We Are Not What We Seem: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century

By Rod Bush | Go to book overview

2
Nothing but a Black Thing?
The Black Freedom Struggle in Context

Histories of the Black freedom struggle have largely focused on individuals and organizations. We have thus witnessed an explosion of empirical histories of specific individuals, such as Malcolm X, W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Martin Luther King, and organizations like the Black Panther Party, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). With some exceptions the more comprehensive studies focus on the civil rights movement.1

We seek here to both chronicle and analyze the efforts of those who confronted the North American social system with a vision of fundamental social change on behalf of working-class Blacks, and who sought either self-determination or the transformation of America into a truly egalitarian society.

Too often scholars have viewed Black radicalism as simply a variant of its putative ideological counterparts among the white population. There is indeed much common ground, but there is also a specificity that we ignore at the cost of serious misunderstanding of the significance of social struggle emanating from the African American working class and those intellectuals who seek to speak and act on its behalf. Most significantly, these views seriously misunderstand the significance of nationalist consciousness among the African American working class and its organic intellectuals. Richard Wright argued passionately that the white public should take heed, but also that those whites who were deeply sympathetic to the struggle against racial inequality should not underestimate the significance of this struggle for “we are not what we seem.”

Cedric Robinson has also warned against the danger of such a reductionist approach to the Black radical tradition.2 Robinson argues that a distinctive cultural tradition emerged among the lower stratum of the Black population, a culture of resistance based on resistance to slavery.

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