The Politics of Existence


Originally published in the US magazine The Liberator and republished in Politics and Society, 1971.

I have written this piece with great trepidation I am not, in the literal sense of the term, a Black man, or an American. Nor do I merit, in terms of action, that title of revolutionary which might allow me an entry into your parleys. I have, further, no right to talk to you about your problems.

But if you will extend to me Malcolm X’s definition of colour, then I see no dichotomy between your concern for your people and mine – united as we are by a common oppression and a common hope.

For too long the peoples of South Asia have kept out of your conference chambers-for too long you have kept them out. America is not only in Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia. America is in our countries too-the power behind all our thrones. And the elites of likely to give up power than those in the countries of Nyerere and Obote and Boumedienne. To be Western and English-speaking is still their ambition. Identity-tribal, communal, linguistic-is a ploy to keep native peoples apart. 

In these circumstances, the thinking, the experience of Black Americans has become very much a part of our own. You reflect our problems, our concerns, our possible solutions. Your furious debate between cultural and revolutionary nationalism has particular bearing on the linguistic nationalism that threatens to tear my own country (Ceylon) apart. Your problem, you see, is mine-in more ways than one. That is my justification for intruding these reflections on you. 

“Black Power” is a political metaphor-comprehending, at once, the history, condition, manifesto and program of the black people of America.  Powerlessness, the antonym of power, has characterized their history and accounted for their present condition. To transform that condition is needed the power to determine their own lives and destiny-at all levels. The strategy, the program, to achieve such power entails their solidarity as a people. This in turn implies the concepts of self-help, pride, and an indigenous culture. A metaphor, indeed, but also, in the terse, explosive precision of its language, a resounding call to arms. And that is how it broke from the lips of the marchers on that hot trek from Hernando to Jackson in June 1966. But the mood that precipitated the slogan that heralded the movement had been engendered over centuries of oppression. The grief and rage and submission of those years had often burst into insurrection. But, when in December 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, tired old Rosa Parks, ordered to give up the white seat she had occupied in the bus, answered simply, “No”, her reply was echoed by a young pastor and his congregation. The massive bus boycott that followed-forty-two thousand Negro men and women walked to and from work for 381 days-was the beginning of non-violent mass action. A rebel spirit of deliberate no-saying had seized the Negro. He had stood up-and walked-in a sort of incandescent beauty that men seldom attain in the mass except in their quest for themselves. As yet, it would appear, he had not asked to be counted-in the fullness of his being. He had merely stood up, with his fellows, against the injustices of his immediate oppression. It was a prelude to sensibility

Over the years that followed-in the course of the freedom rides, the sit-ins, the voter registration drives, the marches, the petitions, the demonstrations and the resulting beat-ups, killings, and hand-outs-the black man came to a consciousness of himself as he never had before. No longer would he accept the white man’s image of him as “the quintessence of evil,” no longer would he set store by white promises. For, he had seen four little black children blown to bits as they knelt to pray in a church in Birmingham.  He had watched the manic, hate-filled faces of white parents shrieking, “Lynch her, Lynch her-drag her over to this tree, let’s take care of the nigger” as a fifteen-year-old Negro girl was turned away from Little Rock Central High School and into a white mob by a National Guardsman. And it was he who had stood in the rain and had sung “The Star Spangled Banner” as he was beaten down and arrested. All along he had played the game according to the white man’s rules, only to find him changing the rules so as to keep on winning. He had, in a word, held up to the white man the values he so ardently professed and found in him not the faintest sign of recognition. 

And they “they’” shot James Meredith down-in the back-as he made his lone “pilgrimage against fear” down the highway of his native Mississippi. As Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael and Floyd McKissick gathered the civil rights workers together to resume the march that Meredith had begun, the black participant began to look askance at his white comrade. This self- assured young white who went back to his safe white community at night- fall-what, they asked each other, had he to do with the poor, uncertain, fear-ridden black? Why was the Negro always subject to white guidance, white help, white patronage of one sort or another? Surely he must “do his own thing,” he must go it alone. Why too, non-violence when it was not even safe for a Negro merely to walk his country? And why “we shall overcome someday,” why not “freedom now”? The murmur rose to a crescendo and the outraged cry of “Black Power” burst the heedless land. That is one way of putting it-a symbolic way, perhaps, but none the less exact for all that. For, a mere narration of facts, of events, does not add up to the truth. A metaphor, besides, needs to be understood in terms of the spirit that informs it.

Intimated in the events and mood leading up to the cry of “Black Power” were the philosophy and direction that black politics would take in the future. A year later Carmichael and Hamilton made them explicit in their book: Black Power: the politics of liberation in America. “The concept of Black Power,” they pointed out, “rests on a fundamental premise: before a group can enter the open society, it must first close its ranks. By this we mean that group solidarity is necessary before a group can operate effectively in a pluralistic society.”The Irish had created an urban political machine, the Italians had made a business of crime, the Jews had retained their religious-cultural heritage and, whatever the initial resistance to these groups may have been, they had finally achieved their place in the larger society-on their own terms. The “integration” that was offered the Negro, however, spelt further deracination for himself and the loss of expertise to the community. It contributed nothing to alleviate the condition of the black masses except “the token rewards that an affluent society was perfectly willing to give.” And by holding out the belief that moving into a white neighbourhood or into a white school were criteria of excellence, integration reinforced the myth of white superiority. In effect, “Integration as traditionally articulated would abolish the black community…and not the dependent colonial status that had been inflicted upon it.”

Certain basic themes of current black ideology began to emerge from Carmichael and Hamilton’s analysis of American society. The measure of equality meted out to a people in such a society would depend on their strength as a group. The Negro American had hitherto “bargained” from a position of weakness, due to his lack of racial and political consciousness. Pride in himself and his heritage and control of the institutions that governed his immediate life were, therefore, the prerequisites of the group persona that he would have to develop before he entered the “open society.” In the process, he might well have to “revamp” the existing structure of American society

From the pride and identity argument arose the cultural nationalist sect of Imamu Ameer Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Maulana Ron Karenga; from the corollary-the thesis of a revamped society-grew the revolutionary nationalist branch of Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party. The first tacitly acknowledges the concept of a pluralist society and hopes, within it, to find the power that will give the Afro-American a choice of opting out of or into white society; the latter recognises that racism is a symptom of the malaise in capitalist society and therefore society will itself have to be restructured-and the black man is the obvious historical agent of that process.

Cultural nationalism takes for its text Ron Karenga’s tenet that “culture…gives identity, purpose and direction. It tells us who we are, what we must do, and how we can do it.” But culture itself is based on a value system – black culture on a black value system – and that could only be African-“because we are African, few hundred years.” But however African their orientation, the cultural nationalists place Garvey or the separatist beliefs of the Black Muslims. They stress, instead, the cultural traditions of Africa-African dress, hair style, names, language (Swahili), religion (Islam), and the African sense of community. Spirit House, a three-story tenement in Newark presided over by the poet, novelist, and dramatist, Ameer Baraka (LeRoi Jones), is a focal point of cultural activity. It is here that the African Free School imparts to black children and the Black Community Development and Defense to black adults “a value system” which will make them “move, instinctively, to do what is best.” The emphasis is on the development of personality as opposed to individuality-for “any real individualism would recognise and indeed respect the human personality, and, thereby, free mankind.” Politically, the people are organised along concrete, ad hoc issues geared to building up their own political machinery. Thus in Newark earlier this year, it was the organisation and thrust of the cultural nationalists that were instrumental in securing the election of a Negro candidate as mayor. Business enterprises such as The First and Last Store are run on cooperative lines to serve the needs of the black community. Black art, first fostered in Baraka’s Black Arts Repertory School in Harlem, now flourishes in Spirit House and in similar community projects in the black urban areas across the nation.

The revolutionary nationalists, on the other hand, recognise that no effective change can take place in the lives of the black people until the capitalist system itself is overthrown. But at the same time black people constituted a colony within the mother country. Their oppression was therefore twofold: as a class and as a nation. Class oppression could only be overcome by the broad masses of the people over a period of political time. Racial or national oppression, however, demanded immediate redress by the national minority. And for this purpose the black community should be organised to defend itself against and, in the process, destroy the armies of institutional racism. It was only through the direct action of the victims themselves that they would achieve an end to victimisation. If the police patrolled the community, the community would “patrol”” the police. If the children went hungry, the people would hold up the black capitalists to ransom and provide breakfast for the children. If they wanted a pedestrian crossing at a dangerous intersection where so many children had been run over, the community would not go on petitioning a deaf government, but set up a traffic signal themselves-and keep it there, with a shotgun if necessary. All that the leaders could do was to take on themselves the brunt of oppression. Through precept and example, self-discipline and sacrifice of life, through their good works in the community, they would educate and politicise their people.

Of course, black culture and black identity are essential to the life of the community. But a black American is not just a displaced African. Africa determines his identity no more than America does. They are both his history, however: one tells him whence he came, the other where he is at-two strands of the same consciousness. To accept the one to the exclusion of the other is to submit once again to the type of “double consciousness” that Du Bois spoke of in another context: “a sense of always looking at one-self through the eyes of others.” Black culture, while recognising its African genesis, needs to embrace the American experience and squeeze out of it a culture and an identity uniquely Afro-American. It needs to be coherent and dynamic at the same time. “To create oneself in terms of one’s culture and to reshape society in terms of that creation are part and parcel of the same process. Becoming and doing belong to the same continuum.” By sequestering itself from meaningful social and political action over a wider area, black culture runs the risk of falling prey to black capitalism which is no less dangerous than the white variety. To move against the system even as one discovers one’s identity is to prevent such The nationalism of the black revolutionary, therefore, is outward-looking-in terms of the oppressed peoples both of his own country and of the Third World. No one would be free until all men are free. The business of contingency a free men is to relate to the freedom of others-and therein find “the universality inherent in the human condition.”

Although both sects of the black nationalist movements have their counter- parts in Britain, the conditions that deposited the coloured people on these shores have made for somewhat different orientations. Admittedly the common experience of slavery makes for a common bond between Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American alike. But, whereas the West Indian has moved on from a colonial status to independence (or more accurately to a neo-colonial one), the black man’s relationship to white America is essentially colonial in nature. More significantly the Afro-American, because he, unlike the Afro-Caribbean, has no country, no “land base,” of his own, is locked in mortal embrace with his colonial master and must perish or die with him. The West Indian in Britain, however, can in the final analysis escape his debased status in this country by returning to his own. But in view of the massive and ongoing exploitation of his own country, his choice is between psychological servitude here and economic servitude back home-which is no choice at all,  He is therefore faced with the dual problem of overcoming injustice and discrimination in this country and overthrowing the neo-colonial setup in his own.

The radical black of Britain sees both problems as dynamics of the one continuum. His battle is waged on both fronts simultaneously and because he is a product of both colonialism and slavery he is the common denominator in the struggles of Afro-America and the Third World alike. He is the link that connects the enslaved peoples and the colonised, the blacks of America and the peoples of Afro-Asia. 

It is this link which, in Britain, accounts for the unity, however temporal and ad hoc, between the Asian and West Indian groups. The Universal Coloured Peoples’ Association was the first flower of this burgeoning unity. The Black Unity and Freedom Party, which grew out of a withered Universal Coloured Peoples’ Association is another. It is possible that this organisation, too, will die. But others will take its place-for, the line of growth is clear: unified militant action and the relentless demand for justice are replacing the begging bowl syndrome of the black liberal era.

But this comparative militancy is only a prelude to the revolutionary Black Panther oriented struggles that will be taken up by “the second generation.” For these are youngsters who will not have known any experience but with the British, and it threatens to be an experience akin to that of the blacks in America. It is they who will more closely approximate “the colony within the mother country” status of their American counterparts. And it is they who will take up the same solutions. They will have no country of the mind to return to. They are here and now and will take what British society owes them-as fully fledged British citizens-and will not give. 

This applies, too, to the “second generation” Asian-for he too is no less the product of this society, and his experience of second class citizenship is no different from that of the West Indian’s. His language, his customs, his social orientation which once were Indian or Pakistani are now as wholly British as those of his Caribbean neighbour. Black to him is no less the colour of oppression than to the West Indian-and black power is no less the answer to his ills.

In the doctrine of the pluralist society as envisaged by Roy Jenkins, Britain finds temporary refuge from the problems of a racially mixed society. The “first generation” Asians are already a people, a group, in their own right. Their life-styles have already been formed in the countries of their birth. And they can as a group, be slotted into a pluralist structure. The “first generation” West Indian, that he is not British after all. He had been weaned on mother country mythology, had come home to see his queen, to play his and their game of cricket only to be rejected without ceremony. He was not white after all, he was not British. And so he sets about looking for himself and, out of his blackness, squeezes out an identity which is sheerly his own. Black pride, black culture, black self-determination, black capitalism-he has heard the cry abroad. Now it is his own. From the Spirit House of Ameer Baraka rises the Black House of Abdul Malik. He finds solidarity in his group, he is become his own person. But will he enter the pluralist society?

Or will he move on, through his growing political consciousness, to a point where, along with his denigrated black British children, he challenges the very structure of this society? Or will he return home to create a revolutionary situation there-as some have already attempted to do in Trinidad?

The answers are not clear, but the trend is unmistakable. And given that the “contagion” of black consciousness grows much faster than white recompense, the auguries for a truly multi-racial society in this country are bleak indeed. 

What the Black Power movements of Britain and America and comparable movements in the Third World indicate is the end of white hegemony. For almost half a millennium, Europe had ravaged the countries of Africa, Asia, and America (North and South), imposed her religions and cultures on their peoples, and committed them to one sort of bondage or another. In the wake of that “civilising mission,” “one thousand five hundred million natives” lay torn and rootless. For a while the “native” had allowed himself to be guided by the bright white lights of Europe’s capitals-a beacon in the world of his dark savagery. For a while he had believed in the white world’s “narcissistic dialogue” of eternal values. He had accepted that he himself represented “not only the absence of values but also the negation of values… the corrosive element disfiguring all that has to do with beauty or morality.” 

And he had learned to keep his distance, know his place, he had moved only at the white man’s behest-and only so far as the white man had allowed him. Had he so much as quickened his step or shifted from his allotted place, he had been brought back by force-which, after all, was the only language he under stood. At the same time, he had looked abroad and seen, with growing envy, that the white man’s world was a well-fed world, free, healthy, full of good things, of laughter, of children growing straight and strong, while his benighted world was stricken with hunger and disease, and his children wizened at birth. Violated in every aspect of his being, he had “life to fear rather more than death.” 

Gradually, it dawned on the “native” that white values were meaningless and white promises ineffectual. The white man, it was obvious, did not believe in them himself. His ideology, as Sartre has observed, was “nothing but an ideology of lies, a perfect justification for pillage, its honeyed words, its affectation of sensibility…only alibis for aggression.” It was futile to expect that the “native” would be handed his freedom on a platter. He must, instead, wrest it from his oppressor-with force “the only language he understood.” Violence lay like an incubus on his mind: violence would release him from inaction and despair, violence would regenerate him and make him man. 

The sequence of action and reaction, of violence and counter-violence, is clear: the whites act, the blacks react-and in terms of history, there is no doubt as to where the sequence begins. To argue, in the circumstances, that violence is a matter of choice, that it is self-defeating, is to be impervious to the fact that for some of the oppressed peoples of the world-for the black man in America’s cities, certainly-“violence…is not a matter of choice…but a symptom of the fact that there is no choice should be so reduced to this one inescapable condition is itself the measure of the violence that has been visited on him. And violence in our other.” That anyone’s range of time does not need to be overt and obtrusive to be recognised as violence-for poverty is violence, and racism; and the coincidence of poverty and racism is a violence beyond endurance.

To argue, too, that Black Power in its reaction to racism is itself racist is to overlook the fact that racial prejudice is essentially the white man’s problem. The black man is concerned merely to achieve his humanity. What keeps him from this achievement is white oppression. The need to oppress ,the primitive notion of racial superiority, is the white man’s burden. It is he who must choose to lose it. The black man, again, has no choice. 

To put it differently, white racism is at one level a matter of choice, at another a matter of privilege, but at all levels an exercise in oppression. White racism incurs, somewhere down the line, the denial of human dignity black “racism” envisages the negation of that denial. It is “the rhetoric of abstracted liberalism”18 which accords them equal weight.And the liberal, fearful of the backlash people, points out that “Black Power” itself is an offensive, sympathy-losing phrase. “Coloured Power”, perhaps, or “Negro Power” would have been so much more palatable to the white power structure and less disturbing of the white psyche. But this again is the white man’s problem-for, the connotations of “Black”, created by the white man himself are so frightening, so evil, so primordial that to associate it with power as well is to invoke the nightmare world of divine retribution, of Judgment Day.