The New Black Radical Moment, by Robert Greene II

Robert Greene II. Photo: Society for US Intellectual History Blog

Recent weeks have seen the release of several books that, have in some form or fashion, something to do with the Black Radical Tradition. While much fanfare has preceded the release of the new Ta-Nehisi Coates book, We Were Eight Years in Power (and with good reason), other books also speak to a renewed interest in African American radical thought. Where Coates seeks to describe the past and present of black history in America (in a discourse that ranges between center-left and radical), these other works offer a distinctly radical viewpoint of race and modern life. The rise of Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump’s election, and qualms about the limits of the Barack Obama administration have all played key roles in this new Black Radical moment in modern intellectual discourse. Within the academy, growing interest in the works of Cedric Robinson—most notably Black Marxism but also his other works The Terms of Order and Black Movements in America, among others—coupled with deep, penetrating critiques of capitalism’s relationship to race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, have provided some of the intellectual fuel for this moment. The “Black Perspectives” blog has also filled an important role in this, being a clearing house for all manner of scholars of the African American experience to talk about these various political and cultural intersections for a wide audience. This is all a long, and winding, way towards saying that everyone who reads this blog should take time, sooner or later, to read the edited collection Futures of Black Radicalism.

The edited collection, curated by Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin, plays off of Cedric Robinson’s landmark book and gives scholars and lay readers alike the chance to think about what the term “black radicalism” actually means. To their credit, Johnson and Lubin don’t try to offer an ironclad answer to that question. As they put it in the introduction, their goal is “merely archiving a moment in Black radical thought, one which exceeds the pages of this book, and which is always more expansive than the people writing here.”[1] What stands out about this book is the richness of intellectual discourse within its pages. A variety of historians, sociologists, and other scholars all tackle a central question: what, precisely, does the Black Radical Tradition say about life in the twenty-first century?  In the pursuit of these questions, the scholars featured in Futures of Black Radicalism—which is a who’s who of scholars that study political economy, history, sociology, and other fields—demonstrate a determination to enter the kinds of public debates that scholars have argued for years we should join in earnest. In that sense, they speak to another essential tradition from the African American intellectual tradition: the need for scholars to go beyond the academy and join debates in the broad public concerning race, politics, and other intertwined fields.

Another book, coming out soon, also promises to shake up discourse about the Black Radical Tradition. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s new collection of essays and interviews, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective will be a valuable work for reminding people of the importance of the Combahee River Collective’s radical interpretation of feminism in the 1970s. The Collective was founded by African American women who wanted to make sure feminism did not remain an ideology linked exclusively to white, moderately liberal political discourse. More importantly, the name alone—Combahee River—recalls radical action and liberation (Combahee River was also the location of a famous raid led by Harriet Tubman during the American Civil War). It’s no surprise Taylor is doing work like this—her previous book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation was also a crucial entry into modern debates about black radicalism and American society.

Other books also promise to open new avenues of thought on the long history of black radicalism. Works such as Brittney Cooper’s Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women offers much to think about when considering the history of African American intellectuals. The forthcoming work from Ashley Farmer, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, will be an exciting—not to mention much-needed—evaluation of the role black women played in various Black Power-organizations and movements. We’ve already had a few works tackle this topic—most impressively The Revolution Has Come by Robyn C. Spencer—but I doubt we’ll ever have enough books about African American women and the role they played in various social movements in the twentieth century. Speaking of, Keisha Blain’s Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, which is slated for release early next year, follows this same vein.

The Black Radical Tradition lives on through both the scholarship of historians and activism in the streets. It is no coincidence that whenever the struggle for black freedom heats up in American society, the scholars and intellectuals always provide the literary firepower necessary to further the fight for justice. We are living in another such time—one that, I believe, will be both an exciting time for intellectual curiosity and a dangerous time to be an honest, opinionated intellectual.

[1] “Introduction,” Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin, in Futures of Black Radicalism. London: Verso Books, 2017. P. 13.

This article was originally published at The Society for U.S. Intellectual History Blog

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Interview with Ken Morris, Anti-Slavery Activist

Ken Morris, image credit Kenneth Morris.jpgListen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

I’m honored and excited to introduce my next guest for Ordinary Philosophy’s 58th podcast episode, Ken Morris.

Ken Morris is closely linked to Frederick Douglass, the subject of my most recent history of ideas travel series, and carries on his legacy by working in a noble and very important cause, anti-slavery activism. He has an incredible family history and personal life story and array of accomplishments which you’ll be sure to find as impressive and fascinating as I do, but I’ll stop here and let him tell you all about it….

For more about Ken Morris and his work, please visit:

The Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives website
and Picturing Frederick Douglass, to which Mr. Morris contributed and sales of which benefit the FDFI:

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Frederick Douglass Rochester NY Sites, Day 1

Douglass home at 4 Alexander St in later incarnation as a shop, image Rochester Public Library Local History

Listen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

Ninth day, Monday Mar 28th

On a cold, gray, and blustery spring morning, I drive from Syracuse to Rochester NY, and head straight for a certain house very near Susan B. Anthony Square. As I suspect might be the case, the house is closed to the public today so I’ll return tomorrow; I head here first anyway to scope things out in person because it turns out,  I have more free time to explore Rochester this morning than I thought I would. Hooray! …Susan B. Anthony Square, at 39 King St, is a little park crisscrossed with meandering paths and dotted with benches and neatly trimmed shrubbery, in the center of pretty blocks of well-maintained early 19th century houses. The square is dominated by a life-size sculpture of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony by Pepsy Kettavong, called ‘Let’s Have Tea’, installed in 2001…. Read the written account here:

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Frederick Douglass Boston Sites

Phillips Street sign, where I begin my Frederick Douglass Boston journey, 2016 Amy Cools

I commence my Frederick Douglas Boston journey on Phillips St, and long for my bike. Mine is blue. Sigghhh

Listen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

Sixth Day, Friday March 25th

As I am quick to discover, parking is at a premium in central Boston and its environs. I’ve decided not to pay the high garage rates and stick with metered parking (reasonably priced but harder to find). It’s to be expected in an awesome, busy, historically important city, of course, just be prepared! It’s such a handsome city, so much to look at, and I long for my bike: fleet, nimble, with uninterrupted view, parkable anywhere there’s a pole. At times such as this, a car feels like little but an expensive burden.

Frederick Douglass never did live here in Boston, but this city has many connections with his life: he and his family lived just a few miles north of here in Lynn from 1841-47. Douglass visited, worked, and spoke here often, and the Boston Anti-Slavery Society published his Narrative which, combined with his speaking tour of the British Isles and the United States that followed, catapulted him to fame and made him the leading African American abolitionist of his time… Read the original account here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Frederick Douglass’s Birthplace, Easton, and St Michaels, Maryland’s Eastern Shore Sites

Easton, MD on a bright spring morning in March, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Easton, MD on a bright spring morning in March

Listen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

Second day, Monday March 21st

I wake up early, and make my way to Maryland’s east shore, looking forward to a beautiful day in the country. It’s windy and very cold, but clear and sunny. I head for downtown Easton: the route from there to my first destination is easiest to follow for a non-local like me. And I can use all the help I can get: this will be the first site I visit in any of my history travels where I will rely both on maps that predate the turn of the 20th century and natural landmarks to locate it.

… Read the original travel account here and here (originally published in two installments)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

A Moral and Political Critique of Democratic Primary Debate Arguments of 2015, Part 2

This is the fourth installment of my examination of the arguments presented by presidential primary candidates of both major parties.

As with the previous posts, the debate transcript selections are in red, and my own remarks in black. I leave out introductions, banter, moderator comments, lines which indicate audience response, some purely empirical claims, and other parts that don’t directly pertain to the political and moral ideas considered here. The parts I leave out are indicated, as usual, by ellipses.

From the CNN Democratic presidential primary debate, October 14th 2015 (continued)

The source of the debate transcript which follows is the New York Times, at
Participants: former Governor Lincoln Chafee, former Governor Martin O’Malley, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders, and former Senator Jim Webb
Moderators: Anderson Cooper, Dana Bash, Juan Carlos Lopez, and Don Lemon

COOPER: …And welcome back. …I want to talk about issues of race in America…

WILKINS [guest]: …My question for the candidates is, do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?

SANDERS: Black lives matter. And the reason — the reason those words matter is the African American community knows that on any given day some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car, and then three days later she’s going to end up dead in jail, or their kids are going to get shot. We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom, and we need major, major reforms in a broken criminal justice system in which we have more people in jail than China. And, I intended to tackle that issue. To make sure that our people have education and jobs rather than jail cells…

O’MALLEY: Anderson, the …Black Lives Matter movement is making is a very, very legitimate and serious point, and that is that as a nation we have undervalued the lives of black lives, people of color. When …we we burying over 350 young men every single year, mostly young, and poor, and black, and I said to our legislature …that if we were burying white, young, poor men in these number we would be marching in the streets and there would be a different reaction.

I’ve seen many people respond to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement’s motto with a sign, or Twitter post, or internet meme reading ‘All Lives Matter’. It seems clear that those offering these responses are taking advantage of an easily derived self-righteous-sounding motto to skirt the issue while making it clear where their sympathies lie …not with the black lives lost and ruined by failed policies and cultural attitudes left over from our slave-owning past. Of course all lives matter, and I would add to those who use the latter slogan, please don’t insult the intelligence of your fellow citizens by pretending they don’t believe that too. The whole point is that our practices and policies have indicated that for far too many Americans, black lives don’t appear to matter enough, and this movement’s slogan is meant to point out that ugly fact. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ motto is powerful because of how simply and directly it highlights the often stark difference between how black people often fare than other people in so many spheres of American life.

A couple of years or so ago, conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly spent a lot of time talking about the issue of black Americans and crime, since the media debate was raging especially hotly around stop-and-frisk policies, black-on-black violence, mass incarceration of black people, violent confrontations between police officers and black people, and so on. O’Reilly placed the blame solely on culture: in his view, it could all be blamed entirely, or at least mostly, on violent rap lyrics, baggy clothes and hoodies, drugs, and other… ahem, peculiarities of black culture, with which he seems very uncomfortable.

I’ll give O’Reilly the benefit of the doubt a little here: culture could have something to do with it. It probably, actually, does. But it has nothing to do with the fashion choices of young black men, which is no more or less anti-authoritarian than those of other youth subcultures, and it doesn’t let our society off the hook, far from it. And it doesn’t at all justify his implication that the flawed policies of our police and justice systems aren’t to blame.

You see, if you don’t want kids to be brought up in a culture where they think going to jail is normal, practically even a rite of passage, than don’t institute policies that make it more likely they’ll grow up in families and neighborhoods where so many are incarcerated. For decade after decade, as demonstrated by masses of data we’ve collected on the subject, black people have been subject to a different kind and degree of law enforcement than white people, over our entire history. (Same goes for many other groups, but not for as long and to the same extent overall.) Black people are pulled over for minor infractions (real or invented) more often than white people, stopped and frisked more often, are directed to prison rather than treatment more often, receive tougher sentences, and so on and so forth.

The drug war has been especially hard on black citizens: while drugs are used at about the same rates in every racial and economic group, the laws are enforced far more rigorously against black people. I wish, for instance, police officers would prowl the frat rows of every wealthy college town in America and throw those drug offenders in prison at least as assiduously as they do in predominantly black and / or poorer neighborhoods, if they must do it at all. If they stopped and frisked there, image what a haul they’d get every weekend night! But of course they don’t. They don’t want to ruin those bright young lives for mistakes they made while in their foolish youth and throw them in jail for every little minor infraction, lowing their chances of getting a decent job, ever. But black youth must live to a higher standard. Whether or not they had the advantages of security or wealth when young, whether or not the fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, or neighbors in their lives were wealthy, middle class, poor, or ever had been in prison, they must never make the same mistakes as those frat kids, or in fact most ordinary people who live it up and do illegal things from time to time, or else.

There are black criminals who are just as bad as any other criminals, who injure or kill police officers unjustly, for just doing their job protecting all those in their care. That’s true of people of all races, in any population. But in a society that incarcerates people to an obscene degree, even for minor infractions that arguably shouldn’t be illegal in the first place, and enforces the law disproportionately and often more harshly against black people, it shouldn’t be a shock or surprise that so many run-ins between police officers and black people turn violent.  I just hope that one day it will be a matter of shock and surprise that we kept going about it all wrong, in the same way, for so long.

COOPER: …Secretary Clinton, …Senator Sanders wants to break up the big Wall Street banks. You don’t. You say charge the banks more, continue to monitor them. Why is your plan better?

CLINTON: Well, my plan is more comprehensive. And frankly, it’s tougher because of course we have to deal with the problem that the banks are still too big to fail. We can never let the American taxpayer and middle class families ever have to bail out the kind of speculative behavior that we saw…. So I’m with both Senator Sanders and Governor O’Malley in putting a lot of attention onto the banks….

SANDERS: Let us be clear that the greed and recklessness and illegal behavior of Wall Street, where fraud is a business model, helped to destroy this economy and the lives of millions of people…. Check the record. In the 1990’s …when I had the Republican leadership and Wall Street spending billions of dollars in lobbying, when the Clinton administration, when Alan Greenspan said, “what a great idea it would be to allow these huge banks to merge,” Bernie Sanders fought them, and helped lead the opposition to deregulation….

CLINTON: …I have thought deeply and long about what we’re gonna do to do exactly what I think both the senator and the governor want, which is to rein in and stop this risk. And my plan would have the potential of actually sending the executives to jail. Nobody went to jail after $100 billion in fines were paid…

The Clinton administration seemed to buy into the same optimism that had fueled the Reagan years and the Golden Age: let the market run free, there’s lots of money to be made with the new kinds of financial market tools we have, knock down those pesky regulations and let the market regulate itself with consumer choice, and the bad products and practices will weed themselves out through self-destruction.

Well, we’ve learned that while all too many don’t regulate their own greed, the bad practices do self-destruct sometimes… the problem is, we can’t let them, because when and if they do, they can also sometimes take everyone else down with them. So, we bail out the bad actors to protect the innocent. Out of caution, or out of our almost cringing deference to Business, they mostly go unpunished, and so it goes, boom and bust, the good years awash with raging confidence, the bad with consternation, blame-slinging, and assurances that ‘this time, we’ve learned our lesson!’ And none of the worst offenders, those whose behavior did most to destroy the livelihoods of those who did not behave irresponsibly, seldom go to jail, or even forfeit enough money to stop being wealthier than most. Woody Guthrie sang: ‘Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.’ If you want to steal from people, even to the point of destroying them, just don’t do it with a gun (or while black, for that matter). You might get off scot-free.

COOPER: Senator Sanders… congressional leaders were told, without the 2008 bailout, the U.S. was possibly days away from a complete meltdown. Despite that, you still voted against it. As president, would you stand by your principles if it risked the country’s financial stability?

SANDERS: Well, I remember that meeting very well. …Hank Paulson, Bernanke came in, and they say, “guys, the economy is going to collapse because Wall Street is going under. It’s gonna take the economy with them.” And you know what I said to Hank Paulson? I said, “Hank, your guys — you come from Goldman Sachs. Your millionaire and billionaire friends caused this problem. How about your millionaire and billionaire friends paying for the bailout, not working families in this country?”

I understand the practical need for corporate protection, which allows a business to work on a bigger scale while shielding the business owner from personal financial liability. It allows the business to take more risks, which can lead to much more innovation than if they were forced to be cautious out of self-preservation. But here’s the thing: it can, and does, undermine the sense of personal responsibility in relation to doing business. For many, business is an honest endeavor, even, as a good friend of mine pointed out recently, almost altruistic: you listen to what the people care about, what they want and need, and you spend your day doing your best to make sure they get it. But for others, they’ve come to take it for granted that doing Business means that you have to take risks but that you shouldn’t personally have to pay for doing do. We need to keep this in mind, and tailor our policies accordingly: anytime someone ask society to let them to avoid being held financially responsible for the results of their choices, be wary. The motives may be benign, but the incentive to cheat, avoid regulation, exploit others, and gamble is a significant one, so we must be ready to shut down these attempts to game the system. Perhaps we should set a financial cap on financial immunity, or determine a level or quality of harm that’s too egregious for the protections of incorporation to remain in place.

BASH: …Senator Sanders, you’ve mentioned a couple of times you do have a plan to make public colleges free for everyone. Secretary Clinton has criticized that in saying she’s not in favor of making a college free for Donald Trump’s kids. Do you think taxpayers should pick up the tab for wealthy children?

I’m with Sanders on making college free for everyone, regardless of income, because Thomas Paine convinced me. I recently wrote a piece examining Paine’s ideas for a sort of basic income, a certain dollar amount that everyone receives early in life as seed money for their life’s work, and a stipend for old age. Paine thought everyone should receive it equally, rich and poor, not only because everyone would pay into it with taxes, but more importantly, it would avoid the deep sense of unfairness that so often fuels class division. Sanders’ plan for equally free college for everyone is great for these two reasons and for a third: it would promote an excellent cultural value, that we value education so much for its own sake, that we want everyone, equally, to have free and equal access to it, regardless of background or perceived need.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!