A half-century after the upsurges and heady days of the Black Power Movement, Black Nationalists have yet to develop and reach consensus on a coherent theory of Black culture.
Black Nationalists inherited the Black Arts Movement and the Harlem Renaissance as its theoretical workshops. Over the last four decades Black Studies departments and African-Americanists have churned out position papers and publications plumbing the depths of the Black experience.
From a cache of novels and thought journals, Black women writers, Black Feminists and LBGTQ activists have excavated Black folklore's vaults and probed Afrofuturist frontiers to stretch our cultural imagination.
Yet, with all these resources and history at its disposal, Black Nationalists have lacked a sense of urgency to grapple with the essential questions of our identify and culture. Gripped by a sense of resignation, Black Nationalists seem to have been adrift or suffering the aftereffects of ethnic fatigue from the Black Arts Movement's demise and the subsequent attempts by Afrocentrists to redefine our culture.
The mistakes committed by Black Nationalists that contributed to our cultural theory deficit are real and disturbing. They are also correctible. To that end, we are introducing a new framework called "Cultural Enlargement Theory" or CET. It revisits and expands the traditional strictures of ancestry, history, music, visual arts, literature and religion. CET 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 its totality cannot be comprehended in Western rationalist terms.
This initiative imploring Black Nationalists to fashion a cultural theory is a complex and difficult undertaking. To be successful, Black Nationalists, at some point in the near future will have to undertake this discussion as a collective movement, with all its variegated thinking. That challenge becomes all the more difficult given that Black Nationalists have yet to solidify a political center of gravity.
Nevertheless, we must find a path forward. Over the next six months we are releasing a series of articles that hopefully identifies the core elements of a consensus Black Cultural theory.
We begin with a brief narrative that outlines some missteps made by Black Nationalists that militated against the development of a consensus cultural theory.
Conflating Black Nationalism With Competing Black Ideologies
Black Nationalists were unable to sufficiently distinguish its ideological pedigree from other organizations during the Black Power era. This resulted in Black Nationalism and Black culture becoming increasingly nebulous concepts, subject to vast and ephemeral interpretations that rendered its viability suspect.
The Black Nationalism of which we speak defines Black people as a distinct nation. As such, Black people are invested with self-determination to seek liberation in the form creating its own independent nation-state, autonomous region, independent city-state, or voluntary association in a larger multi-racial republic. Black culture defines our national existence. Its organic roots, recovery, revitalization and reconstruction is at the heart of our Black Nationalist project.
We believe 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 may not be 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. In short, we are a historically constituted people.
We do not deny our African heritage, we embrace it. But the center of our being, the essence our experience is not an African one. Thus, we are not Pan-Africanists or Afrocentrists, who espouse various brands of African-centered ideology. We regard these trends as diasporic Black race-Identitarians or Black Atlanticists.
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 not religious nationalists in the vein of the Nation of Nation or Black Hebrew Israelites. We are religious pluralists.
We regard Pan Africanists, Afrocentrists, Socialists and Marxists as friends and allies. At the same time we must make it clear that our goal is to build the requisite social and political power needed to create an independent majority Black-led nation.
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.
Complicity in Black Cultural Erasure
Pan-Africanists and Afrocentrists, that assign “African” identities and culture to Blacks in America's settler state, are unfortunately complicit in the destructive practice of “Black cultural erasure.” We don't believe they hold these views to deliberately undermine Black culture. Nevertheless, they deny that Blacks in America's settler state possess an 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 imprint 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 struggled 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 own our history; all of it.
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.
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 and gender identity 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, ” and its new egalitarian sensibilities. 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.
Today, the threat to the flowering of Black culture is not White cultural erasure or appropriation. The threat is corporate mass-produced culture that seeks to co-opt 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.
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, Ron Karenga's “Cultural Nationalists,” Black Marxists, and Afrocentrists, none of them were 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.
Notwithstanding 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 offered divergent visions of a Black nation, Black Nationalists advocating for a homeland have 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.