Race the revolutionary experience

Speech to the World Council of Churches Consultation on Racism held in London  19-24 May 1969 which was to set up its Programme to Combat Racism, which was later published in Race Today August 1969.


It is highly pragmatic that the World Council of Churches should wish to get as many views as possible about racial thinking in the world today before it sat down to working out a programme of salvation. But having read the working papers submitted to this assembly and having listened to some of the speakers, men so eminent that I am almost blackmailed into silence, I find that we are once again submitting ourselves to the academic game of abstractions. In the name of understanding the ‘subject’ better, we are once again walling ourselves up against the wild world outside with high-faluting concepts couched in rarified jargon, leading to half-truths, or worse, to truths with the life beaten out of them and sometimes even to downright falsehoods. 

It is my submission that we must return the abstractions of Academia to the living conditions from which they were taken and begin to look at the racial problem in simple, ordinary, human terms – to translate, if you like, the abstract into the personal. For it is only in that way that we can retain and enlarge the vision which will make us one with the lowest common denominators of our societies.

To put it differently: the racial experience, I contend, is a revolutionary experience. Revolutionary experiences require revolutionary tools of understanding. They demand that we throw out our prefabricated modes of thought and feeling and start afresh with tools hewn out of the experience itself. And because the racial experience speaks to every aspect of our lives and determines both who we are and what we shall become, individually and collectively, because it is so utterly total and pervasive, it requires us to look at everything around us, the State, the Church, power, people, love, sex, Society-ourselves-in terms of the categories that it has thrown up. Is there, for instance, a Christian point of view on race relations? Or should we look at Christianity itself from the vantage point of racial exploitation? Has the doctrine of original sin got anything to do with racism? Isn’t it possible, barely possible, that such a doctrine made it inevitable that the whites, whose God, having been cast in their own image was understandably white and blonde and blue-eyed, should invest the blacks (and the devil, as God’s antonym, could be no other colour) with the sexuality they had to flee? Isn’t it possible that the Christian idiom in seeing black and white as antipodal had already prejudiced the discoverers of the New World and Africa into thinking that the natives were in fact the devils of Christian mythology? And was that how the Word was made flesh? 

And language shouldn’t we be looking at language itself from the viewpoint of the racial experience? Can we pass off our idioms -nigger in the woodpile, working like a black, black-hearted, this and so much more – as a matter of metaphor when we now know that language is also gesture? Can we then not understand why it is incumbent on us to rescue black words from their blackness and make them beautiful? And at the same time reject the whiteness that caused the black to die? 

And not merely in the larger idiom need we look at language anew. We need also to examine the stupefying phrases that sociologists, and educationalists in particular have come to use when they speak, for instance, of disadvantaged children, unrealistic aspirations, of our children and your children. Who disadvantaged the children? Why are their aspirations unrealistic? Do we hold out Browning’s belief that ‘a man’s reach must exceed his grasp’ only to some of our children? I for one do not believe that there is any such thing as your children and mine. Children are the continuing measure of our humanity and we stand or fall by what we do to them. 

Marxism, too, needs to be viewed anew from the standpoint of black experience. For too long the Marxist theologians have held out that a common oppressor makes for a common bond, and that the workers are the natural allies of the black people. But this in fact is not so. And it is not heresy to acknowledge it. The workers do not have a divine right to oppression. Marx himself picked them out for mention only because they were at the bottom of the heap at the time–and it was their struggle to emancipate themselves that would engender the emancipation of all mankind. Values, Marx was saying, are created from the very bone of humanity. Today it is the black man who is at the bottom of the pile, and it is his attempt to re-create himself that must lead to the resurrection of man. It is up to the white worker to identify himself with the cause of those more dehumanised than himself. And it is up to the white Marxist theologians to investigate such a possibility and not to inveigh against black nationalism. Oppression, they will see, if they care to use the fresh criteria thrown up by the racial experience, oppression in its colonial aspect had undergone a qualitative change and put the white worker in a class above his fellow black. A techno-logical civilisation has accentuated this process and rendered the black people the sub-proletariat of white society. Whiteness, from where I stand, seems to enshrine privilege as much as Capitalism does. Is it possible then that colour, not class, has become the dialectical agent of revolution? But to leave it so is to compound a vertical division of the world in terms of the Third World (including China and Cuba) and the West (including Russia—for Russia’s antipathy to China is more racial than ideological). 

Isn’t it obvious then that you need to overthrow the military-industrial juntas of the West and create a truly Socialist society before you can even begin to align yourselves with what you conceive to be the problems of the Third World or to discuss the viability of pluralist societies in your own backyard? 

Where is the Christian witness to the genocide in Vietnam? How would black people view the Clergy’s reaction (notwithstanding the World Council of Churches) to James Forman’s claims for ‘reparations’ except as the predictable stand of vested interests? And because white society is riddled with racism it is unable to see that its heroes are hollow men—and that the men who speak for us, the men who, like Daedalus, have forged on the smithy of their souls—their colonised souls—the conscience of the oppressed are Mao and Nyerere, Amilcar Cabral and Ho Chi Minh, Fanon and Cesaire, Cleaver and Giap. Or take the questions of power and democracy—the things that are the continuing concern of young people today. Power, they are trying to say, has become anonymous—and therefore the vigilance that keeps power confined has become desultory and dissipated. Power, moving from king to Parliament, may have become vitiated, but it has also gone underground. 

Worse, power holds out that according to the rules of Parliamentary democracy, anybody can become a part of the power group. Which means, of course, that you need to accept the status quo, and not try to change it. Power itself hinges on obedience and obedience is predicated by the desire for order, the desire for an unchanging scheme of things. Disobedience of any kind is a threat to power, and so power, whenever it is threatened, claims the sanction of the general will. But disobedience at the racial level has once again exposed the repressive nature of ‘democratic tolerance’. 

And the Jews. How would we look at the occupation forces of Israel and the incident at Ocean Hill-Brownsville with these new eyes of our’s—this new vision? Like the white worker of doctrinaire Marxist theology does the Jew too have a divine claim on oppression? When does one sequence of history cease and another begin? How long will it take before we recognise that yesterday’s oppressed may be tomorrow’s oppressor? And how long will it be before we shall cry out? And if the black people, when the wheel of history comes full circle, themselves turn oppressor how long shall we indulge in the self-flagellating guilt that allows us to overlook the sins of others only because they were once ours as well? 

And what about the doctrines of Liberalism? How do they look to the black man? Violence for instance. Violence the liberal says is self-defeating, it is morally wrong. One doesn’t have to be violent. And so the thinking goes, on and on and on. One needs only to arrest oneself in this headlong flight of pietism and ask one-self whether any human being in his senses would choose to be violent. And then, the explanation must clearly be that the violence we have known in the cities of America is not a matter of choice, but a symptom of the fact that, for the black man, there is no choice—that it is an externalisation of his death-wish—that it is the violence of a people so utterly violated in their being that they prefer to die fighting than to protract, in the lines of Eliot, ‘the chilled delirium of their brains.’ And what do the theologians have to say about the nature of choice itself—how free is free will in our society?