The Borders of Black Power

*This post is part of our roundtable on Quito Swan’s ‘Pauulu’s Diaspora.’ Dr. Swan will be in conversation with Dr. Keisha N. Blain on Clubhouse on Friday, July 2nd at 12noon Eastern. Click here for more details.

Black Lives Matter activist holding a sign with a raised fist (Ivan Radic/Flickr).

What are the borders of Black Power?

This is the question I kept returning to as I read Quito Swan’s ambitious new project, Pauulu’s Diaspora: Black Internationalism and Environmental Justice. Pauulu’s Diaspora is a book about Black Power’s geography—its contours, its reach, its points of connection, its boundaries. By exploring the life of peripatetic activist Pauulu Kamarakafego across decades and continents, Swan shows us just how expansive the borders of Black Power were and continue to be. At the same time, Swan tells us what Black Power is not—where its borders end, how it is demarcated as a discrete tradition. By tracing these lines, Swan makes an important intervention in Black Power Studies, the subfield coined by Peniel E. Joseph in 2001.

He offers us a new map of Black Power, one that should invite scrutiny and exploration for years to come.

Pauulu’s Diaspora lets us marvel at Black Power’s remarkable geographical and temporal scope. Kamarakafego is everywhere: In New York, South Carolina, and California as a student; in Liberia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania as a teacher, lecturer, and researcher; visiting C.L.R. James in London and Aimé Césaire in Paris as a planner for the Sixth Pan-African Congress; in Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, and Jamaica as an ecologist and environmentalist; and in the “Black Pacific”—Australia, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea—as an activist and organizer. His connection to Black Power extends from his early years in Bermuda, in the 1930s, where he was born into a Garveyite family and raised in the “African-centered space” of his grandmother’s kitchen, to his work as an environmental rights activist in the 1990s and his participation in the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. Pauulu’s Diaspora not only decenters the United States in the story of Black Power but also other sites that have received considerable attention, such as Trinidad, Jamaica, and Ghana. It begs that we understand the Black Power era of the 1960s and 1970s as both a recognizable political period and a particularly vivid example of a (small b, small p) black power politics that extends back to the origins of the Atlantic slave trade.

Pauulu’s Diaspora also suggests some of the ways that we can expand the thematic and participatory borders of Black Power. Swan shows how Kamarakafego’s work as a scientist (Kamarakafego received a Ph.D. in ecological engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1959, and taught science in Liberia and Kenya) was part of a broader fascination by Black Power activists with science and technology, and suggests interesting points of connection between Black Power and Afrofuturism. Kamarakafego’s work in the Black Pacific—organizing with the New Hebrides National Party in the 1970s around issues of economic self-reliance, “appropriate technology,” and national consciousness, for example—opens up space to examine Blackness and indigenous rights within the same anti-colonial struggle. His work in ecology and sustainable development indicates some ways in which Black Power’s assertions of self-determination and land acquisition can be extended to include environmental rights activism. Swan takes care to emphasize that each of these spaces was populated and shaped by Black women—that any understanding of Black liberation politics must acknowledge their centrality in the work and intellectual production of the struggle, despite the masculinist framings of Black Power politics in the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond.

As expansive as Black Power could be, it was also a distinct political tradition that resided within its own intellectual and conceptual space. Swan rightly questions the tendency of scholars to collapse discrete Black intellectual visions into (as he puts it) “a political calabash of ‘black people wanting the same thing but by different methods’” (14). Sundiata Cha-Jua and Clarence Lang long ago identified the tendency of “long civil rights movement” scholarship to reduce Black Power to a collection of tactics within the framework of a larger struggle that resembled the vampire: undead, existing “outside of time and history, beyond the processes of life and death, and change and development.” Swan highlights Peniel Joseph’s celebration of Barack Obama’s election as “an example of black power” as an egregious example of this tendency. In general, Pauulu’s Diaspora can be read as an effort to reposition Black Power Studies against Joseph’s US-centered model, to give it both a wider scope and a more precise meaning.

So what is Black Power? Swan grounds the tradition in the principle of self-determination and in a series of solidarities (identification with the Global South and pan-Africanism) and commitments (anti-imperialism, anti-racism, and anti-capitalism). It’s a good list. But when I think about the borders of Black Power, I think about the struggle over space. Mapping the borders of Black Power is important, not least of all, because Black Power embodies in itself a critical demand for new conceptual and physical spaces. As Katherine McKittrick observes in Demonic Grounds, white supremacy is in many ways an effort to control space: to keep “unruly deviant bodies” in slave pens, Jim Crow cars, ghettos, prison cells, and other “geographies of containment” (to borrow from the great Stephanie M.H. Camp); to render Black-centered space “unintelligible”; and to confine examinations of space to a “unitary vantage point,” a cartography that understands Eurocentric knowledge as knowledge itself. Black Power emerges from the “deep spaces” that Black communities erect against this project of despatialization—ways of seeing and knowing and living that are not contained by white geographies. The politics of Black Power is an effort to create geographies—physical, spiritual, intellectual—that carve out space outside of and liberated from the colonial landscapes that are organized as Black Power’s negation.

This means that the borders of Black Power research must encompass not only the networks of organizations and activists that disseminate its ideas ,but also and more crucially, the communities entangled in struggles to define space. It is here, and not in congresses and conferences, where Black radical thought is generated, within what Anthony Bogues calls the “radical hermeneutic of everyday experiences.” If Black Power is a politics of connection and collaboration, it is at its root a popular politics of refusal: a rejection of the colonizing logic of universalism and a demand for “liberated zones,” free communities, emancipation from mental slavery. This view of Black Power, as Swan points out, at times positions Black self-determining communities against Black state power (albeit state power limited by neocolonial relations). The ground of Black Power is not only the pan-African theory of Kwame Nkrumah but also the struggle of Ghanaians to articulate new visions of self-determination in the face of repression by the Nkrumah regime. It is not only Ujamaa but the struggle to root ideas about African socialism in community practice. It is the Black Power of Walter Rodney and not the state power of Forbes Burnham. The borders of Black Power include what Asia Leeds calls the “internal borders” of Black community formation, borders that are defined and contested by an intersectional political struggle.

By centering its attention on the contributions of Kamarakafego, Pauulu’s Diaspora both reveals an expansive story about Black Power and gestures to an even larger one. Kamarakafego’s life offers us a map of the many and overlapping struggles for Black liberation across continents and oceans across much of the twentieth century. Swan’s triumph is to lay out an expansive brief for future research, to propose a new scope and framing for Black Power Studies. I am excited to see how future researchers embrace Swan’s challenge and navigate through his map.

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Adam Ewing

Adam Ewing is Associate Professor of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of 'The Age of Garvey: How a Jamaican Activist Created a Mass Movement and Changed Global Black Politics' (Princeton University Press, 2014) and along with Ronald J. Stephens, the co-editor of 'Global Garveyism' (University Press of Florida, 2019), a collection of essays charting the global reach and importance of Garveyism.