“Why may not the oppressed say, when an oppressor is dead, either by disease or by the hand of the foeman on the battlefield, that there is one the less of his oppressor left on the earth. For my part, I would not care if tomorrow I should hear of the death of every man who engaged in that bloody war in Mexico, and that every man had met the fate he went there to perpetrate against unoffending Mexicans.”
Three years ago, I sat down with a prominent Austin activist to inquire about how we could incorporate more direct action and autonomy building in his organization’s strategy to combat systemic oppression. I understood the importance of a Black united front and was not interested in contributing to movement fragmentation, so I thought it best to ask existing organizations to consider alternative approaches to and tried and true principles in which to root movement work. After making my case for an approach that included empowerment of Black communities and the subsequent leveraging of that power in direct action campaigns, I was told that if those were efforts I wanted to see made in Austin, I should make them myself. So, I did. Shortly after Black Sovereign Nation made its debut, we were accused of muddying the waters of Austin activism and perpetuating division. “There are already too many organizations in Austin,” said the same activist who initially turned us away. And he was right. There were several social justice oriented organizations in Austin, but none that had aligned themselves with a Black revolutionary agenda.
Nearly a year after that initial meeting, I wrote an open letter to Black organizers and activists in Austin asking why we had been reduced to reactionary politics and shallow political machinations in our city. I expressed confusion about why we were celebrating those who traded community connection for proximity to institutional power. I asked how we would address the fact that our efforts were incohesive, incoherent, and felt disingenuous to many longtime Black Austinites. Most importantly, I inquired about the principles that guided our work. Were they revolutionary principles and, if not, was not a transformation of values needed? My letter, like most of what I write, was seen as antagonistic and wasn’t well received by my peers. I was told that instead of writing open letters, I should attempt to collaborate with those I sought to engage. I felt slightly uncomfortable with this. How could I collaborate with organizers who were, not only off principle, but who were also actively normalizing behavior that was directly detrimental to the local Black community and to the struggle for Black liberation as a whole. Still, understanding that real movement work happens ecologically, I came to the table to try to convince my fellow organizers that freedom demanded more than what we were producing, at the time.
Years, countless meetings, events, coalitions, and campaigns later, I still have the same questions for Austin’s Black organizing community that I did when I wrote that letter. When will our activism and advocacy be aligned with true revolutionary struggle? I’ve also come to recognize how loosely that term is used. I think our movement would benefit greatly from a collectively agreed upon definition.
What is revolutionary struggle?
I read recently in my favorite book at the moment, Futures of Black Radicalism, that during the war for Mexican Independence, Jose Maria Morelos wrote to President James Madison to convince him that Mexican efforts to overthrow Spanish dominion were not unlike those of the American revolutionaries of 1776. Madison and his administration didn’t agree, though. In fact, Madison’s secretary of state, John Quincy Adams said in his own letter that while the American Revolution was a war of free men, the Mexican struggle for independence from Spain was one of slaves bent on destroying society. Why couldn’t the American government see the revolutionary value in Mexican independence? The answer feels obvious to me and is summed up beautifully in a quote Paul Ortiz uses in his essay contribution to Futures: “In revolutions, life begins to manifest itself in forms which are incomprehensible to bureaucrats and social engineers.”
The forefathers of America were not actually interested in revolution. It wasn’t immorality as a foundation of economic or political life that they opposed. No. They had already proven their willingness to continue the European legacy of exploitation and imposition through the brutal and stubborn continuation of the Trans Atlantic slave trade. They were primarily interested in building and acquiring the wealth that the royal caste system of Britain kept them from. And this, to me, feels like exactly the type of “revolution” that many Black “activists” aspire to; a shift in the political and economic landscape that secures one demographic’s ability to climb the political and economic ladder, but not one that ensures an equitable distribution of resources or an ubiquitous eradication of racial or economic power differentials.
That was the difference between the American Revolution and the type of revolution that Morelos described. He was calling for the abolition of slavery, the eradication of caste systems that perpetuated indigenous oppression, a national policy against war, and deep investment in the education of the poor; a platform that posed a direct threat to the maintenance of the “revolutionary” American politic he hoped to appeal to.
In 1966, Adam Clayton Powell hosted the Black Power Planning Conference in Washington, D.C. Congressman Powell claimed that he was interested in developing political parameters within which to operate to further the Black power agenda as an elected representative. He told the media, after the conference, that Black people could not be in true coalition with whites until they, themselves, had developed political, economic, and cultural power. I wonder how genuine Powell was in this pursuit, as the concept of reform that furthers a revolutionary agenda is something deeply important to 400+1 as a federation. How can those who navigate electoral and policy landscapes be in deep partnership with those of us working to establish Black nationalist or Pan African political footing? This question is of deep importance because no well meaning Black elected official and no policy reform can counterbalance the deep inequity, cultural oppression, poverty, and violence wielded against our communities, but both can contribute to creating conditions that make balancing the scales possible. This is a question we continue to pose to the local Black organizing community, but largely goes ignored.
Six years after the Black Power Planning Conference, Black organizers, activists, intellectuals, integrationists, and revolutionaries met in Gary, Indiana for the National Black Political Convention. There was an agenda set into motion by the Black Congressional Caucus to gain loyalty from Black nationalists and proclaimed revolutionaries to the cause of gaining access to American political institutions and Black upward mobility. Leonard Moore says in his book, The Defeat of Black Power, that this was an important moment for integrationists; a moment at which Black voters could take advantage of The Voting Rights Act in a presidential election for the first time. He claims that “the split between Black nationalists and integrationists had the potential to effectively stifle Black political activism at the national level and stop Black political progress at the local and state levels.” But, I think the fact that Moore positions the narrative this way is wholly indicative of where we are as a movement. Afterall, it was the integrationist agenda that killed that of Black nationalists, not the other way around.
In the Frederick Douglass quote that prefaced all of this, the great abolitionist (and thus anti-imperialist) interrogates the tendency of the oppressed to take on the political agenda of their oppressor. Ancestor Douglass understood what many of us are still struggling to grasp. The white folks who founded and developed the dominant political framework did so with interests inimical to our own. The parameters they set will not guide us to freedom and so they can never inform the trajectory of revolution.