How Not to Fight Racial Oppression in the Twenty-First Century
Review of Kehinde Andrews’s Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century. (2018) London: Zed Books
Reviewed by Gabriel Apata
There is a rich and noble history of Black radicalism that dates as far back as slavery. Although the term Black radicalism has been widely used, it is in fact an umbrella term that describes a variety of movements, protests, philosophies or ideologies, approaches, tactics, revolts and other forms black resistance against racial oppression. Each act of resistance is a product of a time and a place, influenced by prevailing circumstances of the period in question. However, the historiography of Black radicalism is not merely an attempt to describe a particular past event but also to critically examine methods and approaches (their successes and failures) as a way of understanding as well as shaping the discourse on the Black radical tradition. This is the task that Kehinde Andrews has set himself in his new book, Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century (2018).
Between the prologue and the epilogue are eight chapters that roughly divide into two parts: the first part discusses various forms of racial oppression, while the second part deals with methods of resistance. With regards to the first part, the contention is that many of the so-called freedoms that black people appear have won since slavery cannot be properly described as freedom. For example, colonialism has not truly ended in Africa because the world’s powers through international agencies like the World Bank and the IMF continue to pull the strings of African economies, aiding their impoverishment by prescriptions that benefit the West and not African nations. In the West, racist structures and institutions continue to impede black progress in the diaspora, including the killings of young black men in the US. Andrews then spends much of the rest of the book discussing the second part of his thesis and his preferred method of radical Black politics.
In chapter 1 he discusses forms of Black Nationalism, about which he is fiercely critical. Apart from the San Domingo slave rebellion of 1791 that led to Haitian independence in 1804, he argues that previous forms of Black Nationalism failed because they were conceptually narrow and limited to their localities and were therefore powerless to have any real impact on the racist structures that held them under subjugation. What was required, he argues, was a broader conception of Black radicalism that transcended nation states (the Westphalian construct) and embraced blacks across state boundaries. This discussion is further taken up in Chapter 2 where he deals, particularly with Pan Africanism, which he also believes failed because it adopted the conceptual framework of colonialism. In chapter 3, titled Black is a country he attempts to consolidate this idea of a transnational or borderless community of black people in the diaspora. Here we find hints of Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2000) that perhaps could have been usefully brought into the discussion.
However, the person he does bring firmly into the discussion is Malcolm X whose radical vision of a broader black coalition against racial oppression he does endorse and elaborate. The belief is that Africans have always constituted a common people until imperialism dislocated them from their homeland and dispersed them across the world. Re-engaging with that radical vision remains the best and most effective method of ‘overthrowing’ racial oppression, he argues. He is particularly critical of the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King’s philosophy of non-violence because the movement was not sufficiently radical, naïvely believing in a reformist or gradualist approach that insisted in ‘keeping faith in some faint hope in transforming the system from within’ (291). The basic point here can be summarised by Audre Lorde’s (2018) statement: ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’, which the author quotes. In other words, the system that oppresses cannot itself be used to fight oppression.
Continuing with the theme of how not to fight racial oppression Chapter 4 examines what the author describes as ‘cultural nationalism’, which is a form of cultural expressionism that is all too evident in ‘cultural codes’ – dress, language, customs and so forth that is sometime presented as a form of resistance. He believes that black this notion of cultural nationalism (a naïve conception of Blackness), has itself been an impediment to black freedom.
However, it is in Chapter 5 titled Blackness where Andrews discusses the central thesis of the book. It is this idea of Blackness that sums up the author’s revolutionary black politics. For example, he quotes Malcolm X where he writes, ‘if you’re Black you should be thinking Black, and if you’re not thinking Black at this late stage, I’m sorry for you’ (285). This idea of ‘thinking black’ is therefore used as a leitmotif or a rallying call for black collective action. But what exactly is it to think black? What is Blackness? What does Black radical politics entail and how more effective a method is it in overturning racist power structures?
The concept of Blackness has been much discussed lately and different authors have different conceptions of the idea, including Du Bois, Anthony Appiah, Tommie Shelby and lately Michelle Wright. Andrews provides various descriptions of his idea of Blackness in several passages in the book. First, he says ‘Blackness has never simply been about skin colour, but a commitment to a liberatory politics that our colour ties us into. Blackness was a rejection of politics of civil rights, of trying to gain access to a system that oppresses us’ (154). On the same page he follows Malcolm X in asserting that the aim of Blackness is to ‘eradicate the existing system and build a new nation on a completely different set of principles, and blackness was central to this goal.’ Or ‘Blackness is a political rather than a cultural essentialism. Blackness is the ultimate rejection of Negro status, the call for unity in order to overturn the system that oppresses Africa and the Diaspora’ (170), and ‘Thinking Black is solely about politics and not culture. It is about uniting around Blackness to organise and mobilise’ (285). This is because ‘Blackness is not a theoretical, literary or abstract construct. It is a concept produced in struggle, by those facing the brutal realities of racial oppression’, (175-176). Yet, ‘Blackness is a choice, embracing the importance of that link for political mobilisation’ (290).
These are just few of his many descriptions of Blackness. But there are problems with some of these statements and I will pick up on a few of them. First, ‘Blackness is a political essentialism’. But how is this black essence derived? Certainly not by blood or internal relations, (the author admits as much) which also implies that this essence has been externally imposed. But can an essence be imposed from the outside? If an essence can be imposed from the outside can it ultimately constitute an essence? But I shall not dwell on this point. Second, consider another example: ‘Blackness is rejection of negro status,’ Negro status? – but this is 1960s-1970s speak. Who talks in terms of Negros nowadays? Third, ‘Blackness is a ‘call for unity to overthrow racial oppression’? – but this call is not new, many, at least since Du Bois, have made the same call. In any case perhaps the critical point is that this conception of Black radicalism is narrow and reductionist and leaves little or no room for the different other ways in which Blackness might or have found powerful and radical expression. Take his exclusion of culture from Black radicalism. What about the crop of African American writers like Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and many others whose works have expressed strong resistance to racial oppression? Richard Wright certainly wrote what has been described as a ‘protest’ novel with his Native Son (1940). These writers not only established black literature in the US and influenced later writers, but their writings also influenced the Black radical tradition in the US and elsewhere, particularly Europe. Yet, confusingly, after seemingly excluding culture from his idea of radicalism, the author then claims that ‘Blackness must be a cultural and expressive blank slate upon which we must build our revolution’, (174).
The other problem with Andrews’s conceptualisation of Blackness revolves mainly around this idea of a shared experience of racism, an idea that merely reinforces the very negative stereotype of black identity that his idea of Blackness seeks to overturn. The difficulty with ‘thinking black’ is that most black people do not think black; they think as normal human beings do. Therefore the ontology of Blackness cannot be defined simply by the hell of racial oppression that can only become normal after the purgatory of victimhood and the paradise of liberation have been achieved. Black people still manage to negotiate tropes of normality even under the heavy weight of racial oppression and do not have to wait for liberation in order to become normal human beings. Blackness is an all-embracing and all-inclusive concept that can be just as radical without loss of other positive aspects of being black and human and normal and happy, and as such cultural expressions (sometimes radical), as well as the political, are all part of the black normal. For example, Achille Mbembe’s (2017) idea of Blackness is both radical and inclusive and as he points out, ‘Black consciousness of Blackness was also the fruit of a long history of radicalism, nourished by struggles for abolition and against capitalism’ (30), but then, ‘“Blackness” became the idiom through which people of African origin could announce themselves to the world, show themselves to the world, and draw on their own power and genius to affirm themselves as a world’ (43). Blackness is therefore an affirmation of the positive features and qualities of being black: one that embraces skin colour, politics, culture, creativity, industry, knowledge and many other qualities that black people possess. In this wealth of black knowledge and experience lie the resources from which to fight racial oppression.
However, there also remain both philosophical and pragmatic problems regarding ‘thinking black’ that Andrews does not address. Tommie Shelby in We Who are Dark (2005) recognises the fact that before any discussion of black solidarity can take place these philosophical and pragmatic questions need to be resolved, particularly that of a ‘collective black identity’. It is one thing to say that all black people share racial oppression in common; it is another to assume that they would rise together to fight oppression even if they ought to do so. Indeed, Appiah (1989:47) puts it well when he observed that ‘What blacks in the West have in common is the fact that they are perceived – both by themselves and by others – as belonging together in the same race, and this common race is used by others as the basis for discriminating against them.’ This of course echoes Du Bois’s ‘double-consciousness’.
In addition, it is also important to note that not all black people experience racism in the same way. For example, Julius Wilson (1978) has shown how the rise of the black middle class in the US has resulted in a ‘significant’ decline of race as the defining factor for a collective black identity. Whether one agrees with Wilson or not he is right that since the Second World War there has been a rise in the number of black middle class families in the US who do not see themselves as racially oppressed and do not subscribe to this idea of Black solidarity or collective identity. This group are unlikely to feel common cause with urban poor blacks and are likely to resist being defined as part of a group of helpless victims of racism.
Another remiss of the book is that it fails to engage in a theoretical discussion of capitalism as the root cause of much of the oppression that black people have suffered over centuries. This remiss appears to underestimate capitalism’s repressive power and its ability to homogenise a group for ease of oppression as well as to fragment and to frustrate their will in order to make coordinated resistance difficult. Recognition of this fact is crucial to conceptualising ways in which future Black radicalism might be able to adapt to capitalism’s continuing and changing oppressive methods. Some authorities have recognised the connection between capitalism and racial oppression like Eric Williams, Oliver Cox, Edna Bonacich, Robert Miles, Cedric Robinson and others and have written about resistance from a Marxist perspective. However, in chapter 6 where he discusses ‘Black Marxism’, Andrews dismisses this school of thought by claiming that ‘Marxism remains a fundamentally Eurocentric paradigm’, (210). Which incidentally is a claim that Garvey once made. But if Marxism is not the answer, what philosophical paradigm might be more appropriate and truly radical for the twenty first century battle against racial oppression? This is where the book could have made a new and bold statement.
The author does mention some black leaders and intellectuals of the Twentieth Century including names already mentioned: Du Bois, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey and others, but only Malcolm X and to a limited extent, Marcus Garvey are favoured. With regards to Garvey, one would have expected a discussion of Garvey’s Separatism – that saw him align with the Separatism of the Ku Klux Klan, an approach that drove a rift between himself and Dubois – alongside Andrews’s own idea of Separateness in Chapter 8. But even here Andrews confuses matters. On the one hand he claims that black people must separate themselves in some way or other – it is not clear how – because integration has not worked and because separateness means independence but also because ‘Black independence is the basis of the politics of radicalism: aiming not just at being apart from the West, but being immune to its poisonous influence by being completely independent from it’ (260). Yet, in the paragraph that follows, he claims that ‘Black independence in the West is impossible, and the biggest paradox for Black radicalism is that we are part of the system, so how can we be engaged in bringing it to an end.’ But this paradox remains unresolved; although there is a hint that this separation might begin in Africa. The author then dismisses any attempt to establish independent Black businesses, because ‘Black businesses can often descend into Black capitalism’ as it might be engaged in ‘exploiting the community’ (270). In that case, what exactly does separateness mean? Does black independence not imply self-reliance and empowerment and does independent black business not achieve this goal?
In discussing the Black Panther Party Andrews touches on some of the well known aspects of the movement: Angela Davis’s protest that the party was male-dominated, Huey Newton’s push to include lesbians and gays in the membership and the disputes among the leadership. But one yearns to see the author develop these themes into a theoretical discussion of the ideas that underpinned or might underpin such a coalition of diverse groups, particularly Huey Newton’s Intercommunalism. Newton conceived this idea as the basis for solidarity not just among black people but also among oppressed people everywhere, as a way of fighting the injustice of Imperialism. About this idea, Newton wrote that ‘in order for us to be a dominant force, we would at least have to be great in number…[as such] it was not only beneficial for us to be revolutionary nationalists but to express solidarity with those friends who suffered many of the same kind of pressures we suffered’, (Hilliard and Weise, 2011:185). This statement alone encapsulates much of what Andrews presents in the first three chapters of his book and so engagement with this concept of empire or Intercommunalism would have been useful. John Narayan’s (2017) excellent article on Newton’s Intercommunalism discusses these issues and particularly shows how Newton’s idea anticipated Hardt and Negri’s on ideas in Empire.
So where does this leave Andrews’s idea of ‘thinking black’? If the idea is exclusive or restrictive to black people, then it cannot ipso facto embrace non-black oppressed groups, as Newton wished to see, yet if inclusive, can such a movement’s guiding principle be described as ‘thinking black’? Perhaps ‘thinking black’ is not what is required for the twenty first century Black radicalism after all. Or, perhaps this idea of Blackness is not as radical as the author appears to believe. One way or the other, a rigorous analysis of these ideas, would in my view, have strengthened as well as tightened some of the book’s arguments rather than the streams of polemical free associations that are replete in the book. One example is this: ‘Liberalism, on which the West is built, is the most violent system that has ever existed on the planet’ (xxi). Really? Is liberalism a violent system? How? In what way? This is a huge claim, yet no argument or evidence is brought to support it. But in any case this is a fallacy. If the claim is that liberalism is a philosophy that gave birth to a system like capitalism out of which slavery arose, then slavery and not liberalism might properly be described as a violently oppressive system. Liberalism refers to a variety of approaches to life many of which are the very antithesis of violence.
The final question is how much does this book contribute to the scholarship on Black radicalism? Unfortunately, the answer is very little. The call for Black solidarity to fight racial oppression is not new and there is little in the book that cannot be found in Shelby or Mbembe or Newton all of whom offer more persuasive and convincing arguments for the same ideas. The big idea of Blackness or ‘thinking black’ is largely a restatement of Malcolm X that remains stuck in the 1960s rather than one that has been redefined or rearticulated for the twenty-first century. Why retell an old story if there are no new lessons to learn or new angles to explore? Andrews claims that the aim of the book is ‘to trouble and disturb, to shake us out of our complacency, especially that induced when we presume we are ‘awake’ (281). For those not familiar with the discourse on Black radicalism, this book might ‘trouble and disturb’ them. As a work of serious scholarship, it does not build on existing material and subsequently does not offer anything radically new.
Andrews, K. (2018) Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the Twenty first Century. (2018) London: Zed Books.
Appiah, A. “The Conservation of “Race.”” African American Review. Vol. 23. No. 1 (1989). pp37-60 http://www.jstor.org/stable/2903987.
Hilliard, D., Weise, D. (editors) (2011) The Huey P. Newton Reader. New York: Seven Stories Press
Hardt, M., Negri, A. (2000) Empire. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press
Lorde, A. (2018) The Master’s Tool Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. London: Penguin
Mbembe, A. (2017) Critique of Black Reason. Durham NC: Duke University Press.
Narayan, J. “Huey P. Newton’s Intercommunalism: An Unacknowledged Theory of Empire.” (2017) DOI:10.1177/0263276417741348
Wright, R. (1940) Native Son. New York: Harper and Brothers.
Shelby, T. (2005) We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Gabriel. O. Apata obtained his PhD at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He is currently conducting post-doctorial research in the area of Race, Ethnicity and African Studies. His interests also include philosophy of religion and Aesthetics. His work explores the way in which these various subjects intersect between Western and African worldviews.