At the Schomburg division of the New York Public Library, in the fall of 1989, a small crowd gathered for a forum on the life of the man called by many the last great Pan Africanist. CLR James (1901-89) had transitioned only months earlier, and his death prompted many to reflect upon his life and work in the United States, his native Caribbean, and the United Kingdom.
The most distinguished, not to mention eldest, of the panelists (joining Eric Foner and Paul Buhle) was the legendary Harlem lawyer Conrad Lynn. Since the early 1940s, Lynn had fought case after case, many of them political, some seemingly personal, for the freedom of African-Americans. A deep intellect in his own right, Lynn had known every major Harlem personality, and James was one of his favorites among them.
By that time James was the most impressive black Marxist in political movements outside the Communist Party milieu. With Lynn, he was a member of the little Workers Party—erstwhile followers of Trotsky (they had broken with him before his assassination, refusing to support any side in the approaching world war). The WP drew in a small handful of non-whites, workers and intellectuals. Lynn quit, James stayed…until other splits followed. Nevertheless, the two remained friends and renewed their friendship when geography allowed. Having read The Black Jacobins, Lynn considered James to be a world-class thinker. Here is the story that Lynn told that night in the Schomburg; a story that he did not offer in his memoir There is a Fountain. It does not appear in the extensive biographical studies of Malcolm X, but it has the ring of truth.
Lynn was a legal advisor to Malcolm during the budding Black Nationalist’s incarceration for refusing the draft in the early 1950s. Malcolm asked the lawyer for something to read that demonstrated the brilliance of a black thinker. The next time he visited X, Lynn brought the mimeographed pages of a Resolution that James presented at the 1948 convention of the Socialist Workers Party. (A rival Trotskyst organization that James and his following had joined a bit earlier.) Here, in “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the United States,” James pointed to the future of Black Nationalism, but interpreted it not as separatist but as a precipitating factor in the class struggle at large. No one else was saying such things at the time.
Again, according to Conrad Lynn’s own account, the next time he visited Malcolm had virtually memorized the document. He was electrified by its contents but also by the idea that it was delivered by a great black intellectual. James, by young Malcolm’s estimate, was as at least as bright as any white man on the planet.
James would soon be expelled from the US for a passport violation, unable to be directly in touch, but his wisdom remained with Malcolm and remains with us all. James saw history as few can—in large part because he never saw African descendants as mere victims of history: they had and would change history. It was their destiny.
But what is it about James that so fascinated Malcolm X? What can we learn from him that might influence our political choices? There are two major features of James’ thought that inspired X and speak to Black America today.
1: No More Silent Desperation
In a talk on the subject of Black Power, James noted, “It is over one hundred years since the abolition of slavery. The Negro people in the United States have taken plenty and they have reached a stage where they have decided that they are not going to take any more.”
He was speaking to ‘negroes’ in 1967, but he could be talking to black people today.
In the 1960s, after a century of marginalization, many Black Americans were energized to organize and seek communal liberation from social oppression. During this period schools were desegregated; voting rights were attained; and unprecedented economic opportunities were made available to people of color.
The progress was unprecedented—but it was also deceptive. For while the visible barriers to black self-actualization were being dismantled, white supremacy remained firmly intact.
Overt expressions of racism were replaced with hiring practices guided by nepotism. Human resource offices and college admissions departments may not have had “whites only” at the top of their applications, but the makeup of those in the workforce and on campuses expressed that sentiment. Redlining, started in the 1940s, concentrated minorities in impoverished districts thereby diluting the power of the black vote.
Then began the war on drugs.
Almost overnight communities of color became targets of police officers hungry for drug busts. Instead of policing centered on solving specific crimes, officers began focusing on geographic areas.
People of color have long reported incidents of police brutality, but it was not until the advent of camera phones and its ability to capture and share video through social media that the contemporary #BlackLivesMatter movement was born.
James knew this day was coming.
He implores us to end the silence—to demand justice. No more asking those who serve us to see our dignity. No more requests for patience and calm.
In the wake of #BlackLivesMatter protests many were critical of their tactics. They were called too boisterous, too unorganized. The critics missed the point.
BLM wanted to draw attention to the loss of black life. They wanted those who have previously taken black votes for granted to address black concerns. They wanted to be heard, and they have been successful.
No more silent desperation.
2: No More Respectability
Economically, Black America is in a state of emergency. We have the highest rates of poverty per capita in the United States. A white household has 13 times more wealth than a black one, and as of July 2015, unemployment is at 10% for blacks compared to 5% for whites.
It’s not supposed to be this way.
A central tenet of the American Dream is that if you work hard you can succeed. Booker T. Washington embraced this idea. He gave his (in)famous “bootstrap speech” at the Atlanta Exposition in 1865. He tells black people:
Cast down your buckets where you are… In all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.
Washington essentially tells black people to accept segregation. Work hard and you will earn their respect. Accept subjugation…for now.
W.E.B. Du Bois was having none of this.
Foreshadowing rap feuds, Du Bois had beef and went to war on paper. He wrote in the Souls of Black Folk:
Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission…[he] practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races.
James sided with Du Bois:
Du Bois marked a great stage in the history of Negro struggles when he said that Negroes could no longer accept the subordination which Booker T. Washington had preached.
James, like Du Bois, understood an undeniable existential truth: black people cannot attain collective economic self-sufficiency in a culture stained by white supremacy. To say “bloom where you are planted” is akin to planting a flower in poisoned soil and wondering why it withers and dies. Washington’s statements were a precursor to what we now call respectability politics.
For years black youth from working class backgrounds have been told: “pull up your pants” and “graduate from college.” They are told to work within unjust societal arrangements. This advice is given as a way for them to circumnavigate an unfair system—not challenge it. The assumption is that if you behave in a respectable manner, your life and livelihood will be safeguarded against a white supremacist culture.
This is untrue.
James understood that trying to gain the acceptance of people reared in a white supremacist culture by conforming to Eurocentric expectations of civility was an impossible task. We must fight to be seen as having full access to personhood and dignity while simultaneously trying to better our lot economically.
Respectability politics has a problematic ideological foundation. James exposed it long ago. It is time for us to let it go.
We are living in precarious times. If we are wise, we will listen to those who have come before. CLR James spoke to Malcolm X and he listened. We would be wise to do the same.