolution. . .to build a grassroots organization based on uniting the global black nation.”

A global black nation — really? Where and how would that exist in the real world?

Andrews is apparently arguing here for a “repackaging” of the kind of pan-Africanism promoted by Marcus Garvey, with his Universal Negro Improvement Association.

In the 1920s when African Americans were living behind the Jim Crow “iron curtain,” some of that made sense. It was an understandable response to the kind of virulent, institutionalized white nationalism widespread, at least, until the 1960s.

Times have changed in the last 50 years. There has been enough social integration, particularly in the United States, to make establishing a “black nation” not only unappealing to most Black Americans, but also impractical.

In the “Black Marxism” chapter Andrews goes on to state:

“The unfortunate truth about Marx’s hero of history is that the Western working class has benefited from imperialism and forged political movements that mostly aim to distribute the wealth gained from the exploitation of darker people more equitably between Whites.”

The main problem with that “truth” is that it implies that the contemporary working class is mostly white. It’s not, whether in the United States or the world. As filmmaker Michael Moore astutely observed in a recent interview on “Democracy Now,” the face of the working class is young, female and one of “color.”

Rather than a white male factory worker, more often than not it consists of a precarious, underpaid, overworked service worker. The worldwide feminization of poverty has been a major result of this reconfiguration.

Finally, in light of global climate disruption and impending ecocide, the recognition of what Martin Luther King described as our “web of mutuality” is more important now, than ever before. The fundamental contradiction, as far as I’m concerned, at this time in human history is global capitalism vs. the biosphere.

[For further study, I refer readers to:

• “Birth of a White Nation” (https://youtu.be/riVAuC0dnP4)

• “Intercommunalism: The Late Theorizations of Huey P. Newton, ‘Chief Theoretician’ of the Black Panther Party” (https://www.viewpointmag.com/2018/06/11/intercommunalism-the-late-theorizations-of-huey-p-newton-chief-theoretician-of-the-black-panther-party/)

• Feminist Theory from Margin to Center (www.bookrags.com/studyguide-feminist-theory-from-margin-to-center/)

• “What Should Socialism Mean in the 21st Century” (https://youtu.be/UKFLLv3irRg)]

May-June 2020, ATC 206

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