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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The Tragedy–and Hope–of African American History, by Robert Greene II

Obamas on Inauguration Day 2013 by P. Souza, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Obamas on Inauguration Day 2013 by P. Souza, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In 2007, Andrew Sullivan wrote a cover essay for The Atlantic in which he argued that the rise of Barack Obama to the national stage meant an end to the divisive cultural politics that defined American politics since 1968. Sullivan argued at the time, “he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us.” Reflecting on the events of the last eight years, it now seems this assumption about Obama’s rise was naïve and misplaced. Now, as we transition from an “Age of Obama” to an “Age of Trump” everyone has spilled much ink—both real and digital—trying to explain how we got here.

A keen reading of African American history, especially intellectual history, offers us much to consider in this debate. The recent Ta-Nehisi Coates essay, “My President Was Black,” offers one of the better meditations on Obama’s presidency and its possible legacy. The responses to it—in particular Tressie McMillian Cottom’s—have all been useful to also think about Obama’s failings and successes in office. Along with this is a reflection among historians and others about what kind of era we’re entering. Indeed, Coates’ body of work—from his essay on Bill Cosby and Black America to this most recent piece—offer a fascinating take on post-1945 African American history. While I will leave that for another post down the road, I do want to tackle the ways in which history is being discussed in the public sphere in 2016.

Historical comparison is a cottage industry unto itself. After November’s election, pundits and historians alike began casting a wide net to make comparisons with the past. Jamelle Bouie compared the events of November 8, 2016 to the backlash to Reconstruction. This comparison soon caught on with other writers. Barret Holmes Pitner, at The Daily Beast, made a similar argument. In concern about potential backlash to racial progress, I can sympathize with this comparison. This reminds me of earlier comparisons made between Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights and/or Black Power Movements. But I also vehemently disagree with it.

Backlash against racial progress is central to the story of America–as you can see with this political advertisement from 1866. Whether or not it was the reason for Trump’s victory, the interminable problem of racism and democracy in American society remains with us.

Historical analogies are useful, but we also need to recognize how they are limited in speaking to the present moment. Both Bouie and Pitner acknowledge this. History never repeats itself. It doesn’t even necessarily rhyme. But we can “use” history to think harder about the present. History, taught well, teaches us that the present is never easy to understand. There are never any simple answers or quick victories. Historical comparison, of course, is nothing new. C. Vann Woodward, among many others, referred to the Civil Rights Movement as a “Second Reconstruction.” Today, the theologian and activist Rev. Dr. William Barber of North Carolina refers to the present day as a “Third Reconstruction.” Others may also argue that the here and now is a “second Nadir of African American history,” in comparison with the low point in African American history from 1890 to 1930 written about and described as such by Rayford Logan.

The comparison with another nadir is not new. The historian Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua argued, in a The Black Scholar essay in 2010, that Black America was already suffering through a second nadir. There, he argued that African Americans were already in a nadir due to a variety of factors. Most notably, the changes in American political economy since the mid-1970s due to the rise of neoliberalism and its associated policies of austerity—coupled with cultural and political debates over colorblindness and racism—have damaged the progress made by African Americans in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. Cha-Jua argued that events such as the 2000 election (and allegations of voter suppression in Florida), the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, and the collapse of the housing market in 2007-08 (which destroyed the slowly-built up wealth of the African American middle class) were all symbols of the modern nadir. This was all before Obama’s election in 2008—which Cha-Jua argued was “contrasted but not off set by” the events previously mentioned.

I disagreed with this analysis of a “new Nadir” when it first came out. Today, I am tempted to argue that it is the best analysis of the present moment. Economic factors of the damage done to African Americans over the last three decades lend some credence to Cha-Jua’s analysis. And, to be blunt, I worry that any administration in the White House may not provide the answers to helping millions of Americans—regardless of race—recover from the 2008-09 Great Recession. The debate about voter suppression across the country, highlighted by recent events in North Carolina, also make the “new Nadir” take a tempting one.

I still reject a wholesale comparison with that era, for a variety of reasons. But it is not out of any sense that things are fine today. On the contrary. Historical comparisons are not to be discarded. They can and do serve a purpose. Comparisons across historical eras make the present day easier to understand. In that sense, African American history is critically useful. After all, African American history offers a bitterly learned lesson—that democracy and progress are always built in American history on a foundation of sand. Freedom cannot be taken for granted. Most importantly, the whiggish idea of history as a march of progress has been laid bare, once again. Much of human history proves this. For Americans, however, to simply look to the history of African Americans—or, for that matter, Native Americans, women, Hispanics, a multitude of groups—is to realize that “progress” and “hope” are not natural to human history.

And so we plunge into 2017, unsure of the future and groping for lessons from the past to help us. The urge to make historical comparisons is understandable. Just remember that the differences between eras is important too.

~ Originally published at Society for U.S. Intellectual History Blog, on January 1st, 2017

~ Robert Greene II is a PhD. student at the University of South Carolina. He studies American history after 1945 with a focus on the American South, political history, and memory. (Bio credit: S-USIH Blog)

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!