Kwasi Konadu

We are an African People

Book ReviewsKwasi KonaduComment

Russell Rickford, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. New York. Oxford University Press, 2016. Xiii+368 pp., 20 illus., $34.95 (hardcover) ISBN 9780199861477 (The published version will appear this fall in the Journal of African American History)

Joining and in some ways exceeding a recent list of Black Power-era scholarship, Russell Rickford’s We Are an African People is the first up-to-date chronicle and intellectual history of what the author calls “Pan African nationalist schools.” National in scope and well attuned to local and international contexts, We Are an African People pays particular attention to organizations and institutional builders-cum-activists of the late 1960s and 1970s, offering “a sympathetic yet critical analysis of Pan African nationalism’s ideological groundings… [and] a host of theoretical and practical weaknesses [that] plagued the quest for independent black institutions” (p. 18). Rickford combines intellectual rigor with dense archival research, packaged in higher level argumentation, yet the prose is accessible. The result or aim is not simply an examination of “Black Power through the lens of independent schools,” but rather the fertile political ideas generated by their discourses and as “a valuable means of accessing contemporary efforts to model a postrevolutionary future,” set against Rickford’s own political and intellectual biography. As Rickford explains, “I had aspired to open an Afrocentric academy as a symbol of my commitment to black nationalist development…[as a member] of the African-American middle class…. Probing the genealogy of my own bourgeois nationalist origins led to an analysis of the late Black Power ideologies in the age of neoliberalism. We Are an African People is the product of that inquiry” (pp. ix-x). Though Rickford’s political coming-of-age may necessarily be the coming-of-age of Black Power scholarship, the book under review offers much to digest and consider beyond the intellectual biographies of either the author or his topic.

The book is divided into seven detailed chapters, bookended by an introduction and an epilogue. One map and 20 illustrations accompanies 64 pages of exceptionally thorough notes, a slender bibliography in relation to those notes, and a list of archival sources (newspapers, secondary literature, and a large dose of private papers, including pamphlets, essays, correspondences, and some transcribed interviews). Though a sizable number of the educational institutions examined have founders, administrators, teachers, and student still alive, there were no (listed) interviews conducted by the author. Nonetheless, the first two chapters lay out the socio-political impetus for “movement schools,” citing the community control and black studies phenomena that signaled a shift from school desegregation to the politics of relevant education; chapter three traces the evolution of those schools from the early twentieth century to the freedom schools and independent black institutions of the late 1960s, foreshadowed by the failure of community control in New York City. Chapter 4 focuses on the Northern California town of East Palo Alto and its Nairobi School System founded by Gertrude Wilks, highlighting her transition from integrationist to a “pragmatic brand” of black nationalism that eschewed what Rickford calls masculinist and essentialist notions of cultural nationalism. Chapter 5 is concerned with the fusion of black nationalism and Pan Africanist politics that produced, Rickford argues, an inferior brand of “Racial Pan Africanism” in contrast to his seemingly preferred “Left Pan Africanism” and its anti-imperialist views.

Chapters 6 and 7, respectively, takes aim at the idea(l) of a “Black University” through a case study of North Carolina’s Malcolm X Liberation University (MXLU) and similar Pan African nationalist formations in Washington, DC and East Palo Alto, and the external threats and internal conflicts that weakened or depressed Pan African nationalist schools, leaving a void to be filled by Afrocentrism, which Rickford characterizes as a conservative form of the black nationalist/Pan Africanist fusion. The epilogue considers this “Afrocentric model” in the proliferation of black nationalist schools since the late 1970s, a period characterized, Rickford tells us, by an accommodationism that “equated symbolism with struggle” but also “radical traditions” as embodied by the Oakland Community School and the Black and Proud Liberation School in Mississippi (p. 253). This comment that closes the book could—and should—be a book unto itself, for mashing more than three decades into 14 pages undervalues a topic so well-argued and deftly researched in the book’s preceding 252 pages.

For all the book does well and for the learned case it makes for “counterinstitutions,” their “triumphs and errors,” and for “crafting more resilient movements in the future, We Are an African People has its limitations. These limitations orbit around a set of interlaced ironies, mischaracterizations, and how evidence can function as a trap leading to over- or under-emphasizing salience. Rickford charged, “The political rhetoric of the schools was steeped in idealism,” but what social or political movement isn’t anchored in idealism (p. 5)? Is not his hope for “radical democratic spaces in which people of all colors can craft and enact creative theories of social reconstruction” idealistic (pp. 21-22)? It is not that the contents of idealism should be immune from criticism; rather, the problem is making idealism a crime to be prosecuted, set against what he perhaps hoped these institutions should have been—“radical democratic spaces”—and not what they actually were. Measuring independent black educational institutions (IBEIs) by the metrics of “broad social transformation” and “mass action” mischaracterizes numerous IBEIs, suggesting they were theoretically and practically ill-equipped to do something many were not designed to do. For instance, the US Organization was not designed to be a mass organization; quite the opposite. By way of a “cadre” of dedicated adherents its ideology and practices were broadly diffused, influencing the Black Power era and beyond through ideas, not institutions. Kwanzaa originated as a celebration for the children of US members (the rank-and-file, who were called “advocates”), not the “community,” and by the widespread celebration of Kwanzaa and some of the broader Kawaida ideology (e.g. Nguzo Saba) the US Organization and Maulana Karenga have been successful at its mission, despite what we may personally think of the organization or Karenga. And the US Organization was not alone.

The East Organization and its school, Uhuru Sasa Shule, were built by and for its members principally, and sustained by a collective of families rather than the “masses.” Like the US Organization’s Kwanzaa, Uhuru Sasa Shule’s graduation ceremony was later transformed into a very popular and public event now called the International African Arts Festival, which engages its “community” in Brooklyn and beyond in the tens of thousands each year. Nationhouse Watoto Shule in Washington, DC, came out of a collective of families that belonged to an organization that decided to school their own children. Their target was not the masses nor “broad social transformation.” We might criticize these institutions as insular and utopian, but they were analogous to Maroon communities in the U.S. South. Would we measure those communities by their viability for “mass action”? Building and sustaining IBEIs approximated committing arson in a fire station, where the arsonists were, in many cases, family collectives, not some “essentialized” community or masses. (Community is often assumed rather than demonstrated, and all communities have the dual qualities of binding members through an ideology, but that ideology also blinds members convinced of the singular “rightness” of their view of the world.) The disconnect between IBEIs and the peoples they could benefit is found less in the “right” ideology but in what Harriet Tubman argued: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” By casting one side of a complex quadratic equation—consisting of IBEIs, the “white” republic, and African American peoples—as ill-equipped and fundamentally flawed, undermines a full accounting and it lets the other participants, especially the rank-and-file and the poor, off the hook.

In fact, throughout the book, “Bourgeois nationalism” is pitted against “workers, women, and poor people,” as if those in the latter social category were not participants in the former ideological category (p. 258). Indeed, the latter are acutely romanticized, not fully engaged, and taken to task for their part in the “liberation struggle” (p. 22). Civil rights ideologies are largely treated as endangered species granted protection, while much of the burden for the pitfalls of the “liberation struggle” placed on black nationalists, where an ability to confront “capital patriarchy” and a host of -isms measure their evolution (p. 156). Thus, Ahidiana “evolved” once some members reversed their “racist and sexist socialization under capitalism” and Pan Africanism would evolve once “its adherents would…address [these] underlying weaknesses” (p. 156). Having the right ideology becomes the ultimate interpretative scorecard: Kalamu ya Salaam is praised for following the decree of Rickford’s mentor, Manning Marable, around class and race, but Jitu Weusi still had a long way to go on the evolutionary chart given “his inveterate hostility to feminism and gay liberation” (p. 254). What might concern readers is the flattening of these individuals, many of whom were alive for interviews during the dissertation stage of this book, and measuring them by fashionable social ideas that appeal to certain interest groups. Here, the archive has been a trap, inviting the author into a world and into lives, but its records did not include interviews of living persons (to properly assess their “evolution”) nor did the archive account for many schools on and off the radar and whose records are not archived. In the end, there is a mismatch between what IBEIs stood for in their variations of theory and institutional practice and what the author seemingly hoped they were or were to become—practitioners of the “principles of democratic participation and socialism” with a “commitment to democratic, grassroots activity” (p. 265). Having interviewed and worked with many of the IBEIs discussed in this book through the Council of Independent Black Institutions, my view is that such institutions should be measured on their own terms and by way of a broad cross-section of stakeholders, not only specific “leaders” whose articulations were captured at specific moments and a focus on whom naturally plays into charges of elitism.

These limitations or concerns are also invitations to have that necessary debate about Black Power-era politics and institution building and what both portends for the immediate future. Russell Rickford is to be commended for bravely tackling a series of tightly-braided issues through the lens of IBEIs, laying out his case and convictions with intellectual rigor and integrity, and I only hope readers will be “sympathetic yet critical” when they engage this serious, must-read piece of scholarship.