Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imaginationby Robin D.G. Kelley
Kelley unearths freedom dreams in this exciting history of renegade intellectuals and artists of the African diaspora in the twentieth century. Focusing on the visions of activists from C. L. R. James to Aime Cesaire and Malcolm X, Kelley writes of the hope that Communism offered, the mindscapes of Surrealism, the transformative potential of radical feminism, and of the four-hundred-year-old dream of reparations for slavery and Jim Crow. From'the preeminent historian of black popular culture' (Cornel West), an inspiring work on the power of imagination to transform society.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
The Marvelous is a way of seeing Kelley learned early. "My mother taught us that the Marvelous was free," he writes of his childhood spent on the border of Washington Heights and Harlem, "in the patterns of a stray bird feather, in a Hudson River sunset, in the view from our fire escape, in the stories she told us, in the way she sang Gershwin's 'Summertime,' in a curbside rainbow created by the alchemy of motor oil and water from an open hydrant."
This parental gift, this poetic ethics, has since provided Kelley with a key to understanding the wild current of freedom running through the myriad efforts of black cultural prophets and community visionaries, poetic renegades and musical rebels. Whether it was W.E.B. DuBois or Thelonious Monk, Audre Lorde or Wifredo Lam, the African Blood Brotherhood or the Maoist-influenced Revolutionary Action Movement-blacks, Kelley argues, have kept their eyes on the prize of the possible: an African homeland; a black nation staked out in the belly of this beast; or an anti-capitalist, anti-sexist, anti-racist elsewhere.
According to Kelley, currently a professor of history and Africana Studies at New York University, Freedom Dreams represents an opportunity to "recover ideas - visions fashioned mainly by those marginalized black activists who proposed a different way out of our constrictions." Black folk, he adds, "must tap the well of our own collective imaginations, that we do what earlier generations have done: dream." Indeed, Kelley locates dreams and dreamers in "Back to Africa" movements, black feminist thought, third world insurgents, the desire for reparations, Marxism and Afro-diasporic Surrealism.
Throughout the book, Kelley's focus reflects his own left-radical politics and as such the chapters on Marxism (subtitled "Red Dreams of Black Liberation") and third world politics draw on Kelley's previous scholarship. As in his earlier works, Kelley exhibits a nuanced wit.
- Beacon Press
- Publication date:
- Sold by:
- Penguin Random House Publisher Services
- NOOK Book
- File size:
- 2 MB
Read an Excerpt
Dreams of the New Land
Africa I guard your memory
Africa you are in me
My future is your future
Your wounds are my wounds
The funky blues I cook
are black like you—Africa
Africa my motherland
America my fatherland
Although I did not choose it to be
Africa you alone can make me free
Africa where the rhinos roam
Where I learned to swing
Before America became my home
Not like a monkey but in my soul
Africa you are rich with natural gold
Africa I live and study for thee
And through you I shall be free
Someday I'll come back and see
Land of my mothers, where a black god made me
My Africa, your Africa, a free continent to be.
Ted Joans, "Africa"
Schoolhouse Rock didn't teach me a damn thing about "freedom." The kids like me growing up in Harlem during the 1960s and early 1970s heard that word in the streets; it rang in our ears with the regularity of a hit song. Everybody and their mama spoke of freedom, and what they meant usually defied the popular meanings of the day. Whereas most Americans associated freedom with Western democracies at war against communism, free-market capitalism, or U.S. intervention in countries such as Vietnam or the Dominican Republic, in our neighborhood "freedom" had no particular tie to U.S. nationality (with the possible exception of the black-owned Freedom National Bank). Freedom was the goal our people were trying to achieve; free was a verb, an act, a wish, a militant demand. "Free the land," "Free your mind," "Free South Africa," "Free Angola," "Free AngelaDavis," "Free Huey," were the slogans I remember best. Of course, "freedom" was also employed as a marketing tool to sell us things like Afro wigs, hair care products, and various foodstuffs, but even these commodities were linked in our minds to the black struggle for independence, not just in the urban ghettos but around the world. "Freedom" even became a kind of metonym for Africa—the home we never knew, the place where we once enjoyed freedom before we were forcibly taken in chains across the sea. We drank Afro-Cola, which came in a blue can emblazoned with a map of the African continent, partly because slick marketing executives told us it contained the taste of freedom, partly because we pretended it was nectar from the motherland.
Of course, not everyone identified with Africa or associated the continent with dreams of freedom, but we were living in Harlem, of all places, during the era of the "black freedom movement." Formal colonialism had ended throughout most of Africa—the exceptions being southern Africa and the Portuguese colonies—so those who paid attention to such things were excited by the prospects of a free and independent Africa. By the time I enrolled at California State University at Long Beach, the black studiesBlack Studies program there reignited my nascent, underdeveloped Pan-African vision of the world. Our professors turned diehard party people and wannabe Greeks into angry young "Afrikans." And we had good reason to be angry. After twelve years of public miseducation, reading works by pioneering black scholars such as Eric Williams's Capitalism and Slavery, Cheikh Anta Diop's The African Origins of Civilization, George E. M. James's Stolen Legacy, Angela Davis's Women, Race, and Class, W. E. B. Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction in America, J. A. Rogers's World's Greatest Men and Women of African Descent, among others, opened up a whole new world for us. We learned of the origins of Western racism, the history of slavery, the rise and fall of African kingdoms before the European invasion, the Egyptian roots of Western civilization. We were particularly obsessed with the large- scale civilizations along the Nile—Egypt, Ethiopia, Nubia—as were generations of Afrocentric scholars before us, as Wilson Moses recently pointed out in his valuable book Afrotopia. Indeed, the title alone explains why we junior Afrocentrists were attracted more to the powerful states of the ancient world than to the civil rights movement: We looked back in search of a better future. We wanted to find a refuge where "black people" exercised power, possessed essential knowledge, educated the West, built monuments, slept under the stars on the banks of the Nile, and never had to worry about the police or poverty or arrogant white people questioning our intelligence. Of course, this meant conveniently ignoring slave labor, class hierarchies, and women's oppression, and it meant projecting backwards in time a twentieth-century conception of race, but to simply criticize us for myth making or essentialism misses the point of our reading. We dreamed the ancient world as a place of freedom, a picture to imagine what we desired and what was possible.
Sometimes we couldn't read fast enough; other times, we were so overtaken with emotion we put our books down and wept, or fantasized about revenge. More importantly, we began to see ourselves—as earlier generations of black intellectuals had—as part of an African diaspora, an oppressed "nation" without a homeland. Many of us gravitated to campus black nationalist groups, imagining Africa as our true home, either as a place of eventual return or a place from which we were permanently exiled. At least in our minds, we joined a long line of black thinkers who believed that to achieve freedom we first had to get out of Dodge.
Few scholars or activists today take proposals to leave America and return to Africa or some other "homeland" seriously. Back-to-Africa proposals in principle are almost universally dismissed as "escapist" or associated with essentialist, romantic ideas about black cultural unity. Critics dwell on the impracticality of such schemes, or they point to sharp cultural and class differences that keep the black world divided. They are not wrong to do so, but any wholesale dismissal of the desire to leave this place and find a new home misses what these movements might tell us about how black people have imagined real freedom. The desire to leave Babylon, if you will, and search for a new land tells us a great deal about what people dream about, what they want, how they might want to reconstruct their lives.
After all, the history of black people has been a history of movement—real and imagined. Repatriation to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Flight to Canada. Escape to Haiti. The great Kansas Exodus. The back-to-Africa movements of Bishop Henry McNeil Turner and Marcus Garvey. The 49th State movement. The Republic of New Africa. The Rastafarian settlement of Shashamane, Ethiopia. I'm goin' to Chicago, baby, I can't take you along. Space is the Place. The Mothership Connection. All these travel/escape narratives point to the biblical story of Exodus, of the Israelites' flight out of Egypt. It isn't a coincidence that the stream of black migrants who fled the South for Kansas and Oklahoma in the late 1870s were called "exodusters," or that one of the South Carolina emigration societies was called the Liberian Exodus Association. Indeed, as Eddie Glaude points out in his recent book Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America, the book of Exodus served as the key political and moral compass for African Americans during the antebellum era, and it would continue to do so after the Civil War. Exodus provided black people with a language to critique America's racist state and build a new nation, for its central theme wasn't simply escape but a new beginning.
Exodus represented dreams of black self-determination, of being on our own, under our own rules and beliefs, developing our own cultures, without interference. Even before New World Africans laid eyes on the Bible, the fundamental idea behind Exodus was evident in the formation of Maroon societies throughout the Americas. Maroon societies were settlements of renegades from the plantation system made up primarily of runaway slaves, some indigenous people, and, in a few instances, white indentured servants who rebelled against the dominant culture. These settlements often existed on the run, in the hills or swamps just outside the plantation economy. Africans tended to dominate these communities, and many sought to preserve the cultures of their original homelands while combining different Old and New World traditions. Over time, Africans adopted elements of various Native American cultures, and vice versa, and Europeans relied on aspects of these cultures for their own survival. In the words of political scientist Cedric Robinson, these movements were inventive "rather than imitative, communitarian rather than individualistic, democratic rather than Republican, Afro-Christian rather than secular and materialist[;] the social values of these largely agrarian people generated a political culture that distinguished between the inferior world of the political and the transcendent universe of moral goods." The impulse toward separatism, defined broadly, is rooted in maroonage and the desire to leave the place of oppression for either a new land or some kind of peaceful coexistence.
The problem with modern "Egyptland" is that it claimed to be a republic, and too many black people—slave and free—invested their own blood, sweat, and tears in building or protecting the country. Therefore, in the United States the impulse to leave conflicted with black claims to full citizenship and full remuneration for our contribution to the nation. Prior to the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, the question as to whether or not African Americans were citizens of the United States had not been settled. The experiences of free African Americans during the antebellum era demonstrate that citizenship was beyond their grasp, and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the Dred Scott decision of 1857 denying black people citizenship rights cleared up any ambiguity on the matter. While some black leaders insisted on their right to citizenship during the mid-nineteenth century, others such as Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Jermain Loguen, James T. Holly, Samuel Ringgold Ward, Paul Cuffe, and Martin Delany called on black people to find a homeland of their own. Not that they were willing to relinquish their claims to citizenship; rather, they reached a point of profound pessimism and began deeply to question their allegiance to and identification with the United States.
Whether they thought about leaving or not, the question of citizenship always loomed large, compelling some to renounce the United States altogether. Nineteenth-century black activist H. Ford Douglass once said: "I can hate this Government without being disloyal, because it has stricken down my manhood, and treated me as a saleable commodity. . . . I can join a foreign enemy and fight against it, without being a traitor, because it treats me as an ALIEN and a STRANGER." Emigration not only rendered African Americans "transnational" people by default, but it remained at the heart of a very long debate within black communities about their sense of national belonging. The debate was further complicated by the fact that many white people supported emigration. The American Colonization Society was formed within the U.S. House of Representatives in 1816 for the purpose of deporting free black people to Liberia. Its leading members included Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Francis Scott Key, composer of the "Star Spangled Banner." During the Civil War, President Lincoln's initial program to reconstruct the nation included an elaborate plan to deport black people, first to Liberia and later to what he believed was a more practical location—Central America.
When the prospect of enjoying real citizenship emerged on the horizon during Reconstruction, emigrationist sentiment among African Americans ebbed and Lincoln's plan won very few adherents among black leaders. However, despite the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, the question of African American citizenship had not been resolved, and with the collapse of Reconstruction and the erection of Jim Crow, the situation took a turn for the worse. In the South, black people were denied the right to vote and hold public office, access to the public schools that they had helped established and continued to finance with their tax money, and any semblance of justice. Instead, African Americans were subjected to mob violence and "lynch law." Between 1882 and 1946, at least 5,000 people, the vast majority of whom were black, were lynched in the United States. Black communities had to deal not only with a steady stream of lynchings but also with a constant threat of invasion by armed, murderous white mobs. In the decade from 1898 to 1908, "race riots" broke out in Wilmington, North Carolina; Atlanta; New Orleans; New York City; Phoenix; South Carolina; Akron, Ohio; Washington Parish, Louisiana; Birmingham, Alabama; Brownsville, Texas; and Springfield, Illinois; to name but a few. Historian Carter G. Woodson expressed the problem poignantly in his 1921 essay "Fifty Years of Negro Citizenship as Qualified by the United States Supreme Court": "The citizenship of the Negro in this country is a fiction."
Most black people believed there was an order higher than the Constitution. Psalm 68, verse 31 of the Bible had promised redemption for the black world: "Princes come out of Egypt. Ethiopia stretches forth her hands unto God." This passage was as important to Pan-Africanist and emigrationist sentiment as the book of Exodus, becoming the theological basis for what became known in the nineteenth century as Ethiopianism. Ethiopianism spread throughout the black world, from the Americas to Africa, calling for the redemption of Africa by any means necessary. One of the earliest published examples of this doctrine was Robert Alexander Young's Ethiopian Manifesto: Issued in Defense of the Blackman's Rights in the Scale of Universal Freedom (1829), which predicted the coming of a new Hannibal who would lead a violent uprising to liberate the race. The black abolitionist speaker Maria Stewart echoed some of the ideas in Young's manifesto, drawing on scripture to argue that Africans were the "chosen people." While she identified herself as African, described America as "the great city of Babylon," and believed that black people possessed a distinct national destiny apart from that of other Americans, she did not advocate emigration.
Because the Bible, not the specifics of our lineage or heritage, framed most nineteenth-century black conceptions of national destiny, Ethiopia took on greater importance than any other nation or region of Africa. It was also known as Abyssinia, and black people the world over considered it the cradle of civilization. Ethiopia has remained one of the black Christian world's principal icons and, in some ways, might be called an African Jerusalem. As historian William Scott explained, many African Americans believed that "Ethiopia had been predestined by biblical prophecy to redeem the black race from white rule." Its reputation as a beacon of hope and strength for Africa and the African diaspora was strengthened in 1896, after Menelik II, leader of the Amhara, united Ethiopia's princes to defeat Italy. Italy's humiliating loss to Ethiopian armies in the battle of Adwa demonstrated to the world that Europe was indeed vulnerable, and it rendered Africa's "holy land" the only independent nation on the continent. For many black observers, it appeared as if prophesy would come to pass. Groups such as the short-lived Star Order of Ethiopia, founded by Grover Cleveland Redding, called on African Americans to move there. The Ethiopian ambassador to the United States also encouraged black people to settle there. By 1933 the African-American community in Ethiopia numbered between 100 and 150. When Italy invaded Ethiopia again in 1935, this time successfully, the entire black world mobilized in its defense, some volunteering for military service.
Nineteenth-century emigrationists looked upon Africa as the new promised land, a land of milk and honey where its offspring in the diaspora could return and thrive. Bishop Henry McNeil Turner of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church emerged as one of the most outspoken advocates of emigration. As vice-president of the American Colonization Society (ACS), Turner supported black emigration to Liberia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The AME missions under his guidance promoted redemption as uplift ideology—the idea that education, modernization, and devotion to God would uplift the continent and the race. At the same time, Bishop Turner had no love for the United States, once describing the Constitution as "a dirty rag, a cheat, a libel, and ought to be spit upon by every Negro in the land." He believed that white supremacy generated black self-hatred and that no black man could achieve manhood unless blacks could protect and govern themselves. Turner attracted a significant following, especially among poor workers and farmers who believed that any place was better than the Jim Crow South. One Mississippi man wrote to the ACS asking for assistance, comparing his circumstances to slavery and asking, "Oh my God help us to get out from here to Africa."
Most nineteenth-century proponents of repatriation viewed the imminent return of African Americans as a kind of civilizing mission, bringing Christianity to the heathens and technology and knowledge to the backward natives. Africa needed to be redeemed not from European colonialism but because it was a civilization in decline. Redemption translated into uplift ideology, a radically different cultural approach to "return" from the early impulse toward maroonage. By the end of the century, Africa's most vocal Negro redeemers tended to be formally educated elites who drew their ideological arsenal from Western notions of national destiny, race, progress, and civilization. Men such as Alexander Crummell, Henry Highland Garnet, Bishop Turner, Edward Wilmot Blyden, and the lesser-known leaders of emigrationist organizations dreamed of turning their ancestral homeland into modern, "civilized," powerful nations where black people could create their own wealth and rule themselves. They imagined a society patterned on the best of the West—its schools, railroads, factories, and religion—without the racism, inequality, and oppression. While they desired "Africa for the Africans," limited autonomy if not total independence, and freedom for all (at least in theory), they also wanted to participate in the international market as equals.
For the next few decades, Liberia became the model for the benefits of civilization; it was upheld by African-American intellectuals as evidence that, if left alone, black people could develop a free and industrious nation on the basis of their own intelligence, frugality, and good planning. Liberia was to be a black man's utopia, the land where race prejudice was a thing of the past and every person in the republic enjoyed the fruits of citizenship. Unfortunately, this is not what happened. In their haste to defend Liberia, most commentators ignored or played down the role of the United States (via the Firestone Rubber Company) as an imperialist presence in the colony and the position of Americo-Liberians as a new, exploitative ruling class. As a result, the indigenous population of Liberia was exploited and oppressed by African Americans, who had ironically returned to their ancestral homeland to escape tyranny.
Few emigration advocates during this period questioned the Western model. Edward Wilmot Blyden was among the few to propose adopting elements of traditional African culture, but only after years of study. His early works, A Voice from Bleeding Africa (1856) and The Call of Providence to the Descendants of Africa in America (1862) both argued that God allowed enslavement of black people so that they might be converted to Christianity. It was now the manifest destiny of black people to return to their ancestral homeland and bring the benefits of Christianity and "civilization." By the end of the century, following a thorough study of Islam, he wrote a series of articles proposing that black people develop an African personality (as opposed to copying European culture) and defending indigenous African culture, including polygamy and traditional family practices. He argued that African cultures were naturally communal and did not allow private ownership of land, and that their emphasis on collective responsibility for the entire community rendered homelessness, poverty, and crime nonexistent. And because all adult women were in marital relationships, he argued, there were no "spinsters" or prostitutes.
Blyden's defense of traditional African culture might be one of the first explicit examples we have of what later would be called African communalism or African socialism—the idea that precolonial societies were inherently democratic and practiced a form of "primitive communism" that could lay the groundwork for a truly egalitarian society. In the shadow of the failed Paris Commune, the upsurge of working-class socialist movements throughout the Western world, and growing concern about the dangers of industrialization, Blyden's celebration of African communalism is particularly striking. Of course, we now know that African social organization ran the gamut from hunter-gatherer societies to large-scale, class-stratified societies based on agriculture, slave labor, and even limited manufacturing, and that traditional family and gender relationships were based on severe hierarchies. What is noteworthy, however, is the fact that Blyden and others imagined Africa as a place free of exploitation and believed that this model might lay the basis for a new society of black settlers. Rather than worship Western culture and modernization, Blyden at least toyed with the idea that traditional, precapitalist life might offer a superior road to freedom.
Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA)—the largest "African redemption" movement in the history of the world—promoted a vision of a New Africa that embraced certain Western ideas and technologies but transformed them to suit black people's needs. He created African Fundamentalism, a revision of Christianity rooted in Ethiopianism, African Methodism, and a variety of religious beliefs that would eventually make their way into the Rastafarian faith. As Robert Hill points out, Garvey argued that Adam and Eve and their progeny were black and that Cain was stricken by God with leprosy (whiteness) as punishment for the murder of his brother, Abel. The white race, in other words, began as lepers punished by God. But Garvey differed from the Ethiopianists by insisting that the Egyptians were blacks who enslaved the Hebrews. Garvey's strong identification with the Egyptians makes perfect sense given his argument that we descended from a powerful civilization. His vision of the power of indigenous African culture was ancient, rooted in Egypt and Ethiopia, not in contemporary African culture, for he accepted Oswald Spengler's idea that African civilization was among those in decline. Only a movement for Africa's redemption could restore Africa's original glory. Interestingly, while he did not identify with the enslaved Jews of ancient times, he did identify with the modern Zionist movement. Garvey called his own movement Black Zionism, comparing the struggle for an African homeland with the Jewish movement for a homeland in Palestine. He patterned his Universal African Legion after the Jewish Legion, which came to be seen as a Jewish national guard for Palestine. He even received significant patronage from Jewish financiers such as William Ritter of the United States and Abraham Judah and Lewis Ashenheim of Jamaica.
Garvey founded the UNIA with his first wife, Amy Ashwood, in his native Jamaica in 1914. It began as a benevolent association, but when they moved to Harlem in 1916, Garvey transformed the UNIA into a mass-based, global, black nationalist movement intent on redeeming Africa and establishing a homeland for the black world. In some ways the UNIA resembled an army preparing for battle, which might be expected of any nationalist movement born in the midst of the greatest European nationalist conflict of all time: World War I. Yet like most race leaders at the time, Marcus Garvey was heir to an older warrior tradition rooted in the Old Testament. Redemption, after all, was a violent and bloody proposition. Betray God and He might smite your first born, take you down by sword or plague, crush you to earth or drown you. Nat Turner, leader of a bloody slave revolt in Virginia in 1831, was told by God that slavery was to be eliminated by bloodshed, even if it meant sacrificing the master's women and children. It was God's will, and the signs from heaven were clear: "I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons." Nat Turner was not out of step with the leading black abolitionists of the day. Besides Robert Alexander Young's prediction of a race war led by a new Hannibal, David Walker warned white people that God was prepared to take His vengeance out on them, and that when the slaves rose up and cut their throats, it was God's will. "The whites want slaves," he wrote in his Appeal, "and want us for their slaves, but some of them will curse the day they ever saw us. As true as the sun ever shone in its meridian splendor, my colour will root some of them out of the very face of the earth."
The UNIA never actually waged war anywhere, but World War I militarism had a profound impact on the organization's gender politics, according to the historian Barbara Bair. Garveyite parades, pageants, poetry, and songs, as well as speeches and documents, drew on metaphors of war that defined gender roles within the movement. Black men assigned to the UNIA's African Legion performed military drills, symbolizing assertiveness, readiness, and self-defense. UNIA leaders wore elaborate uniforms resembling European imperial designs, therefore reversing the dominant image of black men as subordinate. Garveyite leadership exuded strength, dominance, and nationhood. The Black Cross nurses symbolized the nurturing role of women by ministering to the needs of soldiers and the community as a whole. They wore white habits that, likewise, reversed the dominant image of black womanhood. Challenging stereotypes of black women as hypersexual Jezebels, the Black Cross nurses were "angels of charity and mercy," holy sisters united in purity and devotion to their own community and to the greater redemption of Africa.
In many respects, Garvey's vision of the proper role of black men and women in a new, liberated society differed little from those of previous generations of black nationalists, who embraced the prevailing notion that African redemption equaled manhood redemption. The strength of the nation as a measure of manhood, after all, was a common characteristic of modern nationalism. The writings and speeches of Crummell, Edward Blyden, and even W. E. B. Du Bois described Africa as the "fatherland," and the redemption of the fatherland was almost always framed in terms of manhood rights. Not surprisingly, early Pan-Africanist and emigrationist organizations were almost entirely male affairs. While politics was considered an exclusively male domain in this era, masculinity was especially pronounced in black nationalist politics because of its roots in the struggle against slavery. Despite the fact that abolitionism developed alongside woman suffrage, the struggle against slavery by free blacks and even white abolitionists was cast as a struggle for manhood rights largely because servility of any kind was regarded as less than manly. Black men's inability to protect their families under slavery was considered a direct assault on their manhood, since manhood was defined in part by one's ability to defend one's home. Thus, it is not surprising that black abolitionist appeals emphasized manhood rights and violence as strategies of liberation. Abolitionists like David Walker, John Russwurm, and Henry Highland Garnet called on slaves to "act like men" and rise up against slavery, and their appeals were frequently echoed by black women activists. From Maria Stewart to Ida B. Wells, black women chastised black men for failing to fulfill their manly role as defenders of the race.
Consequently, women barely figured in most Pan-Africanist or emigrationist imaginings of what the New Land might look like, except in Garveyism. Thanks to critical scholarship by Barbara Bair, Ula Taylor, Michelle Mitchell, and others, we know that women participated at all levels in the UNIA and were central to the construction of modern black nationalism. Garveyite women spoke, taught, organized local meetings, and wrote and edited texts (though always under the threat of male censorship), and in so doing simultaneously challenged and reinforced gender divisions and conventions in the movement. The UNIA's construction of gender in the auxiliaries extended to its conception of Africa under colonial domination, which was symbolically conceived as a benighted woman in need of salvation. Motherland replaced the more common nineteenth-century word fatherland, as representations of Africa in the Garveyite press ranged from the nursing mother whose children had been torn from her breast by slavery to the shackled woman raped by imperialist masters. Defending Africa from imperialism was tantamount to defending black womanhood from rape; black men were called upon to redeem this oppressed and degraded black woman, our mother of civilization, in a bold, chivalrous act. Rape symbolism was not just a convenient metaphor but carried specific historical resonance in light of the history of sexual terrorism visited upon black women in slavery and freedom. These themes reappear over and over again in Garveyite songs, such as "The Universal Ethiopian Anthem," "God Bless Our President," and "Legion's Marching Song":
The Legion here will fight for Africa there,
We are going to avenge her wrongs,
We are coming, oh Mother Africa,
We are four hundred millions strong. . . .
No cracker will dare seduce our sister,
Or to hang us on a limb,
And we are not obliged to call him mister,
Or to skin our lips at him. . . .
Clearly, the UNIA was very conservative when it came to gender. Among other things, it promoted Victorian mores, the patriarchal family, and the idea that women's primary roles centered on caregiving, domesticity, and race building by way of reproduction and education. But in the context of a racist culture that viewed black women as immoral, licentious, and criminally inclined, or faithful but ignorant members of a servant class, placing black women on a pedestal to be exalted and protected radically challenged the status quo. Although the pedestal created its own limitations, both for women's autonomy and independence and for their participation within the leadership of the UNIA, black women did exercise more power in the Garvey movement than they had in other Pan-Africanist organizations of the day. Structured along the lines of African-American churches, the UNIA elected a "male president" and a slate of male officers along with a "lady president" and women officers who oversaw the female auxiliaries and juvenile division. The Parent Body Leadership, its international body, designated one position for a woman—fourth assistant general president, which was held by Henrietta Vinton Davis, one of the UNIA's leading orators. Women who held these elected and appointed positions were more than tokens; they often used their platforms to challenge the movement's gender conventions. Amy Jacques Garvey, Marcus Garvey's second wife, used her position to write a column in the Negro World featuring stories about women in traditionally male professions—physicians, executives, bankers, engineers, etc.—and profiled strong, heroic black women such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. She covered a range of controversial issues, from birth control to women's roles in political movements, and she encouraged women's participation in the public sphere. Although her argument was based partly on the idea that women's special virtue, unique spirituality, could soften "ills of the world," Amy Jacques Garvey was just as quick to describe women as warriors. In a scathing critique of the UNIA's failure to promote more women to important leadership positions, she portrayed some male leaders as cowards who harbored "old-fashioned tyrannical feelings" and predicted that the women "will press on and on until victory is ours. . . . Ethiopia's queens will reign again, and her Amazons protect her shores and people." Likewise, Henrietta Vinton Davis called on women to be prepared for battle like their foremothers in Africa and America: "If our men hesitate, then the women of the race must come forward, they must join the great army of Amazons and follow a Joan of Arc who is willing to be burned at the stake to save her country."
Garveyism continues to exist today, but its heyday was really the 1920s. It was a movement founded in the midst of war, steeled on war metaphors, and practically destroyed by a war waged by the U.S. state and colonial governments throughout the world. Internal conflicts also destabilized the Garvey movement; corruption, theft, and bad investments (not to mention poor political judgments like Marcus Garvey's decision to meet with leaders of the Ku Klux Klan) all contributed to the collapse of the UNIA. Perhaps the outcome was inevitable. After all, the economic philosophy undergirding Garveyism was independent enterprise and entrepreneurship. In this philosophy, industries such as the Black Star Line would not only serve black people but would also be a source of capital placed entirely in black hands, wealth for a rising race. The problem was that Marcus Garvey trusted his lieutenants; he didn't believe they would skim wealth off the top or consider their personal desire for wealth above the greater good of the African world.
I doubt that most of Garvey's followers imagined the New Land as an African version of American capitalism, a land of entrepreneurs hawking commodities and opportunities at every turn. Instead, the Black Star Line was less a business venture than the new ark. Africa, or somewhere other than here, marked a new beginning, a beautiful, peaceful, collective life where needs were fulfilled and poverty was a thing of the past. It was not unlike the vision of the promised land radical Jews had hoped Israel would become—a socialist paradise modeled after the kibbutz. Just as the kibbutz draws on ancient ideas of how God intended men and women to live their lives, ancient Africa in the black imagination continues to be a window on our dreams of the New Land.
Space Is the Place
What does the New Land look like? Singer-songwriter Abbey Lincoln tells us in her 1972 song "Africa," a paean to the continent, the home she had been searching for, the "land of milk and honey." She sings not about a lost past but a hopeful, glorious future; she sings of a deep longing for a place like Africa, for it was remembered and experienced as a world that kept us whole. Lincoln's lyrics echo a massive body of literary, visual, musical, and political texts. We read them in the writings of Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Aimé Césaire, Suzanne Césaire, Leon Damas, Margaret Danner, Margaret Walker, Nicolas Guillén, Sonia Sanchez, Langston Hughes, Jayne Cortez, Paul Robeson, Melvin B. Tolson, Ted Joans, and Carolyn Rodgers. We see them in the paintings and sculptures of Aaron Douglass, Lois Mailou Jones, Sargent Johnson, Charles Alston, Meta Warwick Fuller, Hale Woodruff, Wifredo Lam, Betye Saar, John Biggers, Richmond Barthé, Faith Ringgold, Melvin Edwards, Jeff Donaldson, Camille Billops, and Bill Maxwell. We hear them in the music of Duke Ellington, Randy Weston, Melba Liston, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, Horace Parlan, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, Max Roach, Yusef Lateef, Bob Marley, Mutabaruka, Mandrill, X-Clan, Blackstar, Harmony, Poor Righteous Teachers, and Tonton David. And I've barely scratched the surface.
The desire to pack up and leave persisted well into the late twentieth century, although it seems as though the story of Noah's ark from Genesis might have overtook the Book of Exodus as the more common analogy of flight. Increasingly, the ark has taken the form of the modern space ship, and the search for the New Land has become intergalactic. Predictions of the destruction of Earth abound. Genesis, indeed.
For at least a century, a long line of black intellectuals and religious leaders have contemplated space travel, including the Honorable Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam. One of the most famous, if not the most fascinating, black proponents of space travel was the Birmingham-born pianist/composer Herman Sonny Blount, better known as Sun Ra. As early as the 1950s, he called his band an Arkestra, and he claimed that he had left this earth only to return. He, too, looked backward to look forward, finding the cosmos by way of ancient Egypt. Critical of racism in America and elsewhere, he promoted a kind of interplanetary emigrationist movement. Dressed in metallic outfits that might best be described as ancient Egyptian space suits, Sun Ra's Arkestra played an advanced form of music that incorporated vocalists, dancers, and electronic instruments long before they became popular. He did not consider his music jazz, nor did he accept the "avant-garde" label. As he once said, "It's more than avant-garde, because the 'avant-garde' refers to, I suppose, advanced earth music. But this is not earth music." At the heart of Sun Ra's vision was the notion of alter/destiny—the idea that through the creation of new myths we have the power to redirect the future. He penned many poems and songs promoting an Alter/destiny, including "Imagination":
Imagination is a Magic carpet
Upon which we may soar
To distant lands and climes
And even go beyond the moon
To any planet in the sky
If we came from
Why can't we go somewhere there?
Sun Ra and his Arkestra inspired other Afrofuturists, interstellar fellow travelers, such as George Clinton, founder of Parliament/Funkadelic, Jamaica's Lee Scratch Perry, and Chicago disc jockey "Captain Sky," whose radio shows spoke metaphorically of space travel to bring attention to the conditions of black people in the United States. Perry and Clinton, in particular, employed the image of the ark as a mode of space travel. Perry, who made dub records charting "the relationship between madness, space/time travel, the Old Testament, and African identity," called his studios The Black Ark, and made records such as Heart of the Ark, Build the Ark, and Black Ark in Dub. Clinton's ark took the form of the "Mothership," a funky flying saucer designed to take all the party people to a better place.
Not surprisingly, the most visionary strand of hip-hop culture also embraces a politics of escape not averse to interstellar time travel. During hip- hop's infancy, the pioneer Bronx disc jockey Afrika Bambaataa and his various groups—the Jazzy Five, Cosmic Force, and the Soul Sonic Force— embraced the space-age styles as well as the impulse to escape the wretchedness of daily life through dance music. Founder of the Zulu Nation — a politically conscious organization of rappers, break-dancers, graffiti artists, and others associated with 1970s hip-hop culture—Bambaataa is perhaps best known for his hit song "Planet Rock." By the early 1990s, the themes of exodus, the search for paradise, even African redemption became more pronounced in the music of groups such as Poor Righteous Teachers, Arrested Development, Digable Planets, Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, PM Dawn, and X-Clan, among others. More recently, artists such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Dilated Peoples, Afu Ra, Natural Resource, Common, Reflection Eternal, and Dead Prez, among others, have continued to explore some of these themes.
These artists might be described as modern ancients redefining freedom, imagining a communal future (and present) without exploitation; all-natural, African, barefoot, and funky. A product of many influences, from Rastafarianism and the Five-Percent Nation (a youth-oriented Islamic group) to science fiction, some of these groups advocated vegetarianism, natural hair, and a pace of life where humans were the masters of time rather than the other way around. Poor Righteous Teachers, whose notion of "pure poverty" signifies both a knowledge of the condition of black folk and a position from which to critique forms of oppression, called for the creation of a new utopia within the city by transforming the way people live their lives. Others, like X-Clan, combined a politics of resistance with a politics of escape in songs such as "Xodus," "Cosmic Ark," and "Arkilogical." In addition to fighting racism in their place of residence, in part by founding their own black radical political movement called Blackwatch, they sing songs that advocate a return to "the East"—what they imagine as a peaceful, classless, oppression-free Africa. Decked out in beads, leather, ear and nose rings, big walking sticks, and a wild assortment of African garments, the men and women of X-Clan had a startling visual presence. Musically they mixed the sound of African drums with samples from Parliament/Funkadelic. And despite the serious revolutionary rhetoric, X-Clan never lost a sense of humor: Its ark was a pink Cadillac.
Songs by groups such as Digable Planets, PM Dawn, even De La Soul promoted an alternative vision to the violent and artificial realities of urban life. The tragically short-lived Arrested Development (one of the original Southern hip-hop groups, let's not forget) focused much of its music on reconstructing relationships between human beings across lines of color, gender, generation, and spirituality, and of reconnecting black people to the natural world. These themes are especially pronounced in songs such as "People Everyday," "Mama's Always on Stage," "Children Play with Earth," "Natural," and "Dawn of the Dreads." Their wildly popular 1992 hit "Tennessee," from their debut album Three Years, Five Months, and Two Days in the Life of . . . captures the desire for a new space, a place in the countryside away from urban chaos, and yet it is a place with a history of pain and violence that "Speech," the lead rapper, must reckon with. It is God who tells him to "break / outta the country and / into more country":
Where the ghost of
childhood haunts me.
Walk the roads my
climbed the trees my
forefathers hung from.
Ask those trees for all
they tell me my ears are
so young. . . . Home
go back to from
came. . . . Home.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Take me to another place
Take me to another land
Make me forget all that hurts me
Let me understand your plan.
In one sense, "Tennessee" parallels the Exodus story in that God tells the singer to go find salvation, except that the new Israel is situated in Egyptland itself, after the apparent overthrow of the Pharaoh.
Another powerful but little-known example of hip-hop's vision of an earthbound utopia, free of fratricidal violence, full of natural beauty and splendor, is "Sunny Meadowz" by Oakland-based rapper Del tha Funkee Homosapien, which appeared on his 1991 debut album, I Wish My Brother George Was Here. That Del was produced by Ice Cube (Del's cousin) and the Lench Mob, known to most hip-hop fans for their notorious gangsta rhymes of mayhem and misogyny, makes "Sunny Meadowz" even more of a curiosity. He opens by declaring war on all the thugs and fake rappers, promising to snatch their gold chains and gold "fronts" (teeth) and return them "to the caves of the Motherland / and ride a rhinoceros back to the other land." Listen to his description of "the meadowz":
D. E. L., the eighteen-year-old dweller of the meadow, It sure in the hell beats living in the ghetto. Things are peace and everything's settled With a goodnight snooze on a bed of rose petals. I wake up in the morning feeling happy and refreshed. . . .
Before the day is over, the singer journeys past earth, reclines on a hippo, writes "scriptures by the old wishing well," and lives a wonderful life where everything is clean and natural. Although he does have a maid in the meadowz, and in his imagination his music keeps him paid, freedom is conceived in the "Sunny Meadowz" not in terms of materialism but as a way of living, a way of being in the world that is at once intensely personal and collective. This is not the image one usually associates with the hip-hop generation, especially at the beginning of the twenty-first century. And yet it is pervasive, especially among some of the young contemporary "spoken- word artists" who are also products of hip-hop culture. Consider the following stanzas by Mariahdessa Ekere Tallie:
I want to walk barefoot
in a place where barefoot has no name
in a place where soul on Earth
a place where toes in soil
is common as
and birth. . . .
I want to walk barefoot
in cities without streets
where admiration is a deep silence
and conversations are replaced by the eloquence of eyes
barefoot in a place
where excuses are not enforced in law books
where there is no law
only that which is right. . . .
The imagery has changed; even the geography has shifted from Africa to anyplace but where we are now. But the dream of Exodus still lives in those of us not satisfied with the world as we know it. It is not the only dream. There is yet another radical tradition that insists that we can all live together in peace and harmony, but only if we transform society together. For many black radicals seeking justice, salvation, and freedom, the vision of socialism proved to be especially compelling, even if incomplete.
Meet the Author
Robin D. G. Kelley, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, is professor of history and Africana studies at New York University and author of Hammer and Hoe, Race Rebels, and Yo Mama's Disfunktional! He lives in New York City.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >