Rethinking Marxism: It is our great honor to be talking with Robin D. G. Kelley, Distinguished Professor and Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U. S. History at UCLA. Robin, let’s begin with your biography of Thelonious Monk. It is quite an achievement and a pleasure for us to read. Your in-depth narrative of Monk’s life is informative and educational about how to listen to jazz. Your biography provides an exciting, often nostalgic account of the lives and times of many of the twentieth century’s “giants of jazz.” Thank you for undertaking and completing this fourteen-year project. That’s a lot of time! How did you become interested in writing a biography of Monk? What was the journey like for you?
Robin Kelley: The short version is I grew up in a household where music was very important, especially jazz. My stepfather was a jazz musician, so when I was in high school I picked up the piano. I played piano for a while. I even thought about it as a possible career. He introduced me to Monk’s music; I was 16 years old. And I was into way-out music, Cecil Taylor, people like that. Monk was always in the back of my head. Not to do any particular project; I never thought I would write a biography. Then, all my work was driven by political considerations, what were the emergencies at the moment. Writing Hammer and Hoe was about being in a Left movement and thinking about what self-determination actually means on the ground. What does it mean for people of color, black people in particular, to build a movement that has taken Marxism and tried to transform it into something that made sense to them? So, I was doing all this work, responding to emergencies all throughout the 80s and 90s, and then I got really sick. And I was hospitalized with some kind of virus. I remember being in the hospital and, believe it or not, I was reading Skip Gates’s Colored People, his memoir, which is pretty hilarious. I thought to myself, if Henry Louis Gates can write this book, I should be able to write whatever book I want to write! So I was in the hospital thinking, I want to write a book about Monk. I reached out to the family through a very important friend named Marc Crawford. Marc wrote about jazz. He also was very political. He grew up in Detroit, but he ended up leaving the country for southern Mexico, and his home became a place for a lot of people escaping the draft. I knew Marc because I was on the Board of Governors for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade; they had asked me to write an introduction about African-Americans in the Lincoln Brigade. So this was my pathway. Marc was the one who said, “You know, you really need to work on this book on Monk.” He got in touch with the family; the family was like, “No, we have that covered.” But, I didn’t give up. I then spent years conducting research without the family’s support, looking at publications, journals, whatever primary sources I could get in every language possible. What I realized is that people who write books about artists tend to work in one language or two. Look, I can’t read Japanese, but I found every single Japanese article and had it translated; Dutch, Portuguese, German, Spanish, all over the world. I began to discover things about Monk; he would do interviews in other languages that would be translated, and he would say things abroad that he wouldn’t say at home. So I collected all this material. Fast-forward ﬁve, six years later, and the Monk family started to put together a website and a record label. And on one of those listservs with jazz fans who are sometimes more dangerous than anybody else because they’re so fanatical, the Monks starting pumping them for information. And I write ofﬂine to Monk’s brother-in-law, “You know, I talked to Toot, Monk Jr., years ago, and I know that he has some other plans for a biography, but I happen to have about ten boxes of materials that I’ve collected over the years that he might want to use.” And he said, “Really?” “Yes.” “Well bring it over.” So I drove to South Orange with all these boxes of materials—just made copies of everything—and gave it to them. And they realized …two things they realized. One, I was serious! I had stuff they didn’t have. And, secondly, they didn’t know I was black! They assumed I was white. When they saw me, they were like, “Oh, wait a second. You are not who we imagined.” Jazz is music that people don’t engage critically all the time. They’re either ethnomusicologists, who operate at one level. Or journalists, who operate at another. The journalists tend to be fans, and they tend to spend more time looking for the right adjective to describe the music than to dig deep. So we spent, like, six hours sitting at his house around the pool just talking about Monk. He asked me: What’s my intention? What do I know? What do I think? And we connected; I sort of made a promise: “I’ll write this book, but it won’t be an ofﬁcial biography. I don’t want the family’s imprimatur because I’m going to say things you may not like.” He agreed; I have to give him credit for that. He said, “Look, whatever you ﬁnd is the truth, just deal with the truth.” That’s why there are things in the book that don’t make Monk look like a grand ﬁgure; he’s a human being. So that changed everything. And once I had access to the family, it changed my perspective on where the music takes place. But that leads us into your second question.
In your biography you describe Monk as a radical individualist, a “rebel” whose life and music are part of a tradition of “sonic disturbance.” But also an exemplar of a creative black artist trying to live an “authentic life” in postwar New York (we’ll circle back to this issue of “authenticity” later). As you describe, Monk’s method of teaching his music to bandmates, or his approach to performance on stage or in the recording studio, was to adopt a quasi-surrealist mode (perhaps without the whimsy). Here we’re thinking of Monk’s constant nudging the jazz tradition toward uncertainty, his striving for inexpressible hidden chords beyond—within—the melody. Or Monk’s obsessive push against attempts to conﬁne or rein in his imagination. Is there radical optimism, or political hope, within Monk’s music, his habits of work, and speciﬁcally, in his willingness constantly to disrupt and disturb? And does this willingness reveal elements of what you describe as surrealist art? What are the cultural and political implications of seeing Monk as a surrealist?
So, I’m going to work backwards. On your very last question: Is Monk a surrealist? Absolutely! Though he isn’t an artist who identiﬁed himself as surrealist. (Yet in an interview in the late ’40s, he compares bebop more generally with Salvador Dali; whether or not Dali was a real surrealist is another thing). But Monk moved in that direction for the same reason that people like Wifredo Lam, the painter, and Aimé Césaire, the poet and activist, all moved to surrealism: it was a matter of self-recognition. In other words, their lives were already that. What they saw, what Wifredo Lam saw in Santeria, for example—he says, “I recognize surrealism.” What Monk heard in the music of the old stride pianists he studied with, like James P. Johnson and Willie “the Lion” Smith, was to take an instrument like the piano with ﬁxed pitches and to be able to bend notes. We can think of it as whimsy. But we can also think of it as speciﬁc ways that notes can produce emotion through dissonance and consonance, especially dissonance. The way that notes and rhythm can produce a sense of humor. And for surrealists, humor is like the fundamental emotion. It’s a fundamental expression of everything. In that sense, I think Monk is deﬁnitely surrealist. There’s also a kind of radical optimism, political hope—I think you can hear that. Whether or not Monk intends it is a different thing. In fact, what I argue in the book is that even though Monk’s music doesn’t change signiﬁcantly over the years, its meaning changes. So in the 1940s there was something that was perceived to be very modern about the music, despite the fact that in the 40s Monk spent as much time hanging out with stride pianists at James P. Johnson’s house as he did with some of the young bebop musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Joe Guy. I make the case that he was Janus-faced: he took the tradition from the past, he took the future, or paved the way for the future, and took the present, and put them together in a way that musically made sense to him. His aesthetic was never bound by time or place. Let me step back for a second. A lot of people assume that what made Monk’s music so creative, so whimsical, so free, was his lack of training. In other words, that he was not a trained musician. This is the myth: that he didn’t have lessons, that he had no knowledge of classical tradition. Quincy Jones says this, Bill Evans says this, they all say it. And yet Monk not only was well trained but he had classical lessons; he took lessons from a black woman who lived in his neighborhood. He was surrounded by other musicians in a very public culture where Alberta Simmons—his piano teacher—and the heads of the Columbus Hill Community Center all provided education for young musicians. In other words, it was a whole community that helped him develop his aesthetic. That community was the community he played for. So his music wasn’t out of this world. How can it be out of this world if he played for dancers? Dancers will not dance to music if you can’t play. So the embeddedness of his music has more to do with being able to understand the politics of it. He made music with, and for, and of the people: the people of his neighborhood. There were no boundaries, which is why he would play alongside the Calypsonians, like Lord Invader, and others; why walking down the street in San Juan Hill, you listen to the radio, the Victrolas, and you would hear Habanera, Cuban sounds; you hear Trinidadian sounds, you hear Southern blues, you hear Northern blues, you hear Duke Ellington, you hear Louis Armstrong. And that music surrounded him. As well as the Irish music up on the corner; also the Jewish cantors. There was no sound that wasn’t available to him. What was amazing too was that he lived near Central Park when Goldman’s Band—which is part of the public culture we’ve lost—would spend the summer doing these free concerts: Tchaikovsky, John Philip Sousa, Beethoven. His mom would take him to Central Park to sit there and listen to this free music. Sometimes 20,000 people would come out for these concerts! And it was free! And so you could actually be poor, growing up on the west side of Manhattan, and have access to this rich cultural palette of music and art. That was the world that shaped him. So when I talk about “authentic life,” I don’t mean opposed to “inauthentic.” I mean he was a product of New York, and like so many others who really absorbed everything, including the sounds of the trains—that’s part of his sound. You hear the subway, you hear the main trains dropping off cargo at the ports. And that was his life. Now, one thing that is different about this book compared to others was that I realized in talking to the family that it’s a mistake to limit the spaces for his musical practice to the recording studio, to the stage, to the clubs, when in fact so much of what happened was in the house with his family, in rehearsing. It’s in his engagement with his children. He was a really amazing father, despite the fact that bipolar disorder eventually made it difﬁcult for him to function “on the everyday” all the time. For him, also, all the boroughs were available. When you follow an artist, particularly black artists, and you look at the black press and other sources, you discover that when the mainstream press pretends he’s disappeared, he’s actually at all these other places. Black-owned clubs in Brooklyn. In the Bronx. Or going to places like Al Walker’s TV repair shop—
In the back!
Can you imagine what it meant for us to put that on the map of jazz?! Al Walker’s TV repair shop was just a jam session all night long! Great musicians would come through there. And they weren’t ﬁxing TVs! But they were jamming. And that’s what made this book a challenge and a labor of love, because I came away with a sense of the city, a deeper sense of the music and where it takes place, and a deeper sense of the man, and Nellie, his wife, and his children, and his extended family; because without them, there would be no Thelonious Monk. I tried to break down the myth of the isolated, individual “heroic genius.” That’s not the case with Monk at all. Also, the politics come out more in the fabric of everyday life. Following the money was really important. And, of course, all the economists—you know, since Amherst is the last place that actually has an Economics Department: all the others are gone; there’s no such thing as economics anymore, it’s just like “rational choice,” and whatever. But following the money—being able to go through his tax returns, his contracts—you realize that this man struggled even at the height of his powers. He didn’t have enough money to have decent medical care. Even when he made the most he ever made—in 1964—after paying out everything, he only took home about $40,000. That’s the most he ever took home in a year. And that’s good money for 1964. But then it drops to $17,000 three years later, and he’s making almost zero. He leaves Columbia Records in debt. So, in following the money, I was able to reconstruct the exploitative structure of capitalism in the music industry, even at the best record labels.
There’s a couple of things in what you’re saying. One is public culture, and how important it was then and now. Because it’s virtually gone. In work I do with guys who are locked up, we do a lot of exploring household, streets, neighborhoods that they came up in. So, “What’s the story of your life up to the point of your current incarceration?” And what is so striking again and again is the absence of a public culture that can intervene in the way those free concerts in Central Park intervened.
The way those concerts in the park intervened! The way his local community center intervened! Can you imagine the role that these adults played? Because they not only taught you music but they would be there when you needed them. And they would give you advice. They had very strict rules; you could lose your membership card if you go in there cursing. That might seem harsh, but, man, those kids were so devoted to that space!
That’s exactly right. In the long run, that’s helping you to manage.
Exactly. And that’s gone now. It’s devastating.
That’s gone. And these guys … it’s part of the Insight Prison Project to cultivate a recognition of that absence. So that they see how society failed them in that respect. Neoliberal society, I should say.
Yeah. Where did the State go? Where did the public go?
Where did the State go! Exactly.
I grew up in Philly. It was disappearing, but I came through in the 70s. There was enough of it that I felt safe in the streets. But I knew guys were moving to gangs, and then the gangs were carving out their own private space that was competing with public life, locally. And of course, the cops were big problems in navigating that public.
Exactly. And if your only interaction with the State now is repressive force, that is, coercive force, then sometimes gangs make sense as a way to defend yourself. And it’s unfortunate. It’s a combination of the withdrawal of the State in one element and the expansion of the State in another element, the coercive element. Which reminds me, one other thing that’s in your question that I didn’t address, but which is tied to this: the question of mentorship. As you mention, Monk had a way of teaching music to his bandmates. And teaching music was really important. I tell stories about how they would rehearse on the bandstand. If you are paying money, and you’re in the Five Spot, you don’t want to hear the same song over and over again. (There’s something really performative about that.) But in a realm that is understood to be deeply competitive—the term “cutting session” is a jazz term, which is you “cut” somebody, and you blow them off the bandstand. Well, Monk never did that. His thing was, if he heard someone struggling, even if heard them when he’s sitting in the audience, he would go up to that person and say, “You know what, you don’t know the changes. Come to my house tomorrow at nine o’clock and I’ll teach them to you.” And musicians would come to his house—a little tiny apartment: two bedrooms, the piano was partly in the kitchen and partly in the living room. These cats would show up. He would sit down with them and show them music. He would show them tunes. A lot of those musicians were pretty unknown, like Danny Quebec West. But he gave them a chance because he really believed in them. Then people like Jackie McLean would show up. John Coltrane would show up sometimes and learn some stuff. Sonny Rollins, after high school, would head straight to Monk’s house. Monk was a teacher! And his home became the center for cultivating the culture, but also creating community. And the idea of creating community among musicians is something that we don’t always recognize.
Collaboration and collective labor are other features of Monk’s approach to jazz. Monk was a teacher who taught so many not simply how to play “his music,” but how to ﬁnd their own voice in his music through practicing with him. Many big-name musicians who began as sidemen, but became bandleaders, describe how decisive it was to work with Monk. For them, Monk dwelled in the uncertain space between the sheet music and its expression by a speciﬁc ensemble. Monk was “open” to the originality of each musician’s capabilities and commitments to a “sound.” (By the way, this is what we learned from you! This is our reading of what you taught us!) The long hours of practice for which he is legendary were as much about Monk learning how to play with them as them learning his music. How do you think this approach to collaborative work is indicative of the general jazz labor practices of his time? By modeling collective cultural/aesthetic labor, was Monk a “revolutionary” in this realm?
Right! This is an excellent question. Everything that you just said is absolutely right, I think. Let me just address two very speciﬁc questions which build on this description. What I’ve discovered in talking to jazz musicians was that kind of collaboration was more common than not. The idea of the “cutting sessions” and the idea of the competitiveness—that makes good press. That’s not to say it didn’t happen. But, if you look at most ﬁlms about jazz musicians, and you read the mainstream press, competition is sexier than collaboration. And yet what all these musicians say—even if you’re doing so-called free jazz, even if you’re doing something that’s much more experimental—the most important thing to do is not to play but to listen. You have to be able to listen to each other, to be able to play with one other, to play in response to one another. It’s like a set of conversations. Because making music is not about virtuosity. It’s about being able to create a kind of community voice in which each voice is individual and can shine. Monk did some things in his arrangements which were unusual: in the early Blue Note recordings, he would have the horns sometimes play the melodic line, or the piano play the melodic line, with the horns playing the piano chords underneath. And he would rethink which voices would be the leading voices. But leading voices doesn’t mean “separate.” A leading voice is in relationship to other voices. So he thought a lot about collaboration. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. And a key word here is “labor.” Labor in the world of capitalism is commodiﬁed. So sometimes the question is how do you get paid for that labor? Collaboration sometimes is collaborative composition, where someone’s name is going to go on that music. And Monk wasn’t always the most generous. It wasn’t always his fault; there are a couple of tunes he clearly didn’t really write. He might have added two notes, but his name got on it. For Duke Ellington it happened all the time, with Billy Strayhorn. That’s not unusual. In those days, especially the days of bebop, it was important to get published. So what artists would often do is take chord changes of a standard song, like “All the Things You Are,” for example, or “I Got Rhythm,” and then write a line over it, like a melodic line. Just on the spot. And then they’d have an original composition, which means they would get publishing rights. Monk, though, was unusual in that he tended not to use other chord progressions; he made his own. When he wrote a composition, it was his own, and deeply original. And because it was deeply original, they were often difﬁcult to play. Even if the melody lines were fairly simple, the chord progressions were often difﬁcult for other artists. So this is where his role as a teacher became very important—and this is part of your question too: he would teach them by ear. Because he did not want people to read—you know, he wrote everything out. But he wouldn’t share the sheet music. Because he, like Charles Mingus, like Duke, felt like you can get a good feel of the music if you hear it and play it. You don’t have to worry about how to match the rhythms exactly, but hear it. So he would do that. When you ask the question, “Was this revolutionary?,” much of what he did was pretty revolutionary at the time. The last thing I’ll say, to go back to the question about money, because money is the bottom line: he’s trying to raise his family, raise his kids—he ends up sending them to private school. He wasn’t making much, and the critics really did not appreciate his music until 1956. It was about the time when he began to sell records, and yet, at the same time, he never compromised on his aesthetic. He kept playing and writing complex music. The tragedy is he’s 40 years old by the time he really begins to make a living. Very few artists after 45 or so are writing new music. They’re playing the music they always played. And at the moment he reaches this sort of pinnacle of fame—and he’s writing some new music—that’s when the critics are saying, “Oh, he’s tired; he’s playing the same thing over and over again; it’s not rock ’n’ roll; they need to do something to resurrect his career.” And that was one of the tragedies. This happened simultaneously with his bipolar disorder. The combination of these things made it difﬁcult.
So, thinking about the difﬁculty in earning a living and his faithfulness to his understanding of his craft, economic anxiety had to have pervaded his household, his life, extended family—the patron was kind of important, but even before that, sharing resources in his neighborhood. Are there things about the economic anxiety, being a professional musician named Thelonious Monk, in this time and place, that you didn’t put in, that you thought: “That’s suffering from the economic hardship”?
I put everything in there. [Laughter] It’s a good question because the essence of the question for me was, “How do you capture that anxiety?” How do you capture it? And it’s hard because of two things. One is that he had anxiety, but he also had Nellie. And Nellie always worked. Nellie worked until that turning point around 1956, which was the point when he started to sell some records, he started to get gigs. Just before he’s about to get his cabaret card back for a moment; she worked, she worked as an elevator operator, as a seamstress, a tailor; she worked her butt off. Secondly, he was in the apartment that his mother had. They didn’t leave that apartment until 1964. Totally rent controlled, so rent was not an issue. And when they had ﬁres—two times they ended up living with family up in the Bronx—they had a whole entourage of people to help them: nieces and nephews, his brother-in-law, his brother, his sister. They all pitched in. When they couldn’t keep the kids at home because he was going to go on tour, they would stay at the aunt’s house. The irony is that the baroness—who is supposed to be the great patron—she hardly gave Monk anything. She didn’t have that much. She had a really nice car and she had a nice house. But she didn’t have huge amounts of money to give out because she was kind of cut off from her family. That’s one of the big myths. The big myth is that “Oh yeah, we had this patron.” At one point, Monk loaned her money. Because she wasn’t always that responsible, but that’s another story. The other part of it is that Monk always had enormous conﬁdence in himself. See, he never thought that the music he was making was so out of the ordinary that he had to convince people; he never thought of himself as “avant-garde.” He said, “I don’t do that avant-garde shit! That’s not me.” He said, “I’m trying to get a hit.” And he said this over and over again. He just assumed that a song like “’Round Midnight” would be a hit. Like, it’s a perfect song! “Monk’s Mood.” “Ruby My Dear.” Of course these should be hits! There’s a story in the book about working with this singer named Frankie Passions—Frank Paccione. He’s a local singer, he’s a crooner, sort of like Frank Sinatra, trying to be Sinatra, but also like Perry Como. And Monk actually does some arrangements for him. They go into the studio to make this record. They cut two sides. And the arrangements are so wild! You have to be an incredible singer to be able to follow. But for Monk it’s perfectly logical! It’s the logic of the music in his own recognition that it has all the things that a composition needs: balance, color, the right rhythm, a sense of swing. He says, “I got all of that stuff. So what else do you want from me?” He assumed at some point he was going to make it. And eventually he did. He was right about that. But he never saw himself as an outsider. He was on the inside of the music.
Moving on from the biography, we noted in our reading of your work that you not only advocate “empathy” as a fundamental condition of practice within shared political struggles, but you also practice it in how you write about your biographical subjects (examples are Monk, Grace Halsell, the African and American jazz artists featured in Africa Speaks, race essentialists, student movements in the present, and so forth). When you are led to critique or point out the ﬂaws in your subjects, you do so in a loving, generous, often gentle, but also matter-of-fact way. That is, you avoid heavy-handed browbeating, or writing them out of the struggle. Is this by now a conscious method in your approach? Do you set out to write “empathic” critique—often calling attention to nearly absurdist contradictions in the lives and actions of your biographical subjects—in your work? And how do you do this so consistently?
That’s a good question. It’s funny because I’ve actually moved away from empathy. Let me explain what I mean. I think what I’ve been calling “empathy” was really, if you get down to it, solidarity. One thing about empathy is that it often pivots around taking a singular story, someone’s singular experience, and then, from that, projecting out. As if that singular experience—empathizing with the individual—then allows us to understand everyone who might be suffering from a particular set of circumstances or struggles. It gets you into the problem of “innocence.” That is, you empathize with victims and not so much with understanding the people who are not identiﬁed as victims, not “innocent,” but as perpetrators. I agree that what I try to do is to understand other positions. So to go back to your question of identifying contradictions and engaging critique, I guess this is old-school Marxism for me. It’s early Marx; it’s also “late” Marx. I make a distinction between old-school Marxism and myself as a Marxist versus the sectarian organizations I was a part of. I don’t ever remember reading in Marx about democratic centralism. I don’t know if Marx ever wrote about it, but I’m sure it’s something that comes up later. So I go back to Marx’s appreciation for Hegel—that is, that you have the thesis and antithesis which produce a new synthesis. And I’m so interested in new syntheses. Because I clearly don’t have all the answers. I’m not interested in winning an argument; it has never really been my objective. Trying to understand has been, because I think the questions we’re all struggling with are life-and-death questions. A concrete example: recently I got myself involved in the whole Cornel West/Ta-Nehisi Coates—
That’s our next question. As we have said, scholarly generosity and empathy, kindness of/in ethical critique, are real virtues that permeate your writing. That’s our impression. So even if you have a different reading now on the issue of empathy, we maintain our view that you are empathic about your subjects, in the sense that you see ﬂaws, but you don’t then write twenty-ﬁve pages of evisceration.
Right, because, see, if I would do that, then I’d have to do auto-critique! Because I could give you ﬁfty pages of self-evisceration!
[Laughter] Wait, no Robin! You are with two of the most self-loathing people on the face of the earth. You can interview us!
We are in the same club!
[Laughter] So in one recent moment that brought tears to my eyes, you weighed in on the published critique that Cornel West made of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Cornel is a personal friend and former teacher of mine. When I read what he wrote about Ta-Nehisi, I was struck by how right Cornel was, but also by its coldness as boldness. When you weighed in, you spoke to the need for compassion. You wondered why the cannibalistic or eviscerative impulse tended to happen again and again. And what’s so odd, as you point out, is that what Cornel said about Coates bore some resemblance to Adolph Reed’s 1990s critiques of West. (Michael Eric Dyson has more recently and less effectively written in a similarly caustic way.) But you were noticeably compassionate, gentle, no less sharp in staking out a politics, but not hurtful. There are two parts to this. How easy or hard is this approach for you? And where do your edges show up?
Well, to go back to the context for this intervention, which I did not want to get into—ironically, I felt the need to intervene because Cornel was being attacked. It was the attacks on Cornel that disturbed me the most. It was so messed up; even friends of mine, like Jelani Cobb and others, began to attack Cornel as if it was simply personality, personal hating.
Well, Cornel looked small. He’s also always a very expansive guy, generous. But there he looked small. His critique was great, but it was very worrisome.
I know that part of it has to do with what it means to be interviewed as opposed to writing a long piece. Part of it has to do with these really short pieces in the Guardian. I understand that. So, whatever Cornel said, and I fundamentally agree with him … that’s why he called me out in the piece. I never said I don’t agree with Cornel. I agree with him on his critique of Coates. I also had read Coates’s book. And Coates and I actually did a debate.
That debate’s up on YouTube. I did see that.
Yes, it’s up on YouTube, and it was at the L.A. Public Library. It wasn’t really a debate. It was my asking him hard questions, which he appreciated. As a result of that conversation, Ta-Nehisi’s followers basically drove me off of Twitter! That’s why I’m no longer on Twitter. This is why it’s so ironic. Ta-Nehisi goes off of Twitter as a result of this; I went off because of his followers. And Ta-Nehisi doesn’t know that; I never talked to him about it. But I asked some difﬁcult, challenging questions, talking about James Baldwin. They were serious questions. I felt like his reading of James Baldwin was one I didn’t recognize in Baldwin’s texts. And I was pushing him on some things. And people who are his followers were writing me all this hate mail. Like, “You had no right to speak; your job is just to interview him. You need to shut your ass up. If you want a MacArthur, get your own MacArthur.” As if somehow that had anything to do with it! So I felt bad. The pattern was Ta-Nehisi Coates/West became a spectacle like Dyson/West became a spectacle. People were weighing in as if somehow it’s a spectacle of the ﬁght. Rather than the political issues at hand. Once the political issues are lost, then we’re lost. Ta-Nehisi reached out to me because he was concerned I was joining the bandwagon against him. I said, “Look, I’m not for or against anyone. I’m for liberation. I don’t have time. I love everybody.” But liberation is a project that we have to work on together. It doesn’t mean we agree. In fact, if we all agree, we’ll never get there. You’ve got to be able to create thesis, antithesis, synthesis. And so you need to be able to lay out exactly what Ta-Nehisi is doing in his book, which didn’t come out in West’s critique. I wanted to remind us that Cornel has a long history, a long and dedicated and amazing history as a revolutionary thinker. That’s why I went through this whole thing about his Marxist background, the way that he tried to think through these things—he’s one of the leading … he’s like my hero! And he still is, and will always be. But then, my main task was to get to Jackson, Mississippi. I wanted to use this as a way to pivot, to say, “Look, here on the ground in Jackson are people working out these ideas; it’s very hard, it’s not easy, but they’re struggling through it.” What annoyed me the most after that piece came out were people who wrote me and said, “Oh, you should moderate a debate between Cornel and Ta-Nehisi in Jackson.” I’m like, “Did you read the piece?!” That defeats the purpose. The people in Jackson don’t need “Ta-Nehisi versus Cornel!” More spectacle?! Bring the spectacle to Jackson?! That annoyed me. But I learned to be this way because this is how my mother is. My mother’s always been like this; her religion is Self-Realization Fellowship. Paramahansa Yogananda is her guru, similar to Sonny Rollins. I grew up with that. And my sister, Makani Themba—who’s an activist, longtime, she’s my older sister—she trained me and raised me. And she’s always looking for opportunities for dialogue, always looking for a way to wage critique that is open and loving, but still critique. Because the ﬂip side of this story is what annoys me the most, and that is, whenever I’m giving a talk and people start snapping their ﬁngers, you know, they do this thing now [snaps fast], I feel I must have said something wrong! Because it’s not my job to conﬁrm what you already know. And that to me is the ﬂip side of it. The idea that people want speakers or want to read things that conﬁrm what they know rather than challenge what they know. That’s where I think, if I have edges that show up, that’s what I’m most critical of. Because it’s tied to the opposite. The culture of ad hominem and the culture of hating: the ﬂip side of that is conﬁrmation. Neither of them is dialectical. Hating is banishment. Conﬁrmation is nothing changes. They’re two sides of the same coin. We’re raised politically to think dialectically. Which is that we need to have that thesis/antithesis constantly. And you cannot separate them; they have to be together, because those contradictions are drivers, they’re not something to be afraid of.
Thinking back to my early background, I was part of a community organization, a community center, back in East New York in Brooklyn. The guy who ran it was a social worker who had come out of the Communist Party, he had left the Communist Party, and then in the 1950s and ’60s, he went to various places, including Atlanta, and trained all these different radical social workers. The thing that he was most about was conﬂict: conﬂict and conﬂict resolution. So we would sit in meetings—we were ﬁfteen years old, sixteen years old—kids of different backgrounds, different racial backgrounds, we were all mostly from the neighborhood. And he would just sharpen those differences, and make us have to deal with each other and confront each other. And it was hard because part of that process is that you’re getting ripped apart! On the other hand, we knew, and there was a sense that, we were involved in this process together, that there was a kind of solidarity in that what we were working toward was trying to ﬁgure out how to live together. So I think about that when you ask, what’s our job? What is it that we’re about? In our teaching, conﬁrmation is not absent from what we need to do, but it’s certainly not the project. It’s not the goal; but sharpening contradictions …
Yeah, I think that’s really important. But the idea of conﬂict resolution: I’ve always thought of it more as conﬂict transformation.
That’s probably what it is. You know, what we were trying to do, to be blunt, was trying to ﬁgure out ways kids in the neighborhood were not outside in the streets ﬁghting with each other, sometimes even pulling weapons on each other. We were trying to ﬁgure out an alternative to that.
Yeah, because you wanted to stop ﬁghting.
It wasn’t because we were trying to evaporate the conﬂict; it was let’s bring it inside and use it to ﬁgure out how we could all continue to live.
Exactly. One of the people who really pressed me to have to think dialectically, who was also a teacher of mine, was Grace Lee Boggs. Grace was a huge inﬂuence. I ﬁrst met her in 1991 or ’92—I know it was before Jimmy Boggs passed away. And I know that before he died, the last thing he was reading was Hammer and Hoe. I really appreciate that; she told me that. Every time I wrote something and Grace disagreed—and she disagreed!—she would write me letters, back before emails, telling me all the things that were wrong. And we’d go back and forth. Her thing was to think dialectically and not to be locked in the old debates, the old Marxist debates. To really push Marxism—her thing was to push beyond Marxism. To push beyond Leninism. And this is the person who did the ﬁrst translations of Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts; it was Grace! People give Erich Fromm all the credit, but it was actually Grace who did the ﬁrst translations from the German. So she knows what she’s talking about. But she’s also like, “You need to think dialectically,” meaning, “Think dialectically where you are now.” “What time is it on the clock of the world?,” she’d always say. “And what is it now we’re dealing with?” She said the genius of Lenin is that he wasn’t back in the late nineteenth century trying to have debates. He’s like, “At this moment, what are we doing right now? What is our plan now?” So, I learned that from her. And this idea of not wanting conﬁrmation—part of the reason I wrote “Black Study, Black Struggle,” that Boston Review piece, was because it went against the grain. In fact, at ﬁrst, people were very upset with me about that piece. A lot of students felt I was critiquing them and not being supportive. I said, “Yeah, I was critiquing some things.” But that’s the whole point. The point is that we have to ask really hard questions. Not so much, what do students want the university to do for them? Let’s ask the bigger question. What kind of world are we trying to build? Why turn to the university administration to give you things rather than demand and take the things that you want? And why do we think of education in such narrow terms as, again, conﬁrmation? They were demanding reading lists that would conﬁrm their humanity as black and brown people, as queer people. I said, well, look, we can conﬁrm that, but then what do you do after that? We can’t stop there; we have to be able to push into auto-critique because otherwise what we end up doing is adopting a political position in which all black people, including those who signed, sealed, and delivered legislation that is putting us in prisons, become “oppressed.” Equally. We’re all like equally oppressed. We’re all equally under the gun. And antiblackness becomes the only way to conceive of the global nature of oppression today. How do you push beyond that? So I’m trying to push them hard.
I’m starting to get a sense of why you’re moving away from empathy to solidarity. That makes sense. Empathy tends to be inside a therapeutic, psychological discourse about self-improvement and “I’m OK.” And in that Boston Review essay, you’re challenging students to political maturity. Like you said, what comes after you’ve afﬁrmed that your identity belongs on this campus or in this class? So, solidarity is the thing …
Right, and empathy also requires identifying with the person you’re empathizing with. And sometimes you only identify with those whom you recognize. That’s a problem because part of solidarity is the people you don’t recognize. The people who you don’t see yourself in. And we’re raised in this particular era of liberal multiculturalism to see ourselves in others. When in fact I tell my students, “Look, not only do you not see yourself in others, but if we’re talking about enslaved people in the eighteenth century, I’m sorry, none of y’all can know what that means.” We can begin to understand not by simply imposing our own selves but by stepping outside of ourselves and moving into different periods of history. Understanding the constraints and limitations of people’s lives that are not us, as opposed to those who are like us. The fallback is always, “Well, if it were me,” or, “I can see how other people feel,” as opposed to, “Let me step outside myself.”
That is partly what led Serap Kayatekin and me to read Emmanuel Levinas; the reason why we wanted to read Levinas was the issue of “radical otherness.” What do you do when there is no identiﬁcation? It’s not like you adopt that position; you’re not standing in others’ shoes. So now what? Now what do you do with that? What is the ethics of dealing with a radical other?
Right, exactly! I was wrestling with that. While I was attaching the adjective “radical” to “empathy,” that was my way of struggling to get to that point. Until ﬁnally I realized that it could only get me so far. Solidarity, which is also a tricky thing, will get us much closer to what I’m trying to wrestle with. Now, the problem is we’re at a political moment where it’s hard to talk about solidarity, at least in the circles I’m around, among a lot of my students. I remember being in a meeting about a year ago with some activists, and I was talking about the traditions—the black radical traditions—of abolition democracy that DuBois discusses. Newly freed black people, freed from chattel slavery, still struggling with other forms of unfreedom, were opening up the possibilities of free universal education for all people, of democratizing the whole nation, of saying, “Look, we’re going to transform this world as we know it.” And suddenly I got this pushback from some young people who were like, “Well, that was their mistake; they should have just been ﬁghting for their own.” I said, “That doesn’t make any sense.” “Well, but what did they get out of it? They got lynching and ….” “They had to endure lynching and violence precisely because they were ﬁghting for democratizing America.” And so the main takeaway was that in an era of antiblackness we need to be ﬁghting just for our own. And there’s no possible way you can transform or win others. To go back to Ta-Nehisi, Ta-Nehisi’s position is that you can’t win over white people, so just forget it. It’s some kind of Afro-pessimism—he’s not an ofﬁcial Afro-pessimist, he’s more like an existentialist. And that’s not where my politics are, because we don’t really have a choice. I’m much closer I think to Dr. King in this when he talks about what agape actually means. The constant struggle to create community. Constant struggle! You can’t stop ﬁghting. And creating community means creating community with those you don’t like. And people who don’t like you. And trying to ﬁgure how to move forward to something better. Not to the point of, as King would put it, sentimental love. But a hard love, a hard love that’s in struggle. I can’t think of another path to go; it’s inconceivable to me. But that’s not necessarily a very popular thing right now. And I can understand it.
Within the black community.
Oh yeah, within the black community. I can understand why, because these are painful times. They’ve always been painful times. The difference is that these painful times are up now on YouTube!
Robin, moving on, in your writings, the terms “authenticity” and “purity” appear. They appear as descriptors of positions and identities, but they are also often, seemingly, used ironically or self-critically. This is not only in terms of how the words are used but also in your examples. So you note in Africa Speaks that jazz purists often could not accept some contemporary African music as “jazz, proper.” Likewise, you indicate that Sathima Bea Benjamin’s insistence on singing American jazz classics during the period of anti-apartheid uprisings, in which she played an important part, and not more “tribal-derived” protest music, like Miriam Makeba, was something that held her back professionally and also brought suspicion on her commitment to the struggle. In a different vein, you remark how Babatunde Olatunji’s ﬁrst “Drums of Passion” group in the United States—purportedly “introducing” African drums and rhythms to America—paradoxically had three non-African drummers, and himself (who only learned to play while at Morehouse). You do something similar with Guy Warren, who you say was greeted with suspicion and suffered professionally for being neither “authentically” a jazz musician nor a pure African musician. And the same with the oud-playing jazz musician Ahmed Abdul-Malik, who described himself as Sudanese and claimed Middle Eastern/North African music as his heritage, but whom you show to have had only Caribbean forebears and who was born in Brooklyn! Yet you are gentle in your treatment, do not chastise anyone for these seeming transgressions against so-called authenticity and purity (which we liked!), and instead evaluate their efforts on the grounds of their commitments and achievements, both musically and politically. How do you connect your views here with the very heated similar debates today over “cultural appropriation,” especially pertaining to who can, should, does, etc. play and perform music that originates with a speciﬁc racial or ethnic or gender group, etc.? Are there analogies here with your examples? What are the obligations of artists who violate or transgress “the authentic”?
Well, you’re absolutely right that I tend to use terms like “tradition” and “authenticity” ironically. Basically to signal the fact that they’re all constructions. And they’re all constructions created in the twentieth century by those who have the most inﬂuence over commercial elements of the music. What makes something “authentic” often has to do with the marketplace. It’s not even about what are the various elements of it. Part of the Olatunji story is that Columbia Records saw him as more “African” than Guy Warren. Now, as you know, they’re both from the continent of Africa. The difference is that Guy Warren trained at West Africa’s most important music school: Achimota College. Olatunji had no training. So if you were to think of a really concise deﬁnition of what it means to be an authentic musician—not to say that this is even true—then part of it might be were you trained in your instrument, in your discipline, as opposed to self-taught? To me, that’s not criteria. But just say, for the sake of argument, it is. Then one would think that Guy Warren would have been the ideal person! What does it mean to be an African musician? Well, to be an African musician! And it should be that, but that’s not how it works. Because in the end, Columbia Records is interested in selling records. Sathima Bea Benjamin—because she doesn’t sound like African-American singers and because she’s not sounding like Miriam Makeba—there’s no niche for her. And that is part of the problem. So one of the things that that book tries to do is challenge the idea that, in this age of decolonization, artists were actually atavistic in that they were trying to go back to some ancient past, that they were trying to resurrect ancient Africa. When they all were creating this modern music! Even Ahmed Abdul-Malik, who is taking the oud and playing it differently, played music that laid the groundwork for much of what we think of as “Free Jazz” or “Avant-Garde Jazz.” So I kind of disrupt the notions of “tradition” and “authenticity”—I don’t do it, the artists do it. They’re responsible. They’re doing all this disruption. Even Randy Weston’s story of ﬁnally getting to African soil, ﬁnally getting to Nigeria, his dream—his father called himself an African; his dream was to be on the continent. He gets there, and he’s like in the bush, trying to ﬁnd authentic music. And what does he ﬁnd? He ﬁnds Highlife music! In the city of Lagos! He ﬁnds other jazz musicians there! And he discovers a whole new world opening to him. And he comes back home and records Highlife music. And this is hip, this is modern, this is new. At a time when, for Africans on the continent, for anyone involved in decolonization—or like for Frantz Fanon!—Africa is the future! It’s not the past, it’s the future. And so, of course, the future is going to create future music. Jazz in South Africa was the music of the future. It was the music of progress. It was only after you get South African musicians coming to Europe, into the U.S., that their “authenticity” as Africans had deeper political meaning. And I’m not saying that anything is more or less “political,” just that there are different kinds of political articulations. Think about someone like Hugh Masekela, who comes out playing like Clifford Brown, listening to Miles Davis—he makes a decision after Sharpeville: “Look, I’m going to go back to township music, I’ma play this music!” And it is still modern, it is still music for the times, but it’s resurrecting a form that is connected to the people, a more democratic form. So for me, the project of understanding music and politics is to discard notions of “tradition” and “authenticity,” except in the way that it frames the work, the way it frames the commercial limitations and possibilities and constraints, the way it frames how critics write about it, the way it frames even the way musicians think about the music. And I don’t want do deny. Like when Randy says, “I play traditional music,” I know what he means by that. It’s not to say that I’m having an argument with Randy; but again, it is inseparable from commodiﬁcation. So when we get to the question about “cultural appropriation,” to me, I can never separate the issue of “appropriation” from the issue of the market.
So copyright matters.
Yeah, it matters. There’s copyright, but there’s also who is accumulating money capital as a result of taking someone else’s social/cultural capital. This is the classic case of Elvis Presley and rock ’n’ roll, the classic case of Pat Boone. Going and saying, “I’m going to take this music and I’m going to make a record.” I don’t think that there’s any crime in one person, two people, a thousand people, a million people borrowing from, drawing from, recreating forms of cultural practice or art from another. It’s when you translate that into cold cash.
Livelihoods! When you’re denying one group of people a livelihood, or you’re milking them for everything. To me, that’s when it matters. The whole history of culture and art has been one of appropriation. You can hardly ﬁnd examples where that’s not true. Modern art cannot have emerged—cubism could not have emerged—without the discovery of African sculpture. And everyone knows that, and no one’s paying reparations to those artists. For stealing. But theft is only theft when it’s a commodity. To me, it is so common—so if you think of something as basic as music from the Caribbean. Many elements of Caribbean music come from different sources. Some of the sources are Indian. Or Asian. Some of the sources are British hymns. There are many sources. And yet it’s still creative, original music. Even the idea of the pan, that is, you make music out of an oil drum. One could say, “Well, the oil companies, they need to get credit for that.” This is about creating new forms of culture in a way in which the world becomes your creative palette. It’s the translation to money that’s really the problem. Now, people don’t agree with me on that. Because some people say cultural appropriation is appropriation.
I tend to think closer to how you describe it. Nonappropriation is unimaginable. I don’t understand that at all. But I do understand the problem of livelihoods, and a commodity is going to be sold, and who it is that’s going to be receiving the royalties on it, and for what reasons. So if somebody signs their name over a formation that they are very conscious that they’ve borrowed, but, “Here’s my interpretation of it, and now I’m signing my name over it,” that’s very troubling.
Or even just not acknowledge—what you say in the last part of your question. To even acknowledge where these things come from. That’s basic, but we don’t always do that.
More about how you’ve thought about and analyzed authenticity in black culture. In Yo Mama’s DisFUNKtional!, you use the early experiences of wearing Afros by people like Andrea Benton Rushing (at Amherst College, right?) and Helen Hayes King to criticize social-scientiﬁc and pop-cultural tropes of “real” authentic blackness. But you also point out the pervasive masculinism (and, we might add today, gender binarism and heteronormativity) of so much “race man” knowledge as authentic blackness. That tendency persists to this day, although #metoo originated in the work of Tarana Burke. And Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, and Patrisse Cullors—three queer women—started the #blm movement, the plight of black women’s economic and social realities. And in our time queer people of color, particularly in carceral settings or homelessness on the streets—those conditions as spaces of blackness often remain an afterthought, or a footnote. In your teaching and writing, how do you enact your feminism and your commitment to the primacy of black women’s material subjective experiences?
That’s an excellent question! When I wrote Freedom Dreams, that chapter on black feminism was really important to me, and that was because I was trying to make the point that black feminists—particularly of that second or third wave— offered the best challenge to those who were critiquing what was then considered identitarianism. That’s another story; whether or not it was identity politics as we know it today versus what it was then, is different. So anyone who really believes in eradicating all forms of oppression and exploitation has to begin there, as Anna Julia Cooper said: “When and where I enter, the whole race follows.” So I didn’t really have much of a choice. In terms of my own teaching and activism, certainly I try my best to support feminism writ large and try to live and function in ways in which I understand both the pleasures of difference but also the constraints and the limitations of difference—that to be queer is an assertion of identity, but what also come with it are certain dangers, certain constraints. I’m always harping on the idea that the identities that we always think of as identities are more than that. That race and gender and sexuality are also sites of oppression and marginalization. That difference is not just for difference sake, but difference is produced; we need to make a difference. So as Opel Tometti, Alicia Garza, and Patrisse Cullors know, when they say Black Lives Matter, they are saying ALL black lives matter, every single black life matters, and therefore, that means that ALL black lives are under threat of elimination. That second part is extremely important because it asks how do we defend our communities from this kind of violence, particularly violences that within our communities we actually enact and defend and protect? To talk about what it means to have a queer politics or a feminist politics is to recognize that class and race alone—both sites of intense struggle—can also be used as ways to mask, hide, occlude forms of heteropatriarchy, heteronormativity, denying people identiﬁcations and freedoms based on those sets of differences. To me, that’s very important. And in my teaching, I’m always struggling with how can I be better. I’m teaching a course right now in modern African American history. We’re talking about the 1870s to the present. And I decided to use no textbook, but only biographies and autobiographies. So I’m using Assata Shakur; I’m using Keith Gilyard’s book on Louise Thompson Patterson; I’m using Jeanne Theoharis’s book on Rosa Parks, The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks (which is a great book); I’m using George Lipsitz’s book on Ivory Perry and Mia Bay’s book on Ida B. Wells. So four black women and one black man as a way to tell the narrative of African American history. And ALL organizers, ALL activists. The emphasis is not just on the everyday lives of black people in this period but really who were the ones struggling to try to transform this world. So it becomes intellectual history, it becomes history of philosophy, history of social movements. But the point is that four black women and one black man can be the foundation for telling the story. And that kind of threw the students because they’re like, “Got so many black women …”
Is that right?
Yeah. It’s my experiment. I’ve done it in the past when I’ve used textbooks; I’ve used Paula Giddings’ book When and Where I Enter, which is a history of African American women, as the textbook. And then ﬁll in with lectures. It’s not enough, but I’m trying to ﬁgure out how to do that and be better at it. So in “This Battleﬁeld Called Life”—
Right, in “This Battleﬁeld Called Life,” your essay on black feminism, you write, “Radical black feminists have never conﬁned their vision to just the emancipation of black women or women in general, or all black people for that matter. Rather, they are theorists and proponents of a radical humanism committed to liberating humanity and reconstructing social relations across the board.” Key to this claim—with which we agree—is what you say in the same paragraph: that black radical feminist theory and social engagement is not about identity politics. (How do we get our students to move beyond this immersion point?) Here again a theme so prominent in your work emerges. Historically, black radical feminists occupy a historical, cultural, and socioeconomic position or experience that has necessarily been more expansive, more inclusive, more fundamentally oppositional to the status quo. Sounds somewhat like materialist standpoint theory. It is, and it isn’t. Or it begins there, but it leads elsewhere, goes elsewhere. In this brilliant essay, you refer to the important “choice” in the late 1970s by Barbara Smith, Demita Frazier, and Beverly Smith to be revolutionary rather than accommodationist in their politics because they recognized intersectionality, complexity, contradiction in/as identity. Identity is descriptive and may, as a point estimate, offer a snapshot of who, what, where we are. But intersectionality—the ﬂuidity and indeterminacy of identity—is how we live our experience. We refer to this important understanding in terms of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality mostly these days. It allows us to see that quests for a pure, ancestral community within ourselves and in the form of our families or communities or versions of “us” are mythical quests for Eden. But given the multifaceted and dynamic forms of social movements (think Combahee River Collective and its insistent class focus on resource deprivation for black women and black families) in the twentieth century, this concept intersectionality also reminds us that nonviolent (military, domestic, imperial), nonracial, nonsexist, nonhomophobic social relations in the family, community, schools, public life are not possible in a capitalist society! That is a profound vision of revolutionary, not reformist, radical black feminism. At the end of the essay, you frame the question as follows: “Can we all get along long enough to make a revolution?” Rather than these ﬁts-and-starts reforms.
I forgot I wrote that [laughter all around].
So I guess what we’re trying to get at in that question has to do with radical black feminism’s revolutionary insistence as a challenge to us.
Exactly. You know, it’s so interesting that you bring that out. The women that I end up writing about, like Barbara Smith, for example, and Angela, they are in some ways—what they are arguing for is the antidote to Afro-pessimism. Because for them there’s no question about the rapaciousness of capitalism. They begin there. They call themselves socialists. The Combahee Collective, they don’t play. They say, we’re socialists, but we’re not just socialists. Socialism is part of our agenda, but they’re also saying that if we’re able to seize the state on this day and simply implement a form of state socialism, that would not resolve the contradictions of heteropatriarchy, the contradictions of racism. These things have to be struggled through because they’re all coconstitutive; they emerge together. And have to be eliminated together. Even our deﬁnition of freedom can’t be limited to basic biological needs. Freedom is also about freedom of sexuality, freedom to be with the partners we want, freedom to rethink our social relations all together. And that makes them deeply revolutionary, ironically—tied to the “young Marx” in some ways. They also were advocates of a solidarity politics. They felt like they needed to build alliances with other groups, other movements, whether it’s movements around reproductive rights, welfare rights, the labor unions. And that goes against the grain of narrower thinking, saying, you know, the concerns of our community are the only concerns that we have to be apprised of. And they were internationalists as well! There’s another group I write about in that chapter, which is still somewhat of a mystery, but they were an amazing group of women based in Mount Vernon who put out a book called Lessons from the Damned—we’re trying to get that reprinted actually. Verso is trying to do it. Lessons from the Damned is this book that is black feminist practice laid out. In the clearest terms possible. These were black women working in the community, a low-income community, around housing rights, welfare rights, and they got together everyone they’re working with—young kids, elders, people of all ages, all poor people—and said, look, write about the oppressions you’re dealing with, write about what you want to see. Without an author, per se.
The Damned. The Damned is the author. You can’t get more radical than that! Because that’s an example of praxis. That is, groups of people coming together to theorize their condition, to think through what’s the next step, and then to write it down in ways that are full of contradictions, but contradictions that are not resolved or disappear, but open up new possibilities. And that is the best because, to go back to the question of intersectionality, intersectionality is used a lot today; I’m not always clear what people mean by that. Oftentimes, intersectionality is treated as compound identities. That is, I’ve got this list of identities … but there’s no intersections taking place! But intersectionality, from what I understood, from not just Kim Crenshaw, but the people who preceded her … when the Third World Women’s Alliance was formed, and people like the woman who wrote Triple Jeopardy—Fran Beal! So Fran Beal, who’s a long-distance runner, who is one of the central ﬁgures in the Black Radical Congress years later; Fran Beal, who’s someone who comes out of the Left, comes out of SNCC—the way she and others were thinking about “triple jeopardy” is that not only are we dealing with these compound oppressions, but those oppressions are, again, coconstitutive, codetermining, they are inseparable from each other. We need to build deeper alliances in order to ﬁght them all, to develop a political framework, a political critique, that can address all of them together. Because they don’t operate separately, like as a list. They operate as one. That’s the idea I think behind “triple jeopardy.” We’ve got to ﬁgure out a way to get back to that. “Can we all get along long enough to make a revolution?” That requires what we were calling an “empathic leap” or a “leap of solidarity.” That is, for those who are not black women to basically not claim to walk in their shoes, but to listen. To hear things and take them at their face value. That the issues around reproductive rights, reproductive rights deﬁned by having the freedom to actually have children rather than facing forced sterilization; to be safe in the streets, so that when we have the force of the State and individuals treating us as vulnerable—and therefore, as vulnerable to sexual violence and other forms of violence—these are the things that are urgent. And if women and queer people say these are the urgent issues, then we’ve got to stand behind them and support in solidarity fully as comrades, instead of allies.
That’s good. We have that conversation too; one of us says, “I don’t think of myself as an ‘ally,’ but I certainly do think of myself as a comrade: always.” But that’s a whole other thing. Shall we move on?
We read online that your current book project is a biography of Grace Halsell, the white woman from Texas who worked as a journalist, served as a speechwriter for President Johnson, and was famous for her book about racial passing, Soul Sister. You’ve written eloquently about why her career interests you. In the essay we found online about this project, you describe how you ﬁrst learned of her existence, and then much later why you decided to write a biography of her life and work. You write, “In Grace Halsell I found my life’s work—”
I didn’t know whether that was hyperbole or not.
Yeah, that was hyperbole [laughter].
[continuing] “—the perfect subject to tell a profoundly American and global story about four forces that shaped our modern world: race, sex, war, and empire.” Later you say, “I am still searching for Grace Halsell, whose truths and fears, lives and loves lay fragmented in a vast sea of archival boxes awaiting reconstruction. As I work through the pieces of her life I am reminded of the considerable impact Grace has had on me,” and then you go on to talk about your ﬁrst trip to Palestine “where what I witnessed fundamentally changed my life.” How did being in Palestine researching Grace Halsell change your life fundamentally? How is freedom struggle—the quest for human dignity and justice—“global”?
I wrote that piece for a particular journal for an organization that she was very much a part of—yes, some of that is hyperbole. But when I said “life’s work,” I was thinking that much of what she ends up doing connects a lot of things I’m interested in. I’m interested in indigenous struggles and decolonization; I’m interested in black movements in modern ghettoes in the 1960s; cold war politics. So she ends up being kind of my Zelig. Going to all these hot spots. At ﬁrst it was a book about following her to tell a larger story—that’s why I call it “An Intimate History of the American Century.” But then her own personality, which is kind of complicated, I have to say—it’s not always a happy story—gets in the way of me telling that story. The punchline, though, is that she goes from being a New York Times bestseller and a very well-known journalist to being persona non grata, all because of Palestine. When I went to Palestine in January 2012, I didn’t go there to research Grace. That was just a side trip. I went there because I was part of a delegation; I’m on the board for the U.S. Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. I’ve been involved with them for a while. While I was there, I did interview some people who knew her. So there’s two things I can link to the trip to Palestine in terms of your question: “How is freedom struggle—the quest for human dignity and justice—‘global’?” One is that writing the book on Grace gave me an intimate, bird’s-eye view of the Asian theater in the postwar period, Latin America after 1959, the ghettoes and reservations and barrios of North America—she hit them all. Ghettoes, reservations, barrios, and the border are these hot spots not only of day-to-day drudgery, dispossession, and violence, but hot spots for revolutionary possibility. Like celebrations around 1968, it made me realize in doing this work and revisiting that time that the movements that erupted in these spots were revolutionary movements; they were not interested in reform. Reform was not their agenda. And part of it has to do with the fact that their main opposition was to liberals. It was liberals who waged the war in Vietnam; it was liberals who were overseeing under Lyndon Johnson the invasion of the Dominican Republic and what was happening in Indonesia; it was liberals who were waging a war on poverty that did not consider the structural dimensions of capitalism and, instead, thought that education and programs would somehow solve that problem. The National Welfare Rights Organization that emerges, they’re ﬁghting liberals. It was liberals. It reminds me of the importance of capturing that radical sense of possibility. The struggles that we think of as identity struggles, like the American Indian Movement, the Brown Berets, the Young Lords, the Black Panthers—they actually were working together. That level of solidarity across the board: Japanese-Americans coming out in solidarity with the people occupying Alcatraz Island; the Black Panthers supporting Palestine and Iranian students who can’t return home as a result of the Shah; socialist-feminists who are taking an antiracist position; as if, somehow, ALL the white people are just, like, worthless. And so much of socialist-feminism in Chicago, the Socialist-Feminist Union—and these organizations, they’re thinking about alliances across the board. To remind us, they were all basically anticapitalist— they were not for ﬁxing the system. And for all of them it was global. It was Native Americans and indigenous people around the world; it was black people’s struggle along with what was happening in Africa and the Caribbean. Visiting Palestine was important for me. And this is the second point. Because in this particular era, where people begin talking about decolonial or decolonialization as a metaphor, you cannot go to Palestine and see a set of metaphors, it’s not a metaphor …
There’s nothing metaphorical about the last 2–3 weeks [April 2018], holy shit!
Right? Not at all! You see straight colonial violence. You see dispossession. We were visiting people in East Jerusalem who were being forced out of their homes. For no other reason than pretexts, like, if you decide to build another room, that’s a violation of a housing code, and they just evict people. They’re bulldozing olive trees! And now they’re just shooting Palestinians from 300 yards away: snipers. It’s just the cost of elimination.
Exploding bullets. And think about it. At a fence?!
Yeah, and that was shocking!
And talk about liberals! Our liberal press simply won’t even acknowledge it. It won’t even make the news. We’ve been following this.
Right, and so to me, Palestine is one example, but Palestine is a very important one to remind us of ongoing colonialism, the violence that people are experiencing on an everyday basis, both in Gaza and also the West Bank. And again, I return to what I feel like is a very dangerous trend, a kind of withdrawal, at least from my community, of people saying, “Well, you know we don’t really have time to ﬁght for Palestine. Palestine is 7,000 miles away. And, besides, Palestinians harbor antiblackness, too, so therefore we shouldn’t be in solidarity.” Now, I’ve heard that more than once.
Is that right?
Yes. And I’m like, okay, how does that make any sense? So you’re saying that Palestinians shouldn’t ask support from black people because there are some blacks who harbor Islamophobia? And trust me there are a lot of folks who are Islamophobic! So does it go both ways? Our support and solidarity with people who are struggling for human dignity and justice should not depend on their knowing anything about us! Solidarity is not a market exchange. It’s not, you need to give us your love and we’ll give you ours! Whether it’s the Rohingya, whether it’s the Roma, whether it’s the Palestinians, we’ve got to be able to say, this is not acceptable! And I’ll give you a really good example of this. I’ll never forget when Obama was debating Romney, it was the second campaign. At one point, Obama said something like we shouldn’t be exporting jobs and buying commodities from China because labor is so cheap. So his point was that the Chinese pay workers slave wages, and therefore we shouldn’t buy from them. Nothing about it’s unacceptable for anyone around the world to receive slave wages! It wasn’t even an issue. The issue was China is bad; we’re not going to deal with them. Let them pay the slave wages. And it wasn’t even about paying American workers higher wages. It was, we’re not going to do business with them. I remember talking to my students about this: there is something called the International Labor Organization, the ILO, which is totally weak. But the idea that there should be an international standard: that should be the position of labor! There should be an international standard. Not that we’re going to “bring jobs back home,” but a living wage for the world should be our fallback position! That should be basic. But that is inconceivable even among progressive people I know. And that gets at the essence of what it means to ﬁght at the global level for human dignity and justice.
The Palestinian situation is … I have no words for it. But one thing which relates to your last point. My family is Jewish. My father was a Sephardic Jew who grew up in that part of the world before he came to the United States. And it’s inconceivable to me that any Jew in this world would not be pro-Palestinian. You can’t go through the experiences that Jews have gone through and not understand. And that’s what’s so shocking. Because some of what you say is exactly right. Some say, “Arabs hate us”; so fucking what? Or, “They don’t recognize the Holocaust.” They don’t recognize the Holocaust, therefore you withhold your solidarity? What?! It is really clear what role the State of Israel plays in relationship to Palestinians. That’s what matters. That’s what counts. The rest of it isn’t the point.
Exactly. And the State of Israel also had to shore up its support from Sephardic Jews because they were the oppressed under Ashkenazi leadership. The Sephardic or Arab Jews were considered Arabs. They were in line with the Palestinian Christians. You know, like, “We’re all second-class citizens.” And you probably know this already, but the Black Panther party of Israel was Sephardic Jews; they weren’t Palestinian Muslims. They were Arab Jews. They were formed in ’71; there were laws passed that targeted Sephardic Jews that treated them as second-class citizens. ’67 happens, and right around that time—the Black Panther party originally was formed after that, but it’s also the time that the Israeli state realizes that they need to shore up support. So they begin to incorporate Sephardic Jews more and more into the ruling—not the higher, but the middle ruling group, as police ofﬁcers; same thing they do with the Ethiopians.
And they become some of the most reactionary elements in Israel.
It’s a really interesting question, a really interesting history. But, as time is short, let’s jump into another question.
We can jump to Cedric Robinson. Are you working on a biography on him?
Here’s the thing: I was asked to. His widow, Elizabeth, was open to me doing it. At ﬁrst I was, “Oh yeah, I’d love to.” But then I thought to myself: I got so many obligations. I could deal with his life story because I’ve done a lot of research on that. It’s all the other stuff I’m not smart enough to do because that dude was one of the smartest people I’ve ever encountered. So I’m trying to convince someone to do it; I was going to do it with someone, but that fell through. But it’s going to be done at some point. I jotted down notes on “racial capitalism”; it occurred to me, I don’t typically use that term.
You don’t typically use it, but we saw some talks on YouTube, and that struck us.
There’s a story behind that, but let’s get into the question.
So we regard you as one of the most important radical historians of our time. This is our view; hey, man, we read your stuff! For readers who may not be as familiar with your work, what would you say is Marxist about your work? How is your work inﬂuenced by Marxian tradition? Are there speciﬁc Marx-inspired thinkers other than Cedric Robinson who have inﬂuenced you? There’s a history that you just explained about your involvement in the Communist Workers Party, but in any event, it would be useful for anybody reading this journal to know what your connection is to Marx.
Thanks to my sister Makani Themba, I came up reading Marx. My pathway wasn’t through anyone except I remember one summer, 1980, when I read Capital, volume 1, just by myself. Just went to the library every day and read half a chapter a day and got through it. Of course, I read the Communist Manifesto, and then I was reading the Critique of Political Economy, I started reading volume 2 [of Capital], read the early Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, read the Eighteenth Brumaire …
You did this on your own? Did you play sports at all? [Laughter all around.] Good god!
And this is the transition from high school to college. My sister was reading this stuff, and she would tell me what to read. When I got to college, I became involved with different organizations. Of course, I took my ﬁrst black studies course. Like most people who take black studies for the ﬁrst time, you’re incensed with all the things you don’t know. Now, I had grown up in a household where I knew some things, but in the context of college, it’s a little bit different. And then I end up hooking up with a brother who was the local organizer for the All-African Peoples Revolutionary Party.
Where are we? L.A.?
This is 1980 in Long Beach. Cal State, Long Beach. At the time, tuition was $90 a semester. So I did a study group with him. He was the only person. He was trying to organize, but nobody else would join him. We did a study group, and we were reading Nkrumah, Fanon, some Marx. And then my college history teacher—I had two teachers who were very important to me. One, Jack Stuart, who was a former Trotskyist and had known Bayard Rustin—you know, Rustin’s lover was a leading Trotskyist at some point. Jack Stuart went to Columbia University, got a Ph.D., and wrote about socialists. And then another professor, Leo Rifkin, who had become a Rockefeller Republican but came out of the Communist Party and was still sympathetic. He was a Republican and sympathetic about the Communist Party because he had nostalgia. In fact, he had one glass eye, so he reminded me of the guy from Invisible Man, Brother Jack, who has this one eye. But these are two Jewish radical scholars at a state university who took me in. And when they saw I was interested, they began to introduce radical stuff to me. And it was Jack who said, “I have a study group you should go to”: it was the Peace and Freedom Party in Long Beach. So imagine: I am nineteen years old, I am the only black person in the room, and everyone there is over 60! I’m not making this up! So my introduction is a very unusual one. I’ve got my All-African Peoples Revolutionary Party study group over here, and I’ve got my Peace and Freedom Party study group over there. And we’re reading Marx, and we’re reading some Lenin. So, as a result, I began to read as much as I could and got deeply involved. As to who I was reading, I was reading Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, and Trotsky, because the idea of “permanent revolution” made perfect sense to me. I didn’t even know enough to know that there was a beef! I thought that, well, Trotsky’s one of the great thinkers. I only later ﬁgured it out. And then it became Raya Dunayevskaya, then Grace Lee Boggs, and then C. L. R. James. And soon, everything I can get I identiﬁed with Marxism. Because, for me, Marxism was not a set of laws. It wasn’t a set of principles. It was a set of ideas rooted in three things. One, the idea of historical materialism— that is, that people make their own history, but under particular material conditions that constrain and limit possibility. But also, within that, the working classes, the oppressed classes—by working classes I meant all forms of labor, from the enslaved to the serfs to the proletariat—they are making history in motion, they are the motive force. Class struggle is the motive force. So, yeah, historical materialism; two, class struggle is the motive force. And the third thing was simply thinking dialectically. What does it mean to think dialectically, for contradictions not to be resolved, but possible nuggets for revelation? For revelation to understand where things are moving, not to predict the future, but to understand how things unfolded? And how things unfolded—thinking of these three things: class struggle, historical materialism, and dialectical processes —all reveal what is hidden from public view. So Marxism was my path to history. Because it became my way of understanding that to study history is to try to reveal what you can’t see.
Those things that are hidden.
Those things that are hidden! That was key for me. And ALL this before Black Marxism came along! So we’re talking about a period from about 1979; ’83, Black Marxism is published. And to go to the foreword of Black Marxism, I talk about the impact that Black Marxism had on me. By the time I got the book, I was the book review editor at Ufahamu, which was a graduate student journal—I did my B.A. in three years, so I was very young. I was twenty-one years old when I started graduate school, and was reading as much as I could. I remember reading Rosa Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital at the time. So in pops Black Marxism, which I received as a book to review. I didn’t know Cedric Robinson. And I read it; it took many times reading it to grasp what he was getting at, because it was quite a radical interpretation, which is actually a critique of Marxism. He comes out of it less a Marxist than someone who is trying to think dialectically but sees Marxism, again, not as a set of principles or laws that are airtight, that people debate, but rather as a way of thinking about the world. So his critique of Marxism is a way of advancing the basic principles of dialectical thinking but then also shifting historical materialism, into which he incorporates or at least acknowledges other dimensions—cultural dimensions, spiritual dimensions. He also argues against the idea of the proletariat as the universal subject. So that threw me; that made me think really hard about what was I doing, and why. By the time I got to that book, I had already begun to think about Hammer and Hoe as a project. My original project was a comparative study of the Left in South Africa and the U.S. South. That was my original plan. And I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t get into the country; it was 1985–6. So Black Marxism became a working model for writing Hammer and Hoe. But Ididn’t understand the book well enough for it to be a full working model. So reading Cedric did not lead to my abandonment of Marxism. It just meant a more critical stance towards certain contradictions in what was becoming Marxism. And I was in an organization at the time—like all these antirevisionist organizations that all claimed to be the pure, true, authentic Marxist group. The way you measure … because … you remember those days …
The way you measure your ﬁdelity to Marxism is how close you are to Lenin. The idea of being antirevisionist, saying we’re not going to revise because we’re close to Lenin. So the Maoists: “No, we’re closer to Lenin.” The Trotskyists: “No, we’re closer to Lenin.” Everybody’s trying to be close to Lenin. And so, of course, we’re reading Lenin. And then I realize at some point, wait a second, this is hemming me in too much.
Let me ask you about that. When I ﬁrst started working on Marxism, it was pretty orthodox, but I did become aware in the late ’60s that there were different traditions. As you say, orthodoxy existed then and had fairly strict ideas—you could be an orthodox Trotskyist, you could be an orthodox Maoist, and so forth. But there was also the idea that there were “traditions” and there were options. And that not all Marxisms were economic determinist, and not all of them believed that culture didn’t matter. Some of them in fact emphasized culture. That’s what I was interested in. When you were reading Cedric Robinson, was it also in your head that there were traditions that still called themselves Marxist that were alternative options?
Yeah. Exactly. It was an interesting time, though. It is true—because I was reading all kinds of stuff. I was reading Eurocommunism. There’s a wing of the British Labor Party—what’s his name, the father …
Ralph Miliband was writing stuff I was reading. There were traditions coming out of Latin America. There was also the moment when liberation theology was actually very popular. Especially living in L.A. where a lot of our work was in the sanctuary movement. So all these things existed, and I was really interested in them. But I had certain blinders. And I’ll tell you what they were. I was at that point a nationalist. In the old-school way. So part of coming to Hammer and Hoe was trying to ﬁgure out, what does it mean to be a black communist? Are there movements that incorporate both black nationalism and Marxism? So I was familiar with different traditions, but I was trying to ﬁgure out what does a black nationalist Marxism look like? Part of my attraction to the CWP and to Workers Viewpoint was that they had more people of color than other organizations. It was ironically a kind of identity politics—the limitations of that—which drew us, my sister and I, to the organization. Come to discover that our decision to join had everything to do also with this idea that you can’t just talk Marxism, you gotta join a party! Even if the party is not perfect, you can’t be an armchair Marxist. So I ended up joining a party, and, for all the limitations and contradictions, the CWP was the one I joined. This was a crucial moment when joining a party seemed fundamental. And it made perfect sense, because think about the trajectory. You have ’68, ’69, the revolutionary youth movement splits. And a bunch of people say, “We’ve got to become Marxists, go work in the factories.” So you’ve got the industrial concentration movement in the 1970s happening. More parties are being formed. The Greensboro massacre happens in ’79, which then steels people to think, hey, we’re in a fascist moment. So we deﬁnitely need an underground party. The election of Reagan, the Greensboro massacre, the failure of the industrial concentration movement, meant that we’ve got to build parties, and the best way to do it is through antirevisionist organizing. So that became a kind of fetter on all the openings that were taking place. And the irony for all the people who talk bad about the academy—and I’m not one, because I think there’s much of value in the academy (though I talk bad about some things)—was that it was stepping out of the antirevisionist organizations and returning back to a deeper reading of Marxism and critiques of Marxism, which included Cedric Robinson’s book, that opened up the path for me to even deeper thinking about some of these things …
Throughout your work, there are numerous examples that take the form of your pointing to seeming contradictions, often in your telling of an event or feature in the lives of your human subjects. How would you describe your use of contradictions or perhaps paradox in your writing? Do you regard it as a necessary component of historical narrative unfolding? Are contradictions decisive nodal points in the lives of your subjects? Is contradiction a fundamental principle of discursive construction and legibility? Do you use it to call attention to the frailty of all human actions? Do you see contradiction as part of a broader commitment to write history “dialectically”?
Contradiction is central to all of my work, partly because of my own reading and training as a Marxist to think dialectically. My own political work when I was in my late teens and early twenties compelled me to try to make sense of Hegel by way of Marx and Engels, Lenin, and C. L. R. James. But before I talk about this, I have to say that the discovery of contradiction was also intuitive—the result of both my experience growing up as a young kid in Harlem, single mother, poor, and thus living every day in an antagonistic relationship with the institutions surrounding us: schools, police, social workers, etc. These were not just everyday contradictions—my ﬁrst-grade teacher forcing kids who acted up in my predominantly black and Latino class to stand in the wastepaper basket and say “I am garbage” as punishment, or the daily treatment we received from cops, school security guards, store owners, who treated seven-and eight-year-old kids as if they were about to commit a crime. More than that, my mom, sister, and I seemed like we were always at some demonstration protesting those very institutions. I have vivid memories of marching around during a cold evening in front of P.S. 28 chanting “Overcrowded! Overcrowded!” to draw attention to the condition of our school. Many parents did not show up; some teachers felt embattled but did not have the support of parents for various reasons—having to do with fear, race (many white teachers), time (had to work long hours), and the school’s failure to engage the community. These all pointed to contradictions whose resolution led to new strategies, new coalitions, and new problems.
To the philosophical aspect: when I was nineteen and a rising sophomore, I spent an entire summer just reading Marxist stuff and precedents (like Hegel) on my own. I had just decided to change my major to history, so I was obsessed with understanding what was later called the “materialist conception of history.” I kept spiral notebooks, so I’m now drawing on these to convey what I learned: Marx’s reading of Hegel’s dialectic provided a radical way of understanding historical change that was not linear or evolutionary but revolutionary. This was based on two premises: that all things are contradictory in themselves, as Hegel would put it, and that “contradiction is the source of all movement and life.” Dialectics for Hegel was a means to think through opposing conceptions or ideas—“thesis” and “antithesis”—in order to move to a higher and deeper level of analysis, a new “synthesis.” This is not about coming to some middle ground, as in contemporary liberalism, but the outcome generally results in a radical break from old ideas. Perhaps more importantly, for me at least, was Hegel’s lessons that when we look at individual things and phenomena, we see only the differences between them, and they stand as discrete entities. But looking dialectically, we can see how they are all part of the same process; they acquire meaning once we see them in dialectical tension, as moments in a process of change.
Of course, for Marx the point of dialectical method was not to understand the battle of ideas, as if philosophy were above the material world, but rather to comprehend reality, society, the historical development of classes and social relations. This is not to say ideas don’t matter, but rather they are shaped by (I wouldn’t say determined by) the material conditions of people and their relation to one another. For Marx, the problems of philosophy cannot be solved by passive interpretation of the world as it is but only by remolding the world to resolve the philosophical contradictions inherent in it. Struggle against/within one’s reality produces the possibility of new philosophy; action changes reality, which then demands analysis, which in turn has material force. Even more than his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, I was inﬂuenced by this quote from Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right”: “The weapon of criticism obviously cannot replace the criticism of weapons. Material force must be overthrown by material force. But theory also becomes a material force once it has gripped the masses” (Marx, 1970, 137).
In part 1 of this interview, we asked if you would trace your own historical connections, as you see them, to Marxist intellectual traditions. In addition, we asked if there were writers not necessarily connected to Marxism whose work you felt was foundational and inﬂuential to your own thinking and writing. We found your answers in part 1 edifying and illuminating. Would you be so kind as to ﬁll in a few more of the remaining gaps for RM’s audience?
My response to your previous question above begins to answer this one. To put it bluntly, my historical work has always been about class struggle in the modern world—mostly in the United States. A modern world is necessarily a racial and gendered world. There are too many inﬂuences to name all, but there was a point when I tried to read as much as I could in Marxist theory, and I wasn’t concerned about ideological camps. This isn’t evident explicitly in my historical writing since I made a concerted effort to draw on theory to understand the movement of people, the conditions of their lives, and the horizon of possibility rather than to use stories to engage theoretical debates. So much of that is submerged.
I can, however, point to the chief Marxist authors and texts that shaped my own thinking, besides Marx and Engels and Lenin. I had taken to Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (speciﬁcally her insights into imperialism); Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks; C. L. R. James, too much to name, but notably Notes on Dialectics and essays in Spheres of Existence and Facing Reality (coauthored with Grace Lee Boggs and Cornelius Castoriadis), among other things. Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs, with whom C. L. R. James worked in the 1950s and early 1960s, were also both very important in my own thinking. I got to know Grace very well, and she became both an interlocutor and tutor. I’ve discussed her inﬂuence on me in my introduction to the reissue of Grace’s memoir, Living for Change, so I won’t repeat that here.
As I think back, my introduction to Marxism is partly indebted to Jack Stuart, my history professor at Long Beach State. A former Trotskyist who taught a wonderful course on the history of Western Marxism, Jack hipped me to the Monthly Review crowd. Besides becoming a regular subscriber (I also had a subscription to the African Communist, the journal of the South African Communist Party!), I read Paul Sweezy and Paul Baran (Theory of Capitalist Development; Monopoly Capital, etc.), Harry Braverman, and Harry Magdoff; Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, which opened up to me a whole lot of underdevelopment and dependency theorists—Samir Amin, Andre Gunder Frank, and so on. In fact, it is worth mentioning that I went to graduate school at UCLA with the intention of studying the political economy of colonialism in Africa, speciﬁcally commodity production in Mozambique. I’d written a prize-winning undergraduate thesis at Long Beach State titled “Structural Change and Underdevelopment in Niger,” about the transition to groundnut production and its impact on the economy.
And there were others, notably historians whose work became models for me: W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins, and Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa were the holy trinity of texts and drove me into the discipline and into the revolution.
Actually, there were many texts whose impact was equally profound and deeply grounded in what might be considered a black Marxist tradition. We sleep on the late 1970s and early 1980s, but I’m fortunate to have come of age politically during a renaissance of radical work. From 1980 until 1983, I was taking black studies in college and for a brief period participated in a study group organized by the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. I was a Black socialist in the making, trying to navigate between my commitment to a politics of black self-determination, a Marxist critique of political economy, and a kind of fuzzy recognition that there is something more than material conditions and exploitation driving our movement. Of course, we read Fanon and Kwame Nkrumah and Kwame Ture, Amilcar Cabral, and others. On my own I read Aimé Césaire, Michael Löwy, Stuart Hall, Oliver Cox, Clarence Munford, and Chinweizu’s still underappreciated text, The West and the Rest of Us.
There is Cornel West and his entire body of work. But, for me, Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity proved formative for understanding the ways in which working-class African Americans melded Marxism and prophetic Christianity, which laid the ideological and cultural basis for the Party—especially in rural Alabama. This deeply historical and incredibly powerful book engaged questions of spirituality and black ontology in the context of slavery and racism in the United States. Like Cedric Robinson—he begins with an exegesis on the emergence, development, and decline of European modernity and then examines the consequences of excluding Native American and African culture and thought from the formation of American social order. He then considers the contours and meaning of the emergence of a unique Afro-American culture and its engagement with modernity and postmodernity. The core of the book, however, is his brilliant examination of a dialogical encounter between black prophetic Christianity and Marxism, producing in the end what he deemed an Afro-American revolutionary Christianity.
Manning Marable’s impact, as a Black Marxist and engaged intellectual, cannot be overstated. I ﬁrst read Blackwater: Historical Studies in Race, Class Consciousness, and Revolution when it came out in 1981. The essays in it explored the history of black struggles for freedom, tracing the roots of contemporary social movements to slavery and Reconstruction, to black faith communities and battles for land and economic independence, all the way through the civil rights movement and urban rebellions. This was no academic book; Marable proposed what he called a “Common Program for a Third Reconstruction” rooted in a politics of transformation as distinct from (or perhaps the dialectical synthesis of) integration (civil rights) and separatism (black nationalism). But it drew on the history of the Bolshevik Revolution! It was modeled on the mass of workers and soldiers represented in the Petrograd Soviet and the middle-class parliamentary opposition in the Provisional Government. This analogy of “dual power” that he envisioned might emerge under a Third Reconstruction, as a transitional stage to dismantling the racist state under socialism. That futuristic, imaginative move always stuck with me, and rarely do Marable’s admirers return to that early text.
The work that left the biggest impression on me was How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (1983), a critical treatise on the ravages of late capitalism, state violence, incarceration, and patriarchy on the life chances and struggles of black working-class men and women. That book, I would contend, inﬂuenced an entire generation to focus our energies on the terrain of the prison-industrial complex, anti-Klan work, labor organizing, alternatives to black capitalism, and challenging patriarchy—personally and politically. Just reading the preface stopped me in my tracks: “The intellectual who makes a public commitment to transform society, to smash white racism and the inherently exploitative system laughingly described as ‘free enterprise’ by its defenders, cannot plead his/her case in muted grey tones. For the Black masses to ‘return to their own history,’ we must begin by rewriting that history—but not in the language, style or outlook of the system” (Marable 2015, xlvii).
And then there was Angela Davis, the thinker, not the icon. Her book Women, Race, and Class was standard reading in my black leftist study groups. The essays examined the intersection of race, gender, and class and taught me/us a great deal about the barriers to building a class-conscious, antiracist feminist movement over the past century. She also looks at the intersection of forces oppressing women, including various forms of sexual violence. It was important to read Davis at that time since her insights into reproduction became an entrée into the debates that were raging in the 1970s around reproduction, class, and patriarchy among Marxist feminists, notably Silvia Federici, who is one of my biggest inﬂuences, but also Marlene Dixon, Shulamith Firestone, Maria Mies, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, Lise Vogel, Juliet Mitchell, Heidi Hartmann, Michèle Barrett, Zillah R. Eisenstein, and others I can’t recall now.
A number of historians working within a Marxist framework directly shaped my own work, many of whom published in The History Workshop Journal, Radical History Review, and Science and Society. Among them were E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, George Rudé, and the like. But of that next generation, the most important for me were David Roediger (The Wages of Whiteness) and Peter Linebaugh (The London Hanged and many other books, including The Many-Headed Hydra, which he coauthored with Marcus Rediker, another inﬂuence). I’ve written about Linebaugh in several places, most notably in an essay in Monthly Review, titled “Dead Labor,” back in 1993, which demonstrated how his book The London Hanged turned my entire understanding of history and historical method upside down.
Finally, I have to mention the late George Rawick, who became a mentor to me in the spring of 1987 while he was visiting at UCLA. He sat with me for hours and schooled me in ways to interpret working-class movements, culture, and resistance, and he introduced me to some of his groundbreaking essays, such as “The Historical Roots of Black Liberation” (1968), “Notes on the American Working Class” (1968), and “Working-Class Self-Activity” (1969). By paying greater attention to Rawick’s concept of “self-activity,” Alabama’s Communists opened up another world of politics, since I found that most of the people the Party fought for did not join insurgent organizations. They fought back as individuals or groups, often using strategies intended to cover their tracks. Rawick also insisted I read Class and Culture in Cold War America: A Rainbow at Midnight by George Lipsitz. Published in 1981, the book argued that the postwar period was not the death of labor’s struggle but one of the most active, militant periods of working-class opposition in U.S. history. He acknowledged the defeat of the postwar strike wave but revealed expressions of militancy through popular culture. But Lipsitz’s 1988 book on a St. Louis organizer, A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition, gave me the framework I needed to understand the local political culture and to help me see the Alabama Communists and their supporters as organic intellectuals. Once I did that, I could see the cultural and ideological bases of their own way of seeing alternatives to the status quo. I came to understand why the Bible was more important in challenging the dominant ideology than, say, Marx or Lenin.
You write in the foreword to Black Marxism that Cedric Robinson’s ambitious critique of both Western Marxian traditions and black radical traditions fundamentally transformed your life, your sense of mission, your approach to history and revolutionary politics. Can you summarize the impact Robinson’s work has had on your own?
I can never sufﬁciently explain the impact Cedric’s work and tutelage have had on my development as a historian, as an intellectual, and as one who identiﬁes as a revolutionary. I hope it is clear in most of what I’ve written over the past thirty years. To be clear, Cedric and I were not personally close, despite the fact that he served on my dissertation committee and we remained in touch on and off since 1984. While I never took a class with him (he was teaching at UC-Santa Barbara and I was at UCLA), I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that no person I’ve personally encountered in my lifetime has had a greater intellectual impact on me besides my mother. His ideas—or at least my interpretation of them—thoroughly shaped my ﬁrst book on the Communist Party in Alabama. I initially framed the problem as why the “white” Left had failed to mobilize the black working class, but reading Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983) made me realize that my question was wrong. It was never about a failing in the “Left’s” ability to mobilize black people but our conceptual failure to recognize what Cedric identiﬁed as a “Black Radical Tradition” critical of, and illegible to, a Euro-American Left formed by the logic of Western Civilization. When this tradition found its way into Left movements—in Africa, Latin America, the United States—it brought its own unique vision, historical sensibility, and set of resistance strategies to the Communist movement and, in doing so, altered the Party. In other words, I was initially stuck arguing against scholars who tried to prove that Communism was alien to black people; Robinson compelled me to ask what black people brought to the Left to make it their own. The presumed objects of Communist machinations became subjects and agents in making their own history.
But Robinson’s inﬂuence continued to shape my thinking in unique ways, which I hope is evident in all of my subsequent work. For the past three decades, I have continued to return to Black Marxism, his essays in Race and Class, and his later books, Black Movements in America (1997), An Anthropology of Marxism (2001), and Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film before World War II (2007). I should say something about his ﬁrst book, The Terms of Order: Political Science and the Myth of Leadership (1980), although it wasn’t the ﬁrst thing of his that I read. In fact, I tried to read it in graduate school and, quite frankly, I couldn’t understand it because I hadn’t read enough (it wasn’t a matter of language, by the way). But once I understood it, Robinson forced me to come to terms with the limits of Marxism—even while acknowledging the variety of Marxisms I’d encountered. His thesis demolished the Western presumption that mass movements reﬂect social order and are maintained and rationalized by the authority of leadership. Critiquing both liberal and Marxist theories of political change, Robinson argued that leadership (the idea that effective social action is determined by a leader who is separate from or above the masses of people) and political order are essentially ﬁctions, and he proved it with examples of radical democracy that break with Eurocentric models of Greco-Roman diffusion. He concludes that it is not enough to reshape or reformulate Marxism to ﬁt the needs of Third World revolution, but we must reject all universalist theories of political and social order. That made me go back to Black Marxism, yet again (which inspired me to push the University of North Carolina Press to bring it back into print in 2000).
There was much I didn’t appreciate the ﬁrst time around—namely, the thoroughness with which he took on Marxism, though from an astutely radical position. For example, Robinson directly challenges the Marxist idea that capitalism was a revolutionary negation of feudalism, arguing instead that capitalism emerged within the Western feudal order in societies that were already racialized. Capitalism and racism, in other words, did not break from the old order but rather evolved from it to produce a modern world system of “racial capitalism” dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide. He lays out in great detail how the ﬁrst European proletarians were racial subjects (Irish, Jews, Roma or Gypsies, Slavs, etc.) and how they were victims of dispossession (enclosure), colonialism, and slavery within Europe. I had missed this since I wasn’t so concerned with Europe in my early twenties.
Part of his point, of course, was that capitalism was not the great modernizer, giving birth to a modern proletariat as a universal subject. Indeed, the proletariat was not a universal subject. Just as the Irish were products of very different popular traditions born and bred under colonialism, the “English” working class was formed by Anglo-Saxon chauvinism, a racial ideology shared across class lines that allowed the English bourgeoisie to rationalize low wages and mistreatment for the Irish. The other shock, which he elaborates in his book An Anthropology of Marxism, is that it was in this dynamic, unstable feudal order that socialism was born as an alternative bourgeois strategy to deal with social inequality.
The creation of a European proletariat, he argues, was only one part of the formation of a world system. At this very moment, African labor was being drawn into the orbit of the world system through the trans-Atlantic slave trade, just as indigenous people were being drawn in through invasion and dispossession. Thus, to understand the dialectic of African resistance to enslavement and exploitation, he insists we look outside the orbit of capitalism and into the cultures of West and Central African culture. The ﬁrst waves of African New World revolts were governed by a total rejection of enslavement and racism, with a commitment to preserving a past they knew, and were more inclined to escape: creating maroon settlements, fugitivity, etc. But with formal colonialism, settlement, and the incorporation of black labor into a more fully governed social structure came a native black bourgeoisie that occupied a contradictory role as victims of racial/colonial domination and tools of empire, since they were educated in the colonial system. A portion of this class revolted, becoming the radical black intelligentsia, who in so many instances turned to what Robinson identiﬁed as the most dynamic oppositional ideological tendency in the twentieth century: Marxism. It was through their engagement with Marxism that ﬁgures such as W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, and Richard Wright confronted black mass movements, compelling a revision of Western Marxism and a break from some of its most basic tenets. In other words, black Marxist intellectuals were not the Black Radical Tradition; rather, it was through their engagement with the Left and Marxist ideas that they discovered the Black Radical Tradition.
Are there any other thinkers who have been as inﬂuential as Robinson in guiding your work? If so, who and how?
Besides the many I already mentioned above, there are many historians and other scholars and activists whose work has been formative in my own writing, especially on black radical movements. Some are of my generation—Tera H. Hunter, Elsa Barkley Brown, Earl Lewis, Michael Honey, Joe W. Trotter, Farah Grifﬁn, Gerald Gill, and others you will ﬁnd in my book acknowledgements. For the sake of space, I will highlight two more senior ﬁgures: Nell Irvin Painter and Barbara Smith. Painter is the author of several inﬂuential books, including Exodusters; Standing at Armageddon; Southern History Across the Color Line; Sojourner Truth; and A History of White People. But the text that had the greatest direct impact was The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: His Life as a Negro Communist in the South. That book set me on this journey to Alabama to ﬁnd the Communist Party. Nell Painter spent all of her professional life trying to ﬁgure out how subjugated people tried to rebuild democracy in their own interest. Sometimes that democracy was public and national, sometimes it was community-based and local, and other times it was at the level of the household.
I came to Barbara Smith’s work ﬁrst through her coedited anthology, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies (1982), edited by Smith, Gloria T. Hull, and Patricia Bell Scott. More than anything I had read before about black studies, Smith and Hull’s introductory statement made the strongest case for critical analysis as a mode of praxis, insisting that there has to be a deep, organic, dialectical link between black women’s studies and the black feminist movement and that black women’s studies must necessarily be “feminist, radical, and analytical.” Looking back, it is pretty clear now that But Some of Us Were Brave contributed so much more than making black women visible. By calling for a critical analysis of race, gender, and sexuality, Smith anticipates so much of the scholarship that now falls under the rubric of queer studies and critical race theory.
Race features centrally in nearly all that you write about. To help clarify some of the discussion here, and to help us understand where one critical concept ends and another possibly begins, can you tell us: what do you mean by race?
What is race? This is a hard question since it is often conﬂated with “racism” and “racialization.” The dictionary deﬁnition of race still includes things like groups of people that share “genetically transmitted physical characteristics,” despite the fact that there is no biological basis for race. It is a social construct. Racial categories are contradictory, contingent, and reﬂect power relations more than scientiﬁc research. Race is socially produced categories of difference with the intention to subordinate, exclude, denigrate, etc. This is why there is no such thing as race without racism. Race isn’t simply an “identity” but is a structure of power, or a means of structuring power, through “difference.” Skin color is not an essential feature of racism. Racism is an ideology based on the idea that race determines, or can explain, human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular “race.” Finally, I invoke Cedric Robinson’s deﬁnition of a “racial regime”: “Racial regimes are constructed social systems in which race is proposed as a justiﬁcation for the relations of power. While necessarily articulated with accruals of power, the covering conceit of a racial regime is a makeshift patchwork masquerading as memory and the immutable.”
Racial capitalism is the term Robinson theorized. It has become quite current in contemporary historical and social analyses of the plight of marginalized people within global capitalism. What is your understanding of racial capitalism?
The term racial capitalism merely signals that race/racial categories and capitalism are co-constitutive, a point central to Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism, as I mentioned in an earlier response. Capital accumulation occurs through various “racial projects that assign differential value to human life and labor,” as Andy Clarno so eloquently put it in his book Neoliberal Apartheid. The phrase originated in South Africa during the mid 1970s and is sometimes attributed to Martin Legassick and Harold Wolpe, among others like Bernard Magubane. It emerged as an analytical framework to understand how the apartheid state structured relations of race, class, and accumulation. In the South African context, it made sense to add the adjective “racial” to capitalism, not to distinguish it from other kinds of capitalisms but rather to pose a political question: whether dismantling apartheid without overthrowing capitalism would leave in place structures that reproduce racial inequality and the superexploitation of nonwhite workers. Or put differently, would a postapartheid nation be able to eliminate the very structures that reproduce deep racial, class, and gender inequality without dismantling capitalism?
Today, we tend to associate the term with Cedric Robinson, who—building on the work of sociologist Oliver Cox—argues not only that race/racialism preceded capitalism but that racialization begins in Europe itself as part of colonial processes of invasion, settlement, expropriation, and racial hierarchy. The takeaway here, then, is that “racial capitalism” is not merely a type of capitalism, say as opposed to nonracist capitalism. The term simply signals that capitalism developed and operates within a racialized and gendered order.
Robinson’s critique of Marx begins with the observation that white supremacy as a racial “regime” predates capitalism and is entrenched in the process of primitive accumulation, yet Marx never sees or analyzes it. White supremacy as a feature of European feudalism was reconstituted in the transition to capitalism but was not critically engaged by Marx and other anticapitalists. Robinson sees this as a kind of cultural or ethnocentric bias. In the context of global labor, what is incomplete in Capital? How does Robinson’s insight, and/or yours, regarding Marx’s neglect of already existing white supremacy invalidate or transform Marx’s conception of class and the appropriation of surplus labor from productive workers, which Marx calls “exploitation”?
I can’t possibly do justice to this question without producing a small book, but let me try to begin to answer. First, I don’t think Robinson’s critique of Marx and Engels pivots around his observation that white supremacy predates capitalism. I think he would say racialism predates capitalism—which is to say, the production of racial difference and hierarchy emerged within European society itself, before the kinds of encounters that would give rise to “whiteness” as a category. But by examining, say, the shifting and increasingly violent character of the English colonization of Ireland in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, he demonstrates that there were other antagonisms or contradictions that disrupted any tidy analyses that put class and class struggle at the center. What happened in Europe was similar to the racialization of indigenous peoples by dispossession. Those who are not killed are dispersed, often ending up as indentures on ships to the New World or as migrant labor on the English mainland. Robinson observes that it was these historical experiences that shaped Irish nationalism and determined its relationship with its English working-class counterparts. And he goes on to show how the Irish came to be understood as “an inferior race.” The main point, as Robinson puts it, is that “the tendency of European civilization through capitalism was thus not to homogenize but to differentiate—to exaggerate regional, subcultural, and dialectical differences into ‘racial’ ones.”
In other words, Marx and Engels argued that bourgeois society would rationalize social relations and demystify social consciousness, but the opposite occurred precisely because of the ways in which race shaped the development of capitalist society and its attendant social ideology. Racism or racialism permeated the base and superstructure, creating hierarchies, allegiances, and identiﬁcations that did not lead to a uniﬁed proletariat or social consciousness. Robinson’s point is that what Marx and Engels could not grasp at the time was how racialism (and subsequently nationalism) actually affected the class consciousness of workers in England.
Robinson takes Marx and Engels to task on so many issues—too many to recount here. In his preface to the 2000 edition of Black Marxism, for example, Robinson wrote, “Fully aware of the constant place women and children held in the workforce, Marx still deemed them so unimportant as a proportion of wage labor that he tossed them, with slave labor and peasants, into the imagined abyss signiﬁed by precapitalist, noncapitalist, and primitive accumulation.” Robinson is not alone in arguing that Marx’s formulation of so-called primitive accumulation is misplaced in that these forms of exploitation were not archaic or did not preﬁgure the extraction of surplus value from the proletariat but rather were coconstitutive, and that forms of unfree labor actually expanded with capitalism, not the other way around. But perhaps the most important critique of Marx and Marxism has to do with liberation movements, not exploitation. Again, from his preface, Robinson wrote, “But Marxism’s internationalism was not global; its materialism was exposed as an insufﬁcient explanator of cultural and social forces; and its economic determinism too often politically compromised freedom struggles beyond or outside of the metropole.” Yes, Marx wrote a lot about India; yes, he wrote about the United States and Russia; yes, Marx excoriated slavery, colonialism, and imperialism—anyone who says he ignored these things is lying; yes, Marx himself never claimed to be doing anything beyond understanding the processes of capitalist development in Western Europe. But what he missed was the signiﬁcance of revolt in the rest of the world, speciﬁcally among the enslaved, corvée labor, coolie labor, and the like. These people were humans, exploited, but ripped from “superstructures” with radically different beliefs, morality, cosmology, metaphysics, intellectual traditions, etc. So Robinson tries to push beyond Marx to imagine how we might advance a radical interpretation of liberation movements by examining their rebellions not as expressions of precapitalist people or examples of primitive accumulation but as modalities of struggle against the world system of capitalist exploitation. Because neither Marx nor Engels considered the colonies, plantations, or the countryside central to modern capitalist processes, resistance in these places was always regarded as underdeveloped or peripheral. Moreover, this resistance did not resemble the secular radical humanism of 1848 or 1789, so it was incomprehensible. And Marx’s argument that the export of capitalist forms to the colonies was a good thing in the long run since it sped up the development of the productive forces and accelerated class struggle (in this case, India) revealed signiﬁcant lapses, in my view, but more importantly reinforced the illegibility of forms of struggle that were rendered backward or primitive.
In Freedom Dreams you examine radical black movements for their visions and desires. You do so to examine not only what problems and “unfreedoms” they identiﬁed (and which gave rise to them) as critique but also to remind readers of the possible or alternative worlds they imagined, dreamed of one day inhabiting, but which did not yet exist. Indeed, this powerful idea occurs throughout all of your work, and certainly up through and including Africa Speaks, America Answers. You encourage your readers not to despair or embrace cynicism but to see the impossibility of the present as a symptom, as a shared element of what drove earlier black freedom seekers. And you point readers to previous ways that black radicals turned impossibility into the seeds of possibility. Would you call this dream- or visionwork “utopian”? Or is utopian thought, in your view, speciﬁcally Eurocentric, visions based upon nineteenth-century European ideas of socialism and communism? What do you see as the main visionary impulses or desires in black radical traditions? Or emerging in the present challenges facing contemporary black radicals transnationally?
I go back and forth on the term “utopian,” which I use in Freedom Dreams a few times but not always positively. Utopian technically means “nowhere,” which implies impossibility, and this may actually be true since what might be collectively conceived as possible is conceivably better than “nowhere.” Utopia is also what Fascists were trying to achieve, so I’m cautious about that term. I’m also cautious because I’m not one to quickly dismiss Engels’s iconic essay “Socialism: Utopian and Scientiﬁc.” While I might question the scientiﬁc claims and the implication of inevitability, the third chapter of that text, which explains the dialectical relationship between social and economic struggles and the possibilities that open up for revolution, grounds a vision of socialism in actual social movements rather than just the movement of capital.
I begin here because I often fear that Freedom Dreams is misread, not just by critics but by those most inspired by the book. They like the idea of “visionwork” as you call it, but too often divorce that work from critical analysis, the thinking that emerges directly from social movements, the challenges of solidarity, and a much deeper understanding of the mechanisms of oppression that generate the conditions for new modes of analysis. So the book emphatically argues that it is not enough to imagine a world without oppression (especially since we don’t always recognize the variety of forms or modes in which oppression occurs), but we must also understand the mechanisms or processes that not only reproduce structural inequality but make them common sense and render those processes natural or invisible. I was trying to write about people in transformative social movements, how they moved/shifted their ideas, rethought inherited categories, tried to locate and overturn blatant, subtle, and invisible modes of domination. In other words, they were never in a dream state but a kind of struggle state. Of course, there are many examples of work that unveils these processes and that interrogates categories that we continue to take for granted: what is human, race, power, gender, sexuality, security, capital, the law, crime, leadership, and freedom. Just off the top of my head, there is Cedric Robinson, Sylvia Wynter, Beth Richie, Denise da Silva, Erica Edwards, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Fred Moten, Roderick Ferguson, Asfanah Najmabadi, Alexander G. Weheliye, James Ford, Chandan Reddy, Mishuana Goeman, Sara Ahmed, Jodi Byrd, and too many others to name.
I’m not sure I can identify the main visionary impulses in black radical traditions outside of historical context. I agree with Cedric Robinson’s account of the era prior to emancipation, in which he located those impulses ﬁrst in West and Central African culture. The ﬁrst African New World revolts were more intent on preserving a past than transforming Western society or overthrowing capitalism; they created maroon settlements, ran away, became outliers, and tried to ﬁnd a way home even if it meant death. These impulses have changed over time, and right now some of the central impulses center on sexual freedom and liberation from gender oppressions, bodily integrity in a state that deliberately seeks to destroy black bodies in so many ways, and the continual question of land—that is to say, a place to exercise self-determination (like present-day Jackson, Mississippi, or Newark, New Jersey) and the preservation of the earth against capital’s environmental catastrophe. This is not to say that the desires of working people not to be exploited have diminished, but to recognize how freedom from everyday misery and precarity is realized in so many subjugated black communities through a neoliberal optic. This we might call neoliberal “capture” of the culture, where one emphasizes net worth, social capital, one’s “brand,” getting paid by whatever means necessary, instead of the old discourse around black charity, lifting as we climb (elites assisting the poor), etc. Revolution is not part of this.
And yet there is something very revolutionary about the struggles around sex and gender, in part because they reveal something I wrote about in Freedom Dreams: “Another problem, of course, is that such dreaming is often suppressed and policed not only by our enemies but by leaders of social movements themselves. The utopian visions of male nationalists or so-called socialists often depend on the suppression of women, of youth, of gays and lesbians, of people of color. Desire can be crushed by so-called revolutionary ideology.” Again, this reinforces my point that understanding the struggle is the only way to understand the “freedom dreams” as the collective product of movement and contradiction.
You also expand on your reﬂections in Freedom Dreams in a more recent essay on student movements on campuses and in the streets. In the Boston Review essay “Black Study, Black Struggle,” you highlight the intersectional nature of what it is to engage in black radical movement formation in our time. Building your analysis on a “mantra” to “love, study, struggle,” you encourage students (in colleges and universities, in prisons, in the streets) to deepen their awareness of the responsibilities of subject formation, of the need to recognize and cultivate forms of agency that are comprehensive, that are informed by their collective (not individual) dreams of freedom. What are the speciﬁc practices within which intellectuals and activists “learn” and nurture such collective dreams of freedom? Do they also include “economic” ones, and if so, what exactly are they?
What a hard question! I don’t have a precise list of practices in part because I’m suggesting that what’s most important is that we proceed collectively, critically, and by erasing the boundaries between those we think of as either intellectuals or knowledge workers and the rest of us. So an essential element of that piece is about the relationship between students, faculty, and university waged labor—that we love, study, and struggle together as a much bigger (and oppressed) community. I highlighted those student groups that included campus worker issues in their overall demands. Indeed, the university’s liberal conceits have long masked its history of exploitative labor policies—antiunion practices, outsourcing, and refusal to pay fair wages to janitors, groundskeepers, clerical staff, food services employees, and increasingly, adjunct teachers, who make up between 70 and 75 percent of faculty in higher education. University and college CEOs are quick to blame ﬁscal austerity for keeping wages low, breaking unions, and outsourcing labor from private companies, despite the evidence that living-wage increases constitute a miniscule percentage of their overall budgets. Universities are corporations that have amassed huge endowments, dominate much of the U.S. economy, employ a workforce more likely to be female and black and brown, and, as land-grant institutions, enjoy massive tax breaks. Yale University is New Haven’s largest employer, and the Yale-New Haven Hospital is the city’s second largest employer. Both institutions have a history of union busting, cutting health and retirement beneﬁts, and subcontracting with outside ﬁrms in order to use nonunion labor to perform clerical, food, and maintenance work. Years of experience and deepening ties between organized labor and the community led to the formation of the Connecticut Center for a New Economy (CCNE). The CCNE became a powerful force against the gentriﬁcation of working-class neighborhoods, rising rents, declining wages, deportations and protections for undocumented workers, and the hospital’s planned expansion that would have displaced a section of New Haven’s black community. From this powerful labor community, they not only strengthened organized labor but built New Haven Rising, a signiﬁcant political movement to contest Yale’s power in the electoral arena. To me, this is one model of the “speciﬁc practices” you asked me about.
So underlying that piece is a kind of skepticism toward the university and a critique of its role in the neoliberal order, and that means resisting university roles in R&D that promotes militarism, exploitation, environmental destruction, etc., as well as creating institutions outside of campuses altogether to give our communities critically free, quality education that the communities themselves help design.
And ﬁnally, I make a case for the classic study group (not to pass an exam but to read and debate toward movement building). All of this requires a qualitative leap from our current atomizing neoliberal culture of market thinking. We are all pushing back against this idea that we’re individual actors at the university in a competitive world and that the point of education is to enhance our social capital, our value, improve our “brand,” etc., which plays into the general assault on any kind of collectivism and social solidarity. This has been the cornerstone of neoliberal thought, and it plays out in the language of “self-care” and “selfhelp” and entrepreneurialism as the proper response to everything.
Coming back to the important contributions of Robinson’s work and of your own, you should know that both of us were deeply affected, perhaps for different reasons and contexts, in the early to mid 80s by the book African Philosophy: Myth & Reality by the Benin philosopher Paulin Hountondji. You probably know this book. Hountondji had been a student of Louis Althusser, and we dare say that our work, and that of many of those connected to the journal Rethinking Marxism, was likewise indebted to Althusserian ideas and concepts. Hountondji, writing in the late 60s and 70s, was adamant against what he described at the time as a destructive mythological notion of the “unanism” of Africa, a common epistemological outlook and a common ontology from which that epistemology derived. He called this “ethnophilosophy,” and he believed its emphasis on a shared negritude and collective African values stood in the way of the free thought and expression needed to continue developing diverse strands of a scientiﬁc African philosophy. In your work, you often cite Robinson and others who, in contrast to Hountondji, refer to a shared epistemological and ontological outlook and set of experiences from which these “African” collective values grow. Yet in Africa Speaks, you also often come down on the side of experimentation (as with jazz) and freedom of expression in music, culture, and politics, perhaps within but also in conﬂict with existing “tradition.” We wonder if you might comment on what we see as this tension in your work?
I remember hearing Hountondji speak at the African Studies Association meeting in Los Angeles in 1984, the year African Philosophy was selected cowinner of the Herskovits award. Then it was very controversial, not only for his critique of the ethno-philosophers but because he was (wrongly) perceived as imposing Euro-centric epistemological and ontological frameworks on Africa. What I remember about the book puts him more in line with Cedric, who I don’t think was a proponent of ethno-philosophy. I think he was doing something different, which will take a minute to explain.
First, one of Hountondji’s main complaints about ethno-philosophy wasn’t just the assertion of a unity of beliefs but that their “philosophy” is only evident in cultural practice; they don’t need to “think” and reﬂect since it is embedded in everyday life. Cedric, too, had issues with this presumption. He was inﬂuenced in grad school by W. E. Abraham’s The Mind of Africa, which examines the Akan and can probably fall under the category of ethno-philosophy. But in a paper he wrote assessing the book for an African politics course he took at Stanford, Cedric insisted on the historical speciﬁcity for modes of indigenous thought, while being skeptical of the idea that core belief systems change in correspondence with institutional changes. He wrote:
The exaggeration of the importance of institutional differences is a perversity that arises from the conception of method as being concerned with the immediately overt, and from the conception of explanation of all societies as the apotheosis of its quite static and inertia-ridden institutional framework as its essence, as that in terms of which, rather than simply by reference to which, striking features of the society must be explained. The effect of this is to treat the institutions as though they were self-mandated, and were only subject to an internal evolutionary principle (Robinson 1969).
So despite his assertions about the unity of African culture, he was not claiming cultural or philosophical sameness or timelessness but was rather rejecting all universalist theories of political and social order. Robinson drew on the evidence he had available of how Africans responded to the Middle Passage, to plantation life, to revolts and marronage. And what he drew from the evidence were actions and thoughts and ways of being that don’t correspond with Western rationalism; ideas and practices that place the collective “we” above the “I,” as well as that challenge axiomatic assumptions by political theorists about authority and leadership. What he observed was a shared epistemology among diverse African people. The ﬁrst waves of African New World revolts were not governed by a critique structured by Western conceptions of freedom but were a total rejection of enslavement and racism as it was experienced. All of this cut across lines of ethnicity/nationality in the African diaspora, and Robinson proves it through speciﬁc examples (the details of which are often buried in a long footnote). However, with the advent of formal colonialism and the incorporation of black labor into a more fully governed social structure, there emerged a native bourgeoisie, more intimate with European life and thought, assigned to help rule. Their contradictory role as victims of racial domination and tools of empire compelled some of these men and women to revolt, thus producing the radical black intelligentsia, whose critiques tend to be more legible to Western political theory. In other words, Robinson’s entire argument is premised on listening to the so-called “subaltern,” on recognizing that people think, and that they think about their freedom, the world, and their place in it.
Robinson’s discussion of Tonga consciousness in his book The Terms of Order is a brilliant case in point that I can’t summarize here, but I urge your readers to check out. His main takeaway is that the Tonga—a group in Southern Africa—embraced the principle that “all are equally incomplete.” Therefore, they require each other and all of life itself, land, animals, plants, to become complete. The result is a metaphysics of the relatedness of things, of the indivisibility of life. Now, Robinson suggests that such a metaphysics was not alien to the West and, in fact, ﬂashed up on occasion, but usually as a “transitional function for the political or an antagonistic relationship to [the political].” What he meant were things like collective revolutions or, say, what the anarchist Peter Kropotkin argued about the instinct of mutual aid developing into a stage of ethical morality, etc. Studying the Tonga or African “consciousness” in general became a way for Cedric to critique Western political theorists’ failure to comprehend notions of political authority that don’t look like what emerged in Europe. It is more than ironic that intellectuals can speak so conﬁdently about a “Western tradition,” teach millions of students about this tradition along the way as if it is a thing with a few countervailing (counterveiling?) tendencies, but can’t do the same anywhere else. But he points out: (1) the construction of a Western tradition also obscures thought within Europe deemed heretical; (2) most importantly, it sees the world through a limited epistemology grounded in European history/thought. As he puts it, Western social thought is not merely ethnocentric but epistemocentric as well. And here, I think, he has more in common with Hountondji and Mudimbe. In one of his ﬁrst essays, he took the Scottish historian George Shepperson to task for ignoring native cultural and ontological bases for John Chilembwe’s rebellion in Malawi in 1915 and imposing a European (speciﬁcally a Scottish nationalist) lens masquerading as universal. Robinson wrote wryly, “Chilembwe was not a Cromwell; he never could be. But most importantly he never had to be. His movement had its own quite special and remarkable integrity.”
Finally, for Robinson, trying to determine indigenous epistemologies and ontologies is more than an intellectual practice but is a matter of life and death for the victims of colonial domination. One of his biggest critiques centers on the nation-state, which he sees as a peculiar and speciﬁc product of European modernity whose main function is as an instrument of power and repression. Nationalism is inextricable from the state and is potentially lethal. He wrote an essay in 1996 titled “In Search of a Pan-African Commonwealth,” which made a distinction between what he called political Pan-Africanism and cultural Pan-Africanism, privileging the latter as a more authentic expression of people’s struggles and the former a dangerous by-product of Western hegemony. I apologize for doing this, but his insights are so valuable for your question, he is worth quoting at length:
Even a casual glance through our historical era will conﬁrm that the domestic political cultures of nation-states are animated by irrational impulses which tend toward ethnic domination or in the extreme ethnic cleansing; and their most constant external impulse is expansionism. This deceit was the second modernizing mission appropriated by political Pan-Africanism, so it should not be surprising that we can now add the names of numerous African tyrants to the list of their Western counterparts. But it is clear that political Pan-Africanism was an insufﬁcient if not mistaken mission, so no matter the particular perversions of the Charles Taylors [former Liberian dictator] of today, more profoundly they are the heirs of a ﬂawed, misconceived past. Our contemporary rapacious hyenas are not blameless but they did not organize the feast … the black middle class has hybridized freedom with material ambition. They possess no cultures grounded in the historical struggles against oppression, only the costume of political independence … In an historical moment which is no longer than an instant, they are necessary to the struggle, but because they are the darker-faced familiars to those forces which extract wealth and life from Africa, the West Indies and the exiled communities, the black middle classes have an unnatural duration … For just as the destiny of all nation-states appears to be the descent into militarism and barbarism, the black modernists seem fated to spawn men and women of insatiable greed (Robinson 1996).
Now, I know you asked about these tensions in my own work, but, if anything, my work is modeled on Cedric’s insights—which is to say, recognition of historical dynamics generating ideas and identities, antiessentialism, and decentering Western epistemologies as the only way to see these processes. So, in Africa Speaks, I do speak of a particular African or Third World modernity—an alternative to a speciﬁc form of European modernity (which itself is not uniﬁed but whose outlines are pretty clear). If anything, the cultural actors in my book are also the authors of their conception of modern jazz and its relationship with Africa and its diasporas, but we don’t take their theorizing of modernity seriously (which is why I wrote that book).
Let’s talk about diaspora and its histories, futures. Diasporic communities are not natural ones. Rather, to talk about a black diaspora is to talk about the history of a particular kind of human vulnerability and then to seek to understand the conditions of life of those who experience that human vulnerability as “their problem.” In her essay “Race and Globalization: Racialization from Below,” Leith Mullings argues,
Four centuries of the transatlantic slave trade and the racialized subordination of people of African descent produced a construction of race throughout much of the world. As a result, many regions of the world were dominated by what one could call a racial mode of production—involving not only exploitation of labor, but also the skills of Africans and their descendants—to build the modern world system. In many areas of the world race became a world-view that rationalized domination and privilege, on one hand, and dispossession of land, labor, wealth and rights, on the other. Scientiﬁc racism, which emerged in the 18th century, provided a pseudoscientiﬁc patina for a set of beliefs that categorized people into different races, each endowed with unequal capacities, and alleged not merely that biological and social differences were ﬁxed, inheritable and unchangeable, but also that races could be ranked hierarchically, with the white race as the pinnacle of civilization (Mullings 2008).
Clearly, Mullings would agree with Robinson that white supremacy is already in existence and part of the feudal order that gives way to nascent capitalism, making racial capitalism from the beginning. And Mullings grounds “diaspora” in/as the historical and material experience of Europe’s impact on “the rest” by treating white supremacy as a cultural and material export good that accompanied all trade, conquest, and appropriation. Diaspora is a political and historical community rooted in resistance. White supremacy is an element of the form of the racial regimes of European colonizers and settlers that diasporic communities formed to oppose, resist, survive. Diaspora, then, might be constituted as well in the cultural and material experience of racialization from below. Unanism isn’t natural or preexisting. It is made in the rise of global capitalism. Your thoughts?
Despite the insistence on denaturalizing diaspora, there remains the risk of reductionisms or essentialisms that elide important differences of place and time, setting up failed alliances. Help us clarify your understanding of diaspora and community among those who, racialized from below, respond to the challenge to remake our world anew?
I think I answered some of this in my above response. Of course, I agree with Mullings, and her essay is right on point. I tend not to use diaspora much anymore, and when I did, I often made a kind of Marxist distinction between “diaspora in itself” and “diaspora for itself”—the former is a structural relationship based on migration and forced dispersal, the latter is when those populations form political and social movements recognizing a shared plight and shared identity. I think an African Diaspora framework, as capacious as it is, cannot account for the full range of black identities and transnational histories—especially those that do not ﬁt within a Pan-African imaginary. In some of my earlier writings, I challenged prevailing identity politics that treated identities as matters of culture—or, worse, matters of biology and/or inheritance—when, in fact, some of the most dynamic and transnational identities originated in the realm of politics: i.e., in the way people seek alliances and political “identiﬁcations” across oceans and national boundaries. Instead, I argued that by focusing on these kinds of identiﬁcations and their international contexts, we can discern the contingent, malleable nature of identities and the limits of a diasporic framework that centers primarily on Africa and African dispersal. Expanding our sights from Africa-centered movements of racial solidarity to multiracial, transnational, and international political identiﬁcations opens fresh paths for constructing a new global history. I think such an approach opens up new possibilities for writing a world history from below. In other words, as useful as the Diaspora might be as an analytical framework and as a metaphor for understanding black world experience, it can still be used to erect boundaries rather than topple them. Africa—either real or imagined—is not the only concept that has been a source of “black” internationalism, even for those movements that embrace a nationalist or Pan-Africanist rhetoric. This, too, I learned from Cedric Robinson.