Borne aloft on the ages old dreams of those that have come before

I am reading The New Jim Crow in preparation for a class that I teach on inequality and social policy. As I read I keep thinking to myself, “This is why Black people emigrate from America.” I know that emigration is no panacea (believe me I do), but the U.S. has been and continues to be such an abominable expression of the dehumanization of African people.

What’s more, we are presented with (sham) democracy as one solution to our problems, yet little historical evidence suggests that this has ever been consequential in us improving our lot here. In fact we have yet to mount an effective response to the corrupting influence of neoliberal capitalism on the American political process so as to remove obstacles to the unfettered expression of our agency.

The most visible and vocal response that we have seen of late by African people to America’s continued odyssey of racial terror is the use of mass protest and civil disobedience. While these do have a place in movements for social change, they are also ill equipped to facilitate both a transformation of the political-economy of U.S. society or to provide the ideological and tactical instruments requisite for us to transform our communities. Impassioned appeals to or denunciations of a recalcitrant foe will not bring about their undoing. In the end, when the emotional fervor has inevitably exhausted itself, we will be back where we started.

Our history at the end of the 19th Century demonstrates two responses wherein community formation were central to our resistance to White racist tyranny. The formation of independent communities was one. This was a dynamic solution that saw the establishment of independent Black communities throughout the nation. This is something that we must study in order to understand the ideological and structural mechanisms that compelled these acts. While our capacity to do this today may seem limited due the capitally-intense nature of such an approach, we mustn’t dismiss the enormous waste that occurs in our slavish indulgence of America’s culture of mass-consumption. Money that could (re)build a Black economy now enriches the already super-rich.

Another response from over a century ago was emigration. But this was a far cry from what we see today, the movement of individuals and families to far-flung global destinations. Instead people sought to create societies and communities for those who dared to leave the U.S. Of course these efforts abounded by contradictions, which must also be studied. However they do offer lessons. Moreover, the centuries’ old ideal of African American’s resettling abroad is gaining new traction as many seek to relocate their bodies and their human capital elsewhere. A particularly compelling potential manifestation of this might be the creation of a modern community on the continent that acts as a beacon for diasporic Africans that provides assistance in such tangible areas as resettlement, housing, entrepreneurship, education, and the like. The formation of a single community of this kind or of several would be an interesting signpost of the maturation of the emigration strategy in modern times.

I will close with an excerpt from a book chapter that I’m writing on Du Bois and Woodson that aptly captures our past and present, but hopefully not our future. “Du Bois and Woodson recognized that Black people, as ever, stand at the precipice, facing on one side a familiar tyranny and on the other a new world that exists just beyond the bounds of our knowing and the fruits of our unfettered social agency.”

Nat Turner and the (re)birthing of historical memory

I just watched The Birth of a Nation with a local rites-of-passage program that I help to coordinate. The film is quite riveting. I did not watch it expecting a historically accurate rendition of the life of Nat Turner. I expected it to do what I have seen similar films accomplish such as Malcolm X, Panther, Quilombo, Besouro, and so on–that is to offer a depiction of historical events based only partially on the documented history, while providing a generous degree of creative embellishments. One benefit that films like this offer are that they often provide a basis for communal dialog. In this sense this film has not disappointed.

As it relates to the plot, the film does a great job of capturing the depth to which Africans struggled to sustain their humanity within a monstrous system. The beauty, complexity, and tragedy of African life during the period was captured in ways that were deeply compelling. The dramatization of the fictionalized Nat Turner moving from being a child possibly destined for war, to learning how to read, to his growing disillusionment within the institution of enslavement, to his ultimate choice to take up arms against it was wonderfully dramatized. The depiction of this particular journey is augmented via the clear struggle of Nate Parker’s Nat Turner between finding comfort and nominal acceptance within the barbarity of chattel enslavement or becoming a voice and instrument of his people’s deliverance. The emotive dimension of armed struggle as a process of not only the exacting of vengeance, but asserting one’s collective right to self-determination was captured in ways that unfolded rather vividly.

The film employed a range of visual devices that captured the dynamic expression and retention of traditional African cultural practices in the Americas. Though the historical accuracy of these as it relates to the life of the historic Nat Turner is questionable, this portrayal is situated within the actuality of African spiritual, language, artisan, artistic, and cosmological retentions in the Americas. These depictions, particularly the ones of traditional African spirituality that intersect with the young Nat, are a reflection of the paths of the many other men and women who viewed enslavement as wholly illegitimate and intolerable, and as such resolved to confront and destroy it, whose works and deeds were often preceded by invocations of various African ancestors and divinities reflective of war and bravery.

Though their victories were incomplete, after all few victories were as complete as the Haitian revolution, they did serve to inspire subsequent generations. The names of these determined ancestors were spoken on the tongues of the living, giving resonance and relevance to their spirits among those who would follow in their footsteps. They, as Nat Turner, became more than martyrs for the cause of African redemption, they become symbols of backs unbent, minds not destroyed, and souls not broken. They became symbols of resistance. They illustrated the words of Fred Hampton, that “you can “kill a revolutionary, but you can never kill the revolution”. Their ascension to the realm of symbolic representation made them immortal. Thus their works, their deeds still stir the imagination. They remain exemplars of ancestral instruction.

This is not a perfect film. But it is one that may yet keep the thought and spirit of African liberation in our hearts and minds. The historic Nat Turner was compelled to move against the dehumanization of his people by what he witnessed, what he knew to be true, and his faith that the struggle for justice would inevitably be rewarded by victory. His struggle existed in the liminal space between that which was improbable and that which was imperative. The improbable eradication of an intolerable reality was an imperative that he did not, could not ignore. All missteps aside, The Birth of a Nation makes this unequivocally clear. It reminds us of Nat Turner’s sacrifice and symbolic significance today. The historical Nat Turner’s legacy challenges us to both ask and answer “What future, if any, do African people have outside of the mandates of the oppressive system that began in chattel slavery, continued under state-sponsored racial subordination (Jim Crow), and on to the system of mass-incarceration today?”