The L1 Collective’s Insurgent Media Cypher is a gathering call for potential L1s who feel themselves responsible for the proliferation of amplified Black voices through the development of strategic and systemic Pan-African cohesion, for the utilization of culture and connection in pursuit of Black liberation, and for the harnessing of the power that collective naming yields. If what you read resonates, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how to join the L1 collective.
What happened to the Black Radical Press? It’s a tragic question to have to confront, because it forces us to contend with a broken thread, somewhere between the typewriter and the cordless phone, the Roland press and the dial-up connection. Somewhere, over there, lies the resting place of the Black Radical Press. And it needs to revive. We contend at 400+1 that we need a new insurgent media for the 21st century. We need a minister of Insurgent Media, one willing to resurrect the black press, make it internationalist, make it queer.
There are radical journals, that is undeniable. There are even radical journalists — but is there a black radical press? When we speak of a radical press we aren’t talking about newspapers, journals, websites. We are talking about the proliferation of mediums carrying the weight of dead generations of fighters in order to nourish the living; media reminding us that our calling preceded the day we stepped in this world and were called to fight. The Black Radical Press didn’t even need black people to be able to read when it first came into being. But it did demand our global desire for freedom.
“W.E.B Du Bois estimates that despite prohibition and negative public opinion, about five percent of the slaves had learned to read by 1860”, Eugene D Genovese once wrote, before adding that “this may even be too low.” And yet, in Lovell’s Black Swan, we are confronted with the political sophistication of black slaves, their undeniable capacity to be “informed on … the news of the day, inventions and discoveries, the approach of underground agents, the details about David Walker and Nat Turner..” How was this possible? Simply because blacks developed a regular system of dissemination, inspired by biblical figures of upheaval; figures like Moses, David, Elijah and Jesus. They communicated through spirituals, through song. Before Harlem’s step-ladder there was the slave-pastor pulpit.
Our medium, however, is not only our voice for we have also excelled with the quill and the pen.
Take your favourite revolutionary, and they’ve likely —at some point of their lives — worn two hats; journalists by day and revolutionaries by night. And If they weren’t journalists they owed their clout or politics to them. Douse Mohammed Ali, the Egyptian-Sudanese prodigy, practically reared Marcus Garvey and taught him how to be proud of his blackness. He took him as an apprentice on the African Times and Orient Review — a paper that helped many blacks understand themselves as part of one diaspora as it was distributed in the British West Indies, North America, West and East Africa, and even in India, China, Japan and Europe. When Marcus Garvey would preach his message through The Negro World, it, too, was to grant him prestige across the black Atlantic. Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, once recalled that illiterates would come from across the colony to come and listen to articles from the Negro World, memorise them, and then spread them around to others. The black radical press was, in this sense, holy.
And this is what we speak of when we talk about the black radical press, about insurgent media. The Black Radical Press wasn’t the content of the articles, it wasn’t about words superimposed on paper. It was about the culture, about helping people understand who they were as black people in the world, how significant they were, how self-reliant they could be. It was also about cultivating the black imagination: Marcus Garvey wrote manuscripts detailing how a ship could take black people from America back to Africa. Sun-Ra would write tracts telling them how they could go to space. The Black Radical Press let blacks in Harlem know that the Japanese had defeated the Russians in 1905; that this act showed that the color line could be transgressed, that in the countries they resided in, it could be transgressed too.
The Black Radical Press wasn’t just about distributing papers on the streets of Harlem. It was about the culture that surrounded those papers. It was about the stepladder circuit, pamphleteering, asking people where they were going and what they felt about the fact that Ethiopia, the last stronghold of black sovereignty in Africa, was being invaded by Fascist Italy. A place where black communist women could transgress, and defy the expectations put upon them, by explaining how the class struggle taught them that they were triply oppressed, for being women, for being black and for being workers. The Black press allowed the Robeson’s to tell their stories about Paris. It was a platform for stories about how the Nardal sisters from Martinique owned their own literary salon. It was a medium for celebration of black American women like Ada “Bricktop” Smith, who owned the most prestigious bar in town and provided a multi-racial audience for artists like Josephine Baker while blacks in the south of the United States could not even get a bite to eat with their white counterparts. But most importantly, the black press created a black Internationale, allowing people like Garvey, in the words of Penny M Von Eschen, “in a brutal era of Jim Crow, lynchings, and political disenfranchisement,” to transform “African Americans from a national minority into a global majority.” The black press was what tied the Masai boy memorising Garvey’s message in Kenya to the child of a Garveyite sharecropper in Mississippi. Such an irony, the same ship which kidnapped blacks and separated them from around the world was now carrying the newspapers reuniting their souls. This is the Black Radical Press: the precondition for the black Internationale.
Do you know where the word “black internationalism” comes from? It comes from an article by the black Martiniquais intellectual Jane Nardal in 1928. Perry Anderson once wrote that all nationalisms were “imagined”, made possible by the emergence of print capitalism and the creation of a national identity by a literary elite, who imagined themselves to be subjects of oppressive empires, and who were able to instil in the masses a feeling of being “Indonesian”, or “Kurdish”, etc. One could definitely say the same about the emergence of Pan-Africanism. By the time Nardal would write her article in 1928, she would celebrate her historical moment, she would find herself euphoric to witness the “birth of a movement”, where “Blacks of all origins, of different nationalities, mores, and religions vaguely feel that in spite of everything they belong to one and the same race.” She thanks, “the snobs” who launched negro art, the literary’s who preserved the spirituals, the “sociologists “ who had “made known to the white world the centres of African civilisation”, and the writers like Alain Locke who gave confidence to afro-Americans and Afro-Latin people. “Along this barely trodden path,” she wrote, “American backs have been the pioneers, i believe.” And on this point she was undoubtedly true.
The contribution of African Americans to this global feeling of blackness cannot be denied. Within the 20th century, news outlets like the Chicago Defender, Negro World, and W.E.B Du Bois’s The Crisis compelled the average black worker to pay attention to what was happening in the global south, in the colonies of Britain, and in the struggle for decolonisation in Africa.
The same can also be said for Britain and in the metropolitan centres of the colonies. In fact the line between the black press and anti-colonial organising was really thin. For C.L.R James, a cricket journalist, it meant having access to a network that could help him found the International African Service Bureau with (then-former) Communist journalist James Padmore. With founding members like I.T.A Wallace-Johnson, a trade unionist and journalist from Sierra Leone, making first contact with workers struggling against colonialism in West Africa as a journalist meant that next contact could be an invitation to organise a mass-strike. The jig was simple: you get a press pass by the colonial authorities to go and interview workers on strike in Jamaica. Once you’ve established contact with them, you can begin to further deepen the anti-colonial struggle. These weren’t your typical “objective” journalists — these were journalists and organisers in one package, and they were unashamedly partisan.
But the significance doesn’t just lie there. The African Service Bureau attracted thinkers like Harold Moody and Jomo Kenyatta. The Bureau provided the core of organisers that would form the Manchester Pan-African Congress in 1945, a dress rehearsal of sorts that had at least three soon-to-be heads of state Kenyatta, Hastings Banda, and Kwame Nkrumah) declaring their commitment to bringing an end to colonial rule. It is no coincidence that the force which brought Southern, Eastern and Western African anti-colonial leaders was the black press, and that the two who introduced them all to each other and mentored them were the journalists C.L.R James and George Padmore.
So let’s return to the black radical press as succinctly as we can. It provided a feeling of one blackness across borders and boundaries. It was a tool of politicisation and organising. It provided an internationalist political education for the masses of black people everywhere, from the coal miner in Pennsylvania to the black child in Kenya. That was the black radical press of the early 20th century. We have not yet even scratched the surface however, and have not been able to mention the new left. For this, another essay is in order.
But for now let us take a look at ourselves, honestly, today. Is there any vehicle that is familiarising the average of African American with the assassinations of shack dwellers in South Africa? Most of us only heard about Marielle Franco — the socialist black bisexual lawmaker — after she was killed by Brazilian police. Many of us pay lip-service to our support for Palestine, but are most of us (not those who organise around this topic, but the sister on the black) honestly following what is going on there? We have countless black media outlets, loads doing great work as far as individual stories are concerned. But are they connected to a mass movement like Garvey’s Negro Voice? The answer to all of these questions is likely no. In fact, it seems sometimes that the black press is more concerned with how white the oscars is, than it is concerned with how black the world’s worst suffering can actually be. And it’s not like revolutionary struggle in the post-colonial black world has ended. In many ways, black people across the world are fighting dictators that look like us.
We may imagine ourselves to have progressed, but it’s clear that we need to go back to basics. We need, first, to have an insurgent media that talks about organising efforts happening across the country. We need a black radical press that follows the struggles of black people — particularly the black poor — everywhere. We need a black radical press that covers the blindspots left by those before us; that is queer affirmative, that is able to construct a black woman’s internationale. And we at 400+1 understand that we aren’t there yet. We need a Minister of Insurgent Media that can take us back to our roots; and our roots are unabashedly internationalist.
1. Brown, adrienne maree; pleasure activism in an interview with Cara Page, 2019 (p. 42).