This is the fourth 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, followed by remarks by Fanon Che Wilkins on Tuesday and Ashley Farmer on Wednesday. In this post, blogger Ibram X. Kendi explores the significance of independent Black schools and examines the administrators’ ideas about African American culture.
Ibram X. Kendi is an assistant professor of African American history at the University of Florida. An intellectual and social movement historian, Kendi studies racist and antiracist ideas and movements. He is the author of the award-winning book, The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965–1972, the first national study of Black student activism during that period. Kendi has also published fourteen essays on the Black Campus Movement, Black power, and intellectual history in books and referred academic journals. He is currently working on the first general history of New York Black power, Black Apple: Malcolm X and Black Power in New York, 1954-1974—a book under contract with NYU Press. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, was released by Nation Books on April 12, 2016.
In the wake of the failures of the civil rights and Black power movements, an array of independent “Pan African nationalist schools” emerged in the late 1960s and 1970—a somewhat unknown national history that Russell Rickford skillfully chronicles in his landmark book, We Are An African People.
These Pan African nationalist schools emerged in the wake of the failed efforts of civil rights activists to fully integrate public schools. They emerged in the wake of failed efforts of Black power-inspired communities to gain control of public schools. These Pan African nationalist schools emerged in the wake of failed efforts of student activists to fully integrate Black power—as most represented in Black Studies—into historically White colleges and universities (HWCUs). They emerged in the wake of the failed efforts of student activists to gain control of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
Rickford recounts how the founders of these Pan-African nationalist schools had already swallowed the bitter pill of reality in the late 1960s and 1970s. After decades of activism, the enemies of Black people still generally controlled public schools and historically White and Black colleges. These founders were driven to build these Pan-African nationalists schools on the belief that Black peoples’ enemies were still educating Black children. And these founders lived by Malcolm X’s famous dictate: “only a fool would let his enemy educate his children.”
We Are An African People covers the vast intellectual life of these founders and their schools, covering ideas as ranging from political economy, to gender relations, to power politics, to musings on Africa and imperialism. I want to narrowly focus on Rickford’s thoughtful treatment of their ideas about African American culture. The administrators of these Pan-African nationalist schools universally self-identified as the friends of Black people, as the liberators of Black people—the type of teachers that Black parents could wholly trust to educate their children. But were they always?
Rickford’s courageously insightful intellectual history provokes us to question how some of these teachers and schools characterized themselves. Did racist ideas of pathological African American culture flow into some Pan-African nationalist schools as they did in the established schools? Were some of the teachers of these Pan-African schools in some ways the cultural enemies of very people they were trying to educate? Did some Black parents refuse to enroll their children in some of these Pan-African schools because they did not want their cultural enemies to educate their children?
The mass organizing of these Pan-African nationalist schools came on the heels of a global decolonization movement where leaders of “emerging nations strove to consolidate their independence by eliminating the cultural and spiritual residue of the colonizer,” as Rickford narrated. “Efforts to ‘decolonize the African mind’ and to ‘effect a renaissance of African civilization’ inspired parallel black American struggles.”1 Certainly, many Black minds around the world had internalized the racist ideas of their oppressors. Many Black minds viewed European cultures as superior and were trying to assimilate into these “superior” cultures. Many Black minds needed to be de-colonized of racist ideas. But that was it.
There was nothing ever wrong with the cultures of African peoples—an antiracist idea that pumped the heart of Rickford’s historical analysis. Time and again, he rejected the racist idea that there was something wrong or dead or broken or sick about African American culture—a racist idea he found too often on the pedagogical lips of the administrators of these Pan-African nationalist schools. Some of these administrators expressed “a certain contempt for indigenous African-American folkways,” Rickford explained. “This disdain was especially pronounced in the rhetoric of Haki Madhubuti, who lamented the ignorance and pathology of the American Negro. ‘We sick,’ Madhubuti wrote, ‘because we don’t know who we are.” Rickford also quoted Amiri Baraka as stressing the need “to teach people values, values, values.”2 He chronicled how the teachers and students at Malcolm X Liberation University (MXLU) were led by MXLU founder Howard Fuller to reject the validity of African American culture. “One MXLU seminar concluded that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ values had severely damaged black Americans. ‘We’re operating at a very low spiritual level,’ one student maintained.”3
Some cultural activists no doubt exhibited cultural nationalist ideas in the most literal antiracist sense: they recognized African American culture as a “national” culture that should be understood, practiced, and valued. They challenged assimilationist educational policies that devalued and dismissed African American culture. And yet, based on Rickford’s research, these cultural antiracists—whether we identify them as cultural nationalists, Pan-Africanists, revolutionary nationalists, or later Afrocentric intellectuals—seemed to be more of the exception than the rule in their groups; in the corpus of administrators of Pan African nationalist schools.
Rickford used the phrase “proponents of African-American cultural renewal” to describe those Pan-African nationalist school leaders who denigrated African American culture (p. 128). It was a phrase he could have used more often. It effectively connected these Pan-African nationalist school leaders with the very paternalistic assimilationists that these founders ironically despised in the 1960s and 1970s—all those men and women who were simultaneously engaged in “renewal” and “development” projects in African American communities. Like their assimilationist enemies, some Black independent school leaders “sought to rehabilitate rather than liberate the dispossessed,” as Rickford acknowledges.4
We Are An African People is not only important in terms of definitively demonstrating some of the culturally racist ideas within the Black power movement, within, ironically, the movement’s most radical bastion of cultural activism: independent Black schools. We Are An African People is not only an important contribution to Black power’s historiography as the landmark foundational monograph on the national Black independent schools movement.
We Are An African People is an important contribution because Rickford succeeds in his aim to “capture the spirit of the liberation struggle and to acknowledge its triumphs and errors in the hopes of crafting more resilient movements in the future.”5 We Are An African People allows us to more clearly see—and snatch out—some of the ideological roots of the recent history of African American cultural thought, particularly the widespread racist ideas that the cultural behaviors of Black people (especially “ghetto” poor Black people) are inferior, sick, and in need of renewal. “Pan African nationalism had long vacillated between valorizing the African-American masses and demanding their reformation,” Rickford wrote. “Over the course of the 1970s, many of the philosophy’s adherents embraced the latter position, indicting the alleged vices of the black rank and file.”6
These culturally racist ideas were one of the fatal intellectual flaws of some the leaders of Pan African nationalist schools, Rickford maintained. In this respect, they took the demeaning place of racist White teachers. These leaders of Pan African nationalist schools quite literally understood themselves as cultural teachers of the masses as opposed to cultural learners of the masses.
But Rickford’s story did not end there. Rickford further complicates this history when he discloses that some of these proponents of African-American cultural renewal started to question their own ideas. When the well-respected West African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral came to the U.S. in 1970 and 1972, he met with many of the leaders of Pan African nationalist schools and compelled some serious self-reflection. As Rickford recounts, Cabral lectured that “in the process of self-liberation, oppressed people must ‘return to the upward paths of their own culture,’ rediscovering their native vitality and strengths. The movement’s leaders must embody and defend the popular character of indigenous culture.”7
We Are An African People imparts a crucial pedagogical lesson for activist teachers, for administrators of independent Black schools, for all antiracists. Rickford reminds us: To truly be engines of Black liberation, we must seek to reflect—not rehabilitate—the culture of African Americans. There is nothing wrong with the culture(s) of African Americans, or any other African people. We are equal African peoples.