We Are An African People and the Dynamism of Black Power Studies

This is the second day of 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. In this post, Fanon Che Wilkins emphasizes the contributions of Rickford’s new book to the growing field of Black Power Studies.

p_am_fanonFanon Che Wilkins is Associate Professor of History and American Studies in the Graduate School of Global Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.  His work focuses on the global contours of 20th century Black radicalism and he teaches courses on the African diaspora, documentary film, Black popular culture, and social movements. A native of Los Angeles, California, Wilkins has held tenured track appointments at Syracuse University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He holds a Ph.D. in History from New York University and is currently completing a manuscript that explores the politics of African liberation solidarity activity in the United States and beyond from 1957 to 1980. Wilkins’ work is principally concerned with the global contours of Black radicalism during the heady days of Black Power. He is co-editor with Michael O. West and William G. Martin of From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International Since The Age of Revolution and his scholarly work has appeared in edited collections, The Journal of African American History and Radical History Review. In addition to his scholarly interests Wilkins is a photographer, DJ and avid snowboarder who lives for the outdoors.

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We Are An African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination is a masterful study that deserves the widest readership. Building on over two decades of scholarship that reexamined the Black Power phase of the long 1960s, We Are An African People underscores the critical role that the quest for independent black education played in shaping the struggle for black peoplehood, political autonomy and global solidarity. In many respects, earlier scholarship on Black Power justified its own existence by highlighting the historical derision and neglect pinned to the period by scholars preoccupied with the domestic liberalism of the movement for civil rights. Prior to the wave of historical studies that emerged in the 1990s, Black Power too often signaled the moment when the Civil Rights movement lost its way and was overcome by political excess, wonton adventurism, undisciplined extremism and misguided interest in revolutionary movements across the Third World. Much has changed since then.

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There are so many books and articles on Black Power that we now talk of Black Power Studies. Conceivably, the numerous studies of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense — founded several months after those initial cries for Black Power in October 1966 — have coalesced into a sub-field within Black Power Studies. We have also seen a proliferation of television and film documentaries on Black Power and affiliated political organizations.

Without question, We Are An African People has benefited tremendously from this growing body of work. Those acquainted with Black Power Studies will recognize familiar organizations, institutions, landmark political gatherings, and stalwart activist-intellectuals. In its pages we find the histories of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the US Organization, the Congress of African People, the Center for Black Education, Malcolm X Liberation University, The East, and the Institute of the Black World, among others. We Are An African People, however, is far from a synthetic story that tells a familiar tale. By focusing on the struggle for black independent education within and beyond the classroom, Rickford “offers an intellectual history of subaltern education, a critical analysis of the fate of Black Power ideologies in the postsegregation era, and a portrait of African-American self-activity at the neighborhood level.”1 These independent black schools were not only laboratories for formal education but served as collective spaces for community organizing, strategizing and theoretical wood-shedding. In addition to being edifying spaces for cultural reclamation and regeneration, black independent schools were a critical node within the black liberation movement as a whole in the early 1970s.

For purposes of discussion and scholarly exchange, I would like to focus on two important aspects of the book. The first pertains to the temporal dimensions of the study in terms of how Rickford, in very nuanced ways, captures the dynamism of the period in terms of change over time. Secondly, I would like to grapple with some of Rickford’s “sober” criticisms of Pan-African Nationalists and raise a few questions that may complicate some of his conclusions.

A primary strength of the book is Rickford’s attention to how organizations, institutions and activist-intellectuals evolved. One of the critical challenges of doing intellectual historical work on activists and organizations is figuring out how to capture the dynamics of changes. Historians often use political labels to identify a person or an institution’s politics at a given moment in time. Political labels have great narrative value in telling the story. However, these same labels can also freeze historical actors and divest them of agency and vitality. For example, a historical figure might have at one time identified him or herself as a Marxist, but later had second thoughts about the political merits and utility of Marxism after being exposed to Buddhism. Yet, a historian may find explanatory value in that actor as a Marxist and not similarly engage the role of spirituality in his or her development. Hence the historical actor, simply cast as a Marxist on the page, would have been more valuable from a multidimensional standpoint.

Russell Rickford successfully conveys these kinds of dynamics and nuances in the Malcolm X Liberation University (MXLU) and the various changes that the institution and its leadership went through over roughly a four-year period. Thankfully MXLU left a relatively extensive paper trail. Rickford is able to buttress his evidentiary base with oral testimony that charts the activist fatigue, debates, and the range of external influences both locally and internationally that shaped and challenged the institution and its membership over time.

Amina Baraka
Amina Baraka

Rickford also captured the growth and development of women organizers involved in black independent schools and organizations– e.g. Amina Baraka, the co-founder and lead teacher at Newark’s African Free School. Coming out of an expressly patriarchal cultural nationalist tradition (called Kawaida), Amina had generally defined herself as ‘complementary’ to her husband Amiri Baraka. She “once described her primary role as the sustenance and encouragement of her husband,” according to Rickford. Yet in 1974 she “abandoned the philosophy of Kawaida and began critiquing male supremacy as a manifestation of bourgeois culture.” Amina began to “recognize that Pan African nationalism had absorbed the repressive characteristics of capitalist patriarchy” and had to be abandoned in her exploration of “new visions of freedom.” Moreover, Tayari Kwa Salaam of the Ahidiana Work/Study Center of New Orleans went through a similar transformation as she began to attend various “women’s conferences” that exposed her to the idea that black and Third World women suffered from triple forms of oppression revolving around race, class, and gender. According to Rickford these ideas “replaced her narrow cultural nationalist worldview.”2

We Are An African People is representative of the best of that scholarship in terms of complicating the figures and institutions at the forefront of the movement. Like Komozi Woodard and Scot Brown before him, Rickford takes Black Nationalism seriously and seeks to uncover its layers, diversify its utterances and humanize its adherents. Rickford is able to do this through his use of the term Pan African Nationalism, an umbrella designation that allows him to mine the diversity of Black Nationalist thought and grapple with its various adherents across the political spectrum. Throughout We Are An African People, Pan African Nationalists are on the move locally and internationally, confronting new circumstances and challenges. At every turn, Rickford resists “the impulse to vindicate Black Power” and criticizes various nationalists for their “crude orthodoxies,” vanguardism, authoritarianism, racial myopia, African romanticism, sexism, racial essentialism and escapism. Despite these weaknesses, he argues that “the political imaginary of Pan African nationalism—the philosophical and ideological architecture of its beliefs—offered powerful, alternative visions of African-American cultural citizenship….”3

Yet, for Rickford, the overarching shortcoming of the Pan African Nationalists was their inability to remain rooted in their local communities and incorporate the struggles of everyday working black peoples into their social, political and educational initiatives. I share some of these sentiments but wonder if Rickford may be romanticizing working people’s struggles by making them the default marker to assess the leftist evolution and maturation of Pan African Nationalists. Unfortunately, we learn very little about how Pan African Nationalists were also attuned to the objective material conditions on the ground. Why was Malcolm X Liberation University unable to develop partnerships and work in coalition with local grassroots organizers in Durham, North Carolina before being forced to move to Greensboro? The answers in We Are An African People seem to be one-sided, with the Pan African Nationalists making all of the mistakes and the “masses” along with more left-leaning organizers remaining as paragons of struggle and sacrifice.

Quoting Ann McClintock, Rickford asserts, “All nationalisms are gendered, all are invented, and all are dangerous.” Following E. Frances White, he also stands behind the “premise that Black Nationalism contains both liberating and repressive discourses.” How might we come to terms with the dangerous and repressive aspects of Black Nationalism within the context of #blacklivesmatter—a clear nationalist outcry representative of a diverse body of activists and organizations at the forefront of a new movement for social and political change? Though we know of many of its limitations, might we think of Black Nationalism as a more strategic and situational impulse that finds utility and efficacy during intense moments of racialized repression?

That said, We Are African People proved to be meticulously researched, erudite in its judgments, and analytically sophisticated. In my estimation, it leap frogs to the forefront of Black Power Studies and should be a welcomed addition to the field and beyond.

  1. Rickford, We Are An African People, 5
  2. ibid., 156
  3. ibid., 18, 153, 6.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Comments on “We Are An African People and the Dynamism of Black Power Studies

  • I don’t particularly like labels when they are applied to people. A label places a person on a box and restricts the full range of what it means to be alive.

    • Thanks for your comment, Vincent. Like you, I think that Wilkins wants to highlight the potential limitations of applying labels to historical actors. As he notes in the review, many black activists changed their political positions during the 1960s and 1970s and defy a singular label. Labels, as Wilkins points out, can obscure the evolution of one’s political ideology and prevent us from grappling with the dynamic nature of activism.

  • This review (like the one before) is both lovely and illuminating. I found particularly salient the point on the perils of “romanticizing working people’s struggles” when we make them a “default marker” to assess grassroots and community organizing in general (which grassroots and community organizing may also do, of course). This is a very difficult question, which dovetails with subaltern studies and its theorization of the agency and identity of non-dominant, counterhegemonic groups, as well as with debates on the politics of racial and social authenticity.

    I do have a question though: does #blacklivesmatter represent truly a “clear nationalist outcry”? I am not so sure about this point; even as we can situate its voices and practices–which are quite heterogeneous!–within a genealogy that connects with Pan African Nationalism, I do not see nationalism necessarily as a central component in the movement. My possible misperception may have to with how w define nationalism and Black nationalism in the contemporary era: after all, these are fluid signifiers that can be appropriated in different ways.

    And to Anne McClintock’s critique of nationalism we might add that internationalisms are gendered too, they are inventions, and they may have their dangers (the idea of defining ALL nationalisms as inherently dangerous has always bothered me; since it turns nationalism into a fixed, transhistorical category, without attending to its historicity). Anyhow, thanks for putting my brain cells to work, palante!

    • Thanks for your terrific comments, Kahil. You raise several thought-provoking questions, particularly about how we situate the #BlackLivesMatter movement within the Black Radical Tradition. I hope we’ll be able to discuss the points that you raise as the roundtable continues.

  • This review was very helpful! I agree with the information about the way Rickford “captured the growth and development of women organizers involved in black independent schools and organizations.” While Komozi Woodard, Scot Brown, Kwasi Konadu, and Samori Camara reveal information about the women in relation to the organizations with which they affiliated, Rickford gives us a perspective of them as a kind of group. He allows us to see them through the lens of their ideas and work in terms of Pan African Nationalist schools. Ashley Farmer similarly discussed the evolution of women in various Kawaida organizations in her article, “Renegotiating the ‘African Woman.'”

    • Thanks for your comment, Kenja! In tomorrow’s review, Ashley Farmer will focus on Rickford’s discussion of gender ideology and gender roles in Pan-African Nationalist schools. It’s such an important topic.

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