No Accident: From Black Power to Black Box Office

Article excerpt

It's no accident that people like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were destroyed at those moments of their political careers when [ldots] they replaced nationalism with a critique of imperialism. (hooks 37)

The years between Malcolm X as the scariest thing mainstream white America could imagine and Malcolm X as pitchman for movies, baseball caps, and t-shirts have been bleak ones for African American progressive politics. The various movements that held so much promise in the 1950s and '60s have, in the words of Cornel West, "been crushed and/or absorbed" (Keeping 246). Manning Marable has divided black politics into "three strategic visions, which can be termed 'inclusion,' [ldots] 'black nationalism,' and transformation'" ("History" 73). Generally speaking, "inclusion" and "black nationalism" have been defanged and absorbed, while those ideas represented by Malcolm X's "transformationist" last year have been silenced and crushed. Marable notes the way that the silence has been institutionalized when he points out that "most historians [have] characterized the central divisions within black political culture as the 150-year struggle between 'integration' and 'separation'" ("History" 72), with the poles represe nted in such easy binaries as Du Bois versus Garvey, Martin versus Malcolm, or Henry Louis Gates versus Molefi Asante.

The yin and yang between the inclusionist and nationalist visions has led to the African American political gains of the last fifty years: the end of legal segregation, the increase in the dissemination and study of African American culture, and the growth of the black middle class. But, at the same time, this political dynamic has also created conditions in which life for the majority of African Americans has become steadily worse. While the African American middle class has been moving to the suburbs, black enrollments in U.S. colleges have declined, real incomes for black workers have dropped through the floor, black life expectancy has gone down, and a staggering percentage of young African American males have been warehoused in prisons. The connections between the African American middle class and lower classes have been broken to the point that the increasing number of high-profile black leaders and elected officials rarely represent the interests of the African American underclass. [1] Inclusionist an d even nationalist political strategies have served the African American middle class with varying degrees of success, but they have done virtually nothing for those left behind in U.S. inner cities. The strategy with the most potential to change the plight of the African American underclass is transformation, which begins with the fundamental insight that "black economic empowerment is impossible in the long run without a complete shift in the pattern of ownership, the expansion of the rights of labor, and the democratization of the relations of production within U.S. society" ("History" 85).

Marable's formulation leans heavily on the Marxist tradition, but we should be careful not simply to equate transformationism with Marxism. The relationship between black liberation movements and Marxist/socialist movements has been and still is complex, and often antagonistic. [2] African American transformationist thinkers such as Cornel West, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde often emphasize questions of ethics, culture, and gender that tend to fall into the background of many Marxist analyses. But rather than get bogged down in the distinctions between black transformationism and various Marxisms, let us focus on the underlying dynamic that unites these traditions and clearly separates them from more mainstream liberal strategies. The most important element that transformationism takes from Marxism is an emphasis on sweeping and fundamental change. Unlike integrationist strategies, which seek to expand participation in current arrangements, or nationalist strategies, which seek to replicate current arrangement s, transformationist strategies look to create new and different institutions, traditions, and practices. …