Strategy and the Intersection of Race and Class

We Are Not What We Seem:
Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century
Rod Bush, NYU Press, 1999

Introduction by the author, Roderick Bush

This book is about the strategies of empowerment developed by ordinary Black people and the intellectuals who identify or sympathize with their plight.

A few years ago Rev. Eugene Rivers wrote an article in the Boston Review calling attention to the devastating crisis in our inner cities and issued a blistering criticism of the failure of prominent Black intellectuals to address themselves to the imperatives they should feel... Rivers called for Black intellectuals to return to the tradition of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois in a subsequent article “Beyond the Nationalism of Fools: Toward an Agenda for Black Intellectuals” (Boston Review, Vol. 20, No. 3). This article sparked a debate about Black Nationalism within the pages of the Boston Review. But Black nationalism and Black radicalism are seldom the subject of intelligent and serious discussion.

My book calls attention to the grand scale of Black nationalist thought within the 20th century as much more than the sound bites issued by some spokespersons seeking to strike fear in the hearts of whites and build themselves a reputation as the exalted leader. These frightening images and angry sound bites should not be the major means of the white public to comprehend Black nationalism, nor should they be the main mechanisms for transmitting the history of the Black Freedom Struggle to inner city youth. I am certainly not one to belittle the anger of the victims of a cruel and punitive ideological scourge which is racism, nor the unrelenting and perhaps more cruel social structures which it creates. But we need discipline, intelligence, and communication. We need compassion, empathy, and education. We need to understand the differences in our experiences and social situations, and we need an understanding of our common ground. White fear of Black radicalism and Black nationalism does not promise to take us beyond the present impasse of race relations in this country. It simply reinforces it.

So this book is an essay on history, attempting to familiarize the general public with the broad outlines of this important history. The Black radical tradition flows ineluctably from the trauma and glory of our peoples’ history. Malcolm X referred to this as the tradition of field Negro revolt. While this tradition is seriously opposed to the racist status quo, it is not intrinsically frightening to non-Black people as is so often intimated in the corporate media. On the contrary, the Black radical tradition is promising and uplifting. Indeed it articulates the deepest democratic and egalitarian aspirations of the African American people, but argues powerfully for the right of people everywhere to be free.

The Black radical tradition dates from the early attempts of the stolen Africans to make their way in a world pervasively and brutally hostile to their humanity...the Black radical tradition was both an expression of the most profound proletarian resistance to capitalism and a humanistic egalitarianism that pervaded the worldview of the new African people, even those who had obtained middle and upper middle class status. In the 20th century Malcolm X most clearly articulated one aspect of this radicalism which some call the tradition of field Negro revolt. But there is also the more mainstream radicalism of the Black intelligentsia, the talented tenth radicalism of W.E.B. Du Bois, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Paul Robeson. These two strands of social praxis often articulated in various ways with Black nationalism and socialism constitute the focus of this study which investigates their impact on the evolution of the social world during the rise of the U.S. to a hegemonic position in the world-system, what Henry Luce of Time Magazine dubbed the American Century.

I try to tell the story of the opposition of Black people to the degrading myths and powerful structural and ideological impediments to their advancement in American society. Indeed the story of the Black Liberation movement raises a more profound issue, that is whether the race for individual advancement constitutes the good life for anyone? During the twentieth century the militants of the Black Freedom Struggle powerfully engaged the national Black community and all who would listen in a public dialogue about an alternative vision more cooperative, more liberating, more collectively empowering. This Black radical tradition is central to African American social thought, but has been pervasively misconstrued and misrepresented by the corporate media who have persistently attempted to trivialize, isolate, and mislead the public about the contents of this vision.

Former FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover was acutely aware of the challenge which the egalitarian and democratic themes in Black radicalism posed for the ruling elites whose interests he defended. While we can see from the COINTELPRO papers that he couched his concerns in terms of preventing the rise of a Black messiah who might unify some mythical Black nationalist hate groups, his real concern articulated shortly after the 1963 March on Washington was that the civil rights movement was the leading edge of a social revolution in the United States and thus must be stopped at any cost. Indeed he supported those who they accused of advocating hate (Elijah Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan) against those who advocated a fundamental democratic social transformation (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Angela Davis). Indeed we may ask ourselves if it is merely coincidence that the beginning of the media’s (negative) fascination with Minister Louis Farrakhan as the voice of Black radicalism coincided with Reverend Jesse Jackson’s call for...all the groups who were locked out of the political process.

Using the perspective of field Negro revolt and the perspective of African internationalism I trace the evolution of the Black radical tradition in the 20th century from the time of the Niagara Movement at the turn of the century through the various manifestations of New Negro radicalism (Garveyism, the Messenger, the African Blood Brotherhood), within the Communist and Socialist Parties, and the various manifestations of modern Black Nationalism (Nation of Islam, Black Panther Party, the Congress of African People). Particular attention is paid to the policies and practices of the labor movement, the socialists and the communists on the issue of race, racism, and self-determination.

Here I sharply disagree with the notion that Black radical movements are simply variants of the white Left, arguing instead that they are autonomous movements with their own logic. But they are firmly situated within a capitalist world-economy, and are influenced by the changing position of the U.S. state and economy within that world, and the constraints and opportunities that this context afforded for movements seeking a just, egalitarian, and democratic world. The struggle to transform that world is one which will engage all of us, indeed all of the earth’s people.