Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Book Review: Negroes with Guns

Posted: November 27, 2010 in anti-racism, books

This book was suggested to me as a potentially interesting follow-up to Malcolm X’s autobiography. Robert Williams, I’ve since learned, was the first to develop and promote a theory of self-defense within the context of the black liberation movement, and was apparently a significant influence on Huey P. Newton. This book– well-written and a quick read– is a description of Williams’s experiences with armed resistance in Monroe, North Carolina, and of the events which led to his and his wife’s eventual emigration from the U.S. to Cuba.

While Malcolm X supported the concept of self-defense, it wasn’t discussed in much detail in his autobiography. And while I agree that those who face violent oppression are well within their moral rights to respond with violence in the struggle for liberation, I was interested in learning more about how self-defense functions to further that struggle in a way that passive non-violence does not. And this book was very instructive on that subject.

But it also helped me to clarify my thinking on the principles involved. I realized I’d always subscribed to mainstream society’s inaccurate characterization of the debate over the use of violence within the black liberation movement. Rather than properly viewing the disagreement as one between those who advocate pacifism and those who advocate self-defense, we seem to view it as one between those who would embrace violence indiscriminately and those who would reject it. This despite direct statements from Williams himself to the contrary:

Because there has been much distortion of my position, I wish to make it clear that I do not advocate violence for its own sake or for the sake of reprisals against whites. Nor am I against the passive resistance advocated by the Reverend Martin Luther King and others. My only difference with Dr. King is that I believe in flexibility in the freedom struggle.

Still we continue to misinterpret the militant view, no doubt intentionally. Worth noting is that U.S. society, on the whole, is not necessarily predisposed to accept pacifism as a valid philosophy. At best, we might see it as nice in theory but insupportable in practice. At worst, we seem to view it as the last refuge of cowards. So it’s telling that we choose not to apply the “pacifism” label to the methods of Dr. King and the Freedom Riders. This allows us to obscure what might otherwise be a fairly glaring contradiction. Why do we elevate pacifism as the only appropriate path to liberation for the oppressed when we dismiss it so readily in every other context?

Williams, of course, makes the answer clear: because pacifism posed no real threat to white supremacy in the U.S. Armed resistance, however, was capable of wresting concessions from those in power, for several reasons:

  1. Such resistance exposed what Gloria House, in the book’s introduction, labeled the “cowardice inherent in mob mentality.” Actual violence was not necessarily even required; the mere threat of it often sufficed, even when the white mob had a numerical or tactical advantage, because racists were unwilling to trade what they viewed as their own superior lives for the inferior lives of non-whites.
  2. The laws were more readily enforced when the safety of whites was endangered. When the black community in Monroe armed itself and confronted a Klan motorcade which had targeted Dr. Albert E. Perry’s house, city officials, who until that point had consistently supported the Klan’s right to organize, convened in an “emergency session” to ban KKK motorcades from Monroe.
  3. Black resistance tended to garner the kind of international attention that the federal government was interested in avoiding, and thus federal law enforcement could often be persuaded to step in and uphold the law even when local authorities refused.

Reading Williams’s descriptions of the events in Monroe, it’s hard to disagree with his conclusion that the willingness to collect arms and employ self-defense accomplished goals which pacifism did not. In some cases, this resistance even paved the way for the successful employment of non-violent tactics, such as sit-ins:

There was less violence in the Monroe sit-ins than in any other sit-ins in the South. In other communities there were Negroes who had their skulls fractured, but not a single demonstrator was even spat upon during our sit-ins. We had less violence because we had shown the willingness and readiness to fight and defend ourselves.

He describes how the Union County chapter of the NAACP, which was on the verge of dissolution when he joined, eventually saw a “rebirth into militancy” as a result of his attempts to recruit veterans who “who were very militant and who didn’t scare easily.” Despite the fact that the Union County chapter’s efforts were supported even by Southern white pacifists, they received very little support from the national leadership of the NAACP, which eventually suspended Williams from his position due to statements he’d made about the use of violence. But while the suspension was upheld even after Williams appealed it, it forced a debate on the issue of armed resistance and even the NAACP was eventually forced to “reaffirm the right of an individual and collective self-defense against unlawful assaults.”

The Crusader, which Robert Williams and his wife Mabel published during their stay in Cuba.

Williams criticized white liberals and “black Quislings” alike for suggesting that blacks reject militancy in favor of pacifism:

The existence of violence is at the very heart of a racist system… [The Afro-American militant] does not introduce violence into a racist social system– the violence is already there and has always been there… When people say that they are opposed to Negroes ‘resorting to violence’ what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists.

Williams theorizes that while passive non-violent resistance may have led to some gains, they were limited in scope. The integration of certain public spaces and services (e.g. public libraries, swimming holes, the Montgomery public transit system), while symbolically important in that the segregation of those spaces represented a “direct personal assault on a Negro’s dignity,” did not require much in the way of sacrifice from whites. Williams predicted that only when blacks rose to demand true economic parity would they face the fiercest resistance, and in that case, self-defense would be necessary to remind the white racist that “in attacking us he risks his own life.”

It’s evident to me that those engaged in the struggle for liberation should be the only ones to define the terms and methods of that struggle. Which is to say that whites, liberal or no, should have no place in that process (aside from a willingness to support black self-determination), and it’s clear that Williams felt much the same about the leadership of the mainstream civil rights movement. But what of those engaged in the struggle who do not speak from a position of power and who disagree with the use of violence, whether for self-defense or otherwise? bell hooks in Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem:

When we reexamine our history we see African-American antiracist resistance move from being rooted in a love ethic and a moral philosophy centered on peace and reconciliation to a rhetoric and practice of violence. This embracing of violence as an accepted means of solving conflict and social control was an endorsement of the very politics of domination that was at the heart of antiblack racial terrorism. It has ramifications far beyond the social and political realm. It brought a socially legitimized ethos of violence into black family life. It made violence acceptable by suggesting that black men needed to be able to enact violence in order to be men… It was one of the first indications that black folks had internalized habits of being learned from their oppressors.

There does seem to be some evidence for the fact that armed resistance was justified by paternalistic attitudes towards women and rooted in a desire to reaffirm a masculine identity. Williams:

To be fair, he wasn't really opposed to teaching his womenfolk to defend themselves.

As a tactic we use and approved non-violent resistance. But we also believe that a man cannot have human dignity if he allows himself to be abused, to be kicked and beaten to the ground, to allow his wife and children to be attacked, refusing to defend them and himself on the basis that he’s so pious, so self-righteous, that it would demean his personality if he fought back.

hooks’s criticism strikes me as entirely valid, but it also seems clear that violence was a necessary part of confronting deeply entrenched white supremacy. Is it possible to subvert the fact that men use violence to define themselves as men by questioning and eventually rejecting the concept of manhood altogether? Or is violence, even in the service of liberation, inseparable from patriarchal notions of dominance and submission? Obviously there aren’t any easy answers here. But I imagine that hooks and other black feminist writers have explored this in more detail elsewhere, so I expect I have some research to do.

This post doesn’t really seem complete without a mention of the trumped-up kidnapping charges and U.S. persecution which forced Williams and his wife to flee to Cuba. They were granted political asylum and spent four years there, publishing The Crusader and broadcasting on Radio Free Dixie. This book was also written in that period of exile. Williams:

I could think of no other place in the Western Hemisphere where a Negro would be treated as a human being, where the race problem would be understood, and where people would not look upon me as a criminal but as a victim of a trumped-up charge– a charge designed to crush the militant leaders who were beginning to form a new movement, a new militant movement designed for the total liberation of the Afro-Americans.

I hadn’t realized before this how much significance the Cuban Revolution held for blacks in the U.S. during the civil rights era. But the fact that it was the only Western country where Williams felt he’d be safe from racist persecution speaks volumes. Maybe I’ll come back to this when I’ve read more about Cuba, but I felt it deserved at least a mention here.

At any rate: great book, and I’m glad it was recommended to me. It’s a little dispiriting that I’d never even heard of Robert Williams before, but it’s not surprising. Maybe certain influences are too difficult to whitewash and it’s easier to ignore them altogether– which probably makes them all the more important to talk about.

One of the reasons I’ve had less time for blogging lately is that I’ve been spending more time reading. I have a long-term project in mind, the details of which I’m still refining (tentative title: Read ALL the Things?), and maybe I’ll write more about that later. But for now, I’m thinking I might use this blog to collect my thoughts on the books I’ve recently read, at least when I’m capable of expressing those thoughts coherently enough to make them worth posting.

I’ve had a tough time conjuring up the proper superlatives for this particular book. It shot right up to my top five before I’d even gotten a third of the way through. What really surprised me is how engrossing of a read it was. Searing, thought-provoking, challenging—those are things I expected this book to be. But I didn’t expect it to be a page-turner.

Time for an embarrassing admission: until recently, I’d never heard any of the recordings of Malcolm X’s speeches. I’d read transcripts, but it hadn’t occurred to me to see what videos might be floating around on Youtube. The book inspired me to seek some of those out. And now, having “seen” him speak, I’d assert that his style really translates well to the page. As a narrator, he maintains his conversational tone without sacrificing any of the vehemence and forcefulness that made him such a compelling speaker.

After reading the epilogue, I appreciated Malcolm’s choice to, as suggested by Alex Haley, leave all of the previous chapters intact even after later events significantly and negatively affected his feelings about Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. It would have been a shame if he’d revised those sections to reflect his later feelings of betrayal, not just because it would have made for a less suspenseful narrative (as Haley argued), but also because I think the book as written really gives the reader a sense of having witnessed a part of Malcolm’s evolution as it occurred.

The most enjoyable part of the book for me was probably his description of his time in prison. I’m fascinated by autodidacts, and by the process of opening oneself up to new information in the search for truth. I don’t necessarily value intellectual malleability for its own sake—convictions are important—but Malcolm did what I think might be one of the hardest things anyone can ever do: he squarely confronted and acknowledged his own ignorance. And later, when the opinions he’d formed on the basis of his hard-won knowledge were challenged, he didn’t react by jealously guarding his intellectual vanity. He took stock again, and eventually discarded the views that couldn’t be supported by an honest accounting of the facts. A commenter on this post at Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog put it best: “His entire life is a case study in positive human evolution.”

Interestingly, and I think somewhat tragically, that quality of Malcolm’s eventually became a source of criticism from his supporters. From the epilogue:

[A] major complaint was that Malcolm X was himself too confused to be seriously followed any longer. “He doesn’t know what he believes in. No sooner do you hear one thing than he’s switched to something else.”

And his ability to communicate to the masses, to reach and to change those who heard him speak, also became something to bludgeon him with:

Malcolm X only talked, but other civil rights organizations were doing. “All he’s ever done was talk, CORE and SNCC and some of them people of Dr. King’s are out getting beat over the head.”

Not to say that these couldn’t have been fair criticisms. But I found them painful to read all the same.

Malcolm X and Alex Haley.

Speaking of criticisms, I suppose I have a couple of my own. Regarding the book itself, I found I had to do a bit of plodding through the chapters related to Malcolm’s conversion to and work for the Nation of Islam, not because I find the NOI uninteresting, but because the incessant glorification of Elijah Muhammad made for boring reading. Fundamentalism in any of its forms always strikes me as a bit robotic and, well, soulless: all mistakes are the fault of the individual, while all glory is due to the deity of one’s choice or his (always his) earthbound representative. That doesn’t leave much room for reflection.

But that’s really a minor complaint; much more disturbing to me was the sexism. It wasn’t unexpected, but somehow I never got quite used to it. This may be because it wasn’t particularly pervasive. Women as a class were largely invisible throughout the book, so there weren’t many opportunities for their denigration. One could (and many do) make the argument that his feelings on women weren’t atypical for the time period, but I always think that’s something of a weak excuse: we can, and should, expect more from political visionaries.

That said, I don’t consider Malcolm’s sexism to be cause for condemnation. I’ve seen its equally ugly counterpart in other contexts, e.g. the racism and classism of the first- and second-wavers, and viewing these failings as part of a pattern inspired some thoughtfulness. I do think we need to resist the temptation to whitewash or even just offer a token acknowledgment of the failings of those we admire, because to do so prevents us from fully recognizing their humanity and—more importantly – the humanity of those who found their own rights and dignity sacrificed on the altar of another group’s struggle. If we elide that reality, we cause even more harm.

But excoriation seems less productive to me, if only because a hyperfocus on individual flaws diverts our attention from another, potentially more useful, conversation about the flaws of movements. Human beings die, and their potential for growth dies with them. That’s never true of a movement. Evolution is always possible. And maybe the leaders of these movements, flawed as they are, can be the impetus for that evolution if we allow their flaws to inform our understanding of power.

But that’s probably a topic for another post.

I think I’ve learned as much from the reactions to this book as I have from the book itself. To many, Malcolm X’s legacy is exactly as he predicted it would be as he faced the inevitability of his own assassination:

Each day I live as if I am already dead, and I tell you what I would like for you to do. What I am dead–I say it that way because from the things I know, I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form–I want you to just watch and see if I’m not right in what I say: that the white man, in his press, is going to identify me with “hate.”

Meanwhile, in post-racial America... this still happens.

But I’ve also been surprised to see the book (and Malcolm himself) receive a fair amount of mainstream approval. Surprised because white America doesn’t generally relish confronting its own racism, which suggests to me that to the degree that we do embrace Malcolm X, it’s probably at least partially a result of misunderstanding him, whether willfully or not. And a few hours spent reading reviews on Amazon and Goodreads confirmed my suspicion that, at least to some, this book is in fact a cautionary tale. Not about the legacy of racism, slavery and exploitation in the U.S. and elsewhere—or at least not only about that—but about the supposed excesses of the black liberation movement.

According to those who hold this view, Malcolm X is admirable not because he spoke for blacks who felt that the civil rights movement didn’t truly represent them, or because he forced liberal whites to confront their complicity in upholding racist power structures, or because he challenged the idea that passive non-violent resistance is the only path to justice. No: he’s admirable because he “evolved,” which is here defined as “became less hostile towards whites, thereby allowing us to avoid engaging with white supremacy in any fundamental way.” His assassination is held up as the regrettable but unavoidable outcome of a life spent sowing hatred, and the tragedy lies only in the fact that he was forced to reap that hatred just as he’d come to denounce it. How many of us elevate him only because he’s made it safe for us to do so? Are we just taking what we needed from him and discarding the rest?

Maybe. But I think we’re capable of more. We have the ability, and the responsibility, to engage with Malcolm X’s life and death in a way that precludes comfort or reassurance.

Because if we aren’t allowing his words to challenge us, we aren’t listening carefully enough.

bell hooks blew my mind recently.

She’s good at that.

I’ve been reading Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem off and on for the past couple months.* It’s been educational, though perhaps a little frustrating in a way her work usually isn’t for me, in that the heavy focus on self-esteem sometimes gives it the flavor of a self-help book. But that’s a small complaint. Most of the book centers on the struggle of the black community to achieve stability and emotional well-being in a society plagued by racism and patriarchy, which I find a compelling theme.

The whole book’s been challenging in the best way, but one particular bit really struck me: the discussion of how racial integration was, in many ways, harmful for American blacks, and far from a clear improvement over segregation at the time.

The reason for this was quite simple: integration removed them from an all-black community focused heavily on nurturing their growth and achievement, and forced them instead into the very precarious position of everyday interaction with their white oppressors. hooks writes: “Within traditional segregated southern black folk culture we found refuge from the intensity of white racism. Racial integration brought us face-to-face with the possibility of racist assault or an actual confrontation.”

She goes on to describe the traumatizing effect of this displacement on black children in integrated schools. Black boys, in particular, often suffered by being funneled into less-challenging courses because their presence was thought to be a threat to white girls. And all black students were suddenly faced with real threats to their physical safety from their white classmates. Integration, meanwhile, was assumed to be a natural improvement for blacks, because, as hooks writes, “[T]he logic of white supremacist thinking had made it seem that black people were longing to be close to white folks.” She isn’t advocating for a return to segregation, mind; she’s simply pointing out the ways in which this transition was psychologically damaging to the black community.

My initial reaction to which can pretty much be summed up as:

Well, shit.

Integration, harmful? The hell you say! Not that I doubted it for a second, of course; the argument is both objectively persuasive and rooted in hooks’s own personal experiences. But it went against everything I’d been taught from a young age: that segregation was wrong, horrible, terrible, because of course black people suffered by not being allowed full access to white (i.e. “real”) society. Integration, by contrast, was intrinsically good. It was supported by the nice white people and opposed by the bad white people. Now that society is only composed of nice white people (the racists all died in 1987, I think), we can all agree that integration was a Good Thing. Complexity is antithetical to self-congratulation, apparently.

Obviously, no one thought to ask black people how they felt about the shift, or made any attempt to include their perspectives in the discussion or in the historical analysis of integration. Ridiculous thought. Do you ask your hamster how it feels about running on the wheel you so kindly provided it?

I’m going to be a bit self-indulgent here (it is my blog, I suppose) and highlight how this lesson about white hegemony illustrated to me how incredibly narrow my own perspective is. I think of myself as self-aware, as willing to challenge racism (both my own and that of others), as educated about oppression and social justice theory. But, hell, I was still raised in a largely white community, taught by white teachers who were reading from textbooks written by white people. There’s so much I don’t know, and I don’t even know that I don’t know it; this is true on this subject and on so many others. It’s a bit scary, yes. But it’s also awe-inspiring.

Because there’s so much for me to learn, and that’s a beautiful thing.

I believe that my main goal, at this point in my life, should be to unlearn the things I’ve been taught. To question my assumptions. I think this is part of the normal process of radicalizing: developing a different intellectual framework for analyzing and making sense of history and the present. I’m a product of white-supremacist, neoliberal education like most other Americans, and my mind is full of dangerous assumptions and blatant lies. Rooting them out takes time and diligence, but I’m fortunate enough to have both, and also fortunate enough to have access to the work of writers and activists who have spent their lives thinking and talking about these subjects.

Sometimes I feel envious of them, of people who seem to have been born into radicalism. How can I ever catch up? But mostly I feel gratitude. Gratitude that, for reasons having to do with the person I currently am and the people who have affected my life, I’m now open to this process, to this shift in my perceptions. I wasn’t always.

I have a secret wish that I might, at some point, affect someone else’s life in a similar way: broaden their perspective, or cause them to question a long-held assumption, or even just help them ask the right question at the right time. I’m no bell hooks and I never will be, but then, most people aren’t. And it’s not even about a desire for self-glorification; the opposite, in fact, in that I want to be a part of something much bigger than me. I want to think that I’m part of the process of change, that I’m helping to spread it like a virus.

Truth is contagious. I want to be a carrier.

*Interesting tidbit about my experience with this book: because of its title, I feel uncomfortable reading it in public. I tend to get paranoid and imagine that strangers assume me to be reading some ridiculous conservative screed about why the intrinsic nature of black people means they’ll always be on welfare or in prison. I worry that racists think I’m one of them. Silly, maybe, but there it is.