The Pragmatic Utopia: An Author’s Response

This is the final day oRickford headshotf our roundtable on Russell Rickford’s book, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. We began with introductory remarks by Reena Goldthree on Monday, followed by remarks by Fanon Che Wilkins, Ashley Farmer, Ibram X. Kendi, and Derrick WhiteIn this post, Rickford responds to the reviews and offers concluding remarks. On behalf of the AAIHS, thank you all for participating in this exciting roundtable. We hope you’ll continue the conversation in the days and weeks ahead.

 

To educate the masses politically does not mean, cannot mean, making a political speech. What it means is to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take the responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people.— Frantz Fanon

I was having lunch with a friend recently in a Harlem café when, during a freewheeling conversation about black internationalism, I casually referred to “Stokely.” My companion immediately shot me a disapproving look. Her mother, a member of the cosmopolitan, Pan Africanist circles of the 1970s, had known the Black Power spokesman Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture well, and had often recalled the activist’s desire to be addressed by his adopted name. Though I acknowledged my gaffe, my unconscious use of Ture’s original name (what black polemicists once called a “slave name”) was more a product of affection than a sign of disregard. I have long been captivated by accounts of mid-1960s “Stokely,” the intrepid Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer, who worked closely with the “local people” of the Deep South to build a grassroots movement for political power, dignity, and economic justice. Despite the global exploits and visibility of the leader’s later years—the continental Pan Africanism, the ambassadorial ties to Sekou Toure’s Guinea—it is the image of the gangly, beloved SNCC worker, clad in overalls and surrounded by tenant farmers and domestic workers, that I most cherish. 1

As a historian of transnational blackness, however, it is the interplay of the two incarnations—the Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture dialectic—that intrigues me. Indeed, the synergy and tensions between local and international, between theory and practice, and between activist-intellectuals and “everyday” folk lie at the heart of my recent book, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. An intellectual history of Pan African nationalist institutions in the post-civil rights era, the study is also an extended reflection on the possibilities and perils of the transition from Negro to Afro-American (or simply “African”), from civil rights to black liberation, and from liberal reform to Third World revolution. Over the past few days, I have had the honor of pondering these and other themes along with some very dear colleague-comrades. My sincere thanks to the participants in this week’s online roundtable: Fanon Che Wilkins, Ashley Farmer, Ibram X. Kendi, Derrick White, and moderator Reena Goldthree. And my gratitude to the diligent stewards of the African American Intellectual History Society, especially Keisha N. Blain, who proposed the roundtable and, with Goldthree, labored to bring it to fruition.

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This week’s discussion of my book has been thoroughly edifying. Allow me to respond, in part, with an origins story. We Are an African People started as a dissertation completed at Columbia University under my late advisor, Manning Marable. I remember the day I went to Marable’s office to discuss what was then my thesis proposal. He told me, with characteristic insight and enthusiasm, that what I was proposing was not simply a history of black nationalist institutions, but rather, an analysis of the attempt to construct the infrastructure of an imagined nation. I proceeded to the research and writing phases of the study with an enlarged sense of mission. My aim was to craft a serious history of Black Power ideas. The task was both intellectual and political. I wanted to understand the movement’s ideological evolution, its resonances beyond the 1960s, and its implications for contemporary black thought. I also hoped to demonstrate the dynamism, ingenuity, and optimism of Black Power, elements of the struggle that remained underappreciated. At the same time, I was determined to avoid vindicationism. I was myself undergoing an ideological transformation from unreconstructed black nationalism to democratic socialism (think C.L.R. James, not Bernie Sanders) and I wished to engage my historical subjects in a rigorous critique, illustrating political strengths and weaknesses while charting adaptation and growth.

My job was made easier by those scholars who, in the 1990s and early 2000s, had established Black Power as a legitimate topic of historical inquiry. Their work bolstered my conviction that far from a descent into chaos, the late 1960s and 70s upsurge of black militancy marked the creative apex of postwar mass insurgency. Given the persistence of popular and scholarly misconceptions, there was still a need to reject the equation of Black Power with sophistry. The notion that the movement delivered few if any tangible victories required vigorous contestation. Yet the existence of several superbly researched surveys of Black Power politics allowed me to shed my defensive posture and adopt an approach both sympathetic and critical. 2

As I took my first academic job at Dartmouth College in 2009 and began converting the dissertation into a book, the emergence of Occupy Wall Street helped me further understand my scholarly fascination with black “parallel institutions.” The Occupy movement enabled self-organized citizens to create autonomous, democratic organs of representation and governance. In independent black establishments of the 1970s I discovered a similar commitment to prefiguring a radical future through the creation of innovative political and cultural prototypes. Of course, the proliferation of Pan African nationalist academies in the Black Power era was also a response to material and other deficiencies in urban schooling. For a host of contemporary activists—from antipoverty workers and SNCC staffers to dissident parents and teachers—building “indigenous” institutions offered a viable survival strategy amid the economic and political retrenchment and disinvestment of the day. Parallel structures lay at the intersection of the quest to forge the new society and the attempt to supplement crumbling social services. My hope, therefore, was to write an expansive history of modern black intellectual and organizational life, one that depicted both the eminently pragmatic and the marvelously utopian.

I am gratified to learn that the reviewers assembled by AAIHS believe We Are an African People achieves this objective. As a scholar who wishes to influence rather than merely interpret the world, I am doubly pleased that the commentators found in the study several lessons relevant to contemporary liberation politics. For Ashley Farmer, the book demonstrates that patriarchy crippled the black independent school movement, undermining the goal of creating a new social order “by reifying rather than radicalizing traditional gender roles.” Derrick White notes that though many Pan African nationalists aspired to meet the daily needs of working people, “inconsistencies between ideology and practice” constrained their efforts. He concludes that activists and intellectuals must “grapple with the pragmatic parameters of radical imagination.” Ibram X. Kendi observes that the crusade to “Re-Africanize” black proletarian life included paternalistic efforts to cure putative cultural deficiencies. “To truly be engines of black liberation,” he asserts, “we must seek to reflect—not rehabilitate the culture of African Americans.”

Collectively these insights comprise the major analytic thrust of We Are an African People. They reflect an abiding concern of my intellectual career: the attempt to comprehend the relationship between black nationalism and the people it purports to serve. This question also underlies Fanon Che Wilkins’s critique of one of my book’s main contentions—that some Pan African nationalists allowed arcane theorizing to separate them from the everyday realities of their prime constituency, the urban black working class. While Wilkins finds some merit in this claim, he wonders if I “romanticiz[e] working people’s struggles by making them the default marker for how one assesses the leftist evolution and maturation” of Black Power activist-intellectuals. Referring to my evaluation of Malcolm X Liberation University’s uneven attempts to forge alliances with local black communities in Durham and then Greensboro, North Carolina, Wilkins asks whether I judge the school’s ideologues too harshly while idealizing the proletarian struggles of “the masses.”

Wilkins is correct to question my deployment of the trope of “the masses,” an abstraction that can be as mystifying as it is seductive. His assertion that I might have further explored the efforts of Pan African nationalist establishments to remain “attuned to the objective material conditions” of surrounding black neighborhoods is equally astute. After all, principled engagement with the circumstances of the black rank and file was one of the central historical tasks embraced by founders of independent black schools. The institutions emerged from local struggles for educational dignity and self-determination. Their operators were most successful when they continued to prioritize such grassroots concerns. Romanticizing the proletariat (one is reminded of the mechanistic slogan “Workers take the lead!”) is an error no less severe than discounting it altogether. As I argue in We Are an African People, Black Power was at its best when it blended the indigenous knowledge and aspirations of working people with the transnational visions of a radical segment of the black intelligentsia.

Lonetta Gaines, co-founder of the Learning House, a Pan African nationalist preschool in Atlanta ( Herald Tribune /Nick Adams)
Lonetta Gaines, co-founder of the Learning House, a Pan African nationalist preschool in Atlanta ( Herald Tribune /Nick Adams)

Similarly, Black Power militants were most effective when they attempted to confront deep-seated patriarchy. We Are an African People demonstrates that some independent school practitioners, especially activists such as Amina Baraka of Newark, New Jersey, and Tayari Kwa Salaam of New Orleans, developed a staunch critique of male supremacy within the organizational apparatus of Pan African nationalism. Yet as Ashley Farmer points out, my study could have done more to illuminate such internal struggles. Readers, Farmer argues, “may long for a more nuanced approach to how women navigated gender constraints” in the context of Black Power organizing. The critique is well founded. In the course of writing We Are an African People, I found myself straining to theorize gender with the same precision that I analyze race and class. Like my historical subjects, I had to learn to identify masculinist logic and discourses and understand their threat to the democratic culture of social movements. 3

kalamuyasalaam
Kalamu Ya Salaam

In hindsight, more extensive oral history would have enabled me to fully chronicle women’s roles as key theorists and staffers of black independent schools. Though I devote a chapter to the Nairobi school complex of East Palo Alto, California, a system founded by local mothers, other women-led outfits, such as Atlanta’s Learning House, receive less attention. On the other hand, what I hope We Are an African People manages to convey is the efforts of certain male organizers to transcend sexism. Kalamu Ya Salaam, a co-founder of Ahidiana Work-Study Center in New Orleans, underwent an especially dramatic metamorphosis. In my epilogue I recount the poet’s shift, over the course of the 1970s, from cultural nationalist patriarchy to feminist praxis. I offer this example not to excuse my own sins of omission, but to highlight the dynamism of a body of activists who, as Wilkins observes, remained in motion, geographically and ideologically, long after Black Power’s heyday.

As I close, let me again thank all those responsible for this week’s extended discussion of my book. It has been an incredible exchange. I am convinced that scholars will continue to discover in the archives of contemporary Pan African nationalism rich evidence of the evolution of black political thought. Opportunities for future work abound. We need deeper knowledge of the classroom experiences and internal life of independent black schools, and greater awareness of their role within the political economy and public sphere of urban settings. We also need fuller accounts of the activities of Black Powerites in Tanzania, the Caribbean, and other locales. For the moment, I am satisfied that We Are an African People makes a worthwhile historiographical contribution while offering a tale, both cautionary and inspiring, about the quest to remake black America, and about the need for liberationists to seek a truer communion with the “local people” they wish to serve.

  1. For a discussion of this “Stokely,” see Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York: New York University Press, 2009)
  2. See, for example, Komozi Woodard, A Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999); Roderick D. Bush, We Are Not What We Seem: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century (New York: New York University Press, 1999); Fanon Che Wilkins, “‘In the Belly of the Beast’: Black Power, Anti-imperialism, and the African Liberation Solidarity Movement, 1968-1975.” Ph.D. Diss., New York University, 2001; Scot Brown, Fighting for Us: Maulana Karenga, the US Organization, and Black Cultural Nationalism (New York: New York University, 2003); Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003); Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004); Matthew J. Countryman, Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006)
  3. For discussion of Black Power, women, and gender, see Christina Greene, Our Separate Ways: Women and the Black Freedom Movement in Durham, North Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Rhonda Y. Williams, Concrete Demands: The Search for Black Power in the 20th Century (New York: Routledge, 2015); and Ashley Farmer, What You’ve Got is a Revolution: Black Women’s Movements for Black Power (University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming).
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Russell Rickford

Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of 'We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination.' A specialist on the Black Radical Tradition, he teaches about social movements, black transnationalism, and African-American political culture after World War Two. Follow him on Twitter @RickfordRussell.

Comments on “The Pragmatic Utopia: An Author’s Response

  • I would be interested in Bro. Rickford addressing some of the issues raised by those who left comments in the previous essays. It would make for good “roundtable/discussant/audience” dialogue.

    • Hey Bro. Densu. Thanks so much for your very rich comments the other day. I will try to respond soon! RR

      • Bro Rickford, your thoughts are appreciated as well. I look forward to the dialogue.

  • I will begin by agreeing that Professor Rickford’s book is a well-researched and path breaking history of African American independent schools in the “Black Power” era. As a person who came of age as a devotee of “Stokely” and H Rap, I am elated with the work of Dr. Rickford and fellow workers in the reappraisal of the Black Power era.
    My reservations about the argument of We Are An African People is related to my quibble with the revisionist school of which it is a product. The scholars of this school, on the whole, fail to explore the relationship of the Nation of Islam to the developments of the period.

    Dr. Rickford eliminates the schools of the Nation of Islam from direct examination at the outset of his study. On page 8 of the introduction he states, “We Are An African People examines a cluster of secular institutions expressly devoted to fostering black national and transnational consciousness as a primary pedagogical and social mission.” In chapter 2, (pages 62-63) the following discussion highlights the influence of the Nation of Islam’s elementary and secondary schools on the development of African American pedagogy. “Some Ocean-Hill Brownsville educators openly admired the Nation of Islam’s black nationalist private schools. ..ATA officials hailed the Nation’s academies as ‘our parochial schools’ and assured residents that the institutions – which enrolled both Muslim pupils and the children of nonbelievers – offered a viable, community-based education.” So Dr. Rickford argues that the Nation of Islam schools, along with those of the UNIA and other Back Nationalist organizations, provided a model for the Pan African Movement schools of the late 1960’s and the 1970’s. Chapter 3’s discussion of “The Evolution of Movement Schools” begins with this admission: “The private schools of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam served as early precursors to the institutions of the Black Power Era” (page 74). On pages 76 to 79 Professor Rickford provides a good snapshot of the Nation’s Universities of Islam, suggesting a 1934 to 1965 timeline that supports the argument that these schools were precursor to the Movement schools of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Yet, on page 78 Rickford shared an historical nugget that complicates this reading. “By 1965, the system, which operated on tuition fees and tithes, served 2,000 students in eight schools, including campuses in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Boston. Ten years later, 40 more schools had appeared.” This chronology suggests that then most vibrant period of growth for the Universities of Islam was the late 1960’s, early 1970’s period under examination in Rickford’s book.
    Rickford and the revisionist school of which he is a part need to include the Nation of Islam as an active factor in the turbulent Black Power period and its aftermath. The significant flow of radical college aged women and men into the Nation of Islam’s school system should be a part of this discussion, notwithstanding the fact that Dr. Rickford’s target is “secular institutions expressly devoted to fostering black national and transnational consciousness as a primary pedagogical and social mission.” The exchange of personnel and ideas between the “secular” schools and the Universities of Islam was constant.

  • Many thanks to Professor Rickford, the incisive contributors to the roundtable and, in the good professor’s words, “the diligent stewards of the African American Intellectual History Society, especially Keisha N. Blain, who proposed the roundtable and, with Goldthree, labored to bring it to fruition.” Although I was only a reader and not an interlocutor (by way of commenting), I very much enjoyed the variety of perspectives brought to bear on this “extraordinary book” (Robin D.G. Kelley). Indeed, I need to re-read everything to make sure I’ve properly digested the offerings so as to receive their full nutritional value. This is blogging at its bountiful best.

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