During the early 70s, Amilcar Cabral wrote extensively on the theme of liberation and the collective persona of subjugated people expressed as culture. His libratory praxis offered a context to dialectically engage notions of freedom and strategies for its attainment. Forty years later, Cabral’s ruminations hold relevance for contemporary social movements.
As of the end of June, police had killed 542 U.S. citizens. Blacks were twice as likely as whites to be killed; the majority were unarmed. In June, 9 church members were massacred by a young white supremacist and a month later, a young Black woman died suspiciously in a Texas jail. The violence of policing and policies creates precarious living situations, trickling down into communities and homes. Resource scarcity, high unemployment, failing schools, vanishing social safety nets, and the criminalization of poverty eventuating in high incarceration rates imperil Black lives.
In 2013, the murder of an unarmed, 17 year-old Black male by a neighborhood watchman who was later acquitted catalyzed a new social movement, #BlackLivesMatter. The act and its aftermath were reminders of colonial laws codifying race, place, and freedom and Missouri Chief Justice Taney’s declaration that U.S. Blacks had no rights whites were bound to respect.
Two years on, Blacks and their allies across the globe are attempting to reaffirm that #BlackLivesMatter. In a July 7 article, Benjamin Woods, doctoral candidate at Howard University, suggested there were six lessons #BlackLivesMatter could learn from Cabral. Although all six have merit, I’ll focus on two ideas: Culture and Ideology and Returning to the Source.
Cabral suggested that as long as a segment of a group maintained its culture, total domination couldn’t be assured. American culture is heteropatriarchal, based on the logic of white supremacy and monopoly capitalism, characterized by individualism, rationality, competition, and consumerism. Despite the system of slavery, people of African descent brought with them and retained ancestral memories evidenced in family structures, spiritual traditions, aesthetic practices, and worldviews that centered collectivism and spirituality. Subjugation of Africans by Europeans resulted in a clash of cultures. Developing in such adverse conditions, African American culture is one of resistance as well as selective and forced assimilation. It can be imagined that an authentic African American culture is what is left when the artifacts of European cultural hegemony are stripped away. An exploration of the Gullah-Geechee people, a semi-maroon group found along the southeastern seaboard, might offer meaningful insights into how a “return to the source” for Black America would look.
Cabral cautioned that a return to the source didn’t mean an uncritical acceptance of (African) traditions or cultural determinism, but rather the rejection of the idea that European culture was superior to Black culture. Woods suggested that re-Africanization was necessary in the current moment of #BlackLivesMatter as was the case in the 60s and 70s when African Americans exercised resistance by reclaiming cultural identities and weaponizing protest art in liberatory struggle.
A “return to the source” required the Black petit-bourgeoisie to commit “class suicide” and act in solidarity with the masses. Recently, Cornel West charged that the Black elite or the “lumpen-bourgeoisie” often acted indifferent to the suffering masses of Blacks and even antithetical to their plight. A recent Gallup poll found that 52% of Blacks thought police treated minorities fairly, with some even calling for increased policing. Given the diversity within African America, one can question if there is a collective Black culture and agreed upon notions of freedom.
Art, education, and politics are elements of culture, as are language and spirituality. Activist-artists, activist-scholars, and people of faith are mobilizing the masses for radical social change using their platforms to raise critical consciousness and putting their bodies on the front line. Hip hop artists are reclaiming the tradition of the Djeli/Griot. Singer Janelle Monae gave BLM an anthem, “Hell You Talmbout,” calling the names of those murdered by policing forces. The religious community is invoking spirit and burning sage. Erykah Badu produced a free mixed tape for healing the Chronic Traumatic Stress Syndrome caused by near daily outrages against Black life. Scholars are theorizing, painters are painting, writers are writing, conscious Black women are rejecting the white aesthetic and wearing their race in their hair and styles of adornment. Our symbols, images, iconography, and stories are galvanizing a new generation in the fight to reclaim Black dignity.
Despite intragroup divisions, I’m convinced that culture still serves as a launching space for libratory struggle. Yesterday, I was approached by a young man, 18 years old, drawn by the Sankofa bird tattoo on my shoulder. He liked its meaning: “Go back and fetch what has been lost.” He shared with me his quest for cultural knowledge and identity as a means to uplift those who come behind him and to engage in dialog with people like me. He gave me hope.
Amira Davis is a mother, grandmother, activist-artist, and independent scholar. Her interests are Black women’s gender theories and popular education.