I know that I am consciously going against the ideological grain of contemporary radicalism. I do so, not to hurt the feelings of many I’ve known and the untold millions I shall never know, both of whom I regard as brothers-and-sisters in arms, at whatever age, joined together, embracing, in a common struggle for social justice—hence the least persons in the world to whom I wish to give offense. But hear me out, not as a cancerous worm gnawing away at the dedication to and sensibility of radicalism, but as one thinking out loud about the regrettable divergence between RACE and CLASS in modern America. A tall order, for a short essay, yet here goes.
I come to radicalism through two spiritual streams (first, let’s try to define terms: by spiritual I mean, not sacred, ecclesiastical, religious, but rather the animating impulse or distilled essence helping to define a people—in this case, respectively, religion and race as unifying factors and summation of a whole historical experience), to wit, my Jewish religious ancestry and, difficult to explain, my early devotion to, appreciation of the suffering of, and love for, the Negro people. Yes, antennae go up, the outrageous “N” word, extreme discomfiture in radical ranks, nay, nowadays all ranks. But let’s push forward, stay with me.
Age eleven: bedridden for two years, the first, in full body cast, throughout this time not precociously reading Marx but essentially living in a well-meaning vacuum, Board of Education teacher sent once a week for 1-2 hour lessons, table-model radio at bedside, listening to—whatever. Contrary to myth, this is not an ideal process of radicalization (my admiration for FDR for his ordeal with polio, yet perhaps making him more sensitive to human feelings but not issuing forth as blazing radicalism), and one that most radicals fortunately did not experience. However, something happens, intangible at best; a reaching out in imagination to all those afflicted, all those the victims of social injustice (as imagined here by an 11-13 year old), and, somehow, fixed on Negroes as the bearers of all the suffering society can manage to inflict on people.
The real breakthrough comes in the next stage, where personal struggle becomes (in the mind of the imaginative youngster) at one with social struggle: learning how to walk again, the messages, physical therapy, once again entering the world. Imagination is at one with the mock-heroic—forcing oneself on, in this case, living by a golf course, forcing oneself within a year-year and a half, to play 36 holes of golf several times a week, sometimes crawling home on hands and knees. You get the picture; no need to dwell further. But the interesting thing, again, not automatically following, is the deepening, the wanting to reach out, the desire to smash through the fraudulence of postwar flagrant consumption, the whirlwind of antiradicalism everywhere, already knee-deep in Cold War spreading virus of antilabor, antiradical suffocation. Probably my semiofficial baptism under fire was at 15 campaigning for Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party in 1948, an embarrassment to family, denunciation at school, the usual jostling at demonstrations.
But do I digress? The main matter is Jews and Negroes, the growing fusion of identity in my mind, as the core, philosophical, political, emotional, of a meaningful, to me, radicalism, each reinforcing the other, because in fact, BOTH had become joined at the hip in progressive politics—and both today, I would argue, the thrust of this piece, having BETRAYED that earlier stream of conviction and action. A double loss, and America, insofar as its radical potential goes, never again the same. I am fortunate; I lived through the 1950s-60s, a high point of involvement in just causes—antiwar, antinuclear, labor rights, the toppling of segregation, both the Jewish and Negro communities, even regardless of class within each, enlisted in the struggle. As I’ve said on many occasions, Schwerner-Chaney-Goodman, murdered in Mississippi, together in fact and symbolically the merging of two great identities and heritages in the service of human welfare, Jewish, Negro, prime sources in the struggle for freedom, a freedom cast broadly to take in all God’s children. I’ve stood with rabbis in all-night demonstrations in days preceding Selma. Rabbis, now? Most are too busy explaining away the rape of Gaza. I spent days and days on the civil rights front shoulder-to-shoulder with Negroes who were ALSO, as was Dr. King, involved in the protest against the Vietnam War.
No more. Blacks opposing Obama on drone assassination? opposing Obama on the murder of Iraqi children? On threats to world civilization with his steadily progressing confrontation with Russia and China? No, of course not. Black is black, black is beautiful, black is FALSE CONSCIOUSNESS, the colossal cop-out on anything that goes beyond racial self-interest. Example: Spring 1970, about the time we see both the Jewish and black communities in essence going over to the enemy, perhaps a lead-up in the late sixties with currents of chauvinistic embellishment of Israel and the same, Black Power (although hardly the same or together, a parallel surge of solipsistic grandeur sloughing off all previous dedication to human betterment for the one designated Good, as each saw it)—the scene, a campus-wide strike at my university protesting the mining of Haiphong Harbor and the killing of the Kent State students.
It was my privilege to be a leader of that strike, and, thousands crowded in the old auditorium, aware of the TOTALITY of the issues, war, civil rights, deprivation of rights and civil liberties, I unconsciously raised a fist proclaiming opposition to the totalitarianism of the American government and society, and looked out, all standing, clenched fists, in agreement—a sacred moment for me in the display of consciousness of authentic radicalism that I beheld. Then, I was followed by a black speaker. Why should I, he asked, support you? And for an agonizing time he went into exclusively black issues, ritualistic race-ennobling rhetoric, criticizing whites for showing concern for other than race issues. To hell with Vietnam protest, to hell with all that was going wrong over a whole spectrum of abuses—instead, race, race, race. It is out of contexts such as this, that we see the transmutation of Negro into Black. Not, of course, that one moment or place, but what I take to be the perversion of everything that Dr. King stood for, as in his articulation of the word “Negro” in his “I have a dream” speech, or as Paul Robeson, with every fiber of his being, stood for, in affirming the dignity and majesty of the Negro people.
Simply, race in late 1960s America, displaced and replaced class, as though fulfilling the wish-list of every sophisticated racist and reactionary (for they go together) who recognized the social dynamite of having class as an organizing principle of social protest and political consciousness. For that would mean, at the very least, an attack on social policies intended to rectify conditions of poverty and casting further afield policies favoring war, intervention, torture, humongous “defense” budgets, and, I believe, slowly but surely, questioning capitalism itself. Race smothered class in the popular imagination, and reduced blacks themselves to a pathetic political mass supporting the current administration on grounds of racial solidarity—an administration whose pro-war, pro-Wall Street, pro-surveillance settled course works to deny blacks themselves security, equality, and pride in the polity. The more under the spell of black-is-beautiful the more blacks are handcuffed, hooded, falsely charmed, self-handicapped and deluded in the struggle for freedom, a struggle which, to be successful, must leap over race in solidarity with ALL who oppose the corporate-militaristic framework of America’s global power, and its internal results, widening class differences, extreme wealth concentration, a cultural miasma of learned aggressive behavior.
Why bring this unpopular subject up now, when for a full half-century the practice has been to expunge Negro from the collective—as well as race—memory? Actually, I’ve wanted to for decades as I watched the deterioration of radicalism on all fronts take place, become both gentrified and politically correct, with the Negro-to-Black usage a prominent indicator of avoiding the criticism of, and opposition to, capitalism the perhaps ultimate consequence. Years ago, Oliver Cromwell Cox, a black sociologist, in Race, Class, and Caste, recognized the causal significance of capitalism in molding the institutions of racism. Like Dr. King and Paul Robeson, he did not fear the use of Negro, and I, here, as a lone voice in the wilderness, call for a return to Negro, shorn of the glamour and delights of fashionable usage, as a stark term of strength and pride to stand for SOCIAL CHANGE , to stand for emancipation and solidarity, in strict opposition to the contemporary Black Bourgeoisie, Obama, Holder, Rice, Jarrett, the in-crowd who, obliquely riding the wave of black power, have made themselves the agents of capitalist power—leaving most blacks far behind and below.
Skipping over the hyphenated African-American, and all the props to a diminished self-esteem, why not an affirmation, a truly rising chorus, of Negro, and to get at the full dimensions of culture, Negritude! Paul Robeson when I started to walk again gave me the courage to be. Straightforward honesty, pride, not as a cosmetic, balm, or p.r. stunt, but as HONORING a people’s history of oppression, of returning to the brave, the talented, the downtrodden, an internal fountain of self-directed power toward a future conscious of the transcendent issues and fighting alongside like-minded others in what shall always be humankind’s uphill battle against the forces of privilege.
Still, why write now? A rather silly excuse, perhaps, but an op. ed. in the New York Times, Lori Tharps’s, “The Case for Black With a Capital B,” (Nov. 18), proved too tempting to overlook. Tharps, a journalism professor at Temple, has written a cogent defense of contemporary usage, raising the stakes from black to Black, as though permanently written in stone (until either African-American-Black or BLACK comes along—language, after all, is meant to keep up with the times). Not to forget my point, though, before proceeding, I believe—to speak perhaps too harshly—that race devours class, and spits it out, leaving blacks, except for a comprador-Quisling leadership, at the bottom of the social structure—and fodder for the war machine.
Tharps begins, having overheard “an exchange between a colleague and a student” over a paper: “’Why did you capitalize black and white people?’ he asked. ‘I thought I’d seen it written that way before,’ she stammered. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Why should you capitalize black or white?’” Alarm bells went off. She continues: “The student didn’t have an answer. But I did, and it took a great deal of self-control to not insert myself into the conversation, because this is one of my greatest frustrations as a writer and a Black woman living in the United States.” Her point: “When speaking of a culture, ethnicity or group of people, the name should be capitalized. Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Lowercase black is simply a color.”
Would White with a capital W also do, and is lowercase white simply a color? How far shall we go in the business of self-gratification and appeasement of injured sensibilities? When I sent a manuscript to Rutgers Press, I could not use the terms “America” and “American”; instead, North America and North American. Even Emerson had to be upgraded to North American intellectual, lest—what? our Canadian neighbors might be offended? As for the African diaspora, can that be invoked as a global proposition to include, say, Brazil, and even if so, should that be determinative, emerging from the period of prehistory yet defining present-day race/ethnicity labels? Shall African-American and European-American (whites) become standard usage, and so on through the world catalogue of hyphenation? More important, why? To what end? Labels are a crutch, providing a false sense of self-esteem. But the genesis here I take to be one of fear on the part of the dominant groups of society, self-pacification to encourage assimilation, absorption, in African-American the second term is the more revealing, not African, but American, clasping the potential underclass of rebellion to the nation’s bosom.
A return to “Negro” would certainly clear the air, however painful kicking out the crutches would be—yes, everything from slave revolts to Harlem rent parties and Harlem itself, Negritude to navigate past the dominant culture rather than be subservient to and within it. Oh, those unfeeling publishers, etc.: “Linguists, academics and activists have been making this point for years, yet the publishing industry—our major newspapers, magazines and books—resist making this simple yet fundamental change.”
Tharps continues: “Ever since African people arrived in this country, we have had to fight for the right to a proper name. Upon arrival in the ‘New World’ we were all collectively deemed Africans, even though we came from different countries, cultures and tribes [yet no complaint over the evident stereotypy to this day—mine]. Very soon after, British colonists borrowed the Spanish term for black, and we became negros, negars, nigras and blacks—anything oppositional to the supposed purity of whiteness.” How, supposed purity, racial admixture historically having given rise to recognized gradations with the labels to follow (similarly, subsections of the African black population). No reason is offered for dismissing the historical experience of those, not alleged Toms, who wrote, worked, and fought within the context and usage of Negro, as W.E.B. Du Bois, who she notes demanded “that book publishers, newspaper editors and magazines capitalize the N in Negro when referring to Black people.” (She treats his title “The Souls of Black Folk” as indicative of his true intent, absurd from a reading of the works themselves.)
This was the dismal past. “But within a few more decades,” she writes, “Negro itself had become an unpopular term, associated with a subservient type of Black person, one whose politics were more about patience instead of protest.” Stop there. Why defame the social struggle which had long existed before the civil rights movement of the 1960s? And why not point out that afterward, the struggle had gradually narrowed appreciably, divesting itself from issues of war, class domination, systemic causes of poverty, down to what may seem remote but a logical next step in the critique and analysis of capitalism (both absent from racial discussion), environmental degradation and related issues having significance for corporate aggrandizement and international politics? No, Stokely is hardly adequate to opposition to capitalism, nor Jesse either—yet Black, as an end in itself (so today we have a fascist-inclined Obama, great because himself black), Tharps nonetheless persisting: “The 1960s ushered in the Black power movement, inspiring a generation to claim that which had been demonized. In the late 1980s, Jesse Jackson pushed ‘African-American’ into common usage, offering a new term that wasn’t tainted by a racist history—and conferred the respect of indisputable capital letters.” And she closes: “Black should always be written with a capital B. We are indeed a people, a race, a tribe. It’s only correct.”
My thought: capitalization hardly substitutes for, and , I think, steers away from, equalization—a sop in the best tradition of cooptation and mass advertising. Let’s, then, peel away layers of liberalism and go down into the verbal trenches. Labels do not provide power, in this case, the reverse, the negation of class solidarity. “Black is beautiful”—sure, if you want to play into the hands of the American ruling class (African-American, even more so). What we are witnessing, over the last half-century, is the normalization of repression, here perfectly accommodated with/into the dominant culture. Perhaps a sense of GUILT is behind the whole verbal process, blacks skillfully playing the game, whites dutifully, if not pleasurably, submitting. (Guilt is the safety-valve of liberals and liberalism—but that’s a separate topic.) Lastly, I think guilt should be tossed back, that is, the sell-out of blacks in having retreated from a progressive historical role. When one measures the history of Negroes versus the history of blacks with a capital B, the sacrifice, torture, lynching, our criterion, it is the former we should honor, with capital N Negro, and ask Blacks, if they want the respect of all who want justice and equality to prevail, to ride Obama out of town on a rail.
Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at email@example.com.