The Radical Diversity of Liberator Magazine

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

James Baldwin, a member of the advisory board of ‘Liberator’ magazine, in Hyde Park, London, 1969 (Wikimedia Commons)

Scholars of print culture struggle to quantify the influence of the publications they study, and their difficulties compound when analyzing newspapers, magazines, or books that circulate outside of mainstream consumption. The very nature of an alternative or dissident press poses obstacles to the dissemination of already marginalized, nonconventional political perspectives. Publishers’ finances tend to be uncertain, and advertising is negligible. Circulation figures are typically low and also unaudited–and thus, unreliable. Readership surveys are generally unavailable. Letters to the editor are self-selected. News coverage by mainstream publications is minimal and often misconstrued, especially if the publication being written about concerns the views of a minority racial or ethnic group.

In Radical Intellect: Liberator Magazine and Black Activism in the 1960s, Christopher M. Tinson neatly circumnavigates these obstacles to explain the significance of a New York-based monthly journal of radical Black political and cultural thought. Liberator appeared from 1960 to 1971–a period that coincided with the rise to prominence of the Black Power Movement and Black Arts Movement, which marked a shift in Black intellectualism from an intense focus on integrating into white society to a renewed emphasis on envisioning and interrogating Black identity and autonomy. Tinson sees Liberator as an incubator and conduit for “the diverse ‘ingredients,’ or core aspects, of black radicalism.” By both originating and transmitting perspectives that were “simultaneously antiracist, anticolonialist, anti-imperialist, and anticapitalist,” the magazine “formed an important nexus of the various strands of black radicalism–Black Nationalist, pan-Africanist, and community feminist, as well as Old and New Left” (4).

If Tinson had stopped there, he would have written a useful and interesting book–a rather standard history explaining the political and cultural views espoused by the editors, writers, poets, and artists of a smart but often overlooked magazine with a print run of about 15,000 that sold mostly within New York City.

Tinson, however, pushes his argument further for a broader, more sophisticated discussion about the transmission of radical Black ideas. With Liberator as his hub, he traces the crosscurrents of the local, national, and international networks that linked Black intellectuals and artists, activist organizations, and allied publications to show how radical Black thought and protest was promoted and debated by people of color within the United States and around the world. Through this framing, Tinson can discuss, for example, the importance of Larry Neal, the magazine’s arts and culture editor whose influential writings helped shape the Black Arts Movement, alongside the community-level activism of Hortense “Tee” Sie Beveridge, a film editor who was the wife of the magazine’s production editor but who also never wrote for Liberator. Neal supported artists who aimed to develop a new radical Black aesthetic. Beveridge sponsored African students visiting the United States and led campaigns to expand the teaching of Black history. Both contributed to the conversations that informed the editorial mission of Liberator by bringing the magazine’s editors into contact with different aspects of radical Black thought. Both wanted their ideas to result in action that spurred change. Radical Intellect is as much about the diversity and multi-faceted nature of Black radicalism as it is the people and pages of Liberator.

Although its editorial content evolved as the years passed, Liberator tended to concentrate on three core subjects: support for African decolonization and freedom, examination of the complexities and controversies of radical Black thought, and formation of a cultural aesthetic that advanced a radical Black outlook. The magazine began as an organizational newsletter for the Liberation Committee for Africa (LCA), but it soon superseded the group. Daniel H. Watts, an argumentative architect who served as Liberator’s editor-in-chief, was most central in crafting the magazine’s editorial vision over the duration of its publication run. From its first issues, Liberator challenged the news-writing conventions that framed how mainstream publications covered Africa. White-owned news outlets tended to doubt the long-term viability of decolonization, exaggerate the positive contributions of imperial rule on colonial societies and economies, and define the merits of independence movements according to the bipolar politics of the Cold War. In contrast, Liberator used the “the skills and tools of activist journalism to push for African liberation” (15) and reconnect Black men and women in the United States with their African heritage. Watts and his contributors lauded Ghanaian independence, denounced Western complicity in the assassination of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, and protested apartheid in South Africa. Tinson characterizes the magazine’s coverage of African independence as “passionate and determined, if at times eager and disjointed” (44). As coups and neocolonialism complicated coverage of African politics, Liberator shifted toward emphasizing the growing militancy of the American Civil Rights Movement and the emergence of the Black Arts Movement.

In examining Liberator’s coverage of radical Black thought, Tinson sees strength in the “alleged lack of ideological coherence” (132) charged against the magazine by its most notable critic and one of its most influential contributors, Harold Cruse. In his landmark polemic, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Cruse criticized Liberator, particularly its editorial leadership, for failing to clearly define the role, value, and relationship of integration, nationalism, and communism. Tinson, though, pushes against this argument, asserting that, “The resulting eclecticism was arguably its most significant attribute as it called into focus the diversity of black radical thought among activists and intellectuals in this period” (132). The magazine’s advisory board included Old Guard leftists, such as Richard B. Moore and George B. Murphy Jr., as well as James Baldwin, perhaps the nation’s most celebrated Black writer. Its contributors included up-and-coming writers who had yet to win acclaim, including Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, and Askia Touré. Articles examined the work and outlook of local and regional organizations, like the Afro-American Association in California and Afro-American Institute in Ohio, but also publicized the more celebrated activism of Malcolm X, especially after he separated himself from the Nation of Islam. This expansive conception of radical thought and activism allowed Liberator to use “its bully pulpit to shape alliances among radical Black Nationalist individuals and groups” (143). Relationship-building extended into the magazine’s arts and culture coverage, with Liberator emerging “at the forefront of a new articulation of how cultural awareness and institution building served the global political needs of African Americans” (189). Liberator’s critics and interviewers analyzed the politics of dance, poetry, jazz, theater, sports, film, literature, and visual art. The depth and breadth of the magazine’s arts and culture coverage worked to expand the influence of radical Black perspectives far beyond the political sphere.

Although Liberator did not write about feminism with the same degree of rigor or frequency with which it studied its core issues, Tinson argues that the magazine “served as a forum for black women’s political agency, ideas, and perspectives” (75). This was particularly true in the magazine’s early years and occurred because of women’s involvement on and off the printed page. Key contributors included notables such as playwright Lorraine Hansberry, poet Sonia Sanchez, author Toni Cade Bambara, and jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. Louise Moore, a caustic writer and domestic worker, told Black women “they were deserving of respect from white society and from black men who did not value women’s worth because they did not value their own personal worth” (100). Moore also accused Christians of participating in their own oppression. Such writings, Tinson concludes, foreshadowed the increased assertiveness of Black women by the end of the 1960s.

Tinson’s research in Radical Intellect points toward a promising area of investigation for scholars interested in dissident journalism and Black radicalism. Tinson structured his book, which is aimed at an academic audience already familiar with the historical events and belief systems that shaped Black radicalism, as a systematic examination of the core topics that made Liberator an urgent and compelling publication. When warranted, he explores Liberator’s interactions with editors and writers at other radical Black publications. He makes a passing mention to Soulbook and discusses Freedomways, which he describes as “Liberator’s estranged sister publication” (195). In particular, he reviews a flare-up involving John Henrik Clarke, editor of Freedomways, who printed a letter written by activist actor Ossie Davis that Watts refused to publish because it criticized Liberator’s handling of a controversial series on the interactions between Blacks and Jews. More in-depth study of such incidents could prove fruitful to scholars interested in examining the intellectual continuities and disruptions between leading radical Black publications of the period, including The Black Panther, Muhammad Speaks, Negro Digest/Black World, as well as Freedomways, Liberator, and others.

Radical Intellect is a deserving winner of the African American Intellectual History Society’s first annual Pauli Murray Book Prize. With conclusions grounded in sound archival research, informative first-person interviews, and astute analysis of Liberator’s entire print run, Tinson has expanded a fine study of a consequential magazine into a nuanced explanation of the transmission of diverse radical Black ideas.

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Fred Carroll

Fred Carroll is a lecturer of history at Kennesaw State University. He completed a doctorate in 2012 from the College of William and Mary. His book, Race News: Black Journalists and the Fight for Racial Justice in the Twentieth Century, analyzes the commercial black press’ contentious working relationship with the alternative black press and its thorny interactions with a repressive federal government and hostile white media to explain how shifting toleration of progressive politics reconfigured how black journalists wrote and covered the news. Follow him on Twitter @TheFredCarroll.