As a network of activists, New Black Nationalists (NBN) produce and circulate ideas supporting the creation of an independent Black nation-state.
A significant point of departure and destination of NBN from past nationalist doctrine and African diaspora experiences is our preparation to forge a new majority Black-led nation-state in which heteropatriarchy is finally overturned. All women, LGTBQ individuals, and marginalized communities in word and deed will enjoy full standing as totalized subjects.
Resolving the heteropatriarchy problematic—an achievement yet to be realized in human history-- requires us to rethink past, present, and futuristic concepts of subject formation, national belonging, and the nation-state. In the course of our inquiries, one of the more compelling intellectual arguments we encountered was Michelle Wright’s 2004 publication, “Becoming Black, Creating Identity in the African Diaspora.”
Professor Wright erects a chronological framework tracing the origins of scientific racism in Europe and America. With critical aplomb, she dissects Black intellectual responses to the eighteenth-century bards of rising Western imperialism and the counternarratives they fashioned to develop Black subject formation theory.
Professor Wright expands the concept of the Other-from-Within and the Other-from-Without in two registers—scientific racist tropes and Black counterdiscourses. She then bookends her work by foregrounding the evolution of Black Feminist thinking on the erasure of Black women from African American discourses on the subject and the nation.
It is the complex relationship between notions of Black identity, the nation-state, and the erasure of Black women as subjects that preoccupies the thinking of New Black Nationalists. Professor Wright argues persuasively that:
The discourse of the modern nation—from its inception in the eighteenth century and in many ways even today—operates on a series of heteropatriarchal assumptions buoyed by an equally heteropatriarchal rhetoric in which the national polity is composed of active (male) and passive (female) members: the former lead, make laws, and otherwise to protect the latter, who devote their lives to serving and obeying the former. As a result, I argue, the counterdiscourses of [W.E.B.]Du Bois, [Amie]Cesaire, [Franz]Fanon, and [Leopold]Senghor speak of the Black subject only as “he” and allocate to that subject full agency, leaving little room for (and even less discussion of ) the Black female subject.
DuBois, like Cesaire and Fanon also relies on heteropatriarchal metaphors to construct moments at which the Black realizes he is Other within the nation. All three construct this moment, I argue as one in which the white female, as the nation, rejects the Black male (on the authority of the white male, who frames each anecdote in the form of modernity and /or progress). Black women, when they do appear in these texts, are background objects and therefore are placed even lower than the white female, who is at least granted some agency.
In fairness to these early twentieth century Black scholars, Wright notes they were fighting “for the full rights of citizenship or sovereignty” from their colonizers and had to demonstrate they deserved to be a full citizens in Western nations or that “the Black collective deserved to be recognized as a nation (the current position of New Black Nationalists).”
Notwithstanding those caveats, the “second generation” of this scholastic tradition, historian Henry Louis Gates and British Professor Paul Gilroy, the father of Black Atlanticists theory, fared no better. Even though they developed counterdiscourses that Professor Wright’s notes, “dissented from…the nationalist and masculinist constructions of the Black subject produced by the first generation,” they never engaged the heteropatriarchal problematic.
Defining “The Black Atlantic” in his 1993 publication, Gilroy explains that:
“The specificity of the modern political and cultural formation that I want to call the black Atlantic can be defined, on one level, through this desire to transcend both the structures of the nation state and the constraints of ethnicity and national particularity. “Essentialist and anti-essentialist theories of black identity has become unhelpful. Regardless of their affiliation to the right, left, or center, groups have fallen back on cultural nationalism."
It’s not surprising then, that Gilroy asserts “Black culture is not African, Caribbean, American or British; it’s a hybrid…The Black Atlantic should be presented as a discrete geo-political unit in the modern capitalist world.”
Professor Wright, and most Black Feminists have historically espoused a more layered and inclusive matrix of Black identity. Thus, her praise of Gilroy’s expansive vision of Black Atlanticist identity, belonging, and subjectivity extending beyond the borders of Black nationalism is not surprising.
Nevertheless, Wright is no one’s chiffon and bouffant liberal. Gilroy, a student of Stuart Hall’s British cultural studies thinktank, didn’t escape Wright’s wrath for repeating the errors of his intellectual predecessors--advocating a Black Atlanticism devoid of engagement on matters of gender and sexuality.
Looking back over the past century of Black intellectual discourse on subject formation, nationality, and the nation-state, New Black Nationalists concur with Professor Wright’s critique on the following points:
*The prevailing view of Black identity, Black subject formation, and Black nations has been heteropatriarchal in theory and practice--excluding Black women, LGBTQ individuals, and other marginalized peoples.
* “The concept of identity [who we are] is inextricably intertwined with the concept of nation [who is and who is not part of our corporeal entity].
*Discourses and theories on the Black subject that fail to develop “subject formation across a range of sociopolitical categories (race, nation, gender, and sexuality) will (re)produce the same structures of exclusions with a Black subject reliant on Black others in order to come into being.” [For example, acceptance of Black women as subject but exclusion of Black queers. Another example was Fanon, Senghor, and Cesaire’s attacks on Black women for holding Black men back or being allies of white men]
* In the Black Nationalist discourse of the 1960s and 1970s, the dominant philosophy posited that: “Black men must fight for their rights and Black women should be satisfied with their subordinate roles as assistants, lovers, and mothers.”
*"In Western (white) discourses on the nation and the subject and Black discourses the story of the nation is always and only the story of men, rendering the nation’s birth, its origins, its present and its future wholly in the hands of men."
*"The white Western concept of the nation is inextricably intertwined with the concepts of the subject in that both are constructed through the dialectic of self/Other. Difference becomes the means by which a dominant group can assert its identity by exterminating oppressing, marginalizing, or simply ignoring those it wishes to exclude."
“Becoming Black” also contained a number of assertions that New Black Nationalists found questionable and other formulations we fundamentally disagreed with. Those issues will be addressed in a separate thought paper.
This response document will not criticize Professor Wright personally. Indeed, most of the differences in question dovetail with a fairly uniform line of attack on Black Nationalists that is rooted in a disagreement over how to critique the lessons of the 60s Black Power era. To that end, we hope to clarify some issues while countering other viewpoints. We do this in the spirit of open and constructive dialogue as outlined in the Black Feminist-Black Nationalist Exchange series currently running on Black-Nationalism.com’s website.
Laying aside theoretical matters for the moment, it’s important not to lose sight of the countervailing winds swirling around the fortress of heteropatriarchy as we move forward.
Of the eighty Black majority-led nations in the world, not one claims to have substantially eradicated state sanctioned sexism, gender discrimination, and patriarchy as the dominate social, political, and power relationship. More than class, race, or nationality, arguably heteropatriarchy is the most resistant force to change in human history.
That being said, New Black Nationalists believe the political terrain and momentum across the African diaspora is shifting decisively in favor of Black women, LGBTQ communities and Black Feminists. Increasingly Black women are winning rights and accruing agency. But reverse engineering nation-bound patriarchy won’t happen as long as national identity and the concept of the nation-state itself (Black or otherwise) are viewed as male-centric phenomenon.
New Black Nationalists believe that a thoroughgoing multi-faceted cultural struggle waged by women and men is required to subvert the logic of heteropatriarchy and overturn it as a reactionary institution.
To get a better sense of how the battle against heteropatriarchy plays out in the cultural arena, we looked at a snapshot of two profoundly different experiences in the African diaspora: Rwanda and America’s imperial settler state.
The ethnic tension that exploded in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, sent shock waves around the world. In the compressed space of one-hundred days, 800,000 people were massacred, and conservative estimates are that 300,000 women were raped.
When peace was finally restored, Rwanda was left with a population that was seventy-one percent female. The small African country with a population of 12.6 million and a land mass the size of New Jersey (the densest population on the continent) faced a daunting future. The women of Rwanda heroically accepted the challenge.
Statistically speaking, Rwanda should easily be the first country in the world to dig the graveyard of heteropatriarchy. The data points mapping the favorable position of Rwandan women are off the charts. Consider the following:
*Rwanda became the world’s first country with a female majority parliament in 2008. In 2020, they remain number one in the world, with sixty-one percent of nation’s parliament comprised of female members.
*Rwanda’s constitution guarantees that women hold a minimum 30% of the legislative seats in the upper and lower chambers of its legislature.
* Female participation in the labor market is 86.0 compared to men at 86.3.
*Rwanda’s legislature passed targeted laws to reduce gender-based violence and guaranteed gender-based employment promotions.
*As of 2015, Rwandan legislation protects women from marital rape, sexual harassment in the workplace, and domestic violence including sexual, physical, emotional, or economic abuse.
*Of the 14 members of Rwanda’s Supreme Court, seven are women.
*Women have the legal right to inherit land, share the assets of a marriage and obtain credit, none of which existed in pre-genocide Rwanda.
*Rwanda is one of a handful of countries to pass an Equal Rights Amendment.
* In 2018, UNICEF reported that Rwandan girls surpassed boys in school enrollment at all levels (girls at 98 percent and boys at 97 percent)
*In 2019, Transparency International ranked Rwanda 51 out of 180 countries for the cleanest governments in the world, and the fifth cleanest in Sub-Saharan Africa.
As suggested, the numbers are impressive, but the story behind them bespeaks a different reality. In a complete inversion of historical models, Rwanda’s initiative to improve women’s health, dramatically expand educational opportunities, appoint women to leadership positions, and guarantee mass participation in elective politics was led from the top down by President Paul Kagame, the military strongman whose army ended the genocide.
Rwanda didn’t try to catch the West: they tried to leap frog past it, including bypassing a feminist movement to recast the role of women in society. Thus, despite extensive legal protections, domestic violence against women, committed mostly by their husbands persist. The phase "niko zubakwa" or "that's how marriages are built” still hums in the local vernacular.
It’s not unusual for Rwandan women in parliament to argue for laws making domestic violence illegal, only to fear physical reprisals in her households if they protest coming home to cook, clean, shine her husband’s shoes, and lay out his socks.
Eighty percent of Rwandan’s live in the remote fastness of the countryside. They are principally employed in the agricultural sector and subsistence farming. Half of them live in poverty and even more have no electricity. Here, the government’s writ of legislative enactments and the rule of law promulgated in Kigali (the capitol) is difficult to enforce.
In this land of contradictions, same-sex sexual activity is legal in Rwanda: same-sex marriages and civil unions are not. Homosexuality is generally considered a taboo topic.
Among many women feminism is a “dirty word.” One high school student at the Akilah Institute for Women described those accused of being a feminist this way:
"That's for Americans. You're trying to be an American. Being 'American' is shorthand for being too aggressive, too liberated, too selfish. The message was clear: You're doing this for yourself, not for the good of your country. They'd say, 'You don't belong in Rwanda,' "
So, women can be systematically oppressed as a category or class of people, but to be a feminist is to engage in “selfish” individualism, and non-patriotic acts. Sound familiar?
To conclude, as some mistakenly have, that Rwanda’s women’s movement (feminist or otherwise) is merely President Kagame’s window dressing, doesn’t do them justice. Necessity compelled President Kagame to save post-genocide Rwanda by unleashing women as a force for reconstruction. They aren’t going back.
Rwanda’s women will continue to swim against the tide of convention. Slowly but surely the country's first feminist group, the high school girls debate teams, new all-girls schools, the small womens business associations, and micro-loan groups that are forming will multiply. So too, the political and organizational sophistication of Rwandan women will grow.
As Justine Uvuza, a Rwandan supporter of the social approach to women’s empowerment, argued in her dissertation, “Despite the relevance of women’s access to political posts/work, failure to tackle gender inequalities in all areas of socialization and reshape the country has reinforced patriarchy in significant ways.” In order to create lasting change in the country, she contends, “a cultural shift” is necessary.
We conclude with a few thoughts about the revolutionary role the Black Feminist movement in America’s settler state continues to play. The complete opposite of the Rwanda experience, since the 1960s, Black Feminists have battle by battle and decade after decade to build a powerful movement from scratch.
They broke all the rules, simultaneously fighting and winning a two-front theoretical war against Black Nationalists and white Feminists in the 1960s and 1970s. Emerging Black Feminists engaged in tenacious rear guard actions in the cultural skirmishes of the Black Arts Movement, then traded blows with the Black intelligentsia in the Literary Criticism Wars that ebbed and flowed throughout the eighties. Through it all Black feminists envisioned broader horizons of gender and LGBTQ expression.
By the 1990s Black feminists were breaking new ground as Intersectionality Theory began to gather converts in route to invading the halls of academia. About the same time, Afrofuturists Black speculative thought and its attendant cultural movement began to take flight. Visionary women and Black feminists were present at the creation as both architects and contributors to the movement that’s metastasizing across the African diaspora.
After decades of struggle in the trenches, Black feminists, and LGBTQ inspired activists emerged as the leadership converting an internet hashtag network into Black Lives Matter’s global offensive against state sanctioned violence. From Ferguson, to Toronto to South Africa, the millennial-based second generation of the Black Feminist movement’s successors were making their mark.
Since the inception of the NBN movement in 2018, we have continuously emphasized that the self-empowerment of Black women, Black feminists, and LGBTQ activists has dramatically changed Black attitudes and practices on a range of issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, women’s and LGBTQ rights, sexuality, leadership styles, political participation, police brutality, restorative justice and more. Black women have not been at the proverbial frontline pushing the boundaries of culture, theory, and criticism: they are the frontline.
The efforts of Black feminists, LGBTQ activists, radical and progressive Black women, have resulted in a dramatic cultural and power shift since the 60s. We’ve referred to this shift as “The Feminization of the New Black Liberation Movement.” What's being emphasized here, and what Black feminists have proved is that broad cultural change can transform a people. Fighting the effects of sexism and patriarchy isn’t just a performative matter of being an anti-discrimination league.
Rather, the “feminization” we speak of is about Black women, Black and LGBTQ activists contributing to a radically new concept of who Black people are or as Professor Wright says, “Until all Black people regardless of their marginalized status, can find representation within a theory of the subject.”
As African descendants of many bloodlines, shaped by the historical confluence of events into a nation without its own self-directing government, the "stateless maroons" of the New Black Nationalist movement conveys its profound appreciation for the work of Professor Wright. We commend inquiring minds to read "Becoming Black" and her 2015 publication "Physics of Blackness."