“Power concedes nothing without demand,” argued Frederick Douglass in one of his most cited speeches. “It never did and it never will.” Donald Trump inaugurated his first Black History Month at the White House with a bizarre mention of Douglass that made clear he does not know who Douglass was, what he did, or that the legendary abolitionist died 122 years ago.
While Trump’s ignorance is clear, Douglass’s words remain a prescient example of how the black freedom struggle has thought about power. The black freedom struggle knows power intimately, as it has needed to: both the effects of power from above and the experience of power from below. How can it be otherwise? Slavery, colonialism, segregation, policing, and other forms of racism are power in and over the flesh. At the same time, black radicalism has developed its own power through abolitionism, marronage, transnationalism, feminism, labor organizing, fugitivity, and other forms of communal struggle.
Black History Month occasions a return to how black radicalism conceptualizes the issue of power. A diasporic political tradition built over centuries, the black radical tradition resists simplistic notions of what power is and how it operates. It has displayed a concurrent attention to strength on the bottom and to weakness from above. Here I want to complement the efforts of contemporary organizations such as BYP100, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the Dream Defenders, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and the Movement for Black Lives by anchoring some of their historical forerunners. To that end, I present seven maxims of power as a useful but by no means comprehensive list for thinking about the revanchist assaults now underway by the Trump administration as well as the historic opposition movements now gathering force nationwide.
Power is the essence of politics. “With power, the masses could make or participate in making the decisions which govern their destinies, and thus create basic change in their day-to-day lives,” Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Toure) explained of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s strategy in the early 1960s. All politics is about power. We seek to mitigate, escape, or abolish certain forms of power; we seek to transform how power operates. But power itself cannot be destroyed or evaded. Political struggles are battles for power, and those seeking to challenge racist and regressive politics must develop their own bases of power.
Power does not respect morality. “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time,” the poet Maya Angelou advised. Appealing to the “better angels” or “common sense” of those in power misses the nature of power itself. Trump and his cabinet picks built their respective political careers on racist ideas and policies. Trump and his advisors lionize Andrew Jackson, the slave-owning president whose genocide of indigenous people characterized the early days of American populism. Their attempts to remake a whole political order have much in common with the neo-Confederates who overthrew Reconstruction and the neoconservatives inaugurated with Ronald Reagan’s administration who undermined the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. They stand in a long line of white supremacist reaction. And like their predecessors, they will not be swayed by moral outrage alone. Michelle Obama’s pithy, moralizing call to “go high” in response to Trumpist attacks fails to grasp that the powerful do not go quietly into the good night. Writer and organizer Mariame Kaba offered an alternate approach that concretized the insights of the black radical tradition. She tweeted the following advice: “when they go low, you f***ing punch them in the neck so they know you mean business. This is about power not affect.”
Authoritarian regimes run on violence, justified by lies. “Those who commit the murders write the reports,” Ida B. Wells wrote of Jim Crow’s most ghastly, routine crime. Lynching was more than brute physical mob violence—it was also the peddling of falsehoods as fact. Wells led a distinguished journalistic career protesting the foundational lie on which white supremacy rationalized its violence, including the specious allegation of rape that led to many black men being lynched. Such lies, Wells repeatedly showed, were designed to maintain brutal regimes. First came power, with all its violence—then came lies. Telling the truth, therefore, means more than calling out lies. It means appraising the power such lies are designed to uphold.
Don’t look to the institutions of power to resolve the problems caused by power. “O, let America be America again—/ The land that never has been yet—/ And yet must be—the land where every man [sic] is free,” Langston Hughes offered in his poem “Let America Be America Again.” Hughes’s poem centers on the contradiction of demanding “America be America again” with the recognition that “America never was America to me.” There are no halcyon days to return to, no golden era when American institutions upheld universal, intersectional antiracist policies. They have been, and remain, venues for necessary fights—both to defend existing rights and win new ones. Yet such fights are not calls to return to the past, to “restore faith” in traditional institutions, as we so often hear amidst Trumpist attacks on the media, the judiciary, and other normative branches of liberal democracy. Rather, political battles are most effective when pointing to the world that could be rather than the world that was (but wasn’t really).
Recognize differences, build alliances. “[E]verybody left of [Ronald] Reagan ain’t left,” former Black Panther Kuwasi Balagoon wrote in a letter from prison in 1983. Witnessing an earlier moment of right-wing attempts to consolidate power from the vantage point of a prison cell serving a life sentence for his revolutionary activities, Balagoon insisted that the Left needed to be constituted on bedrock principles of anticapitalism and antiracism. “Just because someone doesn’t want some fool in Washington to blow the world to pieces doesn’t make them left. Everybody who protests the curtailing of civil liberties that effect them, ain’t left.” Opposition to the excesses of brutal regimes is not the same thing as pursuing emancipatory politics. Yet Balagoon’s caveat should not distract from the fact that such opposition can be the building blocks of powerful movements. Popular refusal of war and authoritarianism, of climate change and privatization, can offer the necessary starting point for social change.
Act with principle and integrity. “Hide nothing from the masses of our people,” Amilcar Cabral instructed his supporters while leading the campaign to free Guinea-Bissau from Portuguese colonialism. “Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories.” It is going to take a lot of work to undo the damage of Trumpism, as well as the damage of decades of neoliberalism. One must celebrate the incremental victories that we may win—like the mass marches that have greeted the first month of Trump’s presidency or the court rulings staying the travel ban—without inflating their significance or minimizing the obstacles we face. In moments like these, when countless people are becoming politically active for the first time, with all the messiness that comes with it, people can make one of two mistakes: confusing mass outrage with a developed left-wing alternative, or writing off sectors of people (whether political neophytes or those in “controversial” categories) as hopeless. Both are damaging responses. Ella Baker’s dictum that “strong people don’t need strong leaders” was not just a rejection of individual, male-centered, charismatic leadership. It was a call to do the slow and steady work of building strong people. That meant sustaining durable movements that recognize the strength, humanity, and potential of the people who comprise them. That means not throwing people under the bus because they lack citizenship, have a criminal conviction, or, in a different register, are new to activism.
Make it beautiful. “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid,” Audre Lorde declared. The black lesbian feminist did not deny the fear that can accompany confronting powerful, oppressive regimes. Rather, she recognized that fear ought not to be a barrier to action. Lorde does not proscribe what that action should be, and I won’t deign to declare it either. People’s capacity for risk varies widely—so does their involuntary exposure to it. The point here is not that one needs to take the most risky action imaginable in all moments, at all costs. Rather, Lorde asks us to not be cowed by fear. Acting, in whatever capacity, with political clarity and collective purpose can itself be a source of sustenance. Fear is real and understandable in the face of criminalization and other terrifying forms of structural violence. One should not deny that fear. Yet we need not be defined by it. Vision inspires people more than fear. Or, as writer Toni Cade Bambara put it, the task is “to make revolution irresistible.”
Partial as it is, this genealogy does not provide a strategy for making sense of such a chaotic and uncertain time. Rather, it illustrates an orientation for how to approach it. It offers a way to cut through the mire of half-theories and knee-jerk reactions, the confusion and demoralization that accompany authoritarian regimes. It is, to be sure, but a starting point in the long struggles ahead. As a framework, a North Star, these lessons—and the larger black radical tradition from which they are culled—suggest that the fight against Trumpism has to be a fight for black futures. Rather than limit our focus to one scandal or another, the black freedom struggle offers an alternative directive: to engage power with the complexity, rigor, compassion, and determination to win.
*This article is published in collaboration with Truthout.