Cedric J. Robinson: the Making of a Black Radical Intellectual

Just as Thucydides believed that historical consciousness of a people in crisis provided the possibility of more virtuous action, more informed and rational choices, so do I.

–Cedric J. Robinson, 1999

On Sunday, June 5, we lost an intellectual giant. Cedric Robinson was a wholly original thinker whose five books and dozens of essays challenged liberal and Marxist theories of political change, exposed the racial character of capitalism, unearthed a Black Radical Tradition and examined its social, political, cultural, and intellectual bases, interrogated the role of theater and film in forming ideologies of race and class, and overturned standard historical interpretations of the last millennia. Like W. E. B. Du Bois, Michel Foucault, Sylvia Wynter, and Edward Said, Robinson was that rare polymath capable of seeing the whole—its genesis as well as its possible future. No discipline could contain him. No geography or era was beyond his reach. He was equally adept at discussing Ancient Greece, England’s Middle Ages, plantations in Cyprus or South Carolina, anticolonial rebellions in Africa or Asia, as well as contemporary politics of Iran and Vietnam, El Salvador and the Philippines. No thinker—not Hegel, not Hannah Arendt, not even Frantz Fanon—was above criticism. We can seed why academia basically ignored his writings until recently: he threw down the gauntlet before the alter of “Social Sciences,” and challenged Black Studies to embrace its radical mission, which he once described as “a critique of Western Civilization.”

Oakland born and bred, Robinson came into the world on November 5, 1940, as Cedric James Hill, child of Clara Whiteside and Frederick Hill. A local nightclub owner nearly twenty years Clara’s senior, Hill and Clara never married and soon parted ways. Cedric’s named changed after Clara wed Dwight Robinson, though their marriage was short-lived.   Like so many Black working-class families, Cedric was raised largely by his extended family.   When “Ricky” was not with his mother, he stayed with his aunt Wilma Roundtree and his cousins, briefly lived with his father, Frederick Hill, and spent considerable time with his grandparents, Cecilia (“Mama Do”) and Winston “Cap” Whiteside, at their home on Adeline Street in Oakland. Cedric grew particularly close to “Cap,” whom he consistently identified as one of the most important influences on his intellectual and political outlook.

Born in Mobile, Alabama, on June 7, 1894, Winston Wilmer Whiteside embodied the personal dignity, discipline, quiet intelligence, spiritual grounding, courage, and commitment to family and community that characterized what Cedric called the Black Radical Tradition. Although he had little formal education and worked principally as a porter or janitor, Cap owned his Adeline Street home and was respected in his community. Unlike most Black residents in West Oakland who came during the war-time boom; Cap arrived in the late 1920s . . . fleeing for his life. The story, as Cedric heard it, goes something like this: Cecilia was working as a housekeeper at the Battle House, Mobile’s renowned luxury hotel. When Cap learned that a white manager attempted to sexually assault Cecilia, he headed straight to the Battle House, beat the manager unconscious and left him hanging on a hook in the hotel’s cold storage room.   A few days later, he headed west, first to Chicago and then to Oakland. Once settled, he sent for Cecilia and his three daughters, Clara, Lillian, and Wilma. In his book, Black Movements, Robinson wryly delivers the denouement: “Chastened, the manager gained a reputation as one of the best friends of the Negro in Mobile.”

Cedric grew up during the height of the Second Great Migration, as Black and white Southern migrants arrived in droves. He attended public schools where he learned from Black women and men who held advanced degrees but could not break the professional color bar. He took great pride in his teachers and the challenging intellectual environment they created. He was able to use his mother’s address in order to attend Berkeley High, a school with a reputation for academic excellence, political radicalism and racism. In the 1950s, Black students at Berkeley were often steered away from college prep courses toward metal shop, and an unspoken color bar separated student activities. Consequently, Cedric received no assistance or direction from his high school counselors with the college admission process. Elizabeth Robinson recalls that Cedric simply showed up at U.C. Berkeley’s campus in the Fall of 1959 and stood in the registration line, falling in behind Shyamala Gopalan. Gopalan, an incoming graduate student from India pursuing a PhD in nutrition and endocrinology (and future mother to California Attorney General Kamala Harris), would soon become one of Cedric’s close friends. Perhaps because he followed an international student, was dark skinned, and projected a sense of entitlement at a university with so few Black students, the registrar assumed he was an African national and asked if his government planned to pay his fees!

Cedric had no government to pay his fees, so he worked.   He washed dishes at the Bear’s Lair (the coffee shop in the student union), cleaned hotel rooms, and during the summer worked in a cannery overseeing titration, stealing time to read whenever he could. He majored in social anthropology and soon gained a reputation as an activist. He and J. Herman Blake (a sociology doctoral student and future university administrator who would ghost-write Huey P. Newton’s 1970 memoir, Revolutionary Suicide) were principal leaders of the NAACP’s campus chapter. In March 1961, they worked with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee to bring Robert F. Williams to speak at Berkeley High’s Little Theater. Former president of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, Williams came to prominence after the national leadership suspended him for advocating armed self-defense. In 1960, he traveled to Cuba with a delegation of Black artists and intellectuals and returned home, hoisted a Cuban flag in his backyard and pledged his support for Fidel Castro. (Just months after Berkeley visit, Williams and his family took refuge in Cuba to escape trumped up kidnapping charges.) Blake and Robinson had invited Williams in defiance of national leadership. As Cedric explained to historian Donna Murch, they decided to break with Roy Wilkins and the old guard: “We wanted a different kind of analysis, a politics that emerged from an analysis of race in America and race in the globe. . . .   [T]hese were [the] global as well as international dynamics at the time.”

A month later, the Kennedy administration launched the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Cedric helped organize demonstrations on campus against the invasion and U.S. policy toward Cuba, for which he received a one-semester suspension. The University of California prohibited protests on campus without official approval and forty-eight hours notice. In his defense, Cedric countered that the U.S. government did not give them forty-eight hours warning before launching the invasion.  Since he had to finish out the spring term, he continued to agitate. He and Blake had invited Malcolm X to speak on campus in May, only to be rebuffed by the administration. (They eventually moved the event off campus to the local YMCA, also known as Stiles Hall.)

That summer, Cedric delivered a paper on “Campus Civil Rights Groups and the Administration” at a conference organized by the left-leaning campus group SLATE. Barely twenty-one, the deliberate and soft-spoken Robinson forcefully described the administration’s unremitting hostility toward civil rights organizations, namely Students for Racial Equality and the NAACP. He pointed to three instances in which the administration banned students from peacefully picketing racism on campus or banned speakers such as Malcolm X. In response to the administration’s claim that the state constitution prohibited the university from using its facilities “for religious purposes,” Cedric simply disclosed “the fact that such speakers as Rev. Roy Nichols, Billy Graham, Rabbi Fine and Bishop Pike had previously spoken on campus. Indeed, the last-named churchman spoke on campus the very afternoon that Malcolm X had originally been scheduled. It only needs to be added that Malcolm X thereupon continued his speaking tour, a tour which had already taken him to such institutions as Harvard, Boston, and Columbia Universities.” He closed with a parting shot at Berkeley’s ineffectual student government “with its ever-present, if always impotent, motion of censure of the administration.”

Cedric served his six months of exile in Mexico (his second choice after Cuba). He wandered the country, lived among the people, became fluent in Spanish, studied the culture and politics, and read. He returned to campus at the beginning of 1962, just as several of his political comrades were joining Black study groups. Donald Warden, Leslie and Jim Lacy, J. Herman Blake, Nebby Lou Crawford, Ernest Allen, Jr., Margot Dashiell, Welton Smith, Shyamala Gopalan, Donald Hopkins, Frederick Douglas Lewis and Mary Agnes Lewis, began meeting regularly to discuss Black identity, African decolonization, historical and contemporary racism, and to read works by Ralph Ellison, Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier, Melville Herskovits and others. This loose gathering coalesced in the Afro-American Association, led by Donald Warden, a law student at Boalt Hall. Cedric was a part of the original group, which subsequently attracted future Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton.

After graduating in 1963, Cedric took a job at the Alameda County Probation Department, although he continued to be active in Bay Area Civil Rights activities. He participated in direct-action protests in San Francisco over the racist hiring practices at the city’s luxury hotels and along Auto Row on Van Ness, where the major car dealerships refused to hire Black sales people. But even more than the mass protests, his experience working for the Probation Department put him in direct contact with the sort of kids he grew up with in Oakland—kids with limited education and few skills forced to navigate a racially segmented job market. He found the work challenging yet important, knowing fully well that he was employed by a criminal justice system hostile to Black people.

But before he could complete his training, he was drafted and assigned to the Officer Candidate School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, since he had a college degree. Ironically, his activism saved him from being deployed to Vietnam. The military held up his security clearance because of his political history and his friendship with fellow Berkeley student Douglas Wachter, a prominent member of the Communist Party who had been subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1961. By the time security clearance was granted, he only had six months left of his tour.

Upon discharge, Robinson returned to his job at the Alameda Probation Department. There he met a new employee named Elizabeth Peters. The product of a middle-class Lebanese-American family, she also matriculated at Berkeley, but entered in the fall of 1961 while Cedric was in Mexico. With a degree in criminology and a genuine concern for the fate of kids under the California Youth Authority, she became a counselor in child protective services while Cedric worked with teens in the senior boys camp. Prefiguring the language of restorative justice, they embraced effective, transactional methods to reach young people.   But the rise of the Black Panthers, the antiwar movement, radical prison organizing, and urban rebellions made clear that the existing criminal justice system was incapable of real reform. Cedric and Elizabeth saw no future in probation.

In August of 1967, they were married. Cedric enrolled in San Francisco State University to pursue an M.A. degree in Political Science, arriving just as the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) was fighting for an Ethnic Studies College. He also taught at San Francisco City College. Before he could complete his thesis, however, Stanford University’s Political Science Department recruited him for their PhD program in political theory. He accepted their offer but alerted his prospective mentors that he aimed to challenge the discipline’s most basic premises. They failed to heed his warning.

Cedric found Stanford cold and isolating. He worked hard, attended seminars, read voraciously, but never succumbed to the prevailing culture of academic elitism. Elizabeth recalls one of his professors arguing that he should not “advance to candidacy since he’s not been properly socialized.” None of this prevented him from writing. A Leverhulme fellowship enabled he and Elizabeth to spend 1970-71 at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, where he completed his dissertation, “Leadership: A Mythic Paradigm.”   In 370 pages, Robinson demolished the Western presumption that mass movements reflect social order and are maintained and rationalized by the authority of leadership. Challenging the conceits of 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 that even Western anarchist traditions could not shake. After taking on virtually the whole of Western political theory, he presented examples from Siberia, Switzerland, the French countryside, and Southern Africa of social formations that represent an epistemological break from dominant paradigm of order. He used the Tonga people of Zambia and Zimbabwe as his principal case study, largely because he wanted to illuminate non-Western examples of radical democracy in order to break with Eurocentric models of Greco-Roman diffusion. He told an interviewer nearly three decades later that one of the main contributions of The Terms of Order and, later, Black Marxism, was to identify in African traditions a commitment to “a social order in which no voice was greater than another.” At the core of this democratic culture was a moral philosophy that values “our historical and immediate interdependence,” our relations with each other, with ancestors, with future generations, with life itself.

When Cedric submitted his dissertation for approval, the faculty did not know what to make of it. One by one, individual members resigned from his committee citing an inability to understand the work. No one could reasonably reject a thesis so sound, elegant, and erudite, but few were willing to sign off. Only after Cedric threatened legal action was his thesis finally accepted—nearly four years later. Finding a publisher proved equally frustrating. When SUNY Press finally released the book, now titled The Terms of Order: Political Science and the Myth of Leadership in 1980, it was thoroughly ignored and soon disappeared. (Fortunately, the University of North Carolina Press brought it back into print with a brilliant Foreword by Erica Edwards, giving the book a new life and the attention it deserved thirty-five years ago.)

As they awaited Stanford’s decision, Cedric accepted a position as Lecturer in Political Science and Black Studies at the University of Michigan from 1971 to 1973. His appointment was partly the product of student struggles waged by the Black Action Movement the previous year. Cedric and Elizabeth joined a community of radical and progressive blackmarxismintellectuals, including Harold Cruse, anthropologist Mick Taussig, Africanist historian Joel Samoff, cultural critic Marshall Sahlins, and Archie Singham, noted scholar of Caribbean and African politics. Elizabeth returned to school, earning an M.A. in Anthropology from U of M. Together they devoted much of their energy to the graduate students, hosting regular seminars and workshops in their home, feeding and nurturing a generation who would reshape Black Studies. Darryl Thomas, then a first-year grad student in Political Science, found these gatherings invaluable: “That community remained a source of strength and survival long after the Robinsons’ departure from the university in 1973. The workshop exemplified how to pursue the type of interdisciplinary research and scholarship originally imagined by the students and faculty members who led the insurrections that created Black studies.”

In 1973, Cedric accepted his first tenure-track job at Binghamton University – State University of New York. Still technically without a doctorate, he briefly joined the Political Science Department until Terrence Hopkins persuaded him to move to Sociology. He was also appointed Chair of the Department Afro-American and African Studies. Meanwhile, Elizabeth was admitted to the PhD program in Anthropology and worked as a graduate assistant in Sociology during the founding of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations. Although it is never said, Cedric doubtless left an imprint on the Braudel Center’s intellectual formation. The Robinsons five short years in Binghamton proved consequential in other ways, as well. It was there that their daughter, Najda, was born. And it was there, traversing the worlds of Black Studies, historical sociology, and world systems analysis that the seeds of Cedric’s magnum opus, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, were planted. But it was in the U.K., and Santa Barbara, California, that those seeds bore fruit.

In 1978, Cedric became director of the Center for Black Studies Research and joined the Political Science Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Before completely settling into his new position, however, he, Elizabeth and Najda spent a year in the English village of Radwinter, just southeast of Cambridge. Cedric began a life-long association with London’s Institute of Race Relations, writing for its journal Race and Class, and hanging out with the likes of A. Sivanandan, Colin Prescod, Hazel Waters, Paul Gilroy, and C. L. R. James. He was soon invited to join the Editorial Working Committee. He conducted research at Cambridge University, and published articles at a furious pace—on Richard Wright, Du Bois, Amilcar Cabral, filmmaker and novelist Sembene Ousmane; on the limits of European radicalism, the formation of the black petit-bourgeoisie, and the Eurocentric character of historical theory.   His 1980 essay in the Braudel Center’s journal, Review, rehearses his chief arguments in Black Marxism by way of a critique of the liberal Scottish historian George Shepperson’s treatment of John Chilembwe’s 1915 anticolonial uprising in Malawi. Titled “Notes Toward a ‘Native’ Theory of History,” Robinson respectfully takes Shepperson to task for ignoring the African cultural and ontological bases for the rebellion and imposing a European (specifically a Scottish nationalist) lens masquerading as universal. “He has sought to dignify Chilembwe,” wrote Robinson, “by forcing his peculiar and particular movement into a style quite alien to it: European political revolution. 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.” It was a critical intervention, for Shepperson was one of the “good guys,” a careful, sympathetic, deeply anti-imperialist scholar noted for his attention African agency. Indeed, Robinson’s essay elicited a polite eight-page defense from Shepperson that appeared in a subsequent issue of Review.

When Zed Press, an obscure left-leaning London publishing house, released Robinson’s monumental Black Marxism in 1983, it was largely ignored, treated as a curiosity, or grossly misunderstood. For a the few radical thinkers willing to wrestle with the text, it inspired a generation to rethink Marxism and attend more carefully to historical materials. Robinson took Marxism to task for its inability to comprehend the racial character of capitalism or radical movements outside of the West. He essentially re-wrote the history of the rise of the West from Ancient times to the mid-20th century, scrutinizing the very idea that capitalism could impose universal categories of class on the entire world. Tracing the roots of black radical thought to a shared epistemology among diverse African people, he shows that the first waves of African New World revolts were not governed by a critique structured by Western conceptions of freedom but a total rejection of enslavement and racism as it was experienced. Revolts, Robinson emphasized, which were often led by women.   However, with the advent of formal colonialism and the incorporation of black labor into a more fully governed social structure, emerges the 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. And it is that intelligentsia which occupies the last section of the book. He reveals how W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, and Richard Wright, by confronting Black mass movements, revised their positions on Western Marxism or broke with it altogether. The way they came to the Black Radical Tradition was more of an act of recognition than invention; they did not create the theory of black radicalism as much as found it in the movements of “ordinary” Black people. Much like The Terms of Order, Black Marxism would enjoy a renaissance after it was re-issued in 2000.

The Robinsons made Santa Barbara their permanent home. In 1980, Cedric and a UCSB student named Corey Dubin, launched Third World News Review (TWNR), a radio program and later a public access television show that, in Elizabeth Robinson’s words, served as “a small corrective gloss on what the Pentagon, White House or State Department proffered for public consumption.” For three decades, Cedric and Elizabeth co-hosted TWNR, providing in-depth reporting and political analysis on a variety of global crises, from the Iranian Revolution and U.S. “dirty wars” in Argentina and Central America, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa the invasion of Grenada, the bombing of Lebanon, the contested elections in the Philippines, the machinations of Mobutu in the Congo, to the ongoing struggles in Palestine. Most importantly, consistent with Cedric’s history of political activism and his commitment to meet people where they are, TWNR attracted a significant following beyond the academy.

Over the next thirty-six years, Cedric Robinson enjoyed a distinguished academic career. He rose through the ranks, served as Chair of Political Science, trained a brilliant group of graduate students who have transformed the fields of Cultural and Ethnic Studies, History, Politics, and Social Theory. He published three more books, numerous articles, delivered lectures all over the world, earned honors and accolades for his scholarship and teaching, and continued to write and mentor after his retirement in 2010. Festschrifts have been put together in his honor; key academic journals have dedicated special issues to his scholarship; major conferences have been held to critically engage his ideas—most recently, the extraordinarily successful “Confronting Racial Capitalism: The Black Radical Tradition and Cultures of Liberation,” organized by Ruth Wilson Gilmore at the CUNY Graduate Center in 2014.

But this is not the whole story. Cedric never settled down, never grew complacent. He continued to be his quiet, funny, eloquent, dangerous self; an intellectual deeply committed to community and struggle.   In 1987, as Chair of Political Science he publicly exposed a CIA agent appointed as a lecturer in his department and severely downgraded his position. In 1989, he joined a hunger strike in support of student demands for an Ethnic Studies requirement at UCSB. In 1994, he organized a student team to document the history of Santa Barbara’s Black community. And in 1997, he published Black Movements in America.

A small, immensely readable narrative covering four centuries, Black Movements was more than a synthesis pitched to undergraduates. Robinson makes an original argument that Black movements have been guided by two distinct political cultures–an individualistic culture that sought acceptance, recognition, and assimilation, and a “communitarian” culture that sought autonomy and embraced democratic principles, Afro-Christian ethics, and “a political culture that distinguished between the inferior world of the political and the transcendent universe of moral goods.” The latter, he suggested, was more widespread, more inventive, held more promise, and was driven largely by Black women.

Robinson’s 2001 text, An Anthropology of Marxism, fell entirely beneath the radar. A brilliant exegesis on the history and roots of socialism in Europe, prefaced by an equally brilliant essay by sociologist Avery Gordon, Robinson demonstrates that most streams of socialist thought were not only distinct from Marxism but preceded his era by centuries. The book directly challenges Perry Anderson’s various attempts at historicizing Marxism by reminding us that varieties of socialism predate capitalism—they, too, were responses to the stagnation of the feudal order. He opens up the discussion about what socialism is, and what kind of futures various socialisms might have imagined. (Fortunately, in 2019 the University of North Carolina Press re-issued An Anthropology of Marxism with a stunning new Introduction by H. L. T. Quan.)

On first glance, his last book, Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film Before World War II (2007), may appear to mark a significant departure from his previous work.   This is partly true, given the book’s prodigious archival research into the sources of early film and theater. It is a stunning achievement. On the other hand, Cedric has been writing about film since the 1970s. More importantly, Forgeries bears a resemblance to Black Marxism in that it is much more than what is advertised in the title. It is not simply a study of film and race; it is a history of the reconstitution and reconstruction of racial regimes in the modern era, the consolidation of modern whiteness, and resistance to these regimes in the U.S.  Cedric takes us back to Elizabethan England and the reconstruction of The Moor in Othello, to early modern science, to the incredible convergence of motion picture technology, the consolidation of finance capital, and the rise of Jim Crow. In a magnificent chapter on D. W. Griffiths “Birth of a Nation,” he reveals 1915 as a crucial turning point in the formation of a new racial regime, and Griffith’s purported “masterpiece” played the critical role in consolidating and circulating old racial fabulations and new fictions in the process of capitalist expansion. But the scramble to prove black inferiority and buttress white racial democracy was no cakewalk. As Forgeries consistently reminds us, racial ideology must be constantly manufactured and therefore always rests on shaky grounds.   This is the power of film: it “educates” the public through forgeries and fraudulent histories, through representations that erase more than reveal. But like all class tools, it can be a weapon of revision and restoration. Forgeries was conceived as the first of two volumes—the second slated to cover the second half of the 20th century. Tragically, aside from a few scattered articles, this part of the work shall remain unfinished.

In 2013, Cedric addressed the Critical Ethnic Studies conference in Chicago. He only spoke for ten minutes, mostly extemporaneously. Choosing his words carefully, he spoke in his customary slow and deliberate style, expertly pausing to allow his subtle humor to catch hold of the audience. He was as dangerous as ever. “Critical Ethnic Studies is not really about the academy,” he intoned. It was about the people who demanded we be here, the dispossessed, the incarcerated, the underhoused, underemployed, undocumented, the people who sacrificed for us and who the state sacrifices for capital. He warned of the moral catastrophe we face if we succeed in the academy while those who demanded that we be here suffer premature death, in the streets or behind bars. Racial capitalism must be dismantled.

But then he pivoted, perhaps channeling his grandfather, Mr. Winston Whitehead. He began to speak wistfully about the spiritual and communitarian traditions in which he was raised. “One of the things I was exposed to was this immense notion of the possible through the construction of the notion of faith. So Christian faith trained me to be able to believe in, to anticipate, something coming into being that was not in being. That’s called by the Greek word, ‘Utopia,’ which means the good society. It also means no society, no such place. That gave me a framework for looking at what others, before me, had imagined was possible in their lifetime. And that’s why it was so important for me to look at the notion of radicalism from the vantage point of slaves. . . . According to some scholars, the slaves. . . [had] no ambitions, except to perhaps live or perhaps to die. They had experienced social death. Well that’s nonsense.   Because they were something more than was what was expected of them, they could invent, manufacture, conspire, and organize way beyond the possibilities.”

Cedric J. Robinson spent a lifetime believing and demonstrating that we could invent, manufacture, conspire, and organize way beyond the possibilities. He left behind a body of work to which we must return constantly and urgently. He left behind a brilliant assemblage of students, formal and informal, willing to confront racial capitalism and wrestle with difficult questions. And he left an extraordinary family – a daughter Najda, a grandson Jacob, and the indefatigable Elizabeth, without whom there would be far fewer possibilities.

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Robin D. G. Kelley, who teaches at UCLA, is the author of the remarkable biography Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009) and most recently Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (2012). He is a contributor to Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence.