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By Dayvon Love
Note: This is part one of a two part piece. Part two will be released soon.
Introduction: Why Independence is Imperative
Over the past four years, I have found myself increasingly frustrated with the nature of intellectual and political discourse about Black people on social media and in the political activist/intellectual mainstream. There are many things that I can complain about, but there are two foundational problems I have with the current intellectual/political environment. First, there is a lack of emphasis on the development of sustainable, financially and politically independent Black institutions. Second, there is a fundamental disregard for pre-colonial African societies and autonomous Black intellectual traditions. These two fundamental problems have been tremendous obstacles to the authentic empowerment of the masses of Black people. With that said, there are many very powerful and effective political developments occurring right now which do not have the problems that I will describe because they draw on theories of Black/Pan Afrikan Nationalism to effect change. I will highlight examples of these later, but the case that I am going to make in this essay is that the ideas, institutions, and intellectual discourses that are prevalent in the mainstream hurt the masses of Black people because they fail to demonstrate the necessity of Black political and institutional independence and obscure the value of the cultural methodologies of Afrikan people as a frame for political and community organizing.
The overarching concept that binds the two issues that I have identified is the importance of true and authentic independence. There can be no true liberation of Black people without full independence from white institutions. Some of us continue to be reliant on the benevolence of white people and their institutions as if this state of affairs is acceptable. I understand that we live in America and that it is difficult for Black people to produce independent revenue so that we do not have to work in white institutions. What I am alarmed by is what seems to be a lack of urgency around the work that needs to be done to build the independent revenue and infrastructure to be completely self-sufficient. The work of being independent is very difficult and is not glamorous work, but it is the most important conversation that I believe is not being had in many mainstream political/intellectual spaces . Now, I do not expect these mainstream political/intellectual spaces to be any different than they are. I think that it is important to rail against the established white institutional mainstream so that Black people who are looking to develop a sense of political education know the difference between people striving for liberation, and people looking to advance what Harold Cruse in Crisis of the Negro Intellectual calls the sociologically fraudulent project of integration.
Beyond the Mainstream
I want to start by identifying the intellectual terrain to set the context for what I will propose as an alternative to the political/intellectual mainstream. It’s also important that I identify what I am calling the mainstream so that my position is clear. There are three particular contexts that I am describing as the mainstream. They are:
1) The segment of the academy that is most revered by prominent white institutions. This includes Black scholars that are situated at major universities, particularly those scholars who are heavily supported and promoted by their white colleagues. This also includes Black scholars who have had their work heavily promoted in white intellectual and political spaces.
2) What is colloquially called Black Twitter, particularly the online outlets that produce the think pieces that are highly circulated on social media
3) Highly visible Black activist/political commentators who frequently appear on corporate media outlets.
I want to be clear that, by highlighting these categories I am not suggesting that all of the individuals that fit into these categories exemplify the issues that I am critiquing, but that a majority of the discourses that are popular in these categories are problematic. Before I make a case for why the political/intellectual mainstream is problematic for Black political empowerment I want to make a case for why developing autonomous, sustainable Black independent political organizations are so important, and why the rigorous study of pre-colonial African societies and autonomous Black intellectual traditions is imperative.
Loving Us To Death: On Reliance and Dependace
On the issue of developing sustainable independent Black institutions, we have to be cognizant of the relationship between how we make our money and our political and intellectual behaviors. We all have to eat, have a roof over our head and pay our bills. Beyond the intellectualization of critiques of capitalism, we all have basic needs that we want to be met. This means that a major factor that impacts what we do is based on what we can get paid to do. For instance, many Black people decide to go into the academy because they think they can make a living thinking about, teaching, and professing what they think is right. However, many aspiring Black academics who I have spoken to have remarked on the struggle of matriculating through the white-dominated academy, specifically the frustration they feel in consistently having to appease white colleagues to provide themselves with job security. The real concern of having to provide a living for yourself impacts how many of us navigate institutional/political spaces. This is true in other contexts as well. Black politicians often have to navigate between their Black constituents and the white corporate sector that in many cases is financing their political career. Given this dynamic, Black people are often in situations where we are not able to operate purely from the perspective of what is good for Black people.
Our confinement to white institutional formations provides economic, social and political capital to white institutions. For example, when we look at the Democratic Party, we see that Black people are a large part of its constituency, but we are not in meaningful positions to exercise power commensurate with our level of investment and participation. An example from Maryland shows this dynamic in practice. Former Maryland Representative Donna Edwards ran for the Democratic party nomination for an open Senate seat in 2016. Given Maryland’s history, whoever won the Democratic Party primary would almost certainly beat the Republican in November and go on to DC, meaning Edwards would have been one of the few Black female senators in US history. In the primary, she faced off against an institutionally connected white politician, Chris Van Hollen. Edwards found that despite a stated commitment by many of her fellow Black lawmakers to Black community empowerment and their desire to see the Democratic Party better represent the interests of Black constituents, many of these Black lawmakers lacked support within the (largely white) Democratic party leadership, and under pressure many ended up either supporting Van Hollen or simply staying silent, denying her of critical support and leading to her loss in the 2016 primary.
In her concession speech for her 2016 US Senate run, Edwards said:
“…to my Democratic Party, you cannot show up in churches before Election Day, you cannot sing the first and last verse of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ you cannot join hands and walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and call that post-racial and inclusion.”
This line in her speech perfectly describes the paternalism of a party of which Black people are a key constituency. These symbolic appeals that Edwards is describing demonstrates the Democratic Party’s interest in Black people’s support without substantive engagement and empowerment.
Community Engagement versus Community Empowerment
Howard Fuller, a Black education reform advocate and former community organizer in the American south, pointed out the inherent problem of many of these organizations and their service to Black communities on a panel in Memphis in 2015 that was hosted by Teach for America. While his comments are targeted to the education reform movement, his example is applicable to many sectors.
“How can a movement that is essentially white led not understand when Black people resist that… and people get mad because people like me keep saying that if you really believe in this at some point in time, there have to be some resources given to Black led organizations and entities to be able to in fact lead what has to be happening to Black children.”
“There is a difference between community engagement and community empowerment… Community engagement is, hell, yal decide to build a bridge and then you send out some leaflets that say we can pick the color as if we got nothing to say about where the bridge is gonna be built, whether it’s gonna be built.”
This distinction between community engagement and community empowerment is key. He is describing the education reform movement ( one of the major subsets of the human social service sector) as an industry primarily concerned with only symbolic gestures to Black people while remaining reluctant to truly empowering Black people to lead.
With the exploitation of Black social, economic, and political capital by white institutions, the phenomena that emerge is the competition among Black people to occupy positions of gatekeepership. This competition is not necessarily a function of any kind of pathology or injected oppression; it is just the raw political economy of white institutions. There are a limited number of positions available for Black people to occupy. This means that Black people seeking to make good money are naturally competing against each other as a function of securing their livelihood. This competition happens in the form of scholars looking for jobs at universities, or Black organizations looking to get grants from philanthropic institutions.
White Money, “Black Power”: On the Cooption of the Black Academy
In observing this dynamic, one might think that this is not unique to Black communities. With the acceleration of neoliberalism (i.e. the domination of market logic in all facets of life), this could be understood as just one arena of many where commodification has run rampant. It is, however, important to understand how white liberals positioned themselves, after the 1960s, as curators of Black political and scholarly work. This is not to say that white people had no role before the 1960s, but it just accelerated in unprecedented ways after the 1960s. Dr. Noliwe Rooks in her book White Money, Black Power writes about how the Ford Foundation guided Black Studies away from being focused on Black self-determination and empowerment toward a direction of integration in an attempt to develop a Black Studies that is more appealing to white scholars. She writes:
“By the end of the 1960s, in an attempt to avoid supporting Black Studies programs based on an activist, separatist, or Black Nationalist viewpoint, Bundy— and by extension, the Ford Foundation — firmly supported an organizational strategy of integration and curricular diversity for the new field. Their rationale was that Black Studies could help address Black social exclusion at the same time that the field educated whites about the literature, history, and culture of Black people… They certainly did not want Black Studies tied to efforts to promote Black Power.”
Dr. Tommy Curry also writes about this dynamic in his essay “Black Studies, Not Morality,::
…the corporate foundations like Ford and Carnegie directly influenced and deradicalized the course of Black Studies departments in the years following the Civil Rights movement from paradigms focusing on material-nationalist-radicalism accounts of racism to poststructuralist- integrationist-reformism accounts of identity through post-doctoral fellowships and grants. In contrast to our present day articulations of neoliberalism, or more appropriately the neoliberal crisis in relation to Black Studies, we are not only bringing attention to the externality of a white supremacist corporatism which devalues Blackness, but the reification of neoliberal axioms in the production and commodification of Black radicalism by Black scholars in Black Studies.
White institutions began to have an appetite for Black scholarship as a function of what Dr. Greg Carr has described as incorporated resistance. Incorporated resistance refers to the technique of taking people who espouse radical political ideas and anchoring them at white mainstream institutions which maintain the status quo to constrain them. Dr. Carr succinctly explains this technique with the phrase “you can talk all that Black stuff, just come to work tomorrow.” Black scholars were thus absorbed into the academy after the 1960s in ways that undermined the autonomous Black intellectual formations that existed outside of the white liberal academic mainstream. Black intellectuals began to seek reputable positions at major white universities that could pay more money and provide a bigger platform than the autonomous Black intellectual grassroots institutions.
‘The Problem Is She Thinks Black People Write Books’
One of the impacts of the system of white supremacy is the ubiquitous notion of Black inferiority. The notion of cultural inferiority leads some to assume that Black people somehow needed integration and recognition by white institutions to do serious scholarship. This is of course ridiculous; Black people were doing rigorous intellectual work on their own long before this work was recognized by the white academy. It is important for Black people to study the numerous independent Black intellectual institutions and scholarly works that exist outside of the white intellectual mainstream, as recognition of this intellectual tradition from mainstream white institutions seems unlikely. Dr. Rooks gives an example of this in her recollection of an experience she had as a professor at a university presenting to the curriculum committee. She writes:
“I got myself on the agenda of the school’s curriculum committee in order to propose two new literature courses I thought would be useful for both the English department and the new program in African American Studies. One course was a survey of African American literature from the Harlem Renaissance through the 1980s. The other was a course on African American women’s literature. At the same time, I wanted to put the curriculum committee on notice that I would be back at the next meeting with proposals for two African American history courses.
I presented proposals along with a sample syllabus for each of the two literature courses, and I outlined how both courses would fulfill distribution requirements and be easily incorporated into the existing curriculum of the English department. When I finished my presentation, there was a very long silence, along with quite a few looks exchanged between the members of the committee. One cleared his throat and said, almost to himself, “I wonder if we aren’t moving a bit too fast.” I waited patiently to hear how exactly it was that the material I had presented constituted moving too fast. I was just about to ask for clarification when another committee member broke in to say, “Well, the real problem here is she seems to be suggesting that Blacks have written enough books to be taught in two separate classes. I mean, do all of you really believe that Black people wrote all the books listed here?” The meeting degenerated from there. The upshot was that I was told they would approve one of the classes, the one on Black women, because they thought Black students might like taking a class on Black women’s literature from a Black woman, and besides, ‘Toni Morrison is certainly someone we can all agree is a really good writer.’”
Black people have produced a tremendous quality and quantity of intellectual and political work which is often off of the intellectual grid that shapes the white liberal academic mainstream. Examples of this includes the American Negro Academy founded by Alexander Crummell (1897), the Negro Society of Historical Research (1911), the Universal Negro Improvement Association newspaper “The Negro World” (1918), the Association of the Study of Negro Life and History founded by Carter G. Woodson (1916), and the numerous women’s literary clubs in the late 19th and early 20th century, including the Frances Harper and Fannie Jackson Coppin literary clubs. These and the many other Black independent intellectual formations are important because they were not manipulated or curated by white intellectuals.
Academic Learning vs Revolutionary Study
Without independent Black institutions with the capacity to pay Black scholars to work in our own interests, Black people are incentivized to seek close proximity to white institutions that can provide a path toward financial security. In exchange, Black scholars are pressured to immerse themselves in white intellectual traditions, and thus to make Eurocentric scholars the center of their political and intellectual universe. The scholars that have agreed to some level of complicity with this intellectual/political/financial complex can seek gainful employment opportunities in white run academic institutions, but under this dynamic the work one does to make oneself employable begins to diverge from the work needed to be politically useful to the masses of Black people. Cheikh Anta Diop in his work Black Africa: The Economic and Cultural Basis for a Federated State explains the impact of this complex:
Our [pan-Afrikan] ideologists have not succeeded in moving revolutionary theory forward by one step in Black Africa. Indeed, though one be armed with so fecund a scientific method of analysis as Marxist dialectics (assuming it had been sufficiently assimilated), it would be hopeless to try to apply it to a reality of which one is totally ignorant. For a long time many of our compatriots have thought they could get by without any deep knowledge of African society and Africa in all aspects: history, language, ethnicity, energy potential, raw materials, and the like. The conclusions reached have often been abysmally banal, when not plain and simply wrong. They have thought they could make up for the lack of ideas, breath, and revolutionary perspectives by the use of offensive, excessive, and murky vocabulary; they forgot that the truly revolutionary quality of language is its demonstrative clarity based on the objective use of facts and their dialectical relationships, which results in irresistibly convincing the intelligent reader.”
Even though Dr. Diop is talking about Black intellectuals in Africa, this also applies to Black people here in the United States. In this quote he is referring to the impotence of the Black intellectual class in the political/intellectual mainstream. Many of them have accepted the idea that they can attempt to theorize about Black life without knowing much of anything about African history, and culture. What is very clear to me is that if Black people develop independent, sustainable Black political/intellectual institutions and if we dislodge ourselves from being dependent on the intellectual enterprises that are controlled and operated by white people, this would fundamentally change the exploitative relationship between the masses of Black people and the white led and controlled so-called progressive/left institutions that profiteer off of the suffering of Black people to sustain their political machinery and in many cases to maintain their livelihood. This would shift the center of gravity of Black people’s participation in politics and intellectual discourse from its current state of our competition for proximity to white institutions to a new state of affairs where we negotiate in politics from a position of strength.
History Beyond Slavery: Can We Imagine True Freedom?
John Henrik Clarke once said that if the earliest history of Black people that you are familiar with is slavery, then everything else looks like progress. This statement provides important context for how ideas produced by Black people rooted in Black cultural/institutional formations are treated in white controlled intellectual/political spaces. According to the scholarly works of people like Willis Huggins, Ivan Van Sertima, Cheikh Anta Diop, and many others, African people were engaging in high levels of social democratic forms of government thousands of years before Europeans even thought about it, and practicing the use of medicine and performing medical procedures like cesarean sections hundreds of years before Europeans, with Africans actually introducing these and many other forms of science to the world.
Because knowledge of ancient Africa is very limited among many mainstream intellectuals, there is a perception that to be smart you have to immerse yourself in the white intellectual universe. What this assumption frames out is the ability for people to imagine what a world would look like where Black people were entirely intellectually and politically self-sufficient. Despite all the conversation around Black people aspiring for freedom, many of us can’t imagine Black/African people being independent because we think that all of the arenas marked as high culture/civilization are derived from Europeans. Developing a familiarity with ancient African history and culture can help to facilitate the cultivation of a consciousness that encourages self-determination. If our primary understanding of our history is of slavery, then the kinds of theories that are available to us are more likely to focus on the idea of Black people needing to be fixed, or helped by sympathetic white people, instead of Black people using the cultural resources of our past to create a liberated future.
If we were able to exercise true independence, we would be able to make decisions about our political activity based on one question, is this good for Black people? We wouldn’t have to worry about how our political decisions and intellectual discourse make white people feel. Instead of advocating on issues that make white people feel comfortable, like issues of anti-poverty and access to health care, we could advocate for collective Black wealth development and the taking over of the human/social service sector that works with Black communities. Discussions of anti-poverty and health care that are so dominant in the mainstream political space speak to Black people’s suffering, but the policy solutions that are often prescribed require investments in Black people’s reliance on entities outside of our community. Advocacy for collective Black wealth creation and empowerment within the human/social service sector is an investment in our independence and self-sufficiency. The former is the advocacy of the Black political/intellectual mainstream; the latter is the advocacy of Black people who are traditionally marginalized from the mainstream.
The Tragedy of the Black Public Intellectual
This being said, we can now discuss in more specifics the issues with the political/intellectual mainstream of Black analysis. To do an exhaustive description of the entire Black political mainstream would require a lot of meticulous documentation that is beyond the scope of this piece. What I will do is provide a snapshot that I believe is representative of mainstream thought and ideology. Some examples of what I am referring to as “the political/ideological mainstream” include:
- Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X
- Michael Eric Dyson’s book “What Truth Sounds Like”
- Deray McKesson and his brand of Black political activism
- The highly emotive style of commentary prominent in publications like The Root
- The political analysis of Van Jones.
What these figures and their political discourses have in common is that all of them de-emphasize the importance of building autonomous Black institutions that are financially self-sufficient and sustainable. In fact, this line of thought is almost entirely absent from these sources of political/intellectual discourse. Manning Marable attempts to fold the Pan Afrikan Nationalism of Malcolm X into an ideology of integrationism that would support the general thrust of increased voter participation in Democratic Party politics. Dr. Jared Ball of Imixwhatilike explains:
“Marable also carefully avoids discussion of the OAAU’s [Organization of Afro American Unity] formally stated position on voting, a statement that clearly suggests an Obama presidency would be demonstrably antithetical to Malcolm’s position on the matter. Marable, shortening the full statement, quotes from it as follows, writing that “the [OAAU] also promised to mobilize the entire African American community ‘block by block to make the community aware of its power and potential.’ The complete statement, however, reads thus: ‘… we [the OAAU] will start immediately a voter-registration drive to make an Independent voter; we propose to support and/or organize political clubs, to run Independent candidates for office, and to support any Afro-American already in office who answers to and is responsible to the Afro-American community.”
Marable’s attempt to extract an integrationist ideology out of Malcolm X’s legacy is an example of how the political/intellectual mainstream obscures and de-legitimizes the idea of Black self-determination and Pan-Africanism. This is a function of supporting a political ideology that establishes Black people’s dependence on white institutions as a desirable political position. The fact that Dr. Marable’s biography of Malcolm X has been heralded in white intellectual spaces as the definitive work about Malcolm X demonstrates the dynamic that I described earlier of Black scholars being complicit in white institutions curating what is considered mainstream Black political thought in such a way that perpetuates the political/intellectual dependence on these institutions. This dynamic is the foundation of the exploitative relationship that Black people have with the white institutional left (i.e. the Democratic Party, the human/social service sector, etc).
Another Black writer, Deray Mckesson, exemplifies a brand of activism that relies heavily on appeals to the morality of white people. For instance, in a Breakfast Club interview, Mckesson talked about the importance of “telling the truth in public” and inspiring more mainstream conversation about police violence. This constant appeal to the morality of white people is the kind of discourse that is acceptable to white institutions and helps to justify Black people’s dependence on white institutions as an example of racial justice. McKesson does do not discuss or emphasize the importance of independent Black institutions, which makes sense because this would be threatening to whites.
From “The Root” to The ROOTS
“The Root” is an online publication that is well-known for its commentary about Black political issues. Many of the most widely read think-pieces about Black life which receive wide circulation on social media are produced by this website and its affiliates. The Root is owned by Univision, which is owned by multiple finance conglomerates, including one owned by well known Clinton supporter and Pro-Israel activist Haim Saban. There is a noticeable absence of discussion about building financially sustainable, independent Black institutions. There is also a lack of conversations about the real world material activism done by political formations which explicitly call themselves Pan Afrikan or Black Nationalist. In fact, it often publishes articles that mock the worst versions of Pan Afrikan Nationalist praxis and rhetoric The worst examples of how independent Black intellectual work is presented as the standard. For example, the site’s focuses on critiquing Youtube figure Umar Johnson’s discourse as if Pan Afrikan activists and theorist widely embrace him as a serious scholar. In reality, most serious Pan Afrikanists and Black Nationalists look not to Umar but to people like Gregg Carr, Marimba Ani, Amos Wilson, and John Henrik Clarke as their standard bearers. By couching the ideological excesses and sloppy scholarship seen in many “Youtube Pan Africanists” as a reason to reject the entire toolbox of Black/Pan Afrikan nationalist thought and practice, sites like The Root discourage the kind of intellectual independence that would undermine the exploitative relationship between the masses of Black people and the white institutional left.
This is part one of a two part piece. Part two will be released soon.