HomeBlack Feminist X-ChangeBlack Culture TheoryAfrofuturismBlog

Black Nationalism's Culture Theory Crisis Series: Resolving the Conundrum
May 27, 2019  - No. 1
Why Black Nationalists Failed to Develop a Theory on Black Culture 

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 past forty years Black Studies departments have churned out position papers and publications. From the pages of novels and thought journals, Black women writers, Black Feminists 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 isn't meant to be exhaustive but to elevate some of the substantive issues  impeding Black Nationalists from resolving their cultural theory crisis.   

To that end, "Conundrum" proposes a new construct called "Cultural Enlargement Theory" or CET. It seeks to expand 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 dilemma as a movement. Achieving meaningful progress becomes a more difficult task given that Black Nationalism seemingly lacks a core group--a political center of gravity.                                                                                                                                             
To generate momentum and encourage Black Nationalists to pursue a theoretical breakthrough we will be releasing a series of articles over the next six months exploring those   issues that are central to the Black cultural problematic.   

In this first installment of the "Conundrum" series, we begin with a brief narrative of some of the egregious errors made by Black Nationalists on cultural theory. 

Conflating Black Nationalism With Competing Black Ideologies  

Black Nationalists inability to distinguish its ideological pedigree from other political forces has resulted in Black Nationalism and Black culture becoming an increasingly nebulous concept--one that is 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, these ideological strands represent 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.                                                                                                                                                        As a consequence, they minimized the rich legacy of Black cultural resistance. That resistance included alternative cultural devises deployed to preserve African customs and rituals. Black slaves and free Blacks conjured magic to intimidate whites, improvise cultural forms to mock White culture, and engaged 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, radical artists were eager to replace images of "accommodationist" civil rights advocates that begged for equality with "whites." The Black Aesthetic and Black Arts movements worked to overturn western cultural norms and aesthetic standards of beauty with new definitions of Black beauty and theories of the role of Black Arts.             
The slogan, 'Black Art must expose the enemy, praise the people, and support the revolution' become the watchword of the movement. The slogan  was as incorrect and harmful on cultural matters as it was popular. Nevertheless, it resonated in the Black imagination enamored with new visions of Black is Beautiful, and a militant disposition to win its self-determination.   

Each generation places it imprimatur 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.” We embrace and learn from the entirety of our experience. 

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.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              We understand that in the heat of the 60's Black urban street rebellions, the Vietnam War, the 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.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              But the crisis arose when cultural theory remained on the back burner decade after decade over the next half-century. While Pan-Africanists, Afrocentrists, and Black Feminists retooled their theoretical arsenals in the post-Black Power years, Black Nationalists, generally speaking, retreated on the theoretical front.                                                                                                  

For any nationalists movement, articulating a cultural theory is not optional. 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's 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."                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               The story of Blacks first cultural expressions and the genesis of creating a unique cosmos  since arriving on North America's shores begins with how we analyze our environments. How Blacks made choices about the best ways to overcome slavery's challenges, to form families, to develop decision-making models, engage in leisure, create symbols and language to communicate, and what things to hold sacred, begins the "organic" process of our cultural development.                                       

Through it all, resistance, justice, and liberation have been reoccurring themes animating Black cultural creativity. So too, the notion of the "Black Nationalist ideal" which emerges has surfaced in surprising ways. The response to Garvey's 'Back to Africa movement' simply could not have been anticipated as the largest Black mass movement in our history.                                                                                                                                                                             Similarly, the Darker Nation's response to the movie "Black Panther" and its futurist vision of a  Black planet was unprecedented. Culture is a constant, a vector driving Black Nationalism's freedom song. It must be understood and treated as such.   

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 Feminists have expanded the concept of sexuality and gender. Black feminists writers, literary critics 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 in a common territory in what has historically been called the Black Belt South. Forged by a common language, institutions, and economic life manifested in a folk culture shaped by music, literature, and West African rituals, Black culture assumed a distinct form.   

Because Black culture emerged out of the bowels of slavery and terror of Jim Crow, Black  national development has been distorted and displayed significant non-traditional characteristics. Compared to the traditional development of European nation-states, Black people never experienced an extended period of tribal life. We never had an enrooted peasantry, nobility, landed aristocracy, kings or traditional capitalist class.                        

In this respect we are an oppressed nation of a new type 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 Black culture a 'low-culture' or sub-culture of American culture. Those assertions ford the stream of cultural imperialism. We reject them root and branch. Black culture has impacted billions of people across the globe as few other cultures have and proudly stands on its own body of work.                                                                                                                
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 coopts Black culture, turning it into soulless, commercial, homogenized products for popular consumption.                                                                                                                                                                          Today's culture promotes constant change, pleasure and superficial meaning. It promotes, violence, misogyny, sexual objectification and rampant narcissism. As culture is not value or morality neutral, Black Nationalists strive to encourage Black artists and cultural workers to reflect the highest ethical and moral standards.                                                                                                                                                                                                                            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 Nationalists 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, 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.