It’s my pleasure to be at the Brecht Forum to share with you a few insights about Black history. I’d like to begin by being somewhat autobiographical. First of all, I’m not a trained historian. My academic training is in international relations, international affairs and political science. Secondly, I see myself more as an activist scholar, an activist intellectual, than an intellectual activist. In a sense I came to activism before I came to the intellectual endeavors, and I’d like to tell you how that happened and what the role of black history was in that process. In so doing, I hope to give you some flavor of the growth and development of this whole struggle to revise, to update, and to make more active black history in the period of the last 30-40 years. Finally, I will talk a little bit about the kinds of questions for historical research and investigation that have been thrown up by my experiences in the movement.
My initial exposure to black history was in the home, not at school. I went to primary and secondary school in the ’40s and ’50s. Fortunately, my father had a college education, was educated at Howard at a very important point in history, which meant there were some books on black history in my home. I remember reading at a very young age Arna Bontemps, The History of the Negro. My father personally knew Alain Locke, studied with him; Charles Wesley; joked about how Langston Hughes used to talk in class about the potatoes he grew on his farm; studied with Kelly Miller; borrowed money for his senior tuition from Emmett Scott, who, at the time he was enrolled at Howard, was dean of the college, but of course was also Booker T. Washington’s secretary. He would talk about people you never heard of in the context of black history; it was from him that I learned about Garvey.
Now don’t assume that my father was someone who was extremely conscious about Black people. But he reflected the orientation of educated Negroes, educated Colored People of the period, especially those who had gone to black colleges. There was some exposure to black history and it was a definite commitment to orient one’s kids to be a credit to one’s race. So the notion of a race with a history, at some level, was rooted in me from a very early age.
I went to an Ivy League institution, the University of Pennsylvania, in the ’60s, and there were three people from my class and seventeen undergraduates among 17,000 students in the whole institution. Fortunately, however, there were some very important people there although very few in number. In the snack bar, I used to hold discussions with a brother named Larry Neal, who had done his undergraduate work at Lincoln and was piddling around Penn trying to do a Masters in Folklore because that was kind of a new field. We used to talk about the little ditties you sing when jumping rope, and other things people would do in the street. And then he would discuss music with me and I’d be talking about J.S. Bach and he’d say “well, you better check Sketches of Spain and listen to what Miles is doing.” We had some very insightful discussions, which introduced me to the whole relationship of culture and Black liberation. Of course, Larry at that time was one of the founding members of the Black Arts Movement, but he was also coming out of a be-bop orientation, and both those trends were very important to our history in the 20th century.
Now, understand, while we’re doing this in the snack bar, in the classroom I’m getting a big dose of Morrison’s college history text, especially page 473, which is a section on the slave. Out of a huge monstrous book, there were about two pages on the slave, starting about “Massah” and “Sambo,” then going on to talk about wooly-headed Uncle Daniel, and just make a joke of the whole topic. Fortunately, over at Queens College, there was a comrade named Goodman who had taken the college to court around that very text, and it was removed from the classroom subsequently. This was the Goodman who unfortunately was killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi later on. But I was getting that in the classroom, and floating around the environs of Penn were people like Carlton S. Coon. He was one of the preeminent anthropologists in the world at the time, but like a throwback to the Dark Ages of the 1880s and ’90s in terms of his evaluation of what was going on with black people. So, if I had to depend only on the classroom, I would have been lost completely. But fortunately, there was the snack bar, there was something else.
In addition, there were some organic intellectuals who were around at the time, and we talked a whole lot. Brothers like Stanley Daniels of RAM and Mack Stanford, also known as Muhammad Ahmad. These cats took me on my first demonstration. I didn’t know half of what I was doing, but they took me down to Democratic County headquarters to protest the fact that our Black Democratic legislators were allowing the Democratic Party in the South to persecute Robert Williams. And so I began to hear some analysis, only vaguely understood, of the relationship of black liberation and Marxism, because the Revolutionary Action Movement, RAM, was dealing with that at that particular point. Now this is all going on during the integrationist phase of the movement. I was also interacting with people like Lou Smith of Philadelphia CORE. They were taking garbage out of the Hawthorne section of Philadelphia where most black people lived and dumping it in what was then all-white Winfield. This was part of the radicalization of CORE, its movement to the North offering a trend that would end up in a nationalist thrust. And I’m learning all the time.
Well, my systematic training in black history didn’t begin until I got to Columbia as a grad student. Again, it wasn’t in the classroom. It was on Saturday morning, when we would rustle people out of bed and get them downstairs in the dorm. People like John Henrik Clarke, Jim Campbell, and Keith Baer came out on those early Saturday mornings for nothing, to speak to a handful of students, and to give us the basics in African and Afro-American history. Now, I should say at this point there are many trained black historians and social scientists who are very hard with these community-based historians, and who’ll tell you in a minute how inaccurate some of the formulations of Dr. Clark and others happen to be. And I’m not going to debate that point. The only thing I might say is that it’s a very good thing that they came out, because if they didn’t, a whole generation of cadres would not have gotten any education whatsoever. And there were some black folks in isolated campuses who knew a little bit more-were more professionally trained-that you never, ever saw in this period. And I can say on balance, that they really put us on the right path.
What followed in the latter part of the ’60s were study groups in summer institutes of our own design and initiative, where we had to identify our own experts and invite them to places where we could interact with them. But most importantly, we had to test those developing insights in the arena of struggle within the movement itself. For me, one of the most important trends in this regard was the Black Student Congress. The summer after the Columbia seizures of ’68-which I was involved in with brother Sam Anderson here-we sat up in St. Mary’s Parish House on the fifth floor when the temperatures reached about 110 degrees, and studied at the feet of people like Bill Strickland, Abdul Alkalimat, Peter Bailey, Bill Epton, Preston Wilcox, C.E. Wilson. They forged a link between our generation-what we were struggling for-and previous struggles. Again, this is all happening outside the classroom because at Columbia, what you could get in international affairs was a whole lot in terms of African histories-a whole lot of State Department stuff. It wasn’t until after many of these incidents that we were able to struggle hard enough that they hired Phil Foner, in September 1969. I’m not suggesting that there was nothing to be learned in the classroom but I’m saying that at this time, the major vehicle for the absorption of Black history was in movement-created institutions.
By the early ’70s, we were able to seize control of some educational institutions and try to introduce-through the development of Black Studies programs and Economic Opportunity programs-some of the procedures that we had developed in the movement, into the university itself. We’ve only been partially successful with that activity, but one should understand that some of the better things that we’ve been able to do on campuses in fact have an organic relationship to the movement.
Now I’d like to talk about the legacy of this process and some research interests that flow out of my movement activism. First of all, the whole process by which I learned black history gives me orientation to intellectual research tasks such that they’re defined for me by the state of the struggle for black liberation and the problems that struggle throws up. That defines my research interest. It’s not defined by the money flow, the interests of the corporate media, or the internal politics of departments and mentors. That’s always the pressure if your activity is totally campus-centered. This doesn’t mean you have to ignore money and what’s going on in the corporate media and with the powers-that-be and departments. But fundamentally, I’ve been able to avoid succumbing to those kinds of pressures because of the particular way in which I acquired my knowledge of black history.
Another thing I should mention is that my interests have been defined specifically by the polemics that have accompanied the activities of organizations I’ve been involved in, such as the African Liberation Support Committee, the Black New York Action Committee, and the forums of the Patrice Lumumba Coalition uptown at Harriet Tubman¾the polemics, the position papers, the leaflets, the commemorative speeches, press releases, etc. I’m suggesting to you that I accord a great importance to those debates; that what went on there was crucial for the direction of the struggle and suggested to me a line of research that has continued up to the present point.
Now out of this, I think one important research need is for more studies of the history of recent local community-based organizations and the crucial debates within them. I mentioned the African Liberation Support Committee. I know of no single study of ALSC, but it was probably the most important black organization which had a national as well as a local personality in the 1970s. I would venture to guess that there are many people here who don’t know what the African Liberation Support Committee is-never heard of it. This is a gap that has to be filled. Very important debates transpired in the context of activities organized in New York by the Patrice Lumumba Coalition. There’s absolutely no documentation by trained intellectuals of these debates. There was a momentous struggle around Sinai Hospital, and here you’ll notice I’m speaking about New York because that’s where the focus of my activities was, but we can replicate these things in hundreds of cities. There’s no discussion of the struggle around Sinai Hospital. That was probably one of the two most important struggles that took place-at least from the black perspective-in New York City during the 1980s. The fact that that history was lost has phenomenal implications for the struggle for decent medical care today. So these kinds of struggles need to be documented; they need to be available to anybody who wants to be a scholar activist. We need to put graduate students onto these tasks. If we don’t, we’ll continue to recreate the wheel and we’ll continue to let the corporate media and the educational elite to define what we research.
Knowing about these local organizational developments and debates can change our basic parameters. It’s my opinion that the beginning and end dates of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements look very different when we take into account what’s going on at the local level, as opposed to what’s going on nationally. The Civil Rights movement, for example, dates not from Montgomery but from the previous transportation boycotts in Baton Rouge and places like that. And to say that the Civil Rights and Black Power movements end somewhere around ’68 or ’70 negates a wealth of developments that come out of the momentum of the ’60s and carry almost through 1980, through the National Black Power Conferences which took place in Brooklyn here, for instance. So these local analyses are very important.
We need political biographies of local activists and leadershipp figures so we can plot their trajectories and affiliations, their ideological metamorphosis. I think this is important as a condition for the more democratic exercise of our right to choose. We don’t need to be forced to endorse leaders that we basically know nothing about. But where can you easily access the history of community-based leadership? This is important. We have a man running for mayor-at least attempting to get the black community’s endorsement-who has a history: Al Sharpton. I don’t how many people know Al’s history. There are other people that I can mention in that regard.
Also, it’s important for us to fill certain gaps in our knowledge of major trends and phenomena in the struggle. For instance, one particular concern of mine is that we need to fill the gap in our knowledge of Black Nationalism, particularly as it relates to the period between Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. There’s been some work that we’re beginning to see on this, that Ernie Allen up in Massachusetts has done, in terms of nationalist development in the ’30s. But what about the ’40s and early ’50s before Malcolm? Malcolm is not topsy. There were developments and organizational trends which are reflected in Malcolm, but we can’t follow those things very clearly. It wasn’t all Nation of Islam either.
In addition, we need to go back further to speak again about nationalism, which is a concern of mine, and look at some of the traditional leadership figures in somewhat different ways. For instance, we need to look at Martin Delaney as a political scientist, not just a nationalist. He was the first person in the black community to write a political novel, probably the first one to write an extended political treatise, and he was doing this at a time when his contemporaries in Europe were doing the same thing. Of course, I think immediately of Giuseppe Mazzini, but I’ve never seen a comparison between Mazzini’s nationalism and Delaney’s. And why not?
We have to develop our sense of the black intellectual tradition and situate it in relation to other traditions. This is something that I don’t always feel when we talk about black history. We talk about personalities. But to recognize that black people have particular ways of looking at their history, the particular schools of thought within the development of black history, we have to be more explicit about them, and develop our knowledge of them even more.
We need to begin to develop data in anticipation of its later historical significance. Therefore, we have to have greater use of clipping files, leaflet files, video and audio tapes. This becomes very important when we look at the development of the electronic media and the internet. For instance, in the ’80s, the Chicago Center for African- American Studies documented the campaign there against the Krugerrand-which was part of the anti-Apartheid campaign-by setting up a clipping file. They clipped every paper they could get hold of as that struggle developed. I don’t know of any other documentation of that struggle save for that clipping file. There’s a similar clipping file for the history of ALSC. So, I think that departments of History and African-American Studies need to begin to do this for local struggles regardless of their present significance, because who knows what happens over time.
Lastly, we have to be clear about how we should be validating our intellectual cadres. We shouldn’t limit training of our scholars to ways that have been used before. We have to develop scholar activists and activist scholars. We have to immerse our scholars in actual struggles. But at the same time, we have to make a place for activists in the university and on campuses. All intellectuals, in a sense, have to be trained to become organic intellectuals-that is, those who can re-articulate the insights of their intellectual activities in ways that allow for the activation of the masses of the people.
I’d like to talk about nationalism, specifically about the idea of nation and the idea of liberation, primarily from a black feminist perspective and also from an Africanist historian’s perspective. I want to look at these ideas, and at the issue of black nationalism, primarily from the vantage-point of the present. The present to me is a particularly ominous and scary time. You have a variety of different forms of million-man marches. There is the Million-Man March organized by the Nation of Islam, but there are also a couple of million-man marches being proposed by the Promise-Keepers. These are different proposed marches of men, marching to restore something that’s been lost, to restore a kind of patriarchy within our society.
As a person interested in liberation, but in a kind of liberation that would include me as a black woman, I’m concerned about these phenomena. Also, as an Africanist historian-or an African historian- who’s done most of my work on Southern Africa and spent most of my time in Zimbabwe, I’m really concerned with the ways in which relatively new African nation-states-in many cases, nation-states that fought socialist liberation struggles, all of them articulating the fact that they had to deal with the woman question (which is a Marxist- Leninist construction of women’s liberation)-had to recognize that women are fighting against two colonialisms, and thus that a true liberation movement and a true liberation discourse would also have to acknowledge those two colonialisms, and that no nation can ever be free unless its women are free. Yet, when I was in Zimbabwe-first in 1983, three years after independence, and then from 1990 to 1993, when I was doing my dissertation research-I encountered a post-liberation society, a post-colonial society in which women were being rounded up. They had campaigns called “round-ups, crackdowns,” where essentially women who were seen on the streets at night were labeled as prostitutes and taken to prisons, fields, camps, etc., and not released until someone presented a marriage certificate or some evidence that they were “good women.” I’m not saying this to be shocking; this is a reality. The reality is that the same leaders who can conceive and construct liberation for a nation or for a race, can also conceive of and construct these policies that essentially criminalize women who are independent or who are striving for various forms of liberation; who, because they inhabit an intersection between class, race, gender, and perhaps even discrimination based on sexuality, have other ways in which they are constructing liberation.
This is what I want to look at as a general theme. Because I’m an African-American, I’m going to move back and forth between examples from US history and from the history of Zimbabwe. But first, I’d like to talk a bit about how I see my role as a historian and how I would define black critical history. I see black critical history as having three components, and I just came up with this so there probably are more. One is a deconstructive component, one is an excavational component, and another one is constructive, subversive, lots of other things, hopeful-imaginative.
The deconstructive component must first deconstruct concepts, ideas, dominant narratives, knowledges, which are oppressive, which have served as part of the structures that have kept various people silent, away from power, etc. A lot of my work looks at science, at different scientific ideas and scientific knowledges about people of color. I’ve done work on colonial psychiatry; in fact, my dissertation was a history of a mental hospital in which I looked at ascriptions of insanity and the need to deconstruct insanity within colonial discourses as a way of trying to locate essentially what these terms are concealing about the nature of colonial power. I think deconstruction of a variety of different things functions in that way to try to get down under the building blocks that have accumulated over time-getting underneath what has been concealed.
Excavation is related to deconstruction: locating the sites of resistance, of creative tensions, the silent histories of struggle and creativity. In a course I teach called Women, Gender and Power in African History, one of my students recently challenged me to come up with some examples of where African women in particular but women in general had power, had recognized political power that they actually exercised. Essentially her challenge was: if you can’t give me an example of some kind of alternative narrative of power, then don’t expect me to really work towards it. So on some level, I learned in that encounter-not that I accepted her being unwilling to try if I couldn’t tell her where someone had done it before-how important precedent is; how important it is to be able to give students examples of where someone else resisted this particular phenomenon. And excavational activities are activities that locate those.
In our nationalist narratives and dominant narratives, often the types of resistance that we focus on are important. Resistance against class oppression, domination, resistance against “the man,” resistance against colonialism, imperialism, slavery, etc. But often we do not chronicle, we do not give voice to other forms of resistance-for instance, resistance against patriarchy. We focus on resistance against external forms of oppression, external forms of discrimination and repression of energy, but not against these kinds of internal, intra-community oppressions like patriarchy. Patriarchy-rule of the father-like what these marches are trying to re-establish. We don’t really have the narratives to teach our students about where we were fighting patriarchy. Think about it, within an African-American tradition or in Zimbabwe, where women are powerful, they’re powerful fighting as mothers for the nation. Nehanda is a spirit medium who was symbolically very important in the liberation struggles in Zimbabwe. She was a spirit medium whom the different fighters would have to get information from, advice from, and permission from to conduct various campaigns. Nehanda became a symbol of the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe. The interesting thing is, she also became the mother of Zimbabwe. She was maternalized, though as Rudo Gaidzanwa (a sociologist at the University of Zimbabwe) has observed, there’s no evidence that Nehanda had ever had any children. Now while this might seem superficial, on some level the need to create mothers out of these strong women can also work against creating an alternative narrative which really sees women power-operating in a space that’s not contained by maternity or something else.
Excavation of struggles against rape. I think a lot of times when people talk about feminism, they’re constructed as treasonist or counter-revolutionary or distracting or competitive. A central part of a nationalist discourse in the United States is anti-lynching. The whole lynching metaphor is extremely powerful, extremely strong, and it’s extremely legitimate. But we don’t have any comparable campaign or symbolism that refers to a struggle against rape, for instance. It’s not a competitive thing, it’s an issue of inclusion, of including the oppressions, the various types of oppressions that different people within a community experience. So excavation is locating those different spaces of creative resistance.
And then finally, constructive: creating counter-narratives of inclusion, of intersectional politics, the recognition of the intersection. An interesting example is the period after slavery and before the Fifteenth Amendment, when the suffrage movement was going on. Ultimately, certain people were being forced to choose between suffrage for Blacks and suffrage for women. And someone, a very strong, powerful, articulate and radical African-American woman named Maria Stewart was also expected to choose. Eventually, she chose franchise for blacks. But the interesting thing about her choice is that it wasn’t a choice, at least not in a personal way. Because blacks got the vote, but women didn’t have the vote, women weren’t going to vote anyway. Historically, black women, black feminists have often been required to make those types of choice. How am I going to choose between a black struggle and a feminist or women’s struggle? How are you going to choose-if you’re black, female, lesbian and poor-which struggle to engage? You shouldn’t have to choose either struggle. So the development and construction of a kind of intersectional politics, and a narrative that incorporates those politics, is really important, and I feel that the work of a historian can facilitate those kinds of projects.
In the early 19th century, many of the activities that the freed- black communites in the North engaged in-which I see as in some ways rehearsing for freedom, rehearsing for liberation-were really institution-building, building a kind of society, a respectable society, for a period of freedom. And one of the key activities was also constructing gender roles for that anticipated state of freedom. There are a lot of examples from African-American newspapers during that period, which are admonishing women to essentially be women, and men to be men, and basically imposing a certain standard which was really external to the experience of Black Americans of that period. The discourse in general of manhood-the focus on masculinity, on regaining certain manhood rights-is also very problematic to an inclusive kind of liberation, and while a lot of us would say that this is obvious, I don’t think that we’ve managed to come up with a counter-narrative to really challenge the dominant ones in that regard.
Finally, I just wanted to say some things about Zimbabwe because this is a country that I went to right after undergraduate school, after writing an honors thesis on women in the liberation struggled in the Guinea Bissau. I got a fellowship to travel to Zimbabwe, Guinea Bissau, and Mozambique, basically to interview women ex-combatants to see how the rhetoric of liberation translated into practice after independence. I encountered the kinds of situations that I described before, where independent women, free women, were being told in no uncertain terms, basically, “O.K., now be women again.” Traditions which had been invented during the colonial period were being reinvented and reinforced. Everything that reeked of feminism was being constructed as Western-influenced and non-Zimbabwean. So again we find tradition-narratives of nations-being used to enforce patriarchy, and it’s very difficult to counter those unless we engage in a kind of historical pedagogy which tries to excavate these alternative models.
It’s great to be here at the Brecht Forum-always a great place, always great questions. Before I begin, there was a point I wanted to add to Lynette’s brilliant presentation that further reinforces her point about rape, and that is how it is used as a metaphor for the invasion of nation-states. Think about the rape of Ethiopia and how that was used. It’s definitely a very powerful gender metaphor de-masculinizing the nation-state and making it maternal. She’s absolutely right in that there are no metaphors to talk about rape as even other forms of violence, but you can use rape as a metaphor to talk about the penetration of the nation.
This is interesting for me because I get all these speaking engagements in the month of February, of course, because it’s Black History Month. And a lot of these engagements are ones where they just want a black scholar to stand up there and make people feel good. But I can come to the Brecht Forum and talk a little about the craft of this endeavor and what it means for social movements. And this is different, I can’t give this talk everywhere.
What I will do is set up a series of questions for myself which I’ll try to answer or begin to answer. One is, why does history matter for us? And particularly what we’re calling critical black history. Why does it matter?
It matters because the interpretation of African-American history, or black history, has been at the center of a number of major debates right now-from the whole question of Afrocentrism and the role of Ancient Egypt to the right-wing assault on Affirmative Action and Welfare. All the arguments in support of attacks on welfare or the general assault on Afrocentrism (from the right) are based on some sort of historical foundation, however bogus. A case in point is Dinesh DeSousa’s book End of Racism, which is considered a work of history. First, he recasts slavery as a sane national system that actually made life better for Africans lucky enough to be enslaved. If you were fortunate to get on a slave ship, the way he puts it, “slavery proved to be the transmission belt that nevertheless brought Africans into the orbit of modern civilization and Western freedom.” Thank goodness for slavery. He argues that slavemasters, not the slaves, should have been compensated for loss of property. He argues that black poverty and intellectual underachievement are products of a long, uncivilized, hedonistic, violent culture. And he also has this line where he says that the culture of the so-called “Uncle Tom” as he puts it “is the only civilization of worth within the black community.” By that, he means the cultures that are closest to Europe. And finally, he also recasts the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a racist law to perpetuate discrimination against white people. So he’s calling for the abolition of the ’64 Civil Rights Act.
Keep in mind that DeSousa’s book was a national best-seller and so a lot of people read it. This is the kind of history that’s shaping large segments of the populace. It’s the kind of history that we’re trying to contest, but without the kind of platform that he has, including millions of dollars from right-wing foundations. This is precisely the sort of history that has profoundly informed public policy decisions on black people. And DeSousa’s not alone; you can go back to the Moynihan Report of 1965. It was based on a historical argument (derived in part from black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier) that slavery created a matriarchal family structure that was essentially dysfunctional and the source of many problems besetting the black urban poor. The solution, for Moynihan, was to send more young black men into the army in order to give them a stronger masculine identity.
So history is this contested terrain that we have to battle on all the time. Now what do we mean by critical black history? We’re talking about more than the mere romantic celebration of black achievement. When you go to any major bookstore, many of the books that are available under this category of black history are things that celebrate black achievement. That’s important. There are a lot of young people that need that. But we also need histories that look at the long struggles for emancipation for black people and for the whole world, and to understand without romanticism why some of these movements fail. Otherwise, we can’t move forward. We need histories that put black people in a larger context and attempt to understand the place of black labor, racism, race, class, gender, culture in a wider world. We need history that doesn’t accept unity as a natural state of being. And this goes for African-Americans and for workers. We need to be wary of the myth that any divisions within the black community itself are unnatural rather than products of social and historical contradictions. The same holds for histories of working people. Many of the more romantic histories of labor assume that there’s this universal proletarian culture everyone should fall into, and that those who don’t are a sellout to the working class. It’s just too complicated.
We ought to think about the way black communities are characterized in much of the literature: fragmented or divided, assuming that unity is the natural order of things because the black community is a coherent whole whose divisions-whether by class, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation-are temporary or rooted in differences that are reconcilable. Class divisions within African- American communities, for example, are cast oftentimes as obstacles to overcome. Some of us are often stuck-particularly young people who are trying to make sense of the movement-with no way to understand the rise of, say, black elected officials and the integration of corporate boardrooms. The battle lines are drawn between a multi-racial working class that’s primarily African-American, Latino, and Asian-American, and a multi-racial ruling class that’s predominantly white. And we have to recognize these contending forces, otherwise we won’t really know who the enemies are. It’s too easy to throw out epithets like “sell-out” and “turncoat.” What’s more difficult is to develop a sharp analysis of capital-restructuring and its impact on Black, Latino, and Asian bourgeoisies. Richard Applebaum made this really interesting comment. He recently wrote: “what does it mean that Los Angeles alone employs some 120,000 workers in 5,000 sweatshops that are for the most part owned by ethnic minorities?” And this is a question we have to confront and get beyond. We have to see factions of capital and factions of class oppression across a multi-racial landscape.
In much of the popular history that’s out there, gender and sexuality is even more invisible than class. Gender divisions are often cast as merely black male/female relationships which have to be reconciled, or rather-in a larger constellation-as a power relation where patriarchy is a critical nexus for the reproduction of capitalism. It’s not enough to simply say we need more studies of black women or the inclusion of gays and lesbians in this parade of Black history. What I’m suggesting is that this category called ‘Critical Black History’ has to draw on sophisticated conceptual frameworks and theories emerging out of women’s studies that will enable us to better understand racism and black life more broadly. And this is important because these are theories that emerge, much like theories of black liberation, out of feminist movements, and we have to pay attention to them and not just treat them as a separate category but incorporate them into our scholarship. Women’s studies and feminist theory have to be at the center of any future research agenda. Again, we can’t afford to limit the study of gender as well as black feminism to women alone either as subjects or as historical actors.
At the same time, feminist scholars have demonstrated the fundamental importance of gender in all social relations. In the wake of the Moynihan Report, for example, black nationalists and sympathetic white scholars sought to counter arguments about the black family being pathological, with evidence of stable two-parent patriarchal families-trying to prove that we had normal, normative families. Feminist scholars argued that there’s nothing natural or inevitable about father-led two-parent families. Nor does it follow that men should naturally lead communities or community-based institutions. They learned about the extensive kin networks and extended families that formed during slavery, as well as forms of oppression within slave families. They discovered a world where men and women-and sometimes just women-governed families collectively; where mutual obligation and responsibility were far more important than the idea of a male-headed household. Similarly, Queer Theory revitalized aspects of Black history-this was the point that I made before. It begins with the premise that sexuality is a vital part of human existence, and how sexual identity is defined and policed has a lot to do with social relations of power. It has to do with the role of the state. It has to do with public institutions and social movements. And ultimately the best work understands that sexual identities and practices are lived through race and class, and can only be understood historically. Queer theory is vital for exploring things like how institutions empower the state and the academy, and construct deviance, and how these constructions uphold existing power relationships.
Who are the subjects of critical black history? Are they just black people? Are they just black people in the US? Are they black people across the globe? Or are they all people. And this is a key question because a lot of us are locked into academic disciplines that define our geographical boundaries for us as well as our bodily boundaries. Obviously, much of what we call Black history has never limited itself to the borders of the US, and we have to ask why. Is it because Black people throughout the world, no matter where they’re from, share a kind of common culture, common outlook, that’s almost mystic? I don’t think so. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that slavery, colonialism, imperialism and even nation-building itself were global processes. People of African descent have been pivotal to the making of the modern world. This is why what we think of as critical black history, whatever we want to call it, is not the history of black people per se, it’s about re-situating global histories and recognizing the centrality of black people in that history. Bill Sales’s book on the OAAU and Malcolm is just brilliant because it’s really looking at what looks like a national movement and seeing its international link, recognizing as Malcolm did that the race problem is a global problem.
I just want to mention two fine examples of this kind of rewriting of history. They’re old books, very old books, but they’re two of my favorite books in the world: C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, and W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction. They don’t have much in the way of gender analysis and that’s something that scholars in the future could do. They don’t have much dealing with the question of sexuality. But what they do have is a kind of global vision. The Black Jacobins argues not only that the French bourgeoisie’s strength was dependent on huge profits created on slave plantations of St. Domingue, but that the slaves themselves shaped debates in the National Assembly on the meaning of freedom and liberty as a natural right. More than any doctrine or speech, the revolt of African slaves themselves put the question of freedom before Parisian radicals. And as Michele Rolphe Trouillot recently demonstrates in his book, Silencing the Past, the Haitian Revolution represented the only truly universalist claim to freedom and liberty for all of humanity, and it proclaimed the right of slaves (and colonial subjects) to win that freedom by armed struggle-an idea that no Western “free” nation ever accepted, not even during much of the 20th century. Similarly, in Black Reconstruction the question of emancipation within the context of industrial capitalism was a global matter. Du Bois was the first to establish that slavery was a global system; one that was crucial to the development of capitalism in Europe and America. (This is why he renamed slaves “black workers.”) This broke with the more common ideas that slavery was an archaic system out of step with the modern world, more akin to feudalism; or that slavery was merely a civilizing mission, a means to train Africans for modern society. He concluded that the South, led by freed people and a handful of progressive whites in a short-lived alliance with Northern capital, overthrew the slave regime and implemented a kind of dictatorship of the common folk. The implications for Du Bois are crucial; had the white working class supported such an interracial class alliance rather than an interclass racial alliance, they could have overthrown the planter class permanently. More importantly, they would have dealt a huge blow to racism and set an example for interracial working class solidarity that could have resisted colonialism and imperialism. Instead of Africans and Asians being seen as savages, different species, etc., they would have been part of the international working class. The outcome was a tradition of white working class violence against workers of color, and black working class reluctance to join trade unions.
Finally, let me close with two more questions. First, should we write histories of resistance and struggles, or should we pay more attention to structures of domination-white supremacy, sexism, etc.? Is the latter really black history? Of course it is. I think you have to do both-write histories of resistance and histories of domination and put those in the same text. The work of Du Bois and James and others demonstrates why we have to do both. Understanding the history of racist housing policies, such as the federal subsidizing of white suburbanization at the expense of the inner city, would be an example of critical black history. You don’t have to have any black people in that story for it to be an example of the kind of work that we can do.
Lastly, how can we as scholars, as activists, as activist-scholars, intervene in the public discourse? How do we challenge The End of Racism or books like that? I’ve been trying to figure this out for a long time. Now, I write for popular publications, I do work for film projects, and I write for young people. In fact, the last thing that I did actually, was work as a consultant on a game show for children called “Where in Time is Carmen San Diego?” The way the show worked was that one of Carmen San Diego’s cronies steals something from history and the kids have to find it and bring it back in time. In this one episode I designed, the thing they stole was sugar cane. What I was able to do with it was to introduce Eric Williams’s interpretation of the relationship between capitalism and slavery! One of the questions the kids had to answer in that episode demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that much of the Industrial Revolution was fueled by slavery and the slave trade and that people made huge sums of money off the slave trade. And that’s in that show. We need to do more of that. My main point, of course, is that history is a contested terrain and we need to fight. And so I’m trying to figure out ways to do that.