[News] Solidarity Is Not a Market Exchange

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jan 20 12:11:43 EST 2020


  “Solidarity Is Not a Market Exchange”: An Interview with Robin D. G.


          /Rethinking Marxism <http://rethinkingmarxism.org/>/: It is
          our great honor to be talking with Robin D. G. Kelley,
          Distinguished Professor and Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.
          S. History at UCLA. Robin, let’s begin with your biography of
          Thelonious Monk. It is quite an achievement and a pleasure for
          us to read. Your in-depth narrative of Monk’s life is
          informative and educational about how to listen to jazz. Your
          biography provides an exciting, often nostalgic account of the
          lives and times of many of the twentieth century’s “giants of
          jazz.” Thank you for undertaking and completing this
          fourteen-year project. That’s a lot of time! How did you
          become interested in writing a biog­raphy of Monk? What was
          the journey like for you?

Robin Kelley: The short version is I grew up in a household where music 
was very important, especially jazz. My stepfather was a jazz musician, 
so when I was in high school I picked up the piano. I played piano for a 
while. I even thought about it as a possible career. He introduced me to 
Monk’s music; I was 16 years old. And I was into way-out music, Cecil 
Taylor, people like that. Monk was always in the back of my head. Not to 
do any particular project; I never thought I would write a biography. 
Then, all my work was driven by political con­siderations, what were the 
emergencies at the moment. Writing /Hammer and Hoe/ was about being in a 
Left movement and thinking about what self-determination actually means 
on the ground. What does it mean for people of color, black people in 
particular, to build a movement that has taken Marxism and tried to 
transform it into something that made sense to them? So, I was doing all 
this work, responding to emergencies all throughout the 80s and 90s, and 
then I got really sick. And I was hospitalized with some kind of virus. 
I remember being in the hospital and, believe it or not, I was reading 
Skip Gates’s /Colored People/, his memoir, which is pretty hilarious. I 
thought to myself, if Henry Louis Gates can write this book, I should be 
able to write whatever book I want to write! So I was in the hospital 
thinking, /I want to write a book about Monk/. I reached out to the 
family through a very important friend named Marc Crawford. Marc wrote 
about jazz. He also was very political. He grew up in Detroit, but he 
ended up leaving the country for southern Mexico, and his home became a 
place for a lot of people escaping the draft. I knew Marc because I was 
on the Board of Governors for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade; they had 
asked me to write an introduction about African-Americans in the Lincoln 
Brigade. So this was my pathway. Marc was the one who said, “You know, 
you really need to work on this book on Monk.” He got in touch with the 
family; the family was like, “No, we have that covered.” But, I didn’t 
give up. I then spent years conducting research without the family’s 
support, looking at publications, journals, whatever primary sources I 
could get in every language possible. What I realized is that people who 
write books about artists tend to work in one language or two. Look, I 
can’t read Japa­nese, but I found every single Japanese article and had 
it translated; Dutch, Portu­guese, German, Spanish, all over the world. 
I began to discover things about Monk; he would do interviews in other 
languages that would be translated, and he would say things abroad that 
he wouldn’t say at home. So I collected all this material. Fast-forward 
five, six years later, and the Monk family started to put together a 
website and a record label. And on one of those listservs with jazz fans 
who are sometimes more dangerous than anybody else because they’re so 
fanatical, the Monks starting pumping them for information. And I write 
offline to Monk’s brother-in-law, “You know, I talked to Toot, Monk Jr., 
years ago, and I know that he has some other plans for a biography, but 
I happen to have about ten boxes of materials that I’ve collected over 
the years that he might want to use.” And he said, “Really?” “Yes.” 
“Well bring it over.” So I drove to South Orange with all these boxes of 
materials—just made copies of everything—and gave it to them. And they 
realized …two things they realized. One, I was serious! I had stuff they 
didn’t have. And, secondly, they didn’t know I was black! They assumed I 
was white. When they saw me, they were like, “Oh, wait a second. You are 
not who we imagined.” Jazz is music that people don’t engage critically 
all the time. They’re either ethnomusicologists, who operate at one 
level. Or journalists, who operate at another. The journalists tend to 
be fans, and they tend to spend more time looking for the right 
adjective to describe the music than to dig deep. So we spent, like, six 
hours sitting at his house around the pool just talking about Monk. He 
asked me: What’s my intention? What do I know? What do I think? And we 
con­nected; I sort of made a promise: “I’ll write this book, but it 
won’t be an official biog­raphy. I don’t want the family’s imprimatur 
because I’m going to say things you may not like.” He agreed; I have to 
give him credit for that. He said, “Look, whatever you find is the truth, 
just deal with the truth.” That’s why there are things in the book that 
don’t make Monk look like a grand figure; he’s a human being. So that 
changed ev­erything. And once I had access to the family, it changed my 
perspective on where the music takes place. But that leads us into your 
second question.

          In your biography you describe Monk as a radical
          individualist, a “rebel” whose life and music are part of a
          tradition of “sonic disturbance.” But also an ex­emplar of a
          creative black artist trying to live an “authentic life” in
          postwar New York (we’ll circle back to this issue of
          “authenticity” later). As you describe, Monk’s method of
          teaching his music to bandmates, or his approach to
          perfor­mance on stage or in the recording studio, was to adopt
          a quasi-surrealist mode (perhaps without the whimsy). Here
          we’re thinking of Monk’s constant nudging the jazz tradition
          toward uncertainty, his striving for inexpressible hidden
          chords beyond—within—the melody. Or Monk’s obsessive push
          against attempts to confine or rein in his imagination. Is
          there radical optimism, or political hope, within Monk’s
          music, his habits of work, and specifically, in his willingness
          con­stantly to disrupt and disturb? And does this willingness
          reveal elements of what you describe as surrealist art? What
          are the cultural and political implications of seeing Monk as
          a surrealist?

So, I’m going to work backwards. On your very last question: Is Monk a 
surrealist? Absolutely! Though he isn’t an artist who identified himself 
as surreal­ist. (Yet in an interview in the late ’40s, he compares bebop 
more generally with Salvador Dali; whether or not Dali was a real 
surrealist is another thing). But Monk moved in that direction for the 
same reason that people like Wifredo Lam, the painter, and Aimé Césaire, 
the poet and activist, all moved to surrealism: it was a matter of 
self-recognition. In other words, their lives were /already/ that. What 
they saw, what Wifredo Lam saw in Santeria, for example—he says, “I 
recognize surrealism.” What Monk heard in the music of the old stride 
pianists he studied with, like James P. Johnson and Willie “the Lion” 
Smith, was to take an instrument like the piano with fixed pitches and to 
be able to bend notes. We can think of it as whimsy. But we can also 
think of it as specific ways that notes can produce emotion through 
dissonance and consonance, especially dissonance. The way that notes and 
rhythm can produce a sense of /humor/. And for surrealists, /humor/ is 
like the fundamental emotion. It’s a fundamental expression of 
/everything/. In that sense, I think Monk is definitely surrealist. 
There’s also a kind of radical optimism, polit­ical hope—I think you can 
/hear/ that. Whether or not Monk intends it is a different thing. In 
fact, what I argue in the book is that even though Monk’s music doesn’t 
change significantly over the years, its meaning changes. So in the 1940s 
there was something that was perceived to be very modern about the 
music, despite the fact that in the 40s Monk spent as much time hanging 
out with stride pianists at James P. Johnson’s house as he did with some 
of the young bebop musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Joe 
Guy. I make the case that he was Janus-faced: he took the tradition from 
the past, he took the future, or paved the way for the future, and took 
the present, and put them together in a way that musically made sense to 
him. His aesthetic was never bound by time or place. Let me step back 
for a second. A lot of people assume that what made Monk’s music so 
creative, so whimsical, so free, was his lack of training. In other 
words, that he was not a trained musician. This is the myth: that he 
didn’t have lessons, that he had no knowledge of classical tradi­tion. 
Quincy Jones says this, Bill Evans says this, they all say it. And yet 
Monk not only was well trained but he had classical lessons; he took 
lessons from a black woman who lived in his neighborhood. He was 
surrounded by other musicians in a very public culture where Alberta 
Simmons—his piano teacher—and the heads of the Columbus Hill Community 
Center all provided education for young musicians. In other words, it 
was a whole community that helped him develop his aesthetic. That 
community was the community he played for. So his music wasn’t out of 
this world. How can it be out of this world if he played for dancers? 
Dancers will not dance to music if you can’t play. So the /embeddedness/ 
of his music has more to do with being able to understand the politics 
of it. He made music with, and for, and of the people: the people of his 
neighborhood. There were no boundaries, which is why he would play 
alongside the Calypsoni­ans, like Lord Invader, and others; why walking 
down the street in San Juan Hill, you listen to the radio, the 
Victrolas, and you would hear Habanera, Cuban sounds; you hear 
Trinidadian sounds, you hear Southern blues, you hear Northern blues, 
you hear Duke Ellington, you hear Louis Armstrong. And that music 
surrounded him. As well as the Irish music up on the corner; also the 
Jewish cantors. There was no sound that wasn’t available to him. What 
was amazing too was that he lived near Central Park when Goldman’s 
Band—which is part of the public culture we’ve lost—would spend the 
summer doing these free concerts: Tchaikovsky, John Philip Sousa, 
Beethoven. His mom would take him to Central Park to sit there and 
listen to this free music. Sometimes 20,000 people would come out for 
these con­certs! And it was free! And so you could actually be poor, 
growing up on the west side of Manhattan, and have access to this rich 
cultural palette of music and art. /That/ was the world that shaped him. 
So when I talk about “authentic life,” I don’t mean opposed to 
“inauthentic.” I mean he was a product of New York, and like so many 
others who really absorbed everything, including the sounds of the 
trains—that’s part of his sound. You hear the subway, you hear the main 
trains dropping off cargo at the ports. And that was his life. Now, one 
thing that is different about this book compared to others was that I 
realized in talking to the family that it’s a mistake to limit the 
spaces for his musical practice to the re­cording studio, to the stage, 
to the clubs, when in fact so much of what happened was in the house 
with his family, in rehearsing. It’s in his engagement with his 
chil­dren. He was a really amazing father, despite the fact that bipolar 
disorder eventu­ally made it difficult for him to function “on the 
everyday” all the time. For him, also, all the boroughs were available. 
When you follow an artist, particularly black artists, and you look at 
the black press and other sources, you discover that when the mainstream 
press pretends he’s disappeared, he’s actually at all these other 
places. Black-owned clubs in Brooklyn. In the Bronx. Or going to places 
like Al Walker’s TV repair shop—

          In the back!

Can you imagine what it meant for us to put that on the map of jazz?! Al 
Walker’s TV repair shop was just a jam session all night long! Great 
musicians would come through there. And they weren’t fixing TVs! But they 
were jamming. And that’s what made this book a challenge /and/ a labor 
of love, because I came away with a sense of the city, a deeper sense of 
the music and where it takes place, and a deeper sense of the man, and 
Nellie, his wife, and his children, and his extended family; because 
without them, there would be no Thelonious Monk. I tried to break down 
the myth of the isolated, individual “heroic genius.” That’s not the 
case with Monk at all. Also, the politics come out more in the fabric of 
everyday life. Following the money was really important. And, of course, 
all the economists—/you/ know, since Amherst is the last place that 
actually has an Economics Department: all the others are gone; there’s 
no such thing as economics anymore, it’s just like “rational choice,” 
and whatever. But following the money—being able to go through his tax 
returns, his con­tracts—you realize that this man struggled even at the 
height of his powers. He didn’t have enough money to have decent medical 
care. Even when he made the most he ever made—in 1964—after paying out 
everything, he only took home about $40,000. That’s the most he ever 
took home in a year. And that’s good money for 1964. But then it drops 
to $17,000 three years later, and he’s making almost zero. He leaves 
Columbia Records in debt. So, in following the money, I was able to 
reconstruct the exploitative structure of capitalism in the music 
indus­try, even at the best record labels.

          There’s a couple of things in what you’re saying. One is
          public culture, and how important it was then and now. Because
          it’s virtually gone. In work I do with guys who are locked up,
          we do a lot of exploring household, streets, neighborhoods
          that they came up in. So, “What’s the story of your life up to
          the point of your current incarceration?” And what is so
          striking again and again is the absence of a /public culture/
          that can intervene in the way those free concerts in Central
          Park intervened.

The way those concerts in the park intervened! The way his local 
com­munity center intervened! Can you imagine the role that these adults 
played? Because they not only taught you music but they would be there 
when you needed them. And they would give you advice. They had very 
strict rules; you could lose your membership card if you go in there 
cursing. That might seem harsh, but, man, those kids were so devoted to 
that space!

          That’s exactly right. In the long run, that’s helping you to

Exactly. And that’s gone now. It’s devastating.

          That’s gone. And these guys … it’s part of the Insight Prison
          Project to cul­tivate a recognition of that absence. So that
          they see how society failed them in that respect. /Neoliberal/
          society, I should say.


          Yeah. Where did the /State/ go? Where did the /public/ go?

Where did the State go! Exactly.

          I grew up in Philly. It was disappearing, but I came through
          in the 70s. There was enough of it that I felt safe in the
          streets. But I knew guys were moving to gangs, and then the
          gangs were carving out their own private space that was
          com­peting with public life, locally. And of course, the cops
          were big problems in nav­igating that public.

Exactly. And if your only interaction with the State /now/ is repressive 
force, that is, coercive force, then sometimes gangs make sense as a way 
to defend yourself. And it’s unfortunate. It’s a combination of the 
withdrawal of the State in one element and the expansion of the State in 
another element, the coercive element. Which reminds me, one other thing 
that’s in your question that I didn’t address, but which is tied to 
this: the question of mentorship. As you mention, Monk had a way of 
teaching music to his bandmates. And teaching music was really 
important. I tell stories about how they would rehearse on the 
bandstand. If you are paying money, and you’re in the Five Spot, you 
don’t want to hear the same song over and over again. (There’s something 
really performative about that.) But in a realm that is understood to be 
deeply competitive—the term “cutting session” is a jazz term, which is 
you “cut” somebody, and you blow them off the bandstand. Well, Monk 
never did that. His thing was, if he heard someone struggling, even if 
heard them when he’s sitting in the audience, he would go up to that 
person and say, “You know what, you don’t know the changes. Come to my 
house tomorrow at nine o’clock and I’ll teach them to you.” And 
musicians would come to his house—a little tiny apartment: two bedrooms, 
the piano was partly in the kitchen and partly in the living room. These 
cats would show up. He would sit down with them and show them music. He 
would show them tunes. A lot of those musicians were pretty unknown, 
like Danny Quebec West. But he gave them a chance because he really 
believed in them. Then people like Jackie McLean would show up. John 
Coltrane would show up sometimes and learn some stuff. Sonny Rollins, 
after high school, would head straight to Monk’s house. Monk was a 
teacher! And his home became the center for cultivating the culture, but 
also creating community. And the idea of creating community among 
musicians is something that we don’t always recognize.

          Collaboration and collective labor are other features of
          Monk’s approach to jazz. Monk was a teacher who taught so many
          not simply how to play “his music,” but how to find their own
          voice in his music through practicing with him. Many big-name
          musicians who began as sidemen, but became bandleaders,
          describe how decisive it was to work with Monk. For them, Monk
          dwelled in the uncertain space between the sheet music and its
          expression by a specific ensemble. Monk was “open” to the
          originality of each musician’s capabilities and commitments to
          a “sound.” (By the way, this is what we learned from you! This
          is our reading of what you taught us!) The long hours of
          practice for which he is legendary were as much about Monk
          learning how to play with them as them learning his music. How
          do you think this approach to collaborative work is indicative
          of the general jazz labor practices of his time? By modeling
          collective cultural/aesthetic labor, was Monk a
          “revolutionary” in this realm?

Right! This is an excellent question. Everything that you just said is 
abso­lutely right, I think. Let me just address two very specific 
questions which build on this description. What I’ve discovered in 
talking to jazz musicians was that kind of collaboration was more common 
than not. The idea of the “cutting sessions” and the idea of the 
competitiveness—that makes good press. That’s not to say it didn’t 
happen. But, if you look at most films about jazz musicians, and you read 
the main­stream press, competition is sexier than collaboration. And yet 
what all these mu­sicians say—even if you’re doing so-called free jazz, 
even if you’re doing something that’s much more experimental—the most 
important thing to do is /not/ to play but to listen. You have to be 
able to listen to each other, to be able to play with one other, to play 
in response to one another. It’s like a set of conversations. Because 
making music is not about virtuosity. It’s about being able to create a 
kind of com­munity voice in which each voice is individual and can 
shine. Monk did some things in his arrangements which were unusual: in 
the early Blue Note recordings, he would have the horns sometimes play 
the melodic line, or the piano play the melodic line, with the horns 
playing the piano chords underneath. And he would rethink which voices 
would be the leading voices. But leading voices doesn’t mean “separate.” 
A leading voice is in relationship to other voices. So he thought a lot 
about collaboration. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. And a key word here 
is “labor.” Labor in the world of capitalism is commodified. So sometimes 
the question is how do you get paid for that labor? Collaboration 
sometimes is col­laborative /composition/, where someone’s name is going 
to go on that music. And Monk wasn’t always the most generous. It wasn’t 
always his fault; there are a couple of tunes he clearly didn’t really 
write. He might have added two notes, but his name got on it. For Duke 
Ellington it happened all the time, with Billy Strayhorn. That’s not 
unusual. In those days, especially the days of bebop, it was important 
to get published. So what artists would often do is take chord changes 
of a standard song, like “All the Things You Are,” for example, or “I 
Got Rhythm,” and then write a line over it, like a melodic line. Just on 
the spot. And then they’d have an original composition, which means they 
would get pub­lishing rights. Monk, though, was unusual in that he 
tended not to use other chord progressions; he made his own. When he 
wrote a composition, it was his own, and deeply original. And because it 
was deeply original, they were often difficult to play. Even if the 
melody lines were fairly simple, the chord progressions were often 
difficult for other artists. So this is where his role as a teacher 
became very important—and this is part of your question too: he would 
teach them by ear. Because he did not want people to read—you know, he 
wrote everything out. But he wouldn’t share the sheet music. Because he, 
like Charles Mingus, like Duke, felt like you can get a good feel of the 
music if you hear it and play it. You don’t have to worry about how to 
match the rhythms exactly, but /hear/ it. So he would do that. When you 
ask the question, “Was this revolutionary?,” much of what he did was 
pretty revolutionary at the time. The last thing I’ll say, to go back to 
the question about money, because money is the bottom line: he’s trying 
to raise his family, raise his kids—he ends up sending them to private 
school. He wasn’t making much, and the critics really did not appreciate 
his music until 1956. It was about the time when he began to sell 
records, and yet, at the same time, he never compromised on his 
aesthetic. He kept playing and writing /complex/ music. The tragedy is 
he’s 40 years old by the time he really begins to make a living. Very 
few artists after 45 or so are writing new music. They’re playing the 
music they always played. And at the moment he reaches this sort of 
pinnacle of fame—and he’s writing some new music—that’s when the critics 
are saying, “Oh, he’s tired; he’s playing the same thing over and over 
again; it’s not rock ’n’ roll; they need to do something to resurrect 
his career.” And that was one of the tragedies. This happened 
simultaneously with his bipolar disorder. The combina­tion of these 
things made it difficult.

          So, thinking about the difficulty in earning a living and his
          faithfulness to his understanding of his craft, economic
          anxiety had to have pervaded his household, his life, extended
          family—the patron was kind of important, but even before that,
          sharing resources in his neighborhood. Are there things about
          the economic anxiety, being a professional musician named
          Thelonious Monk, in this time and place, that you didn’t put
          in, that you thought: “That’s suffering from the economic

I put /everything/ in there. [/Laughter/] It’s a good question because 
the essence of the question for me was, “How do you capture that 
anxiety?” How do you capture it? And it’s hard because of two things. 
One is that he had anxiety, but he also had Nellie. And Nellie always 
worked. Nellie worked until that turning point around 1956, which was 
the point when he started to sell some records, he started to get gigs. 
Just before he’s about to get his cabaret card back for a moment; she 
worked, she worked as an elevator operator, as a seamstress, a tailor; 
she worked her butt off. Secondly, he was in the apartment that his 
mother had. They didn’t leave that apartment until 1964. Totally rent 
controlled, so rent was not an issue. And when they had fires—two times 
they ended up living with family up in the Bronx—they had a whole 
entourage of people to help them: nieces and nephews, his 
brother-in-law, his brother, his sister. They all pitched in. When they 
couldn’t keep the kids at home because he was going to go on tour, they 
would stay at the aunt’s house. The irony is that the baroness—who is 
supposed to be the great patron—she hardly gave Monk /anything/. She 
didn’t have that much. She had a really nice car and she had a nice 
house. But she didn’t have huge amounts of money to give out because she 
was kind of cut off from her family. That’s one of the big myths. The 
big myth is that “Oh yeah, we had this patron.” At one point, Monk 
loaned /her/ money. Because she wasn’t always that responsible, but 
that’s another story. The other part of it is that Monk always had 
enormous confidence in himself. See, he never thought that the music he 
was making was so out of the ordinary that he had to convince people; he 
never thought of himself as “avant-garde.” He said, “I don’t do that 
avant-garde shit! That’s not me.” He said, “I’m trying to get a hit.” 
And he said this over and over again. He just assumed that a song like 
“’Round Midnight” would be a hit. Like, it’s a perfect song! “Monk’s 
Mood.” “Ruby My Dear.” Of course these should be hits! There’s a story 
in the book about working with this singer named Frankie Passions—Frank 
Paccione. He’s a local singer, he’s a crooner, sort of like Frank 
Sinatra, trying to be Sinatra, but also like Perry Como. And Monk 
actually does some arrangements for him. They go into the studio to make 
this record. They cut two sides. And the arrangements are so wild! You 
have to be an incredible singer to be able to follow. But for Monk it’s 
perfectly logical! It’s the logic of the music in his own recognition 
that it has all the things that a composition needs: balance, color, the 
right rhythm, a sense of swing. He says, “I got all of that stuff. So 
what else do you want from me?” He assumed at some point he was going to 
make it. And eventually he did. He was right about that. But he never 
saw himself as an outsider. He was on the inside of the music.

          Moving on from the biography, we noted in our reading of your
          work that you not only advocate “empathy” as a fundamental
          condition of practice within shared political struggles, but
          you also /practice/ it in how you write about your
          bio­graphical subjects (examples are Monk, Grace Halsell, the
          African and American jazz artists featured in /Africa Speaks/,
          race essentialists, student movements in the present, and so
          forth). When you are led to critique or point out the flaws in
          your subjects, you do so in a loving, generous, often gentle,
          but also matter-of-­fact way. That is, you avoid heavy-handed
          browbeating, or writing them out of the struggle. Is this by
          now a conscious method in your approach? Do you set out to
          write “empathic” /critique/—often calling attention to nearly
          absurdist contra­dictions in the lives and actions of your
          biographical subjects—in your work? And how do you do this so

That’s a good question. It’s funny because I’ve actually moved away from 
empathy. Let me explain what I mean. I think what I’ve been calling 
“empathy” was really, if you get down to it, /solidarity/. One thing 
about empathy is that it often pivots around taking a singular story, 
someone’s singular experience, and then, from that, projecting out. As 
if that singular experience—empathizing with the individual—then allows 
us to understand everyone who might be suffering from a particular set 
of circumstances or struggles. It gets you into the problem of 
“innocence.” That is, you empathize with victims and not so much with 
under­standing the people who are not identified as victims, not 
“innocent,” but as per­petrators. I agree that what I try to do is to 
understand /other/ positions. So to go back to your question of 
identifying contradictions and engaging critique, I guess this is 
old-school Marxism for me. It’s early Marx; it’s also “late” Marx. I 
make a distinction between old-school Marxism and myself as a Marxist 
/versus/ the sectarian organizations I was a part of. I don’t ever 
remember reading in Marx about democratic centralism. I don’t know if 
Marx ever wrote about it, but I’m sure it’s something that comes up 
later. So I go back to Marx’s appreciation for Hegel—that is, that you 
have the thesis and antithesis which produce a new synthesis. And I’m so 
interested in new syntheses. Because I clearly don’t have all the 
answers. I’m not interested in winning an argument; it has never really 
been my objective. Trying to /understand/ has been, because I think the 
questions we’re all struggling with are life-and-death questions. A 
concrete example: recently I got myself involved in the whole Cornel 
West/Ta-Nehisi Coates—

          That’s our next question. As we have said, scholarly
          generosity and empathy, kindness of/in ethical critique, are
          real virtues that permeate your writing. That’s our
          impression. So even if you have a different reading now on the
          issue of empathy, we maintain our view that you are empathic
          about your subjects, in the sense that you see flaws, but you
          don’t then write twenty-five pages of evisceration.

Right, because, see, if I would do that, then I’d have to do 
auto-critique! Because I could give you /fifty/ pages of self-evisceration!

          [/Laughter/] Wait, no Robin! You are with two of the most
          self-loathing people on the face of the earth. You can
          interview us!

We are in the same club!

          [/Laughter/] So in one recent moment that brought tears to my
          eyes, you weighed in on the published critique that Cornel
          West made of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Cornel is a personal friend and
          former teacher of mine. When I read what he wrote about
          Ta-Nehisi, I was struck by how right Cornel was, but also by
          its coldness as boldness. When you weighed in, you spoke to
          the need for com­passion. You wondered why the cannibalistic
          or eviscerative impulse tended to happen again and again. And
          what’s so odd, as you point out, is that what Cornel said
          about Coates bore some resemblance to Adolph Reed’s 1990s
          critiques of West. (Michael Eric Dyson has more recently and
          less effectively written in a similarly caustic way.) But you
          were noticeably compassionate, gentle, no less sharp in
          staking out a politics, but not hurtful. There are two parts
          to this. How easy or hard is this approach for you? And where
          do your edges show up?

Well, to go back to the context for this intervention, which I did not 
want to get into—ironically, I felt the need to intervene because Cornel 
was being at­tacked. It was the attacks on Cornel that disturbed me the 
most. It was so messed up; even friends of mine, like Jelani Cobb and 
others, began to attack Cornel as if it was simply personality, personal 

          Well, Cornel looked small. He’s also always a very expansive
          guy, generous. But there he looked small. His critique was
          great, but it was very worrisome.

I know that part of it has to do with what it means to be interviewed as 
opposed to writing a long piece. Part of it has to do with these really 
short pieces in the /Guardian/. I understand that. So, whatever Cornel 
said, and I fundamentally agree with him … that’s why he called me out 
in the piece. I never said I don’t agree with Cornel. I agree with him 
on his critique of Coates. I also had read Coates’s book. And Coates and 
I actually did a debate.

          That debate’s up on YouTube. I did see that.

Yes, it’s up on YouTube, and it was at the L.A. Public Library. It 
wasn’t really a debate. It was my asking him hard questions, /which he 
appreciated/. As a result of that conversation, Ta-Nehisi’s followers 
basically drove me off of Twitter! That’s why I’m no longer on Twitter. 
This is why it’s so ironic. Ta-Nehisi goes off of Twitter as a result of 
this; /I/ went off because of /his/ followers. And Ta-Nehisi doesn’t 
know that; I never talked to him about it. But I asked some difficult, 
challenging questions, talking about James Baldwin. They were serious 
questions. I felt like his reading of James Baldwin was one I didn’t 
recog­nize in Baldwin’s texts. And I was pushing him on some things. And 
people who are his followers were writing me all this hate mail. Like, 
“You had no right to speak; your job is just to interview him. You need 
to shut your ass up. If you want a MacArthur, get your own MacArthur.” 
As if somehow that had /anything/ to do with it! So I felt bad. The 
pattern was Ta-Nehisi Coates/West became a spec­tacle like Dyson/West 
became a spectacle. People were weighing in as if somehow it’s a 
spectacle of the /fight/. Rather than the /political issues/ at hand. 
Once the political issues are lost, then we’re lost. Ta-Nehisi reached 
out to me because he was con­cerned I was joining the bandwagon against 
him. I said, “Look, I’m not for or against anyone. I’m for liberation. I 
don’t have time. I love everybody.” But liber­ation is a project that we 
have to work on together. It doesn’t mean we agree. In fact, if we all 
agree, we’ll never get there. You’ve got to be able to create thesis, 
an­tithesis, synthesis. And so you need to be able to lay out exactly 
what Ta-Nehisi is doing in his book, which didn’t come out in West’s 
critique. I wanted to remind us that Cornel has a /long/ history, a 
/long/ and /dedicated/ and /amazing/ history as a /revolu­tionary/ 
thinker. That’s why I went through this whole thing about his Marxist 
back­ground, the way that he tried to think through these things—he’s 
one of the leading … he’s like my hero! And he still is, and will always 
be. But then, my /main task/ was to get to Jackson, Mississippi. I 
wanted to use this as a way to pivot, to say, “Look, here on the ground 
in Jackson are people working out these ideas; it’s very hard, it’s not 
easy, but they’re struggling through it.” What annoyed me the most after 
that piece came out were people who wrote me and said, “Oh, you should 
moderate a debate between Cornel and Ta-Nehisi in Jackson.” I’m like, 
“/Did you read the piece?!/” That defeats the purpose. The people in 
Jackson don’t need “Ta-Nehisi versus Cornel!” More spectacle?! Bring the 
spec­tacle to Jackson?! That annoyed me. But I learned to be this way 
because this is how my mother is. My mother’s always been like this; her 
religion is Self-Realization Fellowship. Paramahansa Yogananda is her 
guru, similar to Sonny Rollins. I grew up with that. And my sister, 
Makani Themba—who’s an activist, long­time, she’s my older sister—she 
trained me and raised me. And she’s always looking for opportunities for 
dialogue, always looking for a way to wage critique that is open and 
loving, but still critique. Because the flip side of this story is what 
annoys me the most, and that is, whenever I’m giving a talk and people 
start snapping their fingers, you know, they do this thing now [/snaps 
fast/], I feel I must have said something wrong! Because it’s not my job 
to /confirm/ what you already know. And that to me is the flip side of it. 
The idea that people want speak­ers or want to read things that /confirm/ 
what they know rather than /challenge/ what they know. That’s where I 
think, if I have edges that show up, that’s what I’m most critical of. 
Because it’s tied to the opposite. The culture of ad hominem and the 
culture of hating: the flip side of that is /confirmation/. Neither of 
them is dialectical. Hating is banishment. Confirmation is nothing 
changes. They’re two sides of the same coin. We’re raised politically to 
think dialectically. Which is that we /need/ to have that 
thesis/antithesis /constantly/. And you cannot separate them; they have 
to be together, because those contradictions are drivers, they’re not 
some­thing to be afraid of.

          Thinking back to my early background, I was part of a
          community organi­zation, a community center, back in East New
          York in Brooklyn. The guy who ran it was a social worker who
          had come out of the Communist Party, he had left the Communist
          Party, and then in the 1950s and ’60s, he went to various
          places, includ­ing Atlanta, and trained all these different
          radical social workers. The thing that he was most about was
          /conflict/: /conflict/ and /conflict resolution/. So we would sit
          in meet­ings—we were fifteen years old, sixteen years old—kids
          of different backgrounds, different racial backgrounds, we
          were all mostly from the neighborhood. And he would just
          /sharpen/ those differences, and make us have to deal with
          each other and confront each other. And it was hard because
          part of that process is that you’re getting ripped apart! On
          the other hand, we knew, and there was a sense that, we were
          involved in this process together, that there was a kind of
          solidarity in that what we were working toward was trying to
          figure out how to live together. So I think about that when you
          ask, what’s our job? What is it that we’re about? In our
          teaching, confirmation is not absent from what we need to do,
          but it’s certainly not the project. It’s not the goal; but
          sharpening contradictions …

Yeah, I think that’s really important. But the idea of conflict 
/resolution/: I’ve always thought of it more as conflict /transformation/.

          That’s probably what it is. You know, what we were trying to
          do, to be blunt, was trying to figure out ways kids in the
          neighborhood were not outside in the streets fighting with each
          other, sometimes even pulling weapons on each other. We were
          trying to figure out an alternative to that.

Yeah, because you wanted to stop fighting.

          It wasn’t because we were trying to /evaporate/ the conflict;
          it was let’s bring it inside and use it to figure out how we
          could all continue to live.

Exactly. One of the people who really pressed me to have to think 
dia­lectically, who was also a teacher of mine, was Grace Lee Boggs. 
Grace was a /huge/ influence. I first met her in 1991 or ’92—I know it was 
before Jimmy Boggs passed away. And I know that before he died, the last 
thing he was reading was /Hammer and Hoe/. I really appreciate that; she 
told me that. Every time I wrote something and Grace disagreed—and she 
/disagreed!/—she would write me letters, back before emails, telling me 
all the things that were /wrong/. And we’d go back and forth. Her thing 
was to think dialectically and /not/ to be locked in the old debates, 
the old Marxist debates. To really push Marxism—her thing was to push 
/beyond/ Marxism. To push beyond Leninism. And this is the person who 
did the first translations of Marx’s /Economic and Philosophical 
Manuscripts/; it was Grace! People give Erich Fromm all the credit, but 
it was actually Grace who did the first translations from the German. So 
she knows what she’s talking about. But she’s also like, “You need to 
think dialectically,” meaning, “Think dialectically where you are 
/now/.” “What time is it on the clock of the world?,” she’d always say. 
“And what is it /now/ we’re dealing with?” She said the genius of Lenin 
is that he wasn’t back in the late nineteenth century trying to have 
debates. He’s like, “At this moment, what are we doing right /now/? What 
is our plan /now/?” So, I learned that from her. And this idea of not 
wanting confirmation—part of the reason I wrote “Black Study, Black 
Struggle,” that /Boston Review/ piece, was because it went against the 
grain. In fact, at first, people were very upset with me about that 
piece. A lot of students felt I was critiquing them and not being 
sup­portive. I said, “Yeah, I was critiquing some things.” But that’s 
the whole point. The point is that we have to ask really hard questions. 
Not so much, what do students want the university to do for them? Let’s 
ask the bigger question. What kind of world are we trying to build? Why 
turn to the university administration to give you things rather than 
demand and take the things that you want? And why do we think of 
education in such narrow terms as, again, /confirmation/? They were 
de­manding reading lists that would /confirm/ their humanity as black and 
brown people, as queer people. I said, well, look, we can confirm that, 
but then what do you do after that? We can’t stop there; we have to be 
able to push into auto-cri­tique because otherwise what we end up doing 
is adopting a political position in which all black people, including 
those who signed, sealed, and delivered legisla­tion that is putting us 
in prisons, become “oppressed.” /Equally/. We’re all like equally 
oppressed. We’re all equally under the gun. And antiblackness becomes 
the /only/ way to conceive of the global nature of oppression today. How 
do you push beyond that? So I’m trying to push them hard.

          I’m starting to get a sense of why you’re moving away from
          /empathy/ to /solidarity/. That makes sense. Empathy tends to
          be inside a therapeutic, psycholog­ical discourse about
          self-improvement and “I’m OK.” And in that /Boston Review/
          essay, you’re challenging students to political maturity. Like
          you said, what comes after you’ve affirmed that your identity
          belongs on this campus or in this class? So, solidarity is the
          thing …

Right, and empathy also requires identifying with the person you’re 
em­pathizing with. And sometimes you only identify with those whom you 
recognize. That’s a problem because part of /solidarity/ is the people 
you /don’t/ recognize. The people who you /don’t/ see yourself in. And 
we’re raised in this particular era of liberal multiculturalism to see 
ourselves in others. When in fact I tell my students, “Look, not only do 
you not see yourself in others, but if we’re talking about en­slaved 
people in the eighteenth century, I’m sorry, none of y’all can know what 
that means.” We can begin to understand not by simply imposing our own 
selves but by stepping /outside/ of ourselves and moving into different 
periods of history. Understanding the constraints and limitations of 
people’s lives that are not us, as opposed to those who are /like/ us. 
The fallback is always, “Well, if it were me,” or, “I can see how other 
people feel,” as opposed to, “Let me step outside myself.”

          That is partly what led Serap Kayatekin and me to read
          Emmanuel Levinas; the reason why we wanted to read Levinas was
          the issue of “radical otherness.” What do you do when there is
          no identification? It’s not like /you/ adopt that posi­tion;
          you’re not standing in others’ shoes. So now what? Now what do
          you do with /that/? What is the ethics of dealing with a
          /radical/ other?

Right, exactly! I was wrestling with that. While I was attaching the 
adjec­tive “radical” to “empathy,” that was my way of struggling to get 
to that point. Until finally I realized that it could only get me so far. 
Solidarity, which is also a tricky thing, will get us much closer to 
what I’m trying to wrestle with. Now, the problem is we’re at a 
political moment where it’s hard to talk about solidarity, at least in 
the circles I’m around, among a lot of my students. I remember being in 
a meeting about a year ago with some activists, and I was talking about 
the traditions—the black radical traditions—of /abolition democracy/ 
that DuBois discusses. Newly freed black people, freed from chattel 
slavery, still struggling with other forms of unfreedom, were opening up 
the possibilities of free universal education for /all/ people, of 
democratizing the /whole/ nation, of saying, “Look, we’re going to 
trans­form this world as we know it.” And suddenly I got this pushback 
from some young people who were like, “Well, that was their mistake; 
they should have just been fighting for their own.” I said, “That doesn’t 
make any sense.” “Well, but what did they get out of it? They got 
lynching and ….” “They had to endure lynching and violence /precisely/ 
because they were fighting for democratizing America.” And so the main 
takeaway was that in an era of antiblackness we need to be fighting just 
for our own. And there’s no possible way you can transform or win 
others. To go back to Ta-Nehisi, Ta-Nehisi’s position is that you can’t 
win over white people, so just forget it. It’s some kind of 
Afro-pessimism—he’s not an official Afro-pessimist, he’s more like an 
existentialist. And that’s not where my politics are, because we don’t 
really have a choice. I’m much closer I think to Dr. King in this when 
he talks about what /agape/ actually means. The constant struggle to 
create community. /Constant struggle!/ You can’t stop fighting. And 
creat­ing community means creating community with those you don’t like. 
And people who don’t like you. And trying to figure how to move forward 
to something better. Not to the point of, as King would put it, 
/sentimental/ love. But a /hard/ love, a hard love that’s /in/ struggle. 
I can’t think of another path to go; it’s inconceivable to me. But 
that’s not necessarily a very popular thing right now. And I can 
understand it.

          Within the black community.

Oh yeah, within the black community. I can understand why, because these 
are painful times. They’ve always been painful times. The difference is 
that these painful times are up now on YouTube!

          Robin, moving on, in your writings, the terms “authenticity”
          and “purity” appear. They appear as descriptors of positions
          and identities, but they are also often, seemingly, used
          ironically or self-critically. This is not only in terms of
          how the words are used but also in your examples. So you note
          in /Africa Speaks/ that jazz purists often could not accept
          some contemporary African music as “jazz, proper.” Likewise,
          you indicate that Sathima Bea Benjamin’s insistence on singing
          American jazz classics during the period of anti-apartheid
          uprisings, in which she played an important part, and not more
          “tribal-derived” protest music, like Miriam Makeba, was
          something that held her back professionally and also brought
          suspicion on her commitment to the struggle. In a different
          vein, you remark how Babatunde Olatunji’s first “Drums of
          Passion” group in the United States—purportedly “introducing”
          African drums and rhythms to America—paradoxically had three
          non-African drummers, and himself (who only learned to play
          while at Morehouse). You do something similar with Guy Warren,
          who you say was greeted with suspicion and suffered
          professionally for being neither “authentically” a jazz
          musician nor a pure African musician. And the same with the
          oud-playing jazz musician Ahmed Abdul-Malik, who described
          himself as Sudanese and claimed Middle Eastern/North African
          music as his her­itage, but whom you show to have had only
          Caribbean forebears and who was born in Brooklyn! Yet you are
          gentle in your treatment, do not chastise anyone for these
          seeming transgressions against so-called authenticity and
          purity (which we liked!), and instead evaluate their efforts
          on the grounds of their commitments and achievements, both
          musically and politically. How do you connect your views here
          with the very heated similar debates today over “cultural
          appropriation,” es­pecially pertaining to who can, should,
          does, etc. play and perform music that orig­inates with a
          specific racial or ethnic or gender group, etc.? Are there
          analogies here with your examples? What are the obligations of
          artists who violate or transgress “the authentic”?

Well, you’re absolutely right that I tend to use terms like “tradition” 
and “authenticity” ironically. Basically to signal the fact that they’re 
all constructions. And they’re all /constructions/ created in the 
twentieth century by those who have the most influence over commercial 
elements of the music. What makes something “authentic” often has to do 
with the marketplace. It’s not even about what are the various elements 
of it. Part of the Olatunji story is that Columbia Records saw him as 
more “African” than Guy Warren. Now, as you know, they’re both from the 
continent of Africa. The difference is that Guy Warren trained at West 
Africa’s most important music school: Achimota College. Olatunji had no 
training. So if you were to think of a really concise definition of what 
it means to be an authentic musician—not to say that this is even 
true—then part of it might be were you trained in your instrument, in 
your discipline, as opposed to self-taught? To me, that’s not criteria. 
But just say, for the sake of argu­ment, it is. Then one would think 
that Guy Warren would have been the ideal person! What does it mean to 
be an African musician? Well, to be an African mu­sician! And it should 
be that, but that’s not how it works. Because in the end, Co­lumbia 
Records is interested in selling records. Sathima Bea Benjamin—because 
she doesn’t sound like African-American singers and because she’s not 
sounding like Miriam Makeba—there’s no niche for her. And that is part 
of the problem. So one of the things that that book tries to do is 
challenge the idea that, in this age of decolonization, artists were 
actually atavistic in that they were trying to go back to some ancient 
past, that they were trying to resurrect ancient Africa. When they all 
were creating this /modern/ music! Even Ahmed Abdul-Malik, who is taking 
the oud and playing it differently, played music that laid the 
groundwork for much of what we think of as “Free Jazz” or “Avant-Garde 
Jazz.” So I kind of disrupt the notions of “tradition” and 
“authenticity”—/I /don’t do it, the /artists/ do it. They’re 
responsible. They’re doing all this disruption. Even Randy Weston’s 
story of finally getting to African soil, finally getting to Nigeria, his 
dream—his father called himself an African; his dream was to be on the 
continent. He gets there, and he’s like in the bush, trying to find 
authentic music. And what does he find? He finds Highlife music! In the 
city of Lagos! He finds other jazz musicians there! And he discovers a 
whole new world opening to him. And he comes back home and records 
Highlife music. And this is hip, this is modern, this is new. At a time 
when, for Africans on the continent, for anyone involved in 
decoloniza­tion—or like for Frantz Fanon!—Africa /is/ the future! It’s 
not the past, it’s the /future/. And so, of course, the future is going 
to create /future music/. Jazz in South Africa was the music of the 
future. It was the music of progress. It was only after you get South 
African musicians coming to Europe, into the U.S., that their 
“authenticity” as Africans had deeper political meaning. And I’m not 
saying that anything is more or less “political,” just that there are 
different kinds of political articulations. Think about someone like 
Hugh Masekela, who comes out playing like Clifford Brown, listening to 
Miles Davis—he makes a decision after Sharpe­ville: “Look, I’m going to 
go back to township music, I’ma play this music!” And it is still 
/modern/, it is /still/ music for the times, but it’s resurrecting a 
form that is con­nected to the people, a more democratic form. So for 
me, the project of understand­ing music and politics is to discard 
notions of “tradition” and “authenticity,” /except/ in the way that it 
frames the work, the way it frames the commercial limitations and 
possibilities and constraints, the way it frames how critics write about 
it, the way it frames even the way musicians think about the music. And 
I don’t want do deny. Like when Randy says, “I play traditional music,” 
I know what he means by that. It’s not to say that I’m having an 
argument with Randy; but again, it is inseparable from commodification. 
So when we get to the question about “cultural appropriation,” to me, I 
can never separate the issue of “appropri­ation” from the issue of the 

          So copyright matters.

Yeah, it matters. There’s copyright, but there’s also who is 
accumulating money capital as a result of taking someone else’s 
social/cultural capital. This is the classic case of Elvis Presley and 
rock ’n’ roll, the classic case of Pat Boone. Going and saying, “I’m 
going to take this music and I’m going to make a record.” I don’t think 
that there’s any crime in one person, two people, a thousand people, a 
million people borrowing from, drawing from, recreating forms of 
cultural prac­tice or art from another. It’s when you translate that 
into cold cash.


Livelihoods! When you’re denying one group of people a livelihood, or 
you’re milking them for everything. To me, that’s when it matters. The 
whole history of culture and art has been one of appropriation. You can 
hardly find ex­amples where that’s not true. Modern art cannot have 
emerged—/cubism/ could not have emerged—without the discovery of African 
sculpture. And everyone knows that, and no one’s paying reparations to 
those artists. For /stealing/. But theft is only theft when it’s a 
commodity. To me, it is so common—so if you think of some­thing as basic 
as music from the Caribbean. Many elements of Caribbean music come from 
different sources. Some of the sources are Indian. Or Asian. Some of the 
sources are British hymns. There are many sources. And yet it’s still 
creative, /original/ music. Even the idea of the pan, that is, you make 
music out of an oil drum. One could say, “Well, the oil companies, they 
need to get credit for that.” This is about creating new forms of 
culture in a way in which the world becomes your creative palette. It’s 
the /translation/ to money that’s really the problem. Now, people don’t 
agree with me on that. Because some people say cul­tural appropriation 
is appropriation.

          I tend to think closer to how you describe it.
          Nonappropriation is unimag­inable. I don’t understand that at
          all. But I do understand the problem of liveli­hoods, and a
          commodity is going to be sold, and who it is that’s going to
          be receiving the royalties on it, and for what reasons. So if
          somebody signs their name over a formation that they are very
          conscious that they’ve borrowed, but, “Here’s my
          interpretation of it, and now I’m signing my name over it,”
          that’s very troubling.

Or even just not /acknowledge/—what you say in the last part of your 
ques­tion. To even /acknowledge/ where these things come from. That’s 
basic, but we don’t always do that.

          More about how you’ve thought about and analyzed authenticity
          in black culture. In /Yo Mama’s DisFUNKtional!/, you use the
          early experiences of wearing Afros by people like Andrea
          Benton Rushing (at Amherst College, right?) and Helen Hayes
          King to criticize social-scientific and pop-cultural tropes of
          “real” au­thentic blackness. But you also point out the
          pervasive masculinism (and, we might add today, gender
          binarism and heteronormativity) of so much “race man”
          knowl­edge as authentic blackness. That tendency persists to
          this day, although #metoo originated in the work of Tarana
          Burke. And Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, and Pat­risse
          Cullors—three queer women—started the #blm movement, the
          plight of black women’s economic and social realities. And in
          our time queer people of color, particularly in carceral
          settings or homelessness on the streets—those con­ditions as
          spaces of blackness often remain an afterthought, or a
          footnote. In your teaching and writing, how do you enact your
          feminism and your commitment to the primacy of /black women’s/
          material subjective experiences?

That’s an excellent question! When I wrote /Freedom Dreams/, that 
chapter on black feminism was really important to me, and that was 
because I was trying to make the point that black feminists—particularly 
of that second or third wave— offered the best challenge to those who 
were critiquing what was then considered /identitarianism/. That’s 
another story; whether or not it was identity politics as we know it 
today versus what it was then, is different. So anyone who really 
believes in eradicating all forms of oppression and exploitation has to 
begin there, as Anna Julia Cooper said: “When and where I enter, the 
whole race follows.” So I didn’t really have much of a choice. In terms 
of my own teaching and activism, certainly I try my best to support 
feminism writ large and try to live and function in ways in which I 
understand both the /pleasures/ of difference but also the /constraints/ 
and the /limitations/ of difference—that to be queer is an assertion of 
identity, but what also come with it are certain dangers, certain 
constraints. I’m always harping on the idea that the identities that we 
always think of as identities are more than that. That race and gender 
and sexuality are also sites of oppression and marginaliza­tion. That 
difference is not just for difference sake, but difference is produced; 
we need to make a difference. So as Opel Tometti, Alicia Garza, and 
Patrisse Cullors know, when they say Black Lives Matter, they are saying 
ALL black lives matter, every single black life matters, and therefore, 
that means that ALL black lives are under /threat of elimination/. That 
second part is extremely important because it asks how do we defend our 
communities from this kind of violence, par­ticularly violences that 
within our communities we actually enact and defend and protect? To talk 
about what it means to have a queer politics or a feminist politics is 
to recognize that class and race alone—both sites of intense 
struggle—can also be used as ways to mask, hide, occlude forms of 
heteropatriarchy, heteronormativity, denying people identifications and 
freedoms based on those sets of differences. To me, that’s very 
important. And in my teaching, I’m always struggling with how can I be 
better. I’m teaching a course right now in modern African American 
history. We’re talking about the 1870s to the present. And I decided to 
use no textbook, but only biographies and autobiographies. So I’m using 
Assata Shakur; I’m using Keith Gilyard’s book on Louise Thompson 
Patterson; I’m using Jeanne Theoharis’s book on Rosa Parks, /The 
Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks/ (which is a great book); I’m using George 
Lipsitz’s book on Ivory Perry and Mia Bay’s book on Ida B. Wells. So 
four black women and one black man as a way to tell the narrative of 
African American history. And ALL organizers, ALL activists. The 
emphasis is not just on the everyday lives of black people in this 
period but really who were the ones strug­gling to try to transform this 
world. So it becomes intellectual history, it becomes history of 
philosophy, history of social movements. But the point is that four 
black women and one black man can be the foundation for telling the 
story. And that kind of threw the students because they’re like, “Got so 
many black women …”

          Is that right?

Yeah. It’s my experiment. I’ve done it in the past when I’ve used 
text­books; I’ve used Paula Giddings’ book /When and Where I Enter/, 
which is a history of African American women, as the textbook. And then 
fill in with lectures. It’s not enough, but I’m trying to figure out how 
to do that and be better at it. So in “This Battlefield Called Life”—

          Right, in “This Battlefield Called Life,” your essay on black
          feminism, you write, “Radical black feminists have never
          confined their vision to just the eman­cipation of black women
          or women in general, or all black people for that matter.
          Rather, they are theorists and proponents of a radical
          humanism commit­ted to liberating humanity and reconstructing
          social relations across the board.” Key to this claim—with
          which we agree—is what you say in the same paragraph: that
          black radical feminist theory and social engagement is not
          about identity pol­itics. (/How do we get our students to move
          beyond this immersion point?/) Here again a theme so prominent
          in your work emerges. Historically, black radical feminists
          occupy a historical, cultural, and socioeconomic position or
          experience that has necessarily been more expansive, more
          inclusive, more fundamentally opposition­al to the status quo.
          Sounds somewhat like materialist standpoint theory. It is, and
          it isn’t. Or it begins there, but it leads elsewhere, goes
          elsewhere. In this brilliant essay, you refer to the important
          “choice” in the late 1970s by Barbara Smith, Demita Frazier,
          and Beverly Smith to be revolutionary rather than
          accommoda­tionist in their politics because they recognized
          intersectionality, complexity, con­tradiction in/as identity.
          Identity is descriptive and may, as a point estimate, offer a
          snapshot of who, what, where we are. But
          /intersectionality/—the fluidity and inde­terminacy of
          identity—is how we live our experience. We refer to this
          important understanding in terms of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion
          of intersectionality mostly these days. It allows us to see
          that quests for a pure, ancestral community within ourselves
          and in the form of our families or communities or versions of
          “us” are mythical quests for Eden. But given the multifaceted
          and dynamic forms of social movements (think Combahee River
          Collective and its insistent class focus on resource
          deprivation for black women and black families) in the
          twentieth century, this concept /intersectionality/ also
          reminds us that nonviolent (military, do­mestic, imperial),
          nonracial, nonsexist, nonhomophobic social relations in the
          family, community, schools, public life are not possible in a
          capitalist society! That is a profound vision of
          /revolutionary/, not reformist, radical black feminism. At the
          end of the essay, you frame the question as follows: “Can we
          all get along long enough to make a revolution?” Rather than
          these fits-and-starts reforms.

I forgot I wrote that [/laughter all around/].

          So I guess what we’re trying to get at in that question has to
          do with radical black feminism’s /revolutionary insistence/ as
          a challenge to us.

Exactly. You know, it’s so /interesting/ that you bring that out. The 
women that I end up writing about, like Barbara Smith, for example, and 
Angela, they are in some ways—what they are arguing for is the antidote 
to Afro-pessimism. Because for them there’s no question about the 
rapaciousness of capitalism. They begin there. They call themselves 
socialists. The Combahee Collective, they don’t play. They say, we’re 
socialists, but we’re not /just/ socialists. Socialism is part of our 
agenda, but they’re also saying that if we’re able to seize the state on 
this day and simply implement a form of state socialism, that would not 
resolve the contradictions of heteropatriarchy, the contradictions of 
racism. These things have to be struggled through because they’re all 
coconstitutive; they emerge together. And have to be eliminated 
together. Even our definition of freedom can’t be limited to basic 
biological needs. Freedom is also about freedom of sexuality, freedom to 
be with the partners we want, freedom to rethink our social relations 
all together. And that makes them /deeply/ revolutionary, 
ironi­cally—tied to the “young Marx” in some ways. They also were 
advocates of a solid­arity politics. They felt like they needed to build 
alliances with other groups, other movements, whether it’s movements 
around reproductive rights, welfare rights, the labor unions. And that 
goes against the grain of narrower thinking, saying, you know, the 
concerns of our community are the only concerns that we have to be 
apprised of. And they were internationalists as well! There’s another 
group I write about in that chapter, which is still somewhat of a 
mystery, but they were an amazing group of women based in Mount Vernon 
who put out a book called /Lessons from the Damned/—we’re trying to get 
that reprinted actually. Verso is trying to do it. /Lessons from the 
Damned/ is this book that is black feminist practice /laid out/ 
In the clearest terms possible. These were black women working in the 
community, a low-income community, around housing rights, welfare 
rights, and they got together everyone they’re working with—young kids, 
elders, people of all ages, all poor people—and said, look, write about 
the oppressions you’re dealing with, write about what you want to see. 
Without an author, per se.

          “The Damned.”

/The Damned/. The Damned is the author. You can’t get more radical than 
that! Because that’s an example of /praxis/. That is, groups of people 
coming together to theorize their condition, to think through what’s the 
next step, and then to write it down in ways that are full of 
contradictions, but contradictions that are not re­solved or disappear, 
but open up new possibilities. And that is the best because, to go back 
to the question of intersectionality, intersectionality is used a lot 
today; I’m not always clear what people /mean/ by that. Oftentimes, 
intersectionality is treated as compound identities. That is, I’ve got 
this list of identities … but there’s no inter­sections taking place! 
But intersectionality, from what I understood, from not just Kim 
Crenshaw, but the people who preceded her … when the Third World Women’s 
Alliance was formed, and people like the woman who wrote /Triple 
Jeopardy/—Fran Beal! So Fran Beal, who’s a long-distance runner, who is 
one of the central figures in the Black Radical Congress years later; 
Fran Beal, who’s someone who comes out of the Left, comes out of 
SNCC—the way she and others were thinking about “triple jeopardy” is 
that not only are we dealing with these compound oppressions, but those 
oppressions are, again, coconstitutive, codetermining, they are 
inseparable from each other. We need to build deeper al­liances in order 
to fight them all, to develop a political framework, a political 
cri­tique, that can address all of them together. Because they don’t 
operate separately, like as a list. They operate as one. That’s the idea 
I think behind “triple jeopardy.” We’ve got to figure out a way to get 
back to that. “Can we all get along long enough to make a revolution?” 
That requires what we were calling an “empathic leap” or a “leap of 
solidarity.” That is, for those who are not black women to basically 
/not/ claim to walk in their shoes, but to /listen/. To hear things and 
take them at their face value. That the issues around reproductive 
rights, reproductive rights defined by having the freedom to actually 
have children rather than facing forced sterilization; to be safe in the 
streets, so that when we have the force of the State and individuals 
treating us as vulnerable—and therefore, as vulnerable to sexual 
violence and other forms of violence—these are the things that are 
urgent. And if women and queer people say these are the urgent issues, 
then we’ve got to stand behind them and support in solidarity /fully/ as 
/comrades/, instead of /allies/.

          That’s good. We have that conversation too; one of us says, “I
          don’t think of myself as an ‘ally,’ but I certainly do think
          of myself as a comrade: always.” But that’s a whole other
          thing. Shall we move on?

          We read online that your current book project is a biography
          of Grace Halsell, the white woman from Texas who worked as a
          journalist, served as a speechwriter for President Johnson,
          and was famous for her book about racial passing, /Soul
          Sister/. You’ve written eloquently about why her career
          interests you. In the essay we found online about this
          project, you describe how you first learned of her existence,
          and then much later why you decided to write a biogra­phy of
          her life and work. You write, “In Grace Halsell I found my
          life’s work—”

          I didn’t know whether that was hyperbole or not.

Yeah, that was hyperbole [/laughter/].

          [/continuing/] “—the perfect subject to tell a profoundly
          American and global story about four forces that shaped our
          modern world: race, sex, war, and empire.” Later you say, “I
          am still searching for Grace Halsell, whose truths and fears,
          lives and loves lay fragmented in a vast sea of archival boxes
          awaiting reconstruction. As I work through the pieces of her
          life I am reminded of the considerable impact Grace has had on
          me,” and then you go on to talk about your first trip to
          Palestine “where what I witnessed fundamentally changed my
          life.” How did being in Pales­tine researching Grace Halsell
          change your life fundamentally? How is freedom struggle—the
          quest for human dignity and justice—“global”?

I wrote that piece for a particular journal for an organization that she 
was very much a part of—yes, some of that is hyperbole. But when I said 
“life’s work,” I was thinking that much of what she ends up doing 
connects a lot of things I’m interested in. I’m interested in indigenous 
struggles and decoloniza­tion; I’m interested in black movements in 
modern ghettoes in the 1960s; cold war politics. So she ends up being 
kind of my Zelig. Going to all these hot spots. At first it was a book 
about following her to tell a larger story—that’s why I call it “An 
Intimate History of the American Century.” But then her own personality, 
which is kind of complicated, I have to say—it’s not always a happy 
story—gets in the way of me telling that story. The punchline, though, 
is that she goes from being a New York Times bestseller and a very 
well-known journalist to being persona non grata, all because of 
Palestine. When I went to Palestine in January 2012, I didn’t go there 
to research Grace. That was just a side trip. I went there because I was 
part of a delegation; I’m on the board for the U.S. Academic and 
Cultural Boycott of Israel. I’ve been in­volved with them for a while. 
While I was there, I did interview some people who knew her. So there’s 
two things I can link to the trip to Palestine in terms of your 
question: “How is freedom struggle—the quest for human dignity and 
justice—‘global’?” One is that writing the book on Grace gave me an 
intimate, bird’s-eye view of the Asian theater in the postwar period, 
Latin America after 1959, the ghettoes and reservations and barrios of 
North America—she hit them all. Ghettoes, reservations, barrios, and the 
border are these hot spots not only of day-to-day drudgery, 
dispossession, and violence, but hot spots for revolutionary 
possibility. Like celebrations around 1968, it made me realize in doing 
this work and revisiting that time that the movements that erupted in 
these spots were revolutionary movements; they were not inter­ested in 
reform. Reform was not their agenda. And part of it has to do with the 
fact that their main opposition was to /liberals/. It was /liberals/ who 
waged the war in Vietnam; it was /liberals/ who were overseeing under 
Lyndon Johnson the inva­sion of the Dominican Republic and what was 
happening in Indonesia; it was /liberals/ who were waging a war on 
poverty that did not consider the structural dimensions of capitalism 
and, instead, thought that education and programs would somehow solve 
that problem. The National Welfare Rights Organization that emerges, 
they’re fighting liberals. It was liberals. It reminds me of the 
impor­tance of capturing that radical sense of possibility. The 
struggles that we think of as identity struggles, like the American 
Indian Movement, the Brown Berets, the Young Lords, the Black 
Panthers—they actually were working together. That level of solidarity 
across the board: Japanese-Americans coming out in solidarity with the 
people occupying Alcatraz Island; the Black Panthers supporting 
Pales­tine and Iranian students who can’t return home as a result of the 
Shah; /socialist/-feminists who are taking an antiracist position; as 
if, somehow, ALL the white people are just, like, worthless. And so much 
of socialist-feminism in Chicago, the Socialist-Feminist Union—and these 
organizations, they’re thinking about al­liances across the board. To 
remind us, they were all basically anticapitalist— they were not for 
fixing the system. And for all of them it was global. It was Native 
Americans and indigenous people around the world; it was black people’s 
struggle along with what was happening in Africa and the Caribbean. 
Visiting Palestine was important for me. And this is the second point. 
Because in this particular era, where people begin talking about 
decolonial or decoloni­alization as a metaphor, you cannot go to 
Palestine and see a set of metaphors, it’s not a metaphor …

          There’s nothing metaphorical about the last 2–3 weeks [April
          2018], holy shit!

Right? Not at all! You see straight colonial violence. You see 
disposses­sion. We were visiting people in East Jerusalem who were being 
forced out of their homes. For no other reason than pretexts, like, if 
you decide to build another room, that’s a violation of a housing code, 
and they just evict people. They’re bulldozing olive trees! And now 
they’re just shooting Palestinians from 300 yards away: snipers. It’s 
just the cost of elimination.

          Exploding bullets. And think about it. At a fence?!

Yeah, and that was shocking!

          And talk about liberals! Our liberal press simply won’t even
          acknowledge it. It won’t even make the news. We’ve been
          following this.

Right, and so to me, Palestine is one example, but Palestine is a very 
im­portant one to remind us of ongoing colonialism, the violence that 
people are ex­periencing on an everyday basis, both in Gaza and also the 
West Bank. And again, I return to what I feel like is a very dangerous 
trend, a kind of withdrawal, at least from my community, of people 
saying, “Well, you know we don’t really have time to fight for Palestine. 
Palestine is 7,000 miles away. And, besides, Palestinians harbor 
antiblackness, too, so therefore we shouldn’t be in solidarity.” Now, 
I’ve heard that more than once.

          Is that right?

Yes. And I’m like, okay, how does that make any sense? So you’re saying 
that Palestinians shouldn’t ask support from black people because there 
are some blacks who harbor Islamophobia? And trust me there are a lot of 
folks who are Islamophobic! So does it go both ways? Our support and 
solidarity with people who are struggling for human dignity and justice 
should not depend on their knowing anything about us! /Solidarity is not 
a market exchange/. It’s not, /you/ need to give us /your/ love and 
we’ll give you /ours/! Whether it’s the Rohingya, whether it’s the Roma, 
whether it’s the Palestinians, we’ve got to be able to say, this is not 
acceptable! And I’ll give you a really good example of this. I’ll never 
forget when Obama was debating Romney, it was the second campaign. At 
one point, Obama said something like we shouldn’t be exporting jobs and 
buying commod­ities from China because labor is so cheap. So his point 
was that the Chinese pay workers slave wages, and therefore we shouldn’t 
buy from them. /Nothing/ about it’s /unacceptable/ for /anyone/ around 
the world to receive slave wages! It wasn’t even an issue. The issue was 
China is bad; we’re not going to deal with them. Let /them/ pay the 
slave wages. And it wasn’t even about paying American workers higher 
wages. It was, we’re not going to do business with them. I remember 
talking to my stu­dents about this: there is something called the 
International Labor Organization, the ILO, which is totally weak. But 
the idea that there should be an international standard: /that/ should 
be the position of labor! There should be an international standard. Not 
that we’re going to “bring jobs back home,” but /a living wage for the 
world/ should be our fallback position! That should be basic. But that 
is incon­ceivable even among progressive people I know. And that gets at 
the essence of what it means to fight at the global level for human 
dignity and justice.

          The Palestinian situation is … I have no words for it. But one
          thing which relates to your last point. My family is Jewish.
          My father was a Sephardic Jew who grew up in that part of the
          world before he came to the United States. And it’s
          /inconceivable/ to /me/ that any Jew in this world would not
          be pro-Palestinian. You can’t go through the experiences that
          Jews have gone through and not under­stand. And that’s what’s
          so shocking. Because some of what you say is exactly right.
          Some say, “Arabs hate us”; so fucking what? Or, “They don’t
          recognize the Holo­caust.” They don’t recognize the Holocaust,
          therefore you withhold your solidarity? What?! It is really
          clear what role the State of Israel plays in relationship to
          Pales­tinians. /That’s/ what matters. That’s what counts. The
          rest of it isn’t the point.

Exactly. And the State of Israel also had to shore up its support from 
Sephardic Jews because they were the oppressed under Ashkenazi 
leadership. The Sephardic or Arab Jews were considered Arabs. They were 
in line with the Palestinian Christians. You know, like, “We’re all 
second-class citizens.” And you probably know this already, but the 
Black Panther party of Israel was Sephardic Jews; they weren’t 
Palestinian Muslims. They were Arab Jews. They were formed in ’71; there 
were laws passed that targeted Sephardic Jews that treated them as 
second-class citizens. ’67 happens, and right around that time—the Black 
Panther party originally was formed after that, but it’s also the time 
that the Israeli state realizes that they need to shore up support. So 
they begin to incor­porate Sephardic Jews more and more into the 
ruling—not the higher, but the middle ruling group, as police officers; 
same thing they do with the Ethiopians.

          And they become some of the most reactionary elements in Israel.

It’s a really interesting question, a really interesting history. But, 
as time is short, let’s jump into another question.

          We can jump to Cedric Robinson. Are you working on a biography
          on him?

Here’s the thing: I was asked to. His widow, Elizabeth, was open to me 
doing it. At first I was, “Oh yeah, I’d love to.” But then I thought to 
myself: /I got so many obligations/. I could deal with his life story 
because I’ve done a lot of research on that. It’s all the other stuff 
I’m not smart enough to do because that dude was one of the smartest 
people I’ve ever encountered. So I’m trying to con­vince someone to do 
it; I was going to do it with someone, but that fell through. But it’s 
going to be done at some point. I jotted down notes on “racial 
capitalism”; it occurred to me, I don’t typically use that term.

          You don’t typically use it, but we saw some talks on YouTube,
          and that struck us.

There’s a story behind that, but let’s get into the question.

          So we regard you as one of the most important radical
          historians of our time. This is our view; hey, man, we read
          your stuff! For readers who may not be as fa­miliar with your
          work, what would you say is Marxist about your work? How is
          your work influenced by Marxian tradition? Are there specific
          Marx-inspired thinkers other than Cedric Robinson who have
          influenced you? There’s a history that you just explained about
          your involvement in the Communist Workers Party, but in any
          event, it would be useful for anybody reading this journal to
          know what your connection is to Marx.

Thanks to my sister Makani Themba, I came up /reading/ Marx. My pathway 
wasn’t through anyone except I remember one summer, 1980, when I read 
/Capital/, volume 1, just by myself. Just went to the library every day 
and read half a chapter a day and got through it. Of course, I read the 
/Communist Manifesto/, and then I was reading the /Critique of Political 
Economy/, I started reading volume 2 [of /Capital/], read the early 
/Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts/, read the /Eighteenth Brumaire/ …

          You did this on your own? Did you play sports at all?
          [/Laughter all around/.] Good god!

And this is the transition from high school to college. My sister was 
reading this stuff, and she would tell me what to read. When I got to 
college, I became involved with different organizations. Of course, I 
took my first black studies course. Like most people who take black 
studies for the first time, you’re incensed with all the things you don’t 
know. Now, I had grown up in a household where I knew some things, but 
in the context of college, it’s a little bit different. And then I end 
up hooking up with a brother who was the local organizer for the 
All-African Peoples Revolutionary Party.

          Where are we? L.A.?

This is 1980 in Long Beach. Cal State, Long Beach. At the time, tuition 
was $90 a semester. So I did a study group with him. He was the only 
person. He was trying to organize, but nobody else would join him. We 
did a study group, and we were reading Nkrumah, Fanon, some Marx. And 
then my college history teacher—I had two teachers who were very 
important to me. One, Jack Stuart, who was a former Trotskyist and had 
known Bayard Rustin—you know, Rustin’s lover was a leading Trotskyist at 
some point. Jack Stuart went to Columbia University, got a Ph.D., and 
wrote about socialists. And then another professor, Leo Rifkin, who had 
become a Rockefeller Republican but came out of the Communist Party and 
was still sympathetic. He was a Republican /and/ sympathetic about the 
Communist Party because he had nostalgia. In fact, he had one glass eye, 
so he reminded me of the guy from /Invisible Man/, Brother Jack, who has 
this one eye. But these are two Jewish radical scholars at a state 
university who took me in. And when they saw I was interest­ed, they 
began to introduce radical stuff to me. And it was Jack who said, “I 
have a study group you should go to”: it was the Peace and Freedom Party 
in Long Beach. So imagine: I am nineteen years old, I am the only black 
person in the room, and everyone there is over 60! I’m not making this 
up! So my introduction is a very unusual one. I’ve got my All-African 
Peoples Revolutionary Party study group over here, and I’ve got my Peace 
and Freedom Party study group over there. And we’re reading Marx, and 
we’re reading some Lenin. So, as a result, I began to read as much as I 
could and got deeply involved. As to who I was reading, I was reading 
Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, and Trotsky, because the idea of “permanent 
revolution” made perfect sense to me. I didn’t even know enough to know 
that there was a beef! I thought that, well, Trotsky’s one of the great 
thinkers. I only later figured it out. And then it became Raya 
Dunayevskaya, then Grace Lee Boggs, and then C. L. R. James. And soon, 
everything I can get I identified with Marxism. Because, for me, Marxism 
was not a set of laws. It wasn’t a set of princi­ples. It was a set of 
ideas rooted in three things. One, the idea of historical materialism— 
that is, that people make their own history, but under particular 
material conditions that constrain and limit possibility. But also, 
within that, the working classes, the oppressed classes—by working 
classes I meant all forms of labor, from the enslaved to the serfs to 
the proletariat—they are making history in motion, they are the motive 
force. Class struggle is the motive force. So, yeah, historical 
materialism; two, class struggle is the motive force. And the third 
thing was simply thinking dialectically. What does it mean to think 
dialectically, for contradictions not to be resolved, but possible 
nuggets for revelation? For revelation to understand where things are 
moving, not to predict the future, but to understand how things 
unfolded? And how things unfolded—think­ing of these three things: class 
struggle, historical materialism, and dialectical processes —all reveal 
what is /hidden/ from public view. So Marxism was my path to history. 
Because it became my way of understanding that to study history is to 
try to reveal what you can’t see.

          Those things that are hidden.

Those things that are hidden! That was key for me. And ALL this before 
/Black Marxism/ came along! So we’re talking about a period from about 
1979; ’83, /Black Marxism/ is published. And to go to the foreword of 
/Black Marxism/, I talk about the impact that /Black Marxism/ had on me. 
By the time I got the book, I was the book review editor at Ufahamu, 
which was a graduate student journal—I did my B.A. in three years, so I 
was very young. I was twenty-one years old when I started grad­uate 
school, and was reading as much as I could. I remember reading Rosa 
Luxem­burg’s /Accumulation of Capital/ at the time. So in pops /Black 
Marxism/, which I received as a book to review. I didn’t know Cedric 
Robinson. And I read it; it took many times reading it to grasp what he 
was getting at, because it was quite a radical interpretation, which is 
actually a /critique/ of Marxism. He comes out of it less a Marxist than 
someone who is trying to think dialectically but sees Marxism, again, 
not as a set of principles or laws that are airtight, that people 
debate, but rather as a way of thinking about the world. So his critique 
of Marxism is a way of advancing the basic principles of dialectical 
thinking but then also shifting historical materialism, into which he 
incorporates or at least ac­knowledges other dimensions—cultural 
dimensions, spiritual dimensions. He also argues /against/ the idea of 
the proletariat as the universal subject. So that threw me; that made me 
think really hard about what was I doing, and why. By the time I got to 
that book, I had already begun to think about /Hammer and Hoe/ as a 
project. My original project was a comparative study of the Left in 
South Africa and the U.S. South. That was my original plan. And I 
couldn’t do it because I couldn’t get into the country; it was 1985–6. 
So /Black Marxism/ became a working model for writing /Hammer and Hoe/. 
But Ididn’t understand the book well enough for it to be a full working 
model. So reading Cedric did not lead to my abandonment of Marxism. It 
just meant a more critical stance towards certain contradictions in what 
was becoming Marxism. And I was in an organization at the time—like all 
these antirevisionist organizations that all claimed to be the pure, 
true, authentic Marxist group. The way you measure … because … you 
remember those days …

          Oh yeah.

The way you measure your fidelity to Marxism is how close you are to 
Lenin. The idea of being antirevisionist, saying we’re not going to 
revise because we’re close to Lenin. So the Maoists: “No, we’re closer 
to Lenin.” The Trotskyists: “No, we’re closer to Lenin.” Everybody’s 
trying to be close to Lenin. And so, of course, we’re reading Lenin. And 
then I realize at some point, wait a second, this is hemming me in too much.

          Let me ask you about that. When I first started working on
          Marxism, it was pretty orthodox, but I did become aware in the
          late ’60s that there were different traditions. As you say,
          orthodoxy existed then and had fairly strict ideas—you could
          be an orthodox Trotskyist, you could be an orthodox Maoist,
          and so forth. But there was also the idea that there were
          “traditions” and there were options. And that not all Marxisms
          were economic determinist, and not all of them believed that
          culture didn’t matter. Some of them in fact emphasized
          culture. That’s what I was interested in. When you were
          reading Cedric Robinson, was it also in your head that there
          were traditions that still called themselves Marxist that were
          alter­native options?

Yeah. Exactly. It was an interesting time, though. It is true—because I 
was reading all kinds of stuff. I was reading Eurocommunism. There’s a 
wing of the British Labor Party—what’s his name, the father …


Ralph Miliband was writing stuff I was reading. There were traditions 
coming out of Latin America. There was also the moment when liberation 
the­ology was actually very popular. Especially living in L.A. where a 
lot of our work was in the sanctuary movement. So all these things 
existed, and I was really in­terested in them. But I had certain 
blinders. And I’ll tell you what they were. I was at that point a 
/nationalist/. In the old-school way. So part of coming to /Hammer and 
Hoe/ was trying to figure out, what does it mean to be a black 
com­munist? Are there movements that incorporate both black nationalism 
/and/ Marxism? So I was familiar with different traditions, but I was 
trying to figure out what does a /black nationalist Marxism/ look like? 
Part of my attraction to the CWP and to Workers Viewpoint was that they 
had more people of color than other organizations. It was ironically a 
kind of identity politics—the limita­tions of that—which drew us, my 
sister and I, to the organization. Come to dis­cover that our decision 
to join had everything to do also with this idea that you can’t just 
talk Marxism, you gotta join a party! Even if the party is not perfect, 
you can’t be an armchair Marxist. So I ended up joining a party, and, 
for all the limitations and contradictions, the CWP was the one I 
joined. This was a crucial moment when joining a party seemed 
fundamental. And it made perfect sense, because think about the 
trajectory. You have ’68, ’69, the revolu­tionary youth movement splits. 
And a bunch of people say, “We’ve got to become Marxists, go work in the 
factories.” So you’ve got the industrial concen­tration movement in the 
1970s happening. More parties are being formed. The Greensboro massacre 
happens in ’79, which then steels people to think, hey, we’re in a 
fascist moment. So we definitely need an /underground/ party. The 
elec­tion of Reagan, the Greensboro massacre, the failure of the 
industrial concentra­tion movement, meant that we’ve got to build 
parties, and the best way to do it is through antirevisionist 
organizing. So /that/ became a kind of fetter on all the openings that 
were taking place. And the irony for all the people who talk bad about 
the academy—and I’m not one, because I think there’s much of value in 
the academy (though I talk bad about some things)—was that it was 
stepping out of the antirevisionist organizations and returning back to 
a deeper reading of Marxism and critiques of Marxism, which included 
Cedric Robinson’s book, that opened up the path for me to even deeper 
thinking about some of these things …

          Throughout your work, there are numerous examples that take
          the form of your pointing to seeming contradictions, often in
          your telling of an event or feature in the lives of your human
          subjects. How would you describe your use of contradictions or
          perhaps paradox in your writing? Do you regard it as a
          neces­sary component of historical narrative unfolding? Are
          contradictions decisive nodal points in the lives of your
          subjects? Is contradiction a fundamental principle of
          discursive construction and legibility? Do you use it to call
          attention to the frailty of all human actions? Do you see
          contradiction as part of a broader commitment to write history

Contradiction is central to all of my work, partly because of my own 
reading and training as a Marxist to think dialectically. My own 
political work when I was in my late teens and early twenties compelled 
me to try to make sense of Hegel by way of Marx and Engels, Lenin, and 
C. L. R. James. But before I talk about this, I have to say that the 
discovery of contradiction was also intuitive—the result of both my 
experience growing up as a young kid in Harlem, single mother, poor, and 
thus living every day in an antagonistic relation­ship with the 
institutions surrounding us: schools, police, social workers, etc. These 
were not just everyday contradictions—my first-grade teacher forcing kids 
who acted up in my predominantly black and Latino class to stand in the 
wastepaper basket and say “I am garbage” as punishment, or the daily 
treatment we received from cops, school security guards, store owners, 
who treated seven-and eight-year­-old kids as if they were about to 
commit a crime. More than that, my mom, sister, and I seemed like we 
were always at some demonstration protesting those very in­stitutions. I 
have vivid memories of marching around during a cold evening in front of 
P.S. 28 chanting “Overcrowded! Overcrowded!” to draw attention to the 
condition of our school. Many parents did not show up; some teachers 
felt embat­tled but did not have the support of parents for various 
reasons—having to do with fear, race (many white teachers), time (had to 
work long hours), and the school’s failure to engage the community. 
These all pointed to contradictions whose reso­lution led to new 
strategies, new coalitions, and new problems.

To the philosophical aspect: when I was nineteen and a rising sophomore, 
I spent an entire summer just reading Marxist stuff and precedents (like 
Hegel) on my own. I had just decided to change my major to history, so I 
was obsessed with understanding what was later called the “materialist 
conception of history.” I kept spiral notebooks, so I’m now drawing on 
these to convey what I learned: Marx’s reading of Hegel’s dialectic 
provided a radical way of understanding histor­ical change that was not 
linear or evolutionary but revolutionary. This was based on two 
premises: that all things are contradictory in themselves, as Hegel 
would put it, and that “contradiction is the source of all movement and 
life.” Dialectics for Hegel was a means to think through opposing 
conceptions or ideas—“thesis” and “antithesis”—in order to move to a 
higher and deeper level of analysis, a new “synthesis.” This is not 
about coming to some middle ground, as in contem­porary liberalism, but 
the outcome generally results in a radical break from old ideas. Perhaps 
more importantly, for me at least, was Hegel’s lessons that when we look 
at individual things and phenomena, we see only the differences between 
them, and they stand as discrete entities. But looking dialectically, we 
can see how they are all part of the same process; they acquire meaning 
once we see them in dialectical tension, as moments in a process of change.

Of course, for Marx the point of dialectical method was not to 
understand the battle of ideas, as if philosophy were above the material 
world, but rather to com­prehend reality, society, the historical 
development of classes and social relations. This is not to say ideas 
don’t matter, but rather they are shaped by (I wouldn’t say determined 
by) the material conditions of people and their relation to one another. 
For Marx, the problems of philosophy cannot be solved by passive 
interpretation of the world as it is but only by remolding the world to 
resolve the philosophical contradictions inherent in it. Struggle 
against/within one’s reality produces the possibility of new philosophy; 
action changes reality, which then demands analy­sis, which in turn has 
material force. Even more than his eleventh thesis on Feuer­bach, I was 
influenced by this quote from Marx’s /Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of 
Right”/: “The weapon of criticism obviously cannot replace the criticism 
of weapons. Material force must be overthrown by material force. But 
theory also becomes a material force once it has gripped the masses” 
(Marx, 1970, 137).

          In part 1 of this interview, we asked if you would trace your
          own historical connections, as you see them, to Marxist
          intellectual traditions. In addition, we asked if there were
          writers not necessarily connected to Marxism whose work you
          felt was foundational and influential to your own thinking and
          writing. We found your answers in part 1 edifying and
          illuminating. Would you be so kind as to fill in a few more of
          the remaining gaps for /RM/’s audience?

My response to your previous question above begins to answer this one. 
To put it bluntly, my historical work has always been about class 
struggle in the modern world—mostly in the United States. A modern world 
is necessarily a racial and gen­dered world. There are too many 
influences to name all, but there was a point when I tried to read as 
much as I could in Marxist theory, and I wasn’t concerned about 
ideological camps. This isn’t evident explicitly in my historical 
writing since I made a concerted effort to draw on theory to understand 
the movement of people, the con­ditions of their lives, and the horizon 
of possibility rather than to use stories to engage theoretical debates. 
So much of that is submerged.

I can, however, point to the chief Marxist authors and texts that shaped 
my own thinking, besides Marx and Engels and Lenin. I had taken to Rosa 
Luxemburg, /The Accumulation of Capital/ (specifically her insights into 
imperialism); Antonio Gramsci, /Selections from the Prison Notebooks/; 
C. L. R. James, too much to name, but notably /Notes on Dialectics/ and 
essays in /Spheres of Existence/ and /Facing Reality/ (co­authored with 
Grace Lee Boggs and Cornelius Castoriadis), among other things. Grace 
Lee Boggs and James Boggs, with whom C. L. R. James worked in the 1950s 
and early 1960s, were also both very important in my own thinking. I got 
to know Grace very well, and she became both an interlocutor and tutor. 
I’ve dis­cussed her influence on me in my introduction to the reissue of 
Grace’s memoir, /Living for Change/, so I won’t repeat that here.

As I think back, my introduction to Marxism is partly indebted to Jack 
Stuart, my history professor at Long Beach State. A former Trotskyist 
who taught a wonderful course on the history of Western Marxism, Jack 
hipped me to the /Monthly Review/ crowd. Besides becoming a regular 
subscriber (I also had a subscription to the /African Communist/, the 
journal of the South African Communist Party!), I read Paul Sweezy and 
Paul Baran (/Theory of Capitalist Development/; /Monopoly Capital/, 
etc.), Harry Braverman, and Harry Magdoff; Walter Rodney, /How Europe 
Underde­veloped Africa/, which opened up to me a whole lot of 
underdevelopment and dependency theorists—Samir Amin, Andre Gunder 
Frank, and so on. In fact, it is worth mentioning that I went to 
graduate school at UCLA with the intention of studying the political 
economy of colonialism in Africa, specifically commodity production in 
Mozambique. I’d written a prize-winning undergraduate thesis at Long 
Beach State titled “Structural Change and Underdevelopment in Niger,” 
about the transition to groundnut production and its impact on the economy.

And there were others, notably historians whose work became models for 
me: W. E. B. Du Bois’s /Black Reconstruction/, C. L. R. James’s /The 
Black Jacobins/, and Walter Rodney’s /How Europe Underdeveloped Africa/ 
were the holy trinity of texts and drove me into the discipline and into 
the revolution.

Actually, there were many texts whose impact was equally profound and 
deeply grounded in what might be considered a black Marxist tradition. 
We sleep on the late 1970s and early 1980s, but I’m fortunate to have 
come of age politically during a renaissance of radical work. From 1980 
until 1983, I was taking black studies in college and for a brief period 
participated in a study group organized by the All-African People’s 
Revolutionary Party. I was a Black socialist in the making, trying to 
navigate between my commitment to a politics of black 
self-determina­tion, a Marxist critique of political economy, and a kind 
of fuzzy recognition that there is something more than material 
conditions and exploitation driving our movement. Of course, we read 
Fanon and Kwame Nkrumah and Kwame Ture, Amilcar Cabral, and others. On 
my own I read Aimé Césaire, Michael Löwy, Stuart Hall, Oliver Cox, 
Clarence Munford, and Chinweizu’s still underap­preciated text, /The 
West and the Rest of Us/.

There is Cornel West and his entire body of work. But, for me, /Prophesy 
Deliv­erance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity/ proved 
formative for under­standing the ways in which working-class African 
Americans melded Marxism and prophetic Christianity, which laid the 
ideological and cultural basis for the Party—especially in rural 
Alabama. This deeply historical and incredibly powerful book engaged 
questions of spirituality and black ontology in the context of slavery 
and racism in the United States. Like Cedric Robinson—he begins with an 
exegesis on the emergence, development, and decline of European 
modernity and then ex­amines the consequences of excluding Native 
American and African culture and thought from the formation of American 
social order. He then considers the con­tours and meaning of the 
emergence of a unique Afro-American culture and its en­gagement with 
modernity and postmodernity. The core of the book, however, is his 
brilliant examination of a dialogical encounter between black prophetic 
Christian­ity and Marxism, producing in the end what he deemed an 
Afro-American revolu­tionary Christianity.

Manning Marable’s impact, as a Black Marxist and engaged intellectual, 
cannot be overstated. I first read /Blackwater: Historical Studies in 
Race, Class Consciousness, and Revolution/ when it came out in 1981. The 
essays in it explored the history of black struggles for freedom, 
tracing the roots of contemporary social movements to slavery and 
Reconstruction, to black faith communities and battles for land and 
economic independence, all the way through the civil rights movement and 
urban rebellions. This was no academic book; Marable proposed what he 
called a “Common Program for a Third Reconstruction” rooted in a 
politics of transfor­mation as distinct from (or perhaps the dialectical 
synthesis of) integration (civil rights) and separatism (black 
nationalism). But it drew on the history of the Bolshe­vik Revolution! 
It was modeled on the mass of workers and soldiers represented in the 
Petrograd Soviet and the middle-class parliamentary opposition in the 
Provi­sional Government. This analogy of “dual power” that he envisioned 
might emerge under a Third Reconstruction, as a transitional stage to 
dismantling the racist state under socialism. That futuristic, 
imaginative move always stuck with me, and rarely do Marable’s admirers 
return to that early text.

The work that left the biggest impression on me was /How Capitalism 
Underdevel­oped Black America/ (1983), a critical treatise on the 
ravages of late capitalism, state violence, incarceration, and 
patriarchy on the life chances and struggles of black working-class men 
and women. That book, I would contend, influenced an entire generation to 
focus our energies on the terrain of the prison-industrial complex, 
anti-Klan work, labor organizing, alternatives to black capitalism, and 
challenging patriarchy—personally and politically. Just reading the 
preface stopped me in my tracks: “The intellectual who makes a public 
commitment to transform society, to smash white racism and the 
inherently exploitative system laughingly described as ‘free enterprise’ 
by its defenders, cannot plead his/her case in muted grey tones. For the 
Black masses to ‘return to their own history,’ we must begin by 
rewriting that history—but not in the language, style or outlook of the 
system” (Marable 2015, xlvii).

And then there was Angela Davis, the thinker, not the icon. Her book 
/Women, Race, and Class/ was standard reading in my black leftist study 
groups. The essays examined the intersection of race, gender, and class 
and taught me/us a great deal about the barriers to building a 
class-conscious, antiracist feminist movement over the past century. She 
also looks at the intersection of forces oppressing women, including 
various forms of sexual violence. It was important to read Davis at that 
time since her insights into reproduction became an entrée into the 
debates that were raging in the 1970s around reproduction, class, and 
patriar­chy among Marxist feminists, notably Silvia Federici, who is one 
of my biggest in­fluences, but also Marlene Dixon, Shulamith Firestone, 
Maria Mies, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, Lise Vogel, Juliet 
Mitchell, Heidi Hartmann, Michèle Barrett, Zillah R. Eisenstein, and 
others I can’t recall now.

A number of historians working within a Marxist framework directly 
shaped my own work, many of whom published in /The History Workshop 
Journal/, /Radical History Review/, and /Science and Society/. Among 
them were E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, George Rudé, and the like. But 
of that next generation, the most im­portant for me were David Roediger 
(/The Wages of Whiteness/) and Peter Linebaugh (/The London Hanged/ and 
many other books, including /The Many-Headed Hydra/, which he coauthored 
with Marcus Rediker, another influence). I’ve written about Linebaugh in 
several places, most notably in an essay in /Monthly Review/, titled 
“Dead Labor,” back in 1993, which demonstrated how his book /The London 
Hanged/ turned my entire understanding of history and historical method 
upside down.

Finally, I have to mention the late George Rawick, who became a mentor 
to me in the spring of 1987 while he was visiting at UCLA. He sat with 
me for hours and schooled me in ways to interpret working-class 
movements, culture, and resis­tance, and he introduced me to some of his 
groundbreaking essays, such as “The Historical Roots of Black 
Liberation” (1968), “Notes on the American Working Class” (1968), and 
“Working-Class Self-Activity” (1969). By paying greater attention to 
Rawick’s concept of “self-activity,” Alabama’s Communists opened up 
another world of politics, since I found that most of the people the 
Party fought for did not join insurgent organizations. They fought back 
as individ­uals or groups, often using strategies intended to cover 
their tracks. Rawick also insisted I read /Class and Culture in Cold War 
America: A Rainbow at Midnight/ by George Lipsitz. Published in 1981, 
the book argued that the postwar period was not the death of labor’s 
struggle but one of the most active, militant periods of working-class 
opposition in U.S. history. He acknowledged the defeat of the postwar 
strike wave but revealed expressions of militancy through popular 
culture. But Lipsitz’s 1988 book on a St. Louis organizer, /A Life in 
the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition/, gave me the 
framework I needed to under­stand the local political culture and to 
help me see the Alabama Communists and their supporters as organic 
intellectuals. Once I did that, I could see the cultural and ideological 
bases of their own way of seeing alternatives to the status quo. I came 
to understand why the Bible was more important in challenging the 
domi­nant ideology than, say, Marx or Lenin.

          You write in the foreword to /Black Marxism/ that Cedric
          Robinson’s ambitious critique of both Western Marxian
          traditions and black radical traditions funda­mentally
          transformed your life, your sense of mission, your approach to
          history and revolutionary politics. Can you summarize the
          impact Robinson’s work has had on your own?

I can never sufficiently explain the impact Cedric’s work and tutelage 
have had on my development as a historian, as an intellectual, and as 
one who identifies as a revolutionary. I hope it is clear in most of what 
I’ve written over the past thirty years. To be clear, Cedric and I were 
not personally close, despite the fact that he served on my dissertation 
committee and we remained in touch on and off since 1984. While I never 
took a class with him (he was teaching at UC-Santa Barbara and I was at 
UCLA), I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that no person I’ve 
per­sonally encountered in my lifetime has had a greater intellectual 
impact on me besides my mother. His ideas—or at least my interpretation 
of them—thoroughly shaped my first book on the Communist Party in 
Alabama. I initially framed the problem as why the “white” Left had 
failed to mobilize the black working class, but reading /Black Marxism: 
The Making of the Black Radical Tradition/ (1983) made me realize that 
my question was wrong. It was never about a failing in the “Left’s” 
ability to mobilize black people but our conceptual failure to recognize 
what Cedric identified as a “Black Radical Tradition” critical of, and 
illegible to, a Euro-American Left formed by the logic of Western 
Civilization. When this tra­dition found its way into Left movements—in 
Africa, Latin America, the United States—it brought its own unique 
vision, historical sensibility, and set of resistance strategies to the 
Communist movement and, in doing so, altered the Party. In other words, 
I was initially stuck arguing against scholars who tried to prove that 
Com­munism was alien to black people; Robinson compelled me to ask what 
black people brought to the Left to make it their own. The presumed 
objects of Commu­nist machinations became subjects and agents in making 
their own history.

But Robinson’s influence continued to shape my thinking in unique ways, 
which I hope is evident in all of my subsequent work. For the past three 
decades, I have continued to return to /Black Marxism/, his essays in 
/Race and Class/, and his later books, /Black Movements in America/ 
(1997), /An Anthropology of Marxism/ (2001), and /Forgeries of Memory 
and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film 
before World War II/ (2007). I should say something about his first book, 
/The Terms of Order: Political Science and the Myth of Leadership/ 
(1980), al­though it wasn’t the first thing of his that I read. In fact, 
I tried to read it in graduate school and, quite frankly, I couldn’t 
understand it because I hadn’t read enough (it wasn’t a matter of 
language, by the way). But once I understood it, Robinson forced me to 
come to terms with the limits of Marxism—even while acknowledging the 
variety of /Marxisms/ I’d encountered. His thesis demolished the Western 
presump­tion that mass movements reflect social order and are maintained 
and rationalized by the authority of leadership. Critiquing both liberal 
and Marxist theories of political change, Robinson argued that 
leadership (the idea that effective social action is determined by a 
leader who is separate from or above the masses of people) and political 
order are essentially fictions, and he proved it with examples of radical 
democracy that break with Eurocentric models of Greco-Roman diffu­sion. 
He concludes that it is not enough to reshape or reformulate Marxism to 
fit the needs of Third World revolution, but we must reject all 
universalist theories of political and social order. That made me go 
back to /Black Marxism/, yet again (which inspired me to push the 
University of North Carolina Press to bring it back into print in 2000).

There was much I didn’t appreciate the first time around—namely, the 
thor­oughness with which he took on Marxism, though from an astutely 
radical posi­tion. For example, Robinson directly challenges the Marxist 
idea that capitalism was a revolutionary negation of feudalism, arguing 
instead that capitalism emerged within the Western feudal order in 
societies that were already racialized. Capitalism and racism, in other 
words, did not break from the old order but rather evolved from it to 
produce a modern world system of “racial capitalism” dependent on 
slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide. He lays out in great 
detail how the first European proletarians were /racial/ subjects (Irish, 
Jews, Roma or Gypsies, Slavs, etc.) and how they were victims of 
dispossession (enclosure), colonialism, and slavery /within Europe/. I 
had missed this since I wasn’t so concerned with Europe in my early 

Part of his point, of course, was that capitalism was /not/ the great 
modernizer, giving birth to a modern proletariat as a universal subject. 
Indeed, the proletariat was not a universal subject. Just as the Irish 
were products of very different popular traditions born and bred under 
colonialism, the “English” working class was formed by Anglo-Saxon 
chauvinism, a racial ideology shared across class lines that allowed the 
English bourgeoisie to rationalize low wages and mistreatment for the 
Irish. The other shock, which he elaborates in his book /An Anthropology 
of Marxism/, is that it was in this dynamic, unstable feudal order that 
socialism was born as an alternative bourgeois strategy to deal with 
social inequality.

The creation of a European proletariat, he argues, was only one part of 
the for­mation of a world system. At this very moment, African labor was 
being drawn into the orbit of the world system through the 
trans-Atlantic slave trade, just as indig­enous people were being drawn 
in through invasion and dispossession. Thus, to understand the dialectic 
of African resistance to enslavement and exploitation, he insists we 
look outside the orbit of capitalism and into the cultures of West and 
Central African culture. The first waves of African New World revolts 
were governed by a total rejection of enslavement and racism, with a 
commitment to preserving a past they knew, and were more inclined to 
escape: creating maroon settlements, fugitivity, etc. But with formal 
colonialism, settlement, and the incor­poration of black labor into a 
more fully governed social structure came a native black bourgeoisie 
that occupied a contradictory role as victims of racial/colonial 
domination and tools of empire, since they were educated in the colonial 
system. A portion of this class revolted, becoming the radical black 
intelligentsia, who in so many instances turned to what Robinson 
identified as the most dynamic oppositional ideological tendency in the 
twentieth century: Marxism. It was through their engagement with Marxism 
that figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, and Richard Wright 
confronted black mass movements, com­pelling a revision of Western 
Marxism and a break from some of its most basic tenets. In other words, 
black Marxist intellectuals were /not/ the Black Radical Tra­dition; 
rather, it was through their engagement with the Left and Marxist ideas 
that they discovered the Black Radical Tradition.

          Are there any other thinkers who have been as influential as
          Robinson in guiding your work? If so, who and how?

Besides the many I already mentioned above, there are many historians 
and other scholars and activists whose work has been formative in my own 
writing, especially on black radical movements. Some are of my 
generation—Tera H. Hunter, Elsa Barkley Brown, Earl Lewis, Michael 
Honey, Joe W. Trotter, Farah Griffin, Gerald Gill, and others you will 
find in my book acknowledgements. For the sake of space, I will highlight 
two more senior figures: Nell Irvin Painter and Barbara Smith. Painter is 
the author of several influential books, including /Exodusters/; 
/Standing at Armageddon/; /Southern History Across the Color Line/; 
/Sojourner Truth/; and /A History of White People/. But the text that 
had the greatest direct impact was /The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: His 
Life as a Negro Communist in the South/. That book set me on this 
journey to Alabama to find the Communist Party. Nell Painter spent all of 
her professional life trying to figure out how subjugated people tried to 
rebuild democracy in their own interest. Sometimes that democracy was 
public and national, sometimes it was community-based and local, and 
other times it was at the level of the household.

I came to Barbara Smith’s work first through her coedited anthology, /All 
the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: 
Black Women’s Studies/ (1982), edited by Smith, Gloria T. Hull, and 
Patricia Bell Scott. More than anything I had read before about black 
studies, Smith and Hull’s introductory statement made the strongest case 
for critical analysis as a mode of praxis, insisting that there has to 
be a deep, organic, dialectical link between black women’s studies and 
the black feminist movement and that black women’s studies must 
necessarily be “feminist, radical, and analytical.” Looking back, it is 
pretty clear now that /But Some of Us Were Brave/ contributed so much 
more than making black women visible. By calling for a critical analysis 
of race, gender, and sexuality, Smith antic­ipates so much of the 
scholarship that now falls under the rubric of queer studies and 
critical race theory.

          Race features centrally in nearly all that you write about. To
          help clarify some of the discussion here, and to help us
          understand where one critical concept ends and another
          possibly begins, can you tell us: what do you mean by race?

What is race? This is a hard question since it is often conflated with 
“racism” and “racialization.” The dictionary definition of race still 
includes things like groups of people that share “genetically 
transmitted physical character­istics,” despite the fact that there is 
no biological basis for race. It is a social con­struct. Racial 
categories are contradictory, contingent, and reflect power relations 
more than scientific research. Race is socially produced categories of 
dif­ference with the intention to subordinate, exclude, denigrate, etc. 
This is why there is no such thing as race without racism. Race isn’t 
simply an “identity” but is a structure of power, or a means of 
structuring power, through “difference.” /Skin color is not an essential 
feature of racism/. Racism is an ideology based on the idea that race 
determines, or can explain, human traits and capacities and that racial 
differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular “race.” 
Finally, I invoke Cedric Robinson’s definition of a “racial regime”: 
“Racial regimes are con­structed social systems in which race is 
proposed as a justification for the relations of power. While necessarily 
articulated with accruals of power, the covering conceit of a racial 
regime is a makeshift patchwork masquerading as memory and the immutable.”

          Racial capitalism is the term Robinson theorized. It has
          become quite current in contemporary historical and social
          analyses of the plight of marginalized people within global
          capitalism. What is your understanding of racial capitalism?

The term racial capitalism merely signals that race/racial categories 
and capitalism are co-constitutive, a point central to Cedric Robinson’s 
/Black Marxism/, as I mentioned in an earlier response. Capital 
accumulation occurs through various “racial projects that assign 
differential value to human life and labor,” as Andy Clarno so 
eloquently put it in his book /Neoliberal Apartheid/. The phrase 
originated in South Africa during the mid 1970s and is sometimes 
attributed to Martin Legassick and Harold Wolpe, among others like 
Bernard Magubane. It emerged as an analytical framework to understand 
how the apartheid state struc­tured relations of race, class, and 
accumulation. In the South African context, it made sense to add the 
adjective “racial” to capitalism, not to distinguish it from other kinds 
of capitalisms but rather to pose a political question: whether 
disman­tling apartheid /without/ overthrowing capitalism would leave in 
place structures that reproduce racial inequality and the 
superexploitation of nonwhite workers. Or put differently, would a 
postapartheid nation be able to eliminate the very structures that 
reproduce deep racial, class, and gender inequality without disman­tling 

Today, we tend to associate the term with Cedric Robinson, who—building 
on the work of sociologist Oliver Cox—argues not only that 
race/racialism preceded capitalism but that racialization begins in 
Europe itself as part of colonial processes of invasion, settlement, 
expropriation, and racial hierarchy. The takeaway here, then, is that 
“racial capitalism” is not merely a type of capitalism, say as opposed 
to nonracist capitalism. The term simply signals that capitalism 
developed and op­erates within a racialized and gendered order.

          Robinson’s critique of Marx begins with the observation that
          white supremacy as a racial “regime” predates capitalism and
          is entrenched in the process of prim­itive accumulation, yet
          Marx never sees or analyzes it. White supremacy as a feature
          of European feudalism was reconstituted in the transition to
          capitalism but was not critically engaged by Marx and other
          anticapitalists. Robinson sees this as a kind of cultural or
          ethnocentric bias. In the context of global labor, what is
          incomplete in /Capital/? How does Robinson’s insight, and/or
          yours, regard­ing Marx’s neglect of already existing white
          supremacy invalidate or transform Marx’s conception of class
          and the appropriation of surplus labor from productive
          workers, which Marx calls “exploitation”?

I can’t possibly do justice to this question without producing a small 
book, but let me try to begin to answer. First, I don’t think Robinson’s 
critique of Marx and Engels pivots around his observation that white 
supremacy predates capitalism. I think he would say racialism predates 
capitalism—which is to say, the production of racial difference and 
hierarchy emerged within European society itself, /before/ the kinds of 
encounters that would give rise to “whiteness” as a category. But by 
examining, say, the shifting and increasingly violent char­acter of the 
English colonization of Ireland in the late sixteenth and early 
seven­teenth centuries, he demonstrates that there were other 
antagonisms or contradictions that disrupted any tidy analyses that put 
class and class struggle at the center. What happened in Europe was 
similar to the racialization of indig­enous peoples by dispossession. 
Those who are not killed are dispersed, often ending up as indentures on 
ships to the New World or as migrant labor on the English mainland. 
Robinson observes that it was these historical experiences that shaped 
Irish nationalism and determined its relationship with its English 
working-class counterparts. And he goes on to show how the Irish came to 
be un­derstood as “an inferior race.” The main point, as Robinson puts 
it, is that “the tendency of European civilization through capitalism 
was thus not to homoge­nize but to differentiate—to exaggerate regional, 
subcultural, and dialectical dif­ferences into ‘racial’ ones.”

In other words, Marx and Engels argued that bourgeois society would 
rational­ize social relations and /demystify social consciousness/, but 
the opposite occurred pre­cisely because of the ways in which race 
shaped the development of capitalist society and its attendant social 
ideology. Racism or racialism permeated the base and superstructure, 
creating hierarchies, allegiances, and identifications that /did not/ 
lead to a unified proletariat or social consciousness. Robinson’s point 
is that what Marx and Engels could not grasp at the time was how 
racialism (and subse­quently nationalism) actually affected the class 
consciousness of workers in England.

Robinson takes Marx and Engels to task on so many issues—too many to 
recount here. In his preface to the 2000 edition of /Black Marxism/, for 
example, Rob­inson wrote, “Fully aware of the constant place women and 
children held in the workforce, Marx still deemed them so unimportant as 
a proportion of wage labor that he tossed them, with slave labor and 
peasants, into the imagined abyss signified by precapitalist, 
noncapitalist, and primitive accumulation.” Robin­son is not alone in 
arguing that Marx’s formulation of so-called primitive accumu­lation is 
misplaced in that these forms of exploitation were not archaic or did 
not prefigure the extraction of surplus value from the proletariat but 
rather were co­constitutive, and that forms of unfree labor actually 
expanded with capitalism, not the other way around. But perhaps the most 
important critique of Marx and Marxism has to do with liberation 
movements, not exploitation. Again, from his preface, Robinson wrote, 
“But Marxism’s internationalism was not global; its ma­terialism was 
exposed as an insufficient explanator of cultural and social forces; and 
its economic determinism too often politically compromised freedom 
struggles beyond or outside of the metropole.” Yes, Marx wrote a lot 
about India; yes, he wrote about the United States and Russia; yes, Marx 
excoriated slavery, colonial­ism, and imperialism—anyone who says he 
ignored these things is lying; yes, Marx himself never claimed to be 
doing anything beyond understanding the processes of capitalist 
development in Western Europe. But what he missed was the signifi­cance 
of revolt in the rest of the world, specifically among the enslaved, 
corvée labor, coolie labor, and the like. These people were humans, 
exploited, but ripped from “superstructures” with radically different 
beliefs, morality, cosmology, metaphysics, intellectual traditions, etc. 
So Robinson tries to push beyond Marx to imagine how we might advance a 
radical interpretation of liberation movements by examining their 
rebellions not as expressions of precapitalist people or exam­ples of 
primitive accumulation but as modalities of struggle against the world 
system of capitalist exploitation. Because neither Marx nor Engels 
considered the colonies, plantations, or the countryside central to 
/modern/ capitalist processes, resistance in these places was always 
regarded as underdeveloped or peripheral. Moreover, this resistance did 
not resemble the secular radical humanism of 1848 or 1789, so it was 
incomprehensible. And Marx’s argument that the export of cap­italist 
forms to the colonies was a good thing in the long run since it sped up 
the development of the productive forces and accelerated class struggle 
(in this case, India) revealed significant lapses, in my view, but more 
importantly reinforced the illegibility of forms of struggle that were 
rendered backward or primitive.

          In /Freedom Dreams/ you examine radical black movements for
          their visions and desires. You do so to examine not only what
          problems and “unfreedoms” they identified (and which gave rise
          to them) as /critique/ but also to remind readers of the
          possible or alternative worlds they imagined, dreamed of one
          day inhabiting, but which did not yet exist. Indeed, this
          powerful idea occurs throughout all of your work, and
          certainly up through and including /Africa Speaks, America
          Answers/. You encourage your readers not to despair or embrace
          cynicism but to see the impossibility of the present as a
          symptom, as a shared element of what drove earlier black
          freedom seekers. And you point readers to previous ways that
          black radicals turned impossibility into the seeds of
          possibility. Would you call this dream- or visionwork
          “utopian”? Or is utopian thought, in your view, specifically
          Eurocentric, visions based upon nineteenth-century European
          ideas of socialism and communism? What do you see as the main
          visionary impulses or desires in black radical traditions? Or
          emerging in the present challenges facing contempo­rary black
          radicals transnationally?

I go back and forth on the term “utopian,” which I use in Freedom Dreams 
a few times but not always positively. Utopian technically means 
“nowhere,” which implies impossibility, and this may actually be true 
since what might be collectively conceived as possible is conceivably 
better than “nowhere.” Utopia is also what Fascists were trying to 
achieve, so I’m cautious about that term. I’m also cautious because I’m 
not one to quickly dismiss Engels’s iconic essay “Socialism: Utopian and 
Scientific.” While I might question the scientific claims and the 
implication of inevitability, the third chapter of that text, which 
explains the dialectical rela­tionship between social and economic 
struggles and the possibilities that open up for revolution, grounds a 
vision of socialism in actual social movements rather than just the 
movement of capital.

I begin here because I often fear that /Freedom Dreams/ is misread, not 
just by critics but by those most inspired by the book. They like the 
idea of “visionwork” as you call it, but too often divorce that work 
from critical analysis, the thinking that emerges directly from social 
movements, the challenges of solidarity, and a much deeper understanding 
of the mechanisms of oppression that generate the conditions for new 
modes of analysis. So the book emphatically argues that it is not enough 
to imagine a world without oppression (especially since we don’t always 
recognize the variety of forms or modes in which oppression occurs), but 
we must also understand the mechanisms or processes that not only 
reproduce structural inequality but make them common sense and render 
those processes natural or invisible. I was trying to write about people 
in transformative social movements, how they moved/shifted their ideas, 
rethought inherited categories, tried to locate and overturn blatant, 
subtle, and invisible modes of domination. In other words, they were 
never in a dream state but a kind of struggle state. Of course, there 
are many examples of work that unveils these processes and that 
in­terrogates categories that we continue to take for granted: what is 
human, race, power, gender, sexuality, security, capital, the law, 
crime, leadership, and freedom. Just off the top of my head, there is 
Cedric Robinson, Sylvia Wynter, Beth Richie, Denise da Silva, Erica 
Edwards, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Fred Moten, Roderick Ferguson, Asfanah 
Najmabadi, Alexander G. Weheliye, James Ford, Chandan Reddy, Mishuana 
Goeman, Sara Ahmed, Jodi Byrd, and too many others to name.

I’m not sure I can identify the main visionary impulses in black radical 
traditions outside of historical context. I agree with Cedric Robinson’s 
account of the era prior to emancipation, in which he located those 
impulses first in West and Central African culture. The first African New 
World revolts were more intent on preserving a past than transforming 
Western society or overthrowing capital­ism; they created maroon 
settlements, ran away, became outliers, and tried to find a way home even 
if it meant death. These impulses have changed over time, and right now 
some of the central impulses center on sexual freedom and lib­eration 
from gender oppressions, bodily integrity in a state that deliberately 
seeks to destroy black bodies in so many ways, and the continual 
question of land—that is to say, a place to exercise self-determination 
(like present-day Jackson, Mississip­pi, or Newark, New Jersey) and the 
preservation of the earth against capital’s en­vironmental catastrophe. 
This is not to say that the desires of working people not to be 
exploited have diminished, but to recognize how freedom from everyday 
misery and precarity is realized in so many subjugated black communities 
through a neoliberal optic. This we might call neoliberal “capture” of 
the culture, where one emphasizes net worth, social capital, one’s 
“brand,” getting paid by whatever means necessary, instead of the old 
discourse around black charity, lifting as we climb (elites assisting 
the poor), etc. Revolution is not part of this.

And yet there is something very revolutionary about the struggles around 
sex and gender, in part because they reveal something I wrote about in 
/Freedom Dreams/: “Another problem, of course, is that such dreaming is 
often suppressed and policed not only by our enemies but by leaders of 
social movements them­selves. The utopian visions of male nationalists 
or so-called socialists often depend on the suppression of women, of 
youth, of gays and lesbians, of people of color. Desire can be crushed 
by so-called revolutionary ideology.” Again, this re­inforces my point 
that understanding the struggle is the only way to understand the 
“freedom dreams” as the collective product of movement and contradiction.

          You also expand on your reflections in /Freedom Dreams/ in a
          more recent essay on student movements on campuses and in the
          streets. In the /Boston Review/ essay “Black Study, Black
          Struggle,” you highlight the intersectional nature of what it
          is to engage in black radical movement formation in our time.
          Building your analysis on a “mantra” to “love, study,
          struggle,” you encourage students (in colleges and
          universities, in prisons, in the streets) to deepen their
          awareness of the responsibil­ities of subject formation, of
          the need to recognize and cultivate forms of agency that are
          comprehensive, that are informed by their collective (not
          individual) dreams of freedom. What are the specific practices
          within which intellectuals and activists “learn” and nurture
          such collective dreams of freedom? Do they also include
          “economic” ones, and if so, what exactly are they?

What a hard question! I don’t have a precise list of practices in part 
because I’m suggesting that what’s most important is that we proceed 
collectively, critically, and by erasing the boundaries between those we 
think of as either intel­lectuals or knowledge workers and the rest of 
us. So an essential element of that piece is about the relationship 
between students, faculty, and university waged labor—that we love, 
study, and struggle together as a much bigger (and oppressed) community. 
I highlighted those student groups that included campus worker issues in 
their overall demands. Indeed, the university’s liberal conceits have 
long masked its history of exploitative labor policies—antiunion 
practices, out­sourcing, and refusal to pay fair wages to janitors, 
groundskeepers, clerical staff, food services employees, and 
increasingly, adjunct teachers, who make up between 70 and 75 percent of 
faculty in higher education. University and college CEOs are quick to 
blame fiscal austerity for keeping wages low, breaking unions, and 
outsourcing labor from private companies, despite the evidence that 
living-wage increases constitute a miniscule percentage of their overall 
budgets. Universities are corporations that have amassed huge 
endowments, dominate much of the U.S. economy, employ a workforce more 
likely to be female and black and brown, and, as land-grant 
institutions, enjoy massive tax breaks. Yale University is New Haven’s 
largest employer, and the Yale-New Haven Hospital is the city’s second 
largest employer. Both institutions have a history of union busting, 
cutting health and retirement benefits, and subcontracting with outside 
firms in order to use nonunion labor to perform clerical, food, and 
maintenance work. Years of experience and deepening ties between 
organized labor and the community led to the formation of the 
Connecticut Center for a New Economy (CCNE). The CCNE became a powerful 
force against the gentrification of working-class neighborhoods, rising 
rents, declining wages, deportations and pro­tections for undocumented 
workers, and the hospital’s planned expansion that would have displaced 
a section of New Haven’s black community. From this pow­erful labor 
community, they not only strengthened organized labor but built New 
Haven Rising, a significant political movement to contest Yale’s power in 
the elec­toral arena. To me, this is one model of the “specific 
practices” you asked me about.

So underlying that piece is a kind of skepticism toward the university 
and a cri­tique of its role in the neoliberal order, and that means 
resisting university roles in R&D that promotes militarism, 
exploitation, environmental destruction, etc., as well as creating 
institutions outside of campuses altogether to give our communi­ties 
critically free, quality education that the communities themselves help 

And finally, I make a case for the classic study group (not to pass an 
exam but to read and debate toward movement building). All of this 
requires a qualitative leap from our current atomizing neoliberal 
culture of market thinking. We are all pushing back against this idea 
that we’re individual actors at the university in a competitive world 
and that the point of education is to enhance our social capital, our 
value, improve our “brand,” etc., which plays into the general assault 
on any kind of collectivism and social solidarity. This has been the 
cornerstone of neoliberal thought, and it plays out in the language of 
“self-care” and “self­help” and entrepreneurialism as the proper 
response to everything.

          Coming back to the important contributions of Robinson’s work
          and of your own, you should know that both of us were deeply
          affected, perhaps for different reasons and contexts, in the
          early to mid 80s by the book /African Philosophy: Myth &
          Reality/ by the Benin philosopher Paulin Hountondji. You
          probably know this book. Hountondji had been a student of
          Louis Althusser, and we dare say that our work, and that of
          many of those connected to the journal /Rethinking Marxism/,
          was like­wise indebted to Althusserian ideas and concepts.
          Hountondji, writing in the late 60s and 70s, was adamant
          against what he described at the time as a destruc­tive
          mythological notion of the “unanism” of Africa, a common
          epistemological outlook and a common ontology from which that
          epistemology derived. He called this “ethnophilosophy,” and he
          believed its emphasis on a shared negritude and collective
          African values stood in the way of the free thought and
          expression needed to continue developing diverse strands of a
          scientific African philosophy. In your work, you often cite
          Robinson and others who, in contrast to Hountondji, refer to a
          shared epistemological and ontological outlook and set of
          experiences from which these “African” collective values grow.
          Yet in /Africa Speaks/, you also often come down on the side
          of experimentation (as with jazz) and freedom of ex­pression
          in music, culture, and politics, perhaps within but also in
          conflict with ex­isting “tradition.” We wonder if you might
          comment on what we see as this tension in your work?

I remember hearing Hountondji speak at the African Studies Association 
meeting in Los Angeles in 1984, the year /African Philosophy/ was 
selected cowinner of the Herskovits award. Then it was very 
controversial, not only for his critique of the ethno-philosophers but 
because he was (wrongly) perceived as imposing Euro-centric 
epistemological and ontological frameworks on Africa. What I remember 
about the book puts him more in line with Cedric, who I don’t think was 
a propo­nent of ethno-philosophy. I think he was doing something 
different, which will take a minute to explain.

First, one of Hountondji’s main complaints about ethno-philosophy wasn’t 
just the assertion of a unity of beliefs but that their “philosophy” is 
only evident in cul­tural practice; they don’t need to “think” and 
reflect since it is embedded in every­day life. Cedric, too, had issues 
with this presumption. He was influenced in grad school by W. E. 
Abraham’s /The Mind of Africa/, which examines the Akan and can probably 
fall under the category of ethno-philosophy. But in a paper he wrote 
as­sessing the book for an African politics course he took at Stanford, 
Cedric insisted on the historical specificity for modes of indigenous 
thought, while being skeptical of the idea that core belief systems 
change in correspondence with institutional changes. He wrote:

/The exaggeration of the importance of institutional differences is a 
perversity that arises from the conception of method as being concerned 
with the imme­diately overt, and from the conception of explanation of 
all societies as the apotheosis of its quite static and inertia-ridden 
institutional framework as its essence, as that in terms of which, 
rather than simply by reference to which, striking features of the 
society must be explained. The effect of this is to treat the 
institutions as though they were self-mandated, and were only subject to 
an internal evolutionary principle/ (Robinson 1969).

So despite his assertions about the unity of African culture, he was not 
claiming cultural or philosophical sameness or timelessness but was 
rather rejecting all uni­versalist theories of political and social 
order. Robinson drew on the evidence he had available of how Africans 
responded to the Middle Passage, to plantation life, to revolts and 
marronage. And what he drew from the evidence were actions and thoughts 
and ways of being that don’t correspond with Western rationalism; ideas 
and practices that place the collective “we” above the “I,” as well as 
that chal­lenge axiomatic assumptions by political theorists about 
authority and leadership. What he observed was a /shared epistemology 
among diverse African people/. The first waves of African New World 
revolts were not governed by a critique structured by Western 
conceptions of freedom but were a total rejection of enslavement and 
racism as it was experienced. All of this cut across lines of 
ethnicity/nationality in the African diaspora, and Robinson proves it 
through specific examples (the details of which are often buried in a 
long footnote). However, with the advent of formal colonialism and the 
incorporation of black labor into a more fully gov­erned social 
structure, there emerged a native bourgeoisie, more intimate with 
Eu­ropean life and thought, assigned to help rule. Their contradictory 
role as victims of racial domination and tools of empire compelled some 
of these men and women to revolt, thus producing the radical black 
intelligentsia, whose critiques tend to be more legible to Western 
political theory. In other words, Robinson’s entire argu­ment is 
premised on listening to the so-called “subaltern,” on recognizing that 
people think, and that they think about their freedom, the world, and 
their place in it.

Robinson’s discussion of Tonga consciousness in his book /The Terms of 
Order/ is a brilliant case in point that I can’t summarize here, but I 
urge your readers to check out. His main takeaway is that the Tonga—a 
group in Southern Africa—embraced the principle that “all are equally 
incomplete.” Therefore, they require each other and all of life itself, 
land, animals, plants, to become complete. The result is a meta­physics 
of the relatedness of things, of the indivisibility of life. Now, 
Robinson sug­gests that such a metaphysics was not alien to the West 
and, in fact, flashed up on occasion, but usually as a “transitional 
function for the political or an antagonistic relationship to [the 
political].” What he meant were things like collective revolu­tions or, 
say, what the anarchist Peter Kropotkin argued about the instinct of 
mutual aid developing into a stage of ethical morality, etc. Studying 
the Tonga or African “consciousness” in general became a way for Cedric 
to critique Western political theorists’ failure to comprehend notions 
of political authority that don’t look like what emerged in Europe. It 
is more than ironic that intellectuals can speak so confidently about a 
“Western tradition,” teach millions of students about this tradition 
along the way as if it is a thing with a few countervail­ing 
(counter/veil/ing?) tendencies, but can’t do the same anywhere else. But 
he points out: (1) the construction of a Western tradition also obscures 
thought within Europe deemed heretical; (2) most importantly, it sees 
the world through a limited epistemology grounded in European 
history/thought. As he puts it, Western social thought is not merely 
ethnocentric but epistemocentric as well. And here, I think, he has more 
in common with Hountondji and Mudimbe. In one of his first essays, he 
took the Scottish historian George Shepperson to task for ignoring 
native cultural and ontological bases for John Chilembwe’s rebellion in 
Malawi in 1915 and imposing a European (specifically a Scottish 
nationalist) lens masquerading as universal. Robinson wrote wryly, 
“Chilembwe was not a Crom­well; he never could be. But most importantly 
he never had to be. His movement had its own quite special and 
remarkable integrity.”

Finally, for Robinson, trying to determine indigenous epistemologies and 
ontol­ogies is more than an intellectual practice but is a matter of 
life and death for the victims of colonial domination. One of his 
biggest critiques centers on the nation-state, which he sees as a 
peculiar and specific product of European modernity whose main function 
is as an instrument of power and repression. Nationalism is inextricable 
from the state and is potentially lethal. He wrote an essay in 1996 
titled “In Search of a Pan-African Commonwealth,” which made a 
distinction between what he called political Pan-Africanism and cultural 
Pan-Africanism, privileging the latter as a more authentic expression of 
people’s struggles and the former a dangerous by-product of Western 
hegemony. I apologize for doing this, but his insights are so valuable 
for your question, he is worth quoting at length:

/Even a casual glance through our historical era will confirm that the 
domestic political cultures of nation-states are animated by irrational 
impulses which tend toward ethnic domination or in the extreme ethnic 
cleansing; and their most constant external impulse is expansionism. 
This deceit was the second modernizing mission appropriated by political 
Pan-Africanism, so it should not be surprising that we can now add the 
names of numerous African tyrants to the list of their Western 
counterparts. But it is clear that po­litical Pan-Africanism was an 
insufficient if not mistaken mission, so no matter the particular 
perversions of the Charles Taylors [former Liberian dic­tator] of today, 
more profoundly they are the heirs of a flawed, misconceived past. Our 
contemporary rapacious hyenas are not blameless but they did not 
organize the feast … the black middle class has hybridized freedom with 
ma­terial ambition. They possess no cultures grounded in the historical 
struggles against oppression, only the costume of political independence 
… In an histor­ical moment which is no longer than an instant, they are 
necessary to the struggle, but because they are the darker-faced 
familiars to those forces which extract wealth and life from Africa, the 
West Indies and the exiled communities, the black middle classes have an 
unnatural duration … For just as the destiny of all nation-states 
appears to be the descent into militarism and barbarism, the black 
modernists seem fated to spawn men and women of in­satiable greed/ 
(Robinson 1996).

Now, I know you asked about these tensions in my own work, but, if 
anything, my work is modeled on Cedric’s insights—which is to say, 
recognition of historical dynamics generating ideas and identities, 
antiessentialism, and decentering Western epistemologies as the only way 
to see these processes. So, in /Africa Speaks/, I do speak of a 
particular African or Third World modernity—an alterna­tive to a specific 
form of European modernity (which itself is not unified but whose 
outlines are pretty clear). If anything, the cultural actors in my book 
are also the authors of their conception of modern jazz and its 
relationship with Africa and its diasporas, but we don’t take their 
theorizing of modernity seriously (which is why I wrote that book).

          Let’s talk about diaspora and its histories, futures.
          Diasporic communities are not natural ones. Rather, to talk
          about a black diaspora is to talk about the history of a
          particular kind of human vulnerability and then to seek to
          understand the con­ditions of life of those who experience
          that human vulnerability as “their problem.” In her essay
          “Race and Globalization: Racialization from Below,” Leith
          Mullings argues,

          /Four centuries of the transatlantic slave trade and the
          racialized subordina­tion of people of African descent
          produced a construction of race throughout much of the world.
          As a result, many regions of the world were dominated by what
          one could call a racial mode of production—involving not only
          exploi­tation of labor, but also the skills of Africans and
          their descendants—to build the modern world system. In many
          areas of the world race became a world-view that rationalized
          domination and privilege, on one hand, and disposses­sion of
          land, labor, wealth and rights, on the other. Scientific
          racism, which emerged in the 18th century, provided a
          pseudoscientific patina for a set of beliefs that categorized
          people into different races, each endowed with unequal
          capacities, and alleged not merely that biological and social
          differenc­es were fixed, inheritable and unchangeable, but also
          that races could be ranked hierarchically, with the white race
          as the pinnacle of civilization/ (Mullings 2008).

          Clearly, Mullings would agree with Robinson that white
          supremacy is already in existence and part of the feudal order
          that gives way to nascent capitalism, making racial capitalism
          from the beginning. And Mullings grounds “diaspora” in/as the
          historical and material experience of Europe’s impact on “the
          rest” by treating white supremacy as a cultural and material
          export good that accompanied all trade, conquest, and
          appropriation. Diaspora is a political and historical
          com­munity rooted in resistance. White supremacy is an element
          of the form of the racial regimes of European colonizers and
          settlers that diasporic communities formed to oppose, resist,
          survive. Diaspora, then, might be constituted as well in the
          cultural and material experience of racialization from below.
          Unanism isn’t natural or preexisting. It is made in the rise
          of global capitalism. Your thoughts?

          Despite the insistence on denaturalizing diaspora, there
          remains the risk of re­ductionisms or essentialisms that elide
          important differences of place and time, setting up failed
          alliances. Help us clarify your understanding of diaspora and
          com­munity among those who, racialized from below, respond to
          the challenge to remake our world anew?

I think I answered some of this in my above response. Of course, I agree 
with Mullings, and her essay is right on point. I tend not to use 
diaspora much anymore, and when I did, I often made a kind of Marxist 
distinction between “diaspora in itself” and “diaspora for itself”—the 
former is a structural relationship based on migration and forced 
dispersal, the latter is when those populations form political and 
social movements recognizing a shared plight and shared identity. I 
think an African Diaspora framework, as capacious as it is, cannot 
account for the full range of black identities and transnational 
his­tories—especially those that do not fit within a Pan-African 
imaginary. In some of my earlier writings, I challenged prevailing 
identity politics that treated iden­tities as matters of culture—or, 
worse, matters of biology and/or inheritance—when, in fact, some of the 
most dynamic and transnational identities originated in the realm of 
politics: i.e., in the way people seek alliances and political 
“iden­tifications” across oceans and national boundaries. Instead, I 
argued that by fo­cusing on these kinds of identifications and their 
international contexts, we can discern the contingent, malleable nature 
of identities and the limits of a dia­sporic framework that centers 
primarily on Africa and African dispersal. Ex­panding our sights from 
Africa-centered movements of racial solidarity to multiracial, 
transnational, and international political identifications opens fresh 
paths for constructing a new global history. I think such an approach 
opens up new possibilities for writing a world history from below. In 
other words, as useful as the Diaspora might be as an analytical 
framework and as a meta­phor for understanding black world experience, 
it can still be used to erect boundaries rather than topple them. 
Africa—either real or imagined—is not the only concept that has been a 
source of “black” internationalism, even for those movements that 
embrace a nationalist or Pan-Africanist rhetoric. This, too, I learned 
from Cedric Robinson.


            Interview conducted by Jack Amariglio and Lucas Wilson for
            /Rethinking Marxism/, vol. 30, issue 4 (2018)

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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