The idea that a reverse migration to the south is a route to greater political power should be treated with skepticism. Jon Jeter explains in his review of The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto.
The late pan-Africanist historian John Henrik Clarke was known to cleverly dismiss his critics’ arguments with the retort that “you’re just confessing all that you haven’t read.” By Clarke’s lights, then, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s book, The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto is not, at base, a work of political science or revolutionary theory, but a confessional, worthy of a priest, or perhaps a firing squad but certainly not acclaim, or even a space on anyone’s library shelf.
Blow’s central premise –that African Americans’ best strategy to attain political power is to simply reverse the Great Migration that began more than a century ago and return to the South –is nothing short of preposterous given the Gordian knot of racial capitalism that vexes 41 million Blacks. By flooding the zone, so to speak, Blow asserts that African Americans will be able to fully participate in public life and have a say, finally, in their own governance.
Any serious thinker searching for viable solutions to America’s original and enduring sin will find almost nothing of value in Blow’s sophomoric, and slender (158 pages) treatise. If indeed Blow has interrogated the volumes of literature produced by intellectuals –from Hegel to Gerald Horne, W.E.B. DuBois to Robin D.G. Kelley – who have grappled earnestly with issues of class, race, and political economy, there is scant evidence of it in The Devil You Know.
No writer need adhere strictly to any text or dogma but it is sheer folly –not to mention arrogance – to speak on matters of such vital importance without even bothering to address the ideas that have influenced generations of theorists and shaped the debate to date. As one example, Blow seems blissfully unaware of the 1967 classic, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, written by Charles V. Hamilton and Kwame Ture (née Stokely Carmichael) which centers grassroots organizing and the ensuing social movements –not state and local elections – as the source of all African American progress dating back at least as far as the Reconstruction era. Similarly, Blow seems wholly unfamiliar with Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks which asserts that the hegemons’ authority typically does not lie in any numerical advantages at the ballot box but their control of all cultural institutions –the news and entertainment media, education, and the church –to manufacture consent from the masses. Nor is there any indication that Blow accessed reams of research that concludes that mass resettlement is not an effective anti-poverty program, as evidenced by the failure of Tanzania’s independence hero, Julius Nyerere, to redevelop the East African nation’s agricultural sector in the 1970s. Most experts agree that the ambitious experiment, which relocated as many as six million Tanzanians, failed because it was inorganic, or top-down.
Without this foundation, Blow doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know and is unable to identify what’s broken in Black America, much less fix it. Early on in his book, Blow recalls a conference at the Ford Foundation a few years ago, in which the entertainer Harry Belafonte recalled raising $70,000 to help bail out activists with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. But when he and Sidney Poitier traveled to Mississippi to deliver the money, they were accosted by the Ku Klux Klan; the two Black actors sped off with the klansmen in hot pursuit.
When he finished, Blow remembered Belafonte asking: “Where are the radicals?”
Inspired by Belafonte, Blow set out to answer his call, and in his muddled, mediocre mind, believes that this plodding, unimaginative, uninspired rehash of well-known stories such as Emmet Till’s murder, is the radical answer to African Americans prayer. Blow’s pretensions and grandiosity reminded me of a college professor who would say that Pontiac was an acronym for Poor Ol’ N-gga Thinks It’s A Cadillac.
“I realize that I am proposing nothing short of the most audacious power play by Black America in the history of the country. This book is a grand exhortation to generations of a people, my people, offering a road map to true and lasting political power in the United States.”
Worse yet is that Blow’s zip code revolution is a partisan gambit designed, to turn back the Republican party and put corporate, race-baiting Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in office. In one particularly telling passage, Blow wrote:
“I sought for months to put this proposal to Bill Clinton, someone who I thought had deftly navigated the racial minefields in the South. I got my chance in the wee hours of a summer night on Martha’s Vineyard. He responded with curiosity and inquisition but not agreement or endorsement. The lack of approval was not deflating, because it had not been requested.”
Perhaps the most stunning rebuttal to Blow’s argument, however, can be found in Chicago, which is where, ironically enough, his book begins with a rehash of the Great Migration of Blacks from the Jim Crow South beginning in the early part of the 20th century. But Blow whiffs on the story of what may be the greatest political power grab by African Amerians in U.S. history.
Over a January weekend in 1979, a blizzard blanketed Chicago with nearly two feet of snow, shutting down O’Hare International airport for only the second time ever, swallowing cars whole, collapsing roofs, and disabling the “L.” The trains that continued to run whizzed right by the city’s west side platforms to shuttle commuters to and from their homes in the lily-white suburbs, while leaving Black Chicagoans stranded and wondering what they had to show for their years of loyalty to the powerful big-city Democratic machine.
Known both affectionately and derisively as “Boss,” Chicago’s pharaoh-like Mayor, Richard J. Daley, deployed a byzantine network of aldermen and precinct captains to dole out a few crumbs —a job on the city payroll here, an endorsement there, a pint of cheap whiskey, a canned ham, maybe a bed in a nursing home — to African American voters, their pastors and docile Black politicians like William Dawson in exchange for their vote. When carrots didn’t work, the Cook County Democratic machine wasn’t shy about brandishing the stick, threatening to evict a tenant from public housing, or withhold a welfare check from anyone who dared to vote against its candidates. Daley actually lost the White vote in 1963 but overwhelming support from Black voters reelected him. As stocks of affordable housing shrank, police terror against communities of color escalated, and public school enrollment remained separate and unequal for years after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, complaints about this attenuated quid pro quo became increasingly animated, however.
Despite their allegiance to the machine, African Americans were denied all but the most menial patronage jobs, accounting for scarcely one in every 30 managers in the city. When a 24-year-old Jesse Jackson met with Daley about job prospects in 1965, Daley offered him a job as a toll booth operator, despite his college degree and a letter of recommendation from North Carolina’s governor, a fellow Democrat.
It was the deep freeze of ‘79 that finally sparked the fire next time, with Black Chicagoans turning out the following spring in then-record numbers to replace Daley’s handpicked successor, Michael Bilandic, with a lakefront liberal, Jane Byrne, as the party’s nominee.
If anything she was worse. After a promising debut, Byrne decided to get a start on her reelection campaign by wooing white, ethnic voters, who were increasingly anxious in a city that resembled postwar Vienna, with a population divided roughly into thirds between Whites, Blacks and Latinos. By her administration’s midterm, the “Snow Queen” had eased out the Black interim police chief for a white officer; fired the head of the CTA to hire a white successor, removed two of the five African Americans on the school board and replaced them with white women who cut their teeth in the racially-charged anti-busing movement; passed over an accomplished black educator for a white superintendent, and replaced two black board members on the Chicago Housing Authority with whites.
A group of Black, grassroots activists devised a plan that resulted in the 1983 election of Chicago’s first Black Mayor, Harold Washington. Beginning with political education courses, Palmer’s group spearheaded an effort that raised nearly half a million dollars for Washington’s campaign, registered 237,000 new voters – 180,000 of whom were Black –shuttled Washington to public housing projects where few candidates dared venture, and shuttled each other to the polls on Election Day.
Washington would die only a year into his second term, but his administration was characterized by its responsiveness to Chicago’s working-class, including a Black demographic that did not account for a majority of the city’s voters. Conversely, the poisoning of the water supply in majority- Black Michigan cities like Flint and Benton Harbor, the gentrification of the erstwhile Chocolate City of Washington D.C., and the foreclosure crisis that has decimated the nation’s wealthiest majority in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, lends further credence to my strong belief that Blow simply pulled much of this book out of his ass.
History is clear that Black Power is not a numbers game – were that the case there never would’ve been a Great Migration in the first place – but an imaginative, organized, and radical African American proletariat that is fully engaged in public life.
A former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Jon Jeter is the author of Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People and the co-author of A Day Late and a Dollar Short: Dark Days and Bright Nights in Obama's Postracial America. His work can be found on Patreon.