Liberator Magazine and Black Activism: An Author’s Response

This post is part of our online roundtable on Chris Tinson’s Radical Intellect

Let me start by first thanking Pete Beveridge, Cynthia A. Young, Hasan Jeffries, Kim Gallon, and Fred Carroll for their time in reading and then commenting on my work. And many thanks to the editors of Black Perspectives for hosting this forum as part of the Pauli Murray Prize. It is a high honor to have fellow scholars review and critique your work. While much of my writing is about local communities doing work far outside the walls of the academy, the careful, diligent attention of the trained scholar is perhaps the highest praise one can receive.  So, for that I am forever grateful to these scholars in particular. Yes, Pete, I am counting you among the anointed! No doubt, Pete would have written a very different version of his time at Liberator. I thank these writers for what they have found useful in the book. And yet, if the experience of graduate school has taught me anything—especially with and under whose tutelage I studied—it is that when writing about the 1960s the likelihood of error is high, and the expectation of praise is low!

So here we are discussing a book about a movement periodical that no one has tried to write about and only a relatively limited number of movement heads appreciated while it was in circulation. How to account for its ten-year existence and its movement relevance was the great opportunity and challenge of my book.

Let’s cut to the chase: I chose not to include Dan Watts’ government surveillance record because it was not an extensive archive in any sense and of the little which was released after several FOIA requests, much is redacted and repetitive. I didn’t discuss the fact that he, like many others, had been on the government’s watchlist for possible Communist affiliation long before he ever thought about publishing Liberator. I am quite sure that he was aware of this fact. Pete Beveridge believes this is a line of inquiry I could have pursued. I agree, in part. But even his own first memoir Domestic Diversity, for which I wrote a preface in the 2nd edition, is relatively silent on his relationship and work with Watts. The conclusion I drew in the book is that Watts kept his contacts separate. Whether this was for nefarious and anti-movement activities is still unknown. Relatively recently, government records were released indicating that one of Watts’ close friends, Richard Gibson, was a government operative. As the scholar Charisse Burden-Stelly has pointed out in a recent blog post about Gibson for Black Perspectives, such revelations will continue to surface.

Fashioning himself as a mover and shaker, Watts kept a wide range of contacts that ranged from local activists and artists to a few low-level politicians throughout New York City. But, I disagree with Beveridge’s view that Liberator’s accomplishments are wanting. As I write in the book, its greatest accomplishment was its contribution to the shaping of a Black radical thinking public. The process of developing and shaping ideas and offering analysis on a consistent basis was a success. No matter the disagreements on and off the page, they were effectively engaging in debate in the public sphere. As a vehicle of dissent, it offered a challenging view of the blatant limitations of American democracy and offered a persistent critique of capitalist destabilization of Black life.

Beveridge’s claim that he doesn’t know what they accomplished strikes me as overly modest. Pulling together a monthly magazine is no small endeavor. To create something meaningful, to offer to the public a useful critique or opinion, to join the heated debate about Black political desires in the 1960s is nothing to shrug at. What I think he means, and this came up in several of our conversations over the years, is what kinds of impact did their work have on the day-to-day politics and policies governing Black life. As a small, independent, yet fierce and headstrong outfit, it was unlikely that the mainstream world of policymaking would welcome their critical bombast. Thus, in material terms they accomplished very little.

Kim Gallon’s insight that more can be said of the difficulties facing women on the Liberator staff is well-taken. Indeed, one of the regrettable aspects of the process was the inability to locate living Black women activists who worked on Liberator’s staff for any notable period of time. As Radical Intellect shows, however, there was a steady demonstration of women activist voices in the periodical. Hassan Jeffries’ keen observation that movements are never in complete unison on ideology furthers the points raised in the book about the uneven and sometime contradictory aspects of Liberator’s outlook. Fred Carroll’s important call for more comparative work on radical Black magazines and organizations around the country and indeed globally, especially throughout the Black world emphasizes the role of these publications as producers of critical knowledge. As I have written for Black Perspectives and in a longer essay in the Black Power Encyclopedia edited by Akinyele Umoja, Karin Stanford, and Jasmin Young, there are a host of small and large publications of the era that are worthy of further scholarly investigation. As researchers, publications and organizational records make for incredibly useful archives in crafting movement history.

The book is no doubt limited by what Cynthia Young calls the “connective tissue” of personal stories and individual motivations of the activist-artist orbit Liberator was part of, but I disagree that the book is “scrubbed of the messy.” In writing a book about a movement publication making sense out of the messy, the disjointed, the “contradictory and coincidental episodes” is precisely the challenge. To be sure, choices are made in writing a book of this type, and there was much I had to leave out. One of the important lessons I encountered in writing this book is that not every bit has to be told. I say that in this instance because a handful of people I interviewed told stories of comrades and associates who had given it all, and had relatively little to give themselves and families once the movement faded.  A history could be written on activist depression, mangled hopes, and post-movement alienation, as well as stories of personal triumph, recovery, and healing. The toll on individual families would necessarily be a part of that history.  These histories are still being written. The hope is that they will continue.

Part of the difficulty scholars had long encountered in writing about Dan Watts, for example, was the lack of documents he left behind. The challenges and damage his family faced as a result of his dogged yearning for political relevancy were profound, and for them, at the time of my research, still too difficult to fully divulge. I was challenged to balance the individual stories of promise, gain, and loss, with the work accomplished by the periodical as a whole. As historians, we are challenged to make sense of what the archive reveals.  Where and how we look matters as much as what we’re looking at and what we discover. In this way, I strove to pay close attention to what these activists’ ideas were and what they offered in the Black public sphere of their day.

I think of Liberator writers as a community of intellectuals whose social standing is perhaps best described by the late Palestinian writer, Edward Said. As he writes in Representations of the Intellectual,

The pattern that sets the course for the intellectual as outsider is best exemplified by the condition of exile, the state of never being fully adjusted, always feeling outside the chatty, familiar world inhabited by natives, so to speak, tending to avoid and even dislike the trappings of accommodation and national well-being. Exile for the intellectual in this metaphysical sense is restlessness, movement, constantly being unsettled, and unsettling others. You cannot go back to some earlier and perhaps more stable condition of being at home; and, alas, you can never fully arrive, be at one with your new home or situation.

Liberator remains a rich archive still worthy of our study and indeed scrutiny. Mirroring Fred Carroll’s call, a similar study should and perhaps will be written about Soulbook, Negro Digest/Black World, Correspondence, NOW!, and Freedomways, to name but a few of the influential periodicals of Black activist thought. In fact, many of the activists and artists I discuss in Radical Intellect sent work to all of these publications at different points. The result leads us back to the overlapping networks of Black thought available in the period.

I recently received an email from the daughter of Rose and James Finkenstaedt, two of the activists discussed in the book. She expressed gratitude for helping her reminisce about people like Harold Cruse, Clebert Ford, Lucille Bulger, Bill Worth, and many others who frequented her parents’ home while she was a young person to break bread and fellowship and, of course, to “debate heatedly” into the late hours of the night. Such sentiment, coupled with the many hours over the years spent with the late Dr. Carlos Russell, as well as Pete Beveridge during the writing of this project have provided me with much to appreciate about this intellectual endeavor.

Above all, Liberator’s limitations stem not from a lack of imagination or attachment to rehashing old debates, but from the intransigence of American liberalism’s protection of white supremacy and American capitalism’s protection of economic inequality in the face of radical demands for transformation. Liberator’s story, told through Radical Intellect, is about how Black thinkers committed to the project of challenging American capitalist democracy in the hopes of playing some part in the arrival of an anti-racist, anti-imperialist future. In our day, there are numerous small and large-scale efforts to imagine, organize, and galvanize. Thus, I wholeheartedly agree with Cynthia Young’s call for radical hope and possibility in these disastrously alienating times.

To be sure, today’s movements also have to grapple with internal dissension, unresolved conflict, periods of accommodation, gaps in analysis, state repression, and loss of vision. Movement vitality, however, is found in the efforts to remake communities torn asunder by aggressive, innovative forms of predatory capital, legislative marginalization, and state violence. The remarkable urgency of vocalized, written, and bodily demands will continue to inspire new generations to struggle.

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Christopher Tinson

Christopher Tinson is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History and Director of the African American Studies Program at Saint Louis University. His interdisciplinary research and teaching focuses on the histories of Africana radical traditions, Ethnic Studies, critical media studies, incarceration, and community-based education. His first book is entitled, Radical Intellect: Liberator Magazine and Black Activism in the 1960s (UNC Press, 2017). Follow him on Twitter @Dahktin.

Comments on “Liberator Magazine and Black Activism: An Author’s Response

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    Hey everybody–really enjoyed this conversation. Still catching up on some of the entries in this roundtable, but had the students in my graduate seminar “Black Power and Transnationalism” read portions of Tinson’s book last week. We had a good discussion. Clearly the book led some of the students to rethink their assumptions about, among other things, the politics of black nationalism and Pan Africanism.

    Here’s the email I just sent them:

    Here’s Tinson’s response to the African American Intellectual History Society online roundtable on Radical Intellect. I have been reflecting on our in-class conversation about what constitutes “radicalism.” Perhaps one of the contributions of Tinson’s book is that it underscores the complexity of black nationalism. We can certainly discuss this further in class.

    I think practically all black nationalisms have a counterhegemonic dimension–they seek to counter white or Eurocentric racist constructs by asserting concepts of black nationality. That said, they often draw upon conservative elements of the dominant culture (patriarchy, capitalism, homophobia, etc. etc.) in attempting to construct a liberatory politics. HOWEVER, some strains of nationalism were also anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and even feminist or “proto-feminist,” as well. I think Tinson’s book really highlights these strands

    What is confusing is that those political expressions are uneven, inconsistent, and often intertwined with more conservative, Afrocentric or narrowly nationalist outlooks. But to me that’s what makes writing about them fun! Tinson shows a network of black political actors struggling to articulate an alternative, independent, oppositional politics (Pan Africanist, black nationalist, Third World leftist, etc.) in the midst of Cold War, desegregation, postcolonial degeneration, neocolonialism, integrationist hegemony of civil rights movement, state repression, postwar liberalism, etc. etc.

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