A half-century after the upsurges and heady days of the Black Power Movement, Black Nationalists have yet to develop a coherent theory on Black culture.
Black Nationalists inherited the Black Arts Movement and the Harlem Renaissance as its theoretical workshops. For the last forty years Black Studies departments have churned out position papers and publications. From the pages of novels and thought journals, Black women writers, Black Feminist and LBGTQ activists have probed Afrofuturism's frontiers and excavated Black folklore's vaults to expand our cultural imagination.
And yet, with all these resources at its disposal, Black Nationalists have continued to fumble away opportunities to craft a consensus theory of Black culture. How this happened borders on the unfathomable?
The mistakes committed by Black Nationalists that contributed to our cultural theory deficit are real and disturbing. They are also correctible. "Conundrum's" outline of Black Nationalists shortcomings is by no means exhaustive but addresses some of the substantive issues that have impeded Black Nationalists from resolving its cultural theory conundrum.
To that end "Conundrum" proposes a new construct called "Cultural Enlargement Theory" or CET. It expands our cultural model beyond the traditional strictures of ancestry, history, music, visual arts, literature and religion. CET exploits the boundaries of new frontiers to capture the universe of the Black experience. It embraces the Darker Nation's return to its state of nature as a spiritual reality whose cultural essence is peculiar, assumes a life of its own, and cannot be comprehended in purely Western rationalist terms.
This initiative to push Black Nationalists to develop a cultural theory is a complex and difficult undertaking. To be successful, resurgent Black Nationalists will have to grapple with its cultural challenge as a movement. That may be difficult if Black Nationalism lacks a political center of gravity.
To generate momentum in pursuit of this task, we will be releasing a series of articles over the next six months that explores a multiplicity of challenges inherent in the Black cultural problematic.
In this first installment of the "Conundrum" series, we begin with a brief narrative of the mistakes made by Black Nationalists on the development of Black cultural theory. Why Black Nationalists Failed to Develop a Theory on Black Culture
Conflating Black Nationalism With Competing Black Ideologies
Black Nationalists refusal to distinguish its ideological pedigree from other political forces has resulted in Black Nationalism and Black culture becoming increasingly nebulous concepts, subject to vast and ephemeral interpretations that render its viability suspect.
Black Nationalist ideology upholds the unity and identity of the Black race in America's settler state ("The Cathedral") as a distinct nationality. We are not Pan-Africanists, Afrocentrists, or "Cultural Nationalists," who espouse various brands of African-centered ideologies. At best, they are diasporic Black race-Identitarians. Stokely Carmichael, former SNCC organizer turned Pan-African "socialist" expressed this point of view best when he said, "Blacks require an African ideology that speaks to our Blackness. It's not a question of right or left, it’s a question of Black."
Neither are we Black Marxists who adhere to a universal communist or working-class ideology. We reject Black Supremacy and Black Separatism. We are ethno-nationalists. Our goal is to build the requisite social and political power needed to create an independent majority Black-led nation.
Complicity in Black Cultural Erasure
Pan-Africanists, “Cultural Nationalists,” and Afrocentrists, that assign “African” identities and culture to Blacks in America's settler state, are invested in the destructive practice of “Black cultural erasure.” They deny that Blacks in the U.S. constitute a nation, and that Blacks possess a legitimate or authentic culture. In 1967, self-described “Cultural Nationalist” Maulana Ron Karenga” claimed “Blacks had no culture other than their white slave masters,” effectively blotting out 360 years of Black history and culture with a few strokes of a typewriter.
Harlem Renaissance writers, dramatists, poets, and social critics that fashioned the “New Negro,” also sought to obliterate images of Black slaves, sharecroppers, minstrelsy, vaudeville and "blackface." In attempting to blot out negative stereotypes and racist "Sambo" tropes, Black artists also wanted to expunge slavery and Jim Crow from the collective Black memory. In doing so, they minimized the rich legacy of Black cultural resistance, alternative cultural devises deployed to preserve African customs and rituals, conjuring magic to intimidate whites, improvising cultural forms to mock White culture, and engaging in cultural subterfuge to escape from slavery and terror. Some Renaissance artists forsook their own folk culture to imitate white culture and secure the imprimatur of white social critics to bestow "legitimacy" on their artistic works.
During the Black Arts Movement, radicals artists were eager to replace images of "accommodationists" civil rights advocates that begged for equality with "whites" with new revolutionary impressions of a Black race brimming with pride, new standards of Black beauty and a militant disposition to win its self-determination.
Each generation places it imprints on the struggles of its time, but this cannot be done at the expense of erasing historical antecedents. Time, tradition and generational change has its own organic process of rooting out practices that are no longer useful or retrograde to the advancement of our people. Black Nationalists failed to defend and uphold the historical body of Black culture against Black organizations and artists who engaged in cultural erasure, especially folk culture of the slavery and Jim Crow eras. Black Nationalists don't subscribe to the adage that “Nations are based as much on what the people jointly forget as what they remember.”
Failure to Grasp the Relationship Between Black Cultural Theory and Black Nationalist Theory
Black Nationalists incorrectly grasped the relationship between the political struggle to win nationhood and the cultural struggle to define the soul of the Black nation. The revolutionary fight to win self-determination and establish a Black nation-state is without question a profoundly political struggle. In the heat of the 60's Black urban street rebellions, the Vietnam War, the federal government's Cointelpro attacks to destroy Black organizations and fierce competition between Black organizations, Black Nationalists placed cultural issues on the back burner. We get that. the problem arises when cultural theory remains on the back burner 50 years later.
For any nationalist’s movement, articulating a cultural theory is not an option. Nor can cultural theory be envisioned as an addendum that can simply be attached to a political agenda. A nation's cultural narrative explains its reason for existence. It is a manifesto that reveals why each nation vibrates to its own unique rhythm. Franz Fanon, the Martinican revolutionary once said, "Culture is the first expression of a nation, the expression of its preferences, of its taboos and its patterns." Over the past four hundred years, how Black people have analyzed our environments, made choices about how to work together, form families, develop decision-making models, engage in leisure, create symbols and language to communicate, hold certain things sacred, and made assumptions about the larger universe around us, constitutes the essence of our "organic" cultural development.
Through it all, resistance and justice have been reoccurring themes radiating at the center of Black cultural creativity. So too has the notion of the "Black Nationalist ideal" which emerges in surprising ways. The Darker Nation's response to the movie "Black Panther" and its vision of a futurist Black planet was unprecedented. Culture is a constant, a vector driving Black Nationalism's freedom song. It must be understood and treated as such by Black Failure to Incorporate
Black Feminist Intellectual Contributions in the Cultural Theory
In the 50-year interregnum since the Black Power Movement, Black Nationalists have been reluctant to come to terms with the rise Black Feminism as a potent intellectual, political and social force. With the persistent prodding and leadership of Black Feminists and LGBTTQ activists, the Darker Nation has undergone a sexual revolution whose cultural implications are only just beginning to be revealed. We have referred to this phenomenon in previous articles as the “The Feminization of the Black Liberation Movement.” In our view, the "Black Feminist footprint" is the most important cultural development within the Darker Nation the last half-century. In addition to spawning new leadership styles and methods of organization, Black Feminist writers and theorists have broadened the ecosystem of Black Culture, by resurrecting traditional Black folklore and its organic spiritual sources.
Recognizing Black Culture in its Formative Stage
We believe a Black nation and an authentic Black culture exists in America’s settler state. It was conceived by melding divergent enslaved African ethnicities into a majority population center on a common territory in the South, with a common language, institutions, and economic life manifested in a common folk culture.
Emerging out of the bowels of slavery and terror of Jim Crow, Black people's national development has been distorted and non-traditional. Black people never experienced an extended period of tribal life. We had no enrooted peasantry or nobility, landed aristocracy, kings or traditional capitalist class.
In this respect we are an oppressed nation of a new type that is still in its formative stages of development. As a consequence, Black culture is not fully formed compared to cultures that are thousands of years old, but neither is it a "low-culture" or sub-culture of American culture. Those assertions ford the stream of cultural imperialism, and we reject them root and branch. Black culture has impacted billions of people across the globe as few other cultures have and stands on its own body of work.
In advancing "Cultural Enlargement Theory," we seek to relocate Black culture in the fullness of its traditions. It is only when our customs and practices, our song and verse, our myth and lore are passed from generation to generation that the foundations of our organic traditions can be established. Absorbed, repeated, and refined across the centuries, our collective responses and attitudes to life become instinctual or inbred. In short, as our culture matures it causes us to become a more inner-directed people with a collective sense of destiny.
Today, the threat to the continued flowering of Black culture is not White cultural erasure or appropriation. The threat is corporate mass-produced culture that coops Black culture, turning it into soulless, commercial, homogenized products for popular consumption. Today's culture that promotes constant change, pleasure and superficial meaning. Black Nationalists have an important role to play in defending, promoting, and supporting Black culture and its practitioners. It begins with us moving forward to resolve the conundrum of our cultural theory crisis.
Some Final Thoughts
Central to this analysis is our contention that authentic Black Nationalist forces have been virtually non-existent in a movement largely conducted in its name. Of all the forces historically associated with Black Nationalism: Garveyites, the Nation of Islam, 60’s “Cultural Nationalists,” Black Marxists, and Afrocentrists, none of them are traditional enrooted Black Nationalists. They were not invested intellectually or programmatically in the creation of an independent Black nation-state on the soil of America’s settler imperial empire.
With the exception of the eclectic “Revolutionary Action Movement” (RAM-1963-69), Malcolm X’s post-Nation Of Islam period (1964-65), and the Pan-Africanist “Republic of New Afrika” (RNA-1968-Present) who called for a Black nation-state, the existence of Black Nationalists forces has been the exception rather than the rule. We’ve underscored Black Nationalism’s precarious position within the Black Liberation Movement, not to excuse its delinquency on cultural theory, but to contextualize its shortcomings.
There is, however, cause for renewed optimism about the resurgence of Black Nationalism as a force to be reckoned with. After the long sojourn of the post-Black Power “wilderness years,” Black Nationalists are regrouping. The dynamics of the Black Nationalist project is finally turning in our favor.
We are entering the twilight years of the Garveyite and Pan-Africanist ideological dominance of the Black Nationalist movement since the 1920’s. Over the past five decades, Black people have attained new levels of cultural and intellectual sophistication that will render the allure of Pan-Africanism and their Afrocentrists offspring far less attractive in the days ahead.
The revolutionary impulses that will trigger the 4th Black Nationalist awakening will not come from African liberation movements, as they did in the 60’s. Nor will Blacks have to invest their emotions in Africa to feel a sense of identity. Conjuring visions of ancient Black Egyptian dynasties to validate our civilizational pedigree will increasingly be dismissed as indulgences in vanity.
Today's fluid environment not only underscores the importance of Black Nationalists developing a consensus theory of Black culture, but also grasping the urgency of the moment. The position that culture now occupies in America's political topography is changing. "The Cathedral" has entered a pre-revolutionary period characterized by intensifying race-based cultural warfare in which Black people and other people of color are being targeted by the authoritarian Trump regime and the White Nationalists movement. Under these conditions, a Black cultural revolution may well be a pre-condition for the development of a revolutionary struggle for a Black homeland. Such are the times we live in.