In the United States, February is designated as Black History Month to commemorate the contributions of black Americans to the construction, maintenance, and betterment of the country. In a sharp departure from common praxis in schools and media, this article will focus on the fringe of political thought about blackness in America, outlining the need for a powerful resistance and liberation movement that is undergirded by radical love.
Seven months ago, ex-First Lady Michelle Obama made nationwide headlines for stating that the White House, now the residence of the Trump family, was built by African slaves. Not only was Ms. Obama unambiguously correct, her statement barely scratched the surface of the role that black people have played in the affairs of the United States since its inception. Despite the fact that the American Constitution designated the worth of a black slave as 3/5ths of a person, black Americans have contributed to the protection and growth of the United States (involuntarily and of their own free will) as laborers, soldiers, intellectuals, artists, and more. And yet, more than 150 years after the end of slavery, most Americans agree that black people do not yet enjoy equal rights.
But even so, black rights movements have consistently generated vigorous and outspoken opposition from many on a spectrum from center-left to staunchly conservative, whether they organize peaceful shutdowns of highways or raucous protesting of police brutality, proving Martin Luther King, Jr.’s point regarding “the white moderate…more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” Indeed, while a majority of white Americans support the instalment of greater measures to attempt racial justice, considerable resistance arises when it comes to actually engaging in movements for change rather than merely performing lip service. Ta-Nehisi Coates provides an apt metaphor for this phenomenon in “The Case for Reparations,” his 2014 cover story for the Atlantic: “in America there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife.”
How do we, as non-black people, move beyond simply dropping the knife? Reformist and radical movements for black liberation have proliferated in the United States since the end of slavery and exist today. Volunteering for and donating to political campaigns focused on black rights and the wellbeing of black communities, like that of this 22-year-old mayoral candidate in Detroit, is one tactic to support the fight for change through existing systems. However, there are radical counterparts to efforts to increase black representation in government that question whether a country that has codified myriad forms of black oppression—slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, redlining, mass incarceration—can achieve any sort of equality or dismantling of white supremacy without direct action. This faction has found incarnations in the writings of Malcolm X, the “Panther Patrols” of the 1960s, and in the Movement for Black Lives’ peaceful protests that have peppered the country since 2012. Contemporary black liberation movements have largely embraced intersectionality as a tactic to build a broader, more inclusive coalition of resistance members, and the Black Lives Matter website prominently features an agenda that incorporates feminism, queer upliftment, and anti-imperialism.
However, these movements do not exist in a vacuum. Often, black liberation blocs are criticized (from within and without) as contingents of reactionaries whose proposals are unrealistic, or overcompensatory, or simply wrong. Criticisms of Black Lives Matter have been espoused by politicians all over the political spectrum. Indeed, attempts to undermine black liberation movements have always existed, some citizen-driven and some state-sanctioned; they ranged from the enforcement of brutal slave codes to the targeting of Black Panther leaders through the FBI’s COINTELPRO and, in the contemporary setting, cybersurveillance levied against black activists and protesters. Additionally, afropessimists like Frank Wilderson III have posited theories regarding the prevalence and omnipresence of black death and suffering in the media, arguing that the imagery of the black body in pain is used as a retraumatization tactic in order to undermine confidence in black rights movements, atomize black communities, and keep black activists and politicians constantly on the defensive. The degree to which this resistance has been codified in American history presents the troubling possibility that true black liberation is unattainable within the United States as we know it; that without a large-scale sea change, we might never move beyond a veneer of equal rights that masks pernicious bias and hard-to-measure discrimination that ties race to class and other social factors.
Mao Zedong, a revolutionary (though controversial) thinker and political leader, stated in his seminal work “On Practice” that the implementation of idealist virtues in daily life is the only way to actualize those revolutionary concepts. Perhaps the most revolutionary idea endemic in black rights movements (and civil rights movements around the globe) is that of a radical self-love and love of others. All liberation movements are by necessity tied to the idea of communal love and mutual respect, concepts that sound contrived but are very much lacking in a contemporary public discourse characterized primarily by impersonal factionalism, divisiveness, and charged rhetoric. To make an effort to practice this unconditional love, separate from judgment or bias, predicated purely on individuals’ mutual humanity, is to repudiate the social constructions of race and class that have so thoroughly atomized organized support for liberation. Beyond political participation, monetary support, and direct action, this is a method for individuals of all races to contribute to the cause of black liberation within their own lives.