Print Culture and the Black Radical Tradition

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

Member of the Nation of Islam selling copies of the Final Call in Midtown Manhattan, August 13, 2008 (Photo: Andy Call, Flickr).

Black radical politics and thought have always possessed varying levels of currency for segments of the African Diaspora. However, at different points and in specific contexts, it holds a particular significance and urgency for theorizing and proposing social change that tears away at the fabric of white supremacist systems. Scholars of Black life have once again found it necessary to consider the salience of Black radical thought. We see evidence of this in Kehinde Andrews’ recent call for the Diaspora in the United Kingdom and United States to go “Back to Black” and reclaim Black radical politics to overhaul unjust structures.

In a similar vein, Christopher M. Tinson exposes the multi-textured and spatial dimension of Black radicalism within African American print culture in his insightful book, Radical Intellect: Liberator Magazine and Black Activism in the 1960s. He artfully presents to his readers a history of the publication, long cited in scholarship on Black Nationalism in the United States but little-known in African American historiography. In a surface reading of the book, it is easy to be taken with Tinson’s retelling of the development of the Liberator and many of the well-known and famous African American figures who contributed to the publication. Tinson certainly informs readers that James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Toni Cade Bambara, Harold Cruse, Lorraine Hansberry, and others fused their creative and intellectual expression into the magazine at different times during its ten-year tenure. In this sense, the casual observer of Black radicalism might be satisfied with the book’s retelling of the publication’s contribution to the trajectory of Black radicalism in the United States.

A closer read of Tinson’s work reveals that it is a deep dive into the intellectual history of the Liberator–not so much in the vein of a close content analysis of its coverage but in the messiness and contradictions of its founders and writers and how this came to bear on the publication’s Black revolutionary standpoint. To this end, Tinson provides students and scholars with a novel way of thinking about the relationship between Black radicalism and intellectualism. Rather than a through line of ideas on Black liberation, Tinson’s work suggests that an “unevenness” was at the core of the magazine’s coverage on the Black radical currents flowing through communities as many African Americans questioned the efficacy of bus boycotts, sit-ins, and marches. A central argument that Tinson makes is that the Liberator anticipated the Black Nationalism of the late 1960s. As a result, the history of the Liberator becomes a useful lens for thinking through the debates and contradictions of Black Nationalism and the subsequent Black Power Movement much more broadly.

Tinson’s disclosure of the bridge between the Liberator’s coverage of issues, or what he describes as the “most cutting-edge radical Black thought available,” and the manifestation of an unapologetic Black aesthetic at the close of the 1960s has its roots in Pan-Africanism. The magazine was born out of the development of the Liberation Committee for Africa (LCA), a political organization dedicated to the successful decolonization of Africa. Tinson recounts how Liberator’s principal founders Daniel (Dan) Watts, Lowell (Pete) Beveridge, and Richard Gibson imagined a space that would host their and others’ growing belief that the newly formed African nation-states held the key to not simply challenging United States Cold War ideology, but also to pointing out the inefficacy of Black mainstream politics for social change.

Yet, Liberator cultivated the message about the necessary relationship between African decolonization, and Tinson reveals how the Liberators’ editors adjusted their Pan-Africanist ideals to meet the evolving political challenges faced by fledging African governments that suffered from internal struggles and the ever-looming influence of competing U.S.S.R and United States administrations. Patrice Lumumba’s CIA-driven assassination as well as the domestic strife in Ghana, initially considered to be a beacon and progenitor of “African genius” and as the first sub-Saharan African nation to emerge out of colonialism, attenuated the heady optimism generated by the “Year of Africa.” Tinson shows how an “African-centered black internationalism” was fraught with disagreements over how the Liberator should cover the internal struggles within different areas of Africa. The stakes were high for the Liberator staff who tied Black progress to the successful independence of the former African colonies. Over the course of the ten years the Liberator existed, it published fewer articles on the anticolonial struggle in Africa, and it became less synonymous with how the publication imagined Black radicalism (72).

The magazine’s vision did, however, embrace Black women’s writing and anticipated the intersectional Black feminist radical thought that would become more visible in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Even as Tinson discusses more notable women such as Lorraine Hansberry, Toni Cade Bambara, Sonia Sanchez, and Abbey Lincoln who appeared in the Liberator, he also recovers the voices of lesser-known women who did not contribute to the publication as writers and artists. Tinson treats readers with examinations of Black women’s thoughts on a wide range of topics in the Liberator, which included an entire issue in 1966 that focused on the role of women in radical Black movements. In so doing, Tinson’s chapter on gender operates as its own mini Black women’s intellectual history with perceptive analyses of their, albeit relatively thin, writing and coverage relating to Black radicalism. It is not difficult to imagine that sexism, that has longed plagued Black national and radical movements, played a major role in the small amount of coverage about and by Black women. Even as Tinson hints at times at the sexism and misogyny that brimmed right beneath the surface of the Liberator’s radical veneer, he does not fully investigate what must have been a challenging environment for the few women who maintained a presence on the staff and submitted their artistic and written work for publication. Nonetheless, Tinson’s argument that women writing for the Liberator provided a foundation for later Black feminist work is sound in as much as they offered up a set of intellectual and theoretical threads that Black feminists could incorporate into a more coherent Black feminist praxis in the 1970s.

The Liberator, according to Tinson, charted and modeled a unique path of radical politics that depended on, to some degree, a contested and evolving definition of Black radicalism in the heart of the 1960s. A series of articles written in 1966 by Eddie Ellis, an original member of the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party, alleged that Jewish merchants and vendors exploited Black Harlemites and brought into full relief the different perspectives of figures such as James Baldwin and actor Ossie Davis. The tone and tenor of the series resulted in Baldwin, an original advisory board member and advocate of the magazine, parting ways with the publication after seven years. Davis, also an early advisory board member, would part ways with the Liberator in a dispute over the Ellis series. Drawing on this circumstance, Tinson foreshadowed the prickly relationships and ultimate ejection of white members from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1967. Tinson also revisits the reception Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X received by different Black political communities through the Liberator’s treatment of both figures. As one might suspect, for example, the Liberator looked upon the “March on Washington” with great skepticism, choosing to take semantic issue with whether the March was “in” or “on” the nation, while lauding Malcolm X’s writing and activism.

In the book’s final chapter, Tinson shows how the Liberator cultivated a “black radical aesthetic” which corresponded to the Black Arts Movement that came into full bloom in the 1970s (232). It is fitting that Tinson ends his study by exploring the contours of individual artists who, through their work, constructed a communitarian creativity that allowed writers and readers to collectively foster a radical Black sphere where they could deliberate over how culture might allow them to navigate a path to revolutionary social change.

Overall, what Tinson is able to accomplish in Radical Intellect is quite remarkable. In privileging diverse and multiple voices in the Liberator over a singular editorial predilection, he reads between the lines of print to show how the magazine helped to define a core tenet of the Black Radical Tradition as a diverse, cooperative, and debated consciousness that sought to destroy white supremacy. In this regard, Tinson’s work challenges scholars and students alike to look anew at African American print culture to locate other radical intellectual traditions.

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Kim Gallon

Kim Gallon is Assistant Professor of History at Purdue University. She is the founder and director of the Black Press Research Collective. She is completing a manuscript titled, “We Are Becoming a Tabloid Race: The Politics of Gender and Sexuality in the Black Press, 1925-1945.” Follow her on Twitter @BlackDigitalHum.