Remembering a Black Radical in a Barack Obama America
Ten years ago, Nov. 15, 1998, Kwame Ture–formerly known as Stokely Carmichael–died. He died as he lived, fighting against social injustice, fighting with every bit of strength, intelligence and charm that was in his body. He died challenging the embargo against Libya and pledging allegiance and thankfulness to radical organizations and leaders like the Nation of Islam, Castro’s Cuba, and African leaders Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure, who all supported him and more importantly supported the Black liberation struggle to which Kwame Ture dedicated his life.
10 years later, Condoleeza Rice as Secretary of State returned from an official state visit to Libya, which has been removed from the West’s list of dangerous radical nations. Just a few days ago, a Black man with an African and Muslim name became President of the United State, the same nation which listed Kwame Ture as a threat to national security for his "Black Power" politics.
The question that we, a biological son and a political son of Kwame Ture, reflect upon 10 years after the death of this historical figure is: what does the legacy of this Black radical, Pan-African socialist mean in 2008? Is there space for Black radicalism when a Black man who emphasized moderation and advanced a post-racial politic becomes president of the most powerful, predominately white nation in the world?
Our response is yes, for we understand that an "African" (as Kwame Ture would say) in the most powerful position in the world doesn’t change the radical truth that African/Black people throughout the world are still disproportionately disenfranchised and demand justice.
I trace my political ancestry to Kwame Ture when at the age of 12 I came across the book "Black Power: The Politics of Liberation" by Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton. My mother had told me stories of her interactions with then Stokely Carmichael and how his example and kind words encouraged her, a white Southern woman, to participate in the Black freedom struggle of the 1960s. The analysis of "Black Power," of institutional and individual racism, highlighting the two problems Blacks faced in America being Black and poor, has guided my life work to fight against racism, economic inequality, and injustice. It has led me to my current position at the Institute for Policy Studies, where I study and analyze economic inequality and disenfranchisement faced by African Americans.
Today I still look back to the writings of Kwame Ture to address the reality that President-elect Obama will preside over: a nation where Black people make 57cents on every dollar made by white Americans, where Blacks have only 10% of the wealth of white America, and where the Black community appears to be falling into an economic depression as the whole country enters into a recession.
As a biological son of Kwame Ture, seeing the election of an African, who has vowed to "share the wealth", reminds me of my father’s work and notable legacy. A little over forty years after Kwame Ture joined dedicated citizens to suffer beatings and all forms of violence to march for equal rights, the United States of America, a country he vigorously criticized for its contradictions, has elected an African American president of the nation. The efforts of civil rights leaders and the thousands of unnamed brave souls who confronted the country’s institutions to live up to its constitution and its promoted image as a bearer of liberty in the world, were not in vain.
Obama’s election is a bittersweet victory for generations of African-Americans who toiled through sub-human bondage, oft-forgotten violence and blatant second class citizenship. His presidency is important in terms of image and breaking centuries-old stereotypes, but to claim that we have reached a post-racial America borders on the absurd. As Kwame Ture wrote in 1966, "The reality is that this nation, from top to bottom, is racist, that racism is not primarily a problem of ‘human relations’ but of exploitation maintained – either actively or through silence – by the society as a whole."
Thirty years later, in 1996 and in the same vein, Kwame Ture questioned the qualitative effect the number of black mayors and congressman had on the conditions of "Africans" in this country. The contemporary Black/White social and economic divide, and the passivity surrounding this considerable inequality, speaks volume to the current validity of Ture’s words in ’66 and in ’96. As he would argue, the achievements of a single individual, president-elect Obama in this case, are not indicative of the living conditions of the masses of people of African descent – as those conditions are generally lagging far behind that of White America. We hope that the next four years will be a step forward, but the last forty years has shown how the masses of Blacks can be left behind even while there is increasingly a well publicized Black elite. Without a systematic address of the racial wealth divide we believe this disappointing trend will continue.
The space for the legacy of Kwame Ture and Black radicalism as a whole is the same as it has always been. It is a space of struggle, of challenging popular convention, and it is the space for those who refuse to be silent in the face of injustice. 10 years after his death, we both try to stand in the space made by people like Kwame Ture and recognize that the legacy he represents is needed more than ever before.
Bokar Ture graduated from the University of Virginia majoring in Economics and African American Studies. He then received a Masters in Development Studies from the London School of Economic. Bokar currently works for the African Development Bank and resides in Tunis, Tunisia.
Dedrick Muhammad is the author of the report "40 Years Later: The Unrealized American Dream." He work for the Institute for Policy Studies as part of the Inequality and the Common Good project.