Stokeley and H. Rap Brown
What H. Rap Brown Has To Say To Us Fifty Years Later – Part 2 In “How H. Rap Brown Foretold the Future of Black Power” Quest explained how Brown, from 1967-1971, was uncompromising both against the white racial state and counter-punched within emerging Black identity and community formation. Brown could see how the Black Power movement’s revolutionary potential, as embodied by insurgent t uprisings, was being co-opted by cultural nationalism, electoral and ethnic patronage politics, and notions of American Exceptionalism.
We will continue our discussion of H. Rap Brown, and how he foretold the future of Black Power, challenging the co-optation of Malcolm X’s idea of “by any means necessary,” noting the emergence of Black capitalism as the essence of Black Power, and how he predicted the contradictions of the Age of Obama. Brown saw the vote as a tool of oppression. He also saw his advocacy of popular justice, retaliation against racial violence through guerilla warfare, and his standing public trial, as an opportunity to educate Black people about the nature of the white supremacist system.
Black Power as Social Capital Reconcilable with American Exceptionalism
The Black Power movement initially challenged “melting pot” ideas of American success that always disparaged Black cultural potential as failing to assimilate. But Black cultural nationalists contributed to a new ethnic pluralism by permanently asking what is wrong with the U.S. Even Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), a revolutionary nationalist formation, shifted from advocating a Third World Revolution before 1968 that placed African Americans as part of a larger Black World to reminding that African American culture is the foundation of American national culture. This should underscore for us a transformation in how Black Power was understood, from building a new society to accessing and negotiating ethnic power within the main currents of the dominant regime. African American culture became social capital and real capital in the main currents of society.
Asking “cultural” questions became social capital for some as part of a subtle reconciliation with American Exceptionalism. Black cultural nationalism, H. Rap Brown suggested, as manifestation of Black Power, was becoming a cult, a type of romantic religious utopia animated by new concepts of beauty and fashion. It is something that to this day constantly renews itself as a phenomenon easily consumed but never recasts the terms of social reproduction.
Black was beautiful but it wasn’t consistently prepared to deal with the police state suggested Brown. Black cultural nationalism on one level was a confrontation with the old white liberalism. But it also could re-engineer liberalism. Brown anticipated the critique we should have of what is wrong with multicultural education. The burdens of Black and other historically oppressed people should not be the facilitator of educational meditations for the cultural apparatus of the police state.
While he felt Blacks were the vanguard of the freedom struggle, because Black people were the most dispossessed, he found that “the social revolution” could be aborted. Brown in this way could contribute to reinforcing the premises of white privilege politics that at other moments he discarded. If Blacks were the radical democratic conscience of the American nation or an independent black nation, and Blacks had “a second sight,” as W.E.B. Du Bois argued in The Souls of Black Folk, which whites inherently could never know, where did this consciousness periodically retreat?
Brown did create in certain white radicals' minds, who increasingly spread guilt and talked of white privilege like it was a mass line, that they would be called on when needed and declared useful in relation to Black affirmation. To be the whites that supported black power, even black radicalism, when their multiple meanings were constantly shifting, was to be put in the position of a mascot without self-determination of their own. Still, small groups of whites, in unrecognized ways by history helped Brown and others retaliate against fascist attacks in the American South. Perhaps this is why Brown’s comrades Ralph Featherstone and Che Payne were assassinated, blown up in their car as they drove to a Maryland courthouse in 1970. Brown and Featherstone likely were part of guerilla actions, carrying out retaliatory attacks against white supremacists.
Blacks were not more politically advanced because of the material conditions of their oppression, not just economic and patriarchal, but especially the gaze and brutality of the white supremacist state. Victimization does not inherently produce in minds a clarified political outlook (by any ideological measure we might like to suggest). Brown understood this, which is why he emphasized the need for Blacks to politically relate to radical ideas and ideologies not personalities (who could be of any race or color).
Brown seemed to suggest an emphasis on identity, culture, electoral and patronage politics could lead to dividing the African American from the Asian, Latin, and Native Americans. He seemed to anticipate the problem of what is today called Afro-Pessimism and offered criticism of a singular focus on anti-black racism as a pessimistic disposition that retreats from social revolution.
Brown often made fun of evolving consumer marketing strategies that filled the television with the need to combat bad breath or dirty toilet bowls as the major crisis in society. The major crisis in society was the condition of Blacks, and Blacks often told lies that “we were making progress.” Today, of course, some tell lies that Black people have made no progress since the Middle Passage and that they feel the scars of the lash more emotively from secure professional positions, where they have never disturbed anyone, than insurgents from fifty years ago.
Brown had a critique of what people were starting to call progressive developments. Progress is mistakenly equated with concessions – ethnic patronage politics that produces Black faces in high places. At that time, Brown called such people “tokens” whether found in Congress, the Supreme Court or as astronauts. In every historical social revolution there is a revolt not just against aristocratic and conservative forces but progressive forces. At the height of mass confrontation with the state the term “progressive” is not tossed around loosely – it is not used at all except by those open to reconverting state power to their own hierarchical desires. In fact, Brown helps us grasp that the term “progressive” is often a label placed on substandard and indefensible phenomena.
Brown tried to clarify that what was at issue was freedom or slavery – there was no such thing as second class citizenship for this was like being “a little bit pregnant.” Brown underscored that when Blacks enter revolutionary struggle they will have to “knock off” the people oppressing them. This is not the essence of revolutionary struggle but is characteristic historically of struggle having reached a certain stage.
Black Power, Green Power?
Brown was fighting against the current that Black empowerment was “green power” and would come through getting money. He noted that to understand power one had to observe what had been the recent change in the Federal Reserve Bank, the decision to go off the gold standard. Those who had power printed money at will. In a side splitting and yet weighty insight, Brown said the white man could decide that rocks would be the preferred currency or reserve standard tomorrow after Blacks were encouraged to gather up all the rocks and bring them in.
Those who had power controlled the electric company, the telephone company, and for Blacks to control power in the fashion that white men did, Brown emphasized, was undesirable. In recent years deregulation and privatization of utilities have found executives of color along with their white allies becoming filthy rich.
Brown fifty years ago contested that most Blacks always accepted white nationalism and taught it to their children. It would be a mistake not to underscore that Blacks can spread a socialization of American imperial nationalism today at times short of an explicit anti-black content exactly because of the contradictions that Brown was fighting in his moment of danger.
Brown was sharp, despite 1968 being also the year of the liberal Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, to point out that Kennedy promoted collaboration of Blacks with the police against Black revolutionaries. That President Johnson, another liberal, promoted vigilante action against both the Black movement and the labor movement -- this was bold for Brown to say where Dr. King was a friend of the bureaucratic labor movement and discussed strategy for the Black movement with Johnson in the White House.
This historical fact should make us rethink state surveillance of the Black freedom movement but for some reason it does not. Some spy on freedom movements for the state, spread disinformation and even assassinate leaders. But some call the president, mayor and police chief and let them know ahead of time when they will arrive to be supposedly disobedient, and collaborate in condemning and rooting out a higher order of troublemakers. Until those who join protest marches can see this for themselves they are not emerging as mature political thinkers and leaders in their own right. In this regard Brown was among the most sophisticated of his generation.
Brown made global connections between French colonial policy in Algeria which encouraged “people’s militias” among white people to patrol and suppress people of color. He projected to Black audiences when white people buy guns “they are buying them for you.”
H. Rap Brown and Gender
In a meeting of Civil Rights leaders where Brown was chairperson of SNCC, he once confronted President Johnson in the oval office, when the normally intimidating Johnson, who was a physical presence in his own right, suggested mass demonstrations outside the White House were keeping his children awake at night. Brown, unlike the meager moderates around him, told Johnson he didn’t give a damn while his people continued to be persecuted.
Brown spoke of Johnson as “Hitler’s illegitimate child” and J. Edgar Hoover as his “half-sister” – more signifying. It was wise to illuminate that African American experience of white supremacy and fascism clarified that “a holocaust” didn’t appear in Europe against Jews as a mistake or an exception to historical development. While Hoover’s homosexuality is now widely known, and Brown’s critique of him was scandalously bold in opposing white supremacy, we understand now it was wrong to lampoon gay people as less than “a man” or a “sissy.” Machismo was mistakenly a fellow traveler of Black Power politics for many years, and even Brown’s SNCC comrade Cleveland Sellers in his memoir River of No Return, pointed out Brown’s gendered limitations. He is the father of Bakari Sellers who reveres the American empire of today as a careerist.
Brown could say at times the Black middle class was a myth. That when there were urban uprisings in cities like Detroit this exposed the true condition of Blacks. When Brown said “class structures were a luxury we cannot afford” this seemed to suggest that elite identities maintained by conspicuous and fashionable purchases could not guarantee that such Blacks would not be assaulted by fascists.
Brown’s awareness of the “King Alfred Plan” (or something like it), that in a state of emergency there were multiple concentration camps prepared by the government, suggested that the small group of notable Black radicals could not fill them up all by themselves. Brown used this premise to chide the Black middle class who felt elitism suited their identity.
Brown reminded that Blacks were not outnumbered, though this may be true demographically in the U.S. in some places, but out organized. Organization was a prelude to meaningful coalition of the dispossessed.
Brown tried to challenge individualism in the Black community. He explained Black college students tended to believe that as individuals they were on a path to success and that they could separate themselves out from the general population, a term to describe prisoners. However, when police or fascist attacks happened, Brown contested, those with middle class aspirations learned to use the term “we” quickly. Individualism was used as a tool to divide and conquer. He argued white people don’t exist as individuals. Patriotic notions that obscure white supremacy make it clear most white people function as a group. Brown was trying to illuminate that the very notion of “the people” or “American people” meant white people. This was a big challenge to a previous generation of Black radicals, such as those influenced by Paul Robeson, who while having Black pride, tried to labor a multi-cultural identity for what was only conceived as Anglo-America.
Brown exposed the notion that when the police stated “we are a minority too” that they were “a thin blue line.” This is false. They express in organized form the ideology of the ruling elite of this country, defense of property and subordination of labor, which the multitudes are socialized to identify. So the police do not function as individuals, though a handful of individual police may mean well.
One of the problems of Brown’s critique of individualism among Blacks and his preaching of collectivism, is it could be interpreted as having authoritarian implications when there is no autonomy for women of color or queer people of color to articulate the grievances of its sectors of the community.
Brown advocated that every historically oppressed people should be nationalist in the anti-imperialist sense of that term, and that “white people should be humane (nothing else),” for in a historical white supremacist society the expression of white nationalism was reactionary, a fascist expression.
For Brown historically oppressed people’s nationalism was a prelude toward coalitions based on multi-racial unity with radical whites. The historical moment of Brown’s prominence as a public figure seemed for many to be a turn away from the multi-racial unity embodied by SNCC toward racial separatism and that this was disappointing on one level for those trying to overcome racial divides. But it was not only that. It was also a historical moment where white radicals increasingly asked themselves how they could take some of the weight off Black radicals by making their own armed interventions or anti-fascist counter-attacks to heighten the contradictions of a society that seemed on the brink. It was important that some made clear all white people were not loyal to white supremacy by their practical (but also militant) activity.
Relate to Concepts, Not Personalities
Brown tried to get people to relate to concepts, ideas, philosophies not personalities – leadership personalities in the Black community, he contested, often were invented or manufactured by white capitalist elites. In Atlanta, Detroit, Newark, Little Rock, Chicago, New York, Oakland can we see this?
Brown articulated the need for a vanguard, a cadre who were advanced and special only in how they defended the ethics and values of the liberation struggle, and extended these principles in combat. Leadership could be affirmed or discarded to the extent personalities or organizations maintained radical commitments.
At the same time, Brown encouraged those with a higher reading and writing capacity (many college students used to have that), to play a certain role in political education, agitation, and propaganda. But Brown warned that HBCUs, particularly in the South, were socially organized in such a way, that those attending were taught to be afraid or separate from the marginal Black toilers, unemployed, and street force in the surrounding community.
Usually a railroad track or lake divides the HBCU campus from ordinary Blacks in Brown’s time. While these campuses have not physically moved, deep into the post-civil rights era, the average HBCU student today may be deeper from the marginal working people than in the past, even as new non-elitist outlooks have not reanimated these schools.
Then and now, a racial uplift ideology was promoted that promised the formally educated leadership positions based on a disposition that assumed the marginal who lived around the college may be ministered to, or serviced as subordinates, but not seen as the main current of culture or social power.
Brown also looked at the culture of Black fraternities and sororities and high school sports. He recognized that what he called a “tribalism” was often encouraged that sustained counter-productive tendencies in the Black community toward competition with no transformative purpose. This could distort what a more dynamic empowerment might look like.
Brown warned against how discussions of law and order undermine proper thinking about racial justice. Black professionals tend to hesitate when ordinary Blacks are attacked because the former accept the latter are damaged and no good.
Where Brown questioned the problem of unemployment among Blacks, pointing out that nobody in Vietnam is unemployed, he was projecting that wage labor doesn’t determine our purpose or work ethic, that the liberation struggle should keep us busy.
That was something remarkable to say while people were being drafted against their will, and paid to go fight in Vietnam against people who never had threatened Blacks or any Americans for that matter. The threat of Vietnam like that of the Third World was nominally, or to a greater extent, these nations’ pursuit of their own self-government undermined U.S. imperial dominance.
For Brown, the Detroit uprising was an answer to Langston Hughes’s question “what happens to a dream differed… does it explode?” He said now Detroit was called “Destroyed.” Affirmative action, model cities programs and poverty programs, in the context of urban uprisings, were meant to buy off Blacks temporarily – they did not speak to the causes of poverty, alienation or dispossession. Those who would not be bought off would be killed off reminded Brown.
Brown questioned, was it the role of an avant-garde to sit back and wait before repression and the material conditions of Black existence force the community together into a more meaningful and functional political unit? It is a profound basis of inquiry. The Black political prisoners who still linger in American dungeons as a result of this previous historical period, despite real state repression, was also a product of a miscalculation about the long-term viability of insurgent potential of this past moment of Black Power.
Fascism: A Special Period or the Main Current of American History?
There are probably good reasons for considering fascism, in light of H. Rap Brown’s life and other’s insurgent commitments, as both a special period in historical development, and at the same time a main current of American history. This may seem contradictory at first, but it is a strategic and tactical question.
If Black History is not a constituent element or special field of U.S. History but its main current (this is not to mention Native American genocide without which U.S. History cannot be properly understood), then the U.S. has always been a fascist country.
Fascism cannot be a special period, an exception to the rule of historical development for Black or colonized people. Though, it is true from another angle, fascism is a certain type of response of the state to capitalism in decay. But most do not realize that when this is suggested something else is also implied. Capitalism (on certain terms, perhaps previously) can be life enhancing. The proper social organization of labor and human needs can be life enhancing but never have those who pursue property and profit in the name of this service been so.
The point is historically speaking, a successful armed liberation struggle cannot supersede a necessary period of mass democratic revolt. If the national experience of the U.S. has been fascism from generation to generation, very few have chosen to organize their lives of resistance as if that was so.
Still, it is a danger when we normalize the conditions Blacks face, it is difficult to resist the lingering legacy of scientific racism and Social Darwinism, however formally discredited. They creep back in to inform our political practice, for we need to explain why Blacks are not “successful.” This is expressed often among Blacks with the common lament about “black on black crime” and Black self-destruction. This is internalized racism, and of course is never a comment on the Black formally educated, elites, and professionals (who are doing “well”), nor a comment about how white misbehavior never seems to undermine European association with civilization in official public opinion.
Brown popularized the idea of power being connected to a gun. But then he clarified power could also be wielded by scholars and journalists to the extent they knew how to write and organize in manners that those with less formal education were unfamiliar. On occasion he could even suggest Black labor through sabotage of the means of production could make a major intervention in workplaces. If the economic necessities were guaranteed all human beings, “race” would disappear as a badge of degradation associated with marginal toilers, though white racists might sustain the idea to justify a hierarchy of cultures sustaining their own blind spots and false sense of superiority.
The Cooptation of “By Any Means Necessary”
Brown warned Malcolm X’s adage “by any means necessary” was being appropriated by many unprincipled people. It was necessary offer guidelines and define the means that were necessary. Otherwise, within that framework lobbying for reform, searching for money and personal advancement, can also be wielded as “black power” and be said to undermine “the man” – the trouble is, it does not.
For years many had said “what the white man really fears is Blacks who get their education.” This was a false start and overwhelmingly wrong. In fact, the more socialization from formal educational processes one could accept and navigate, in direct proportion it was almost impossible to maintain a radical outlook in practice. There are exceptions to this rule in history but they are very rare and probably it has been a mistake to elevate such doctoral personalities for it can be a diversion – whatever Dr. King, Walter Rodney, Angela Davis, and Che Guevara have contributed.
Historical rebellions, freedom movements, and socialization for professional success have been blurred in contemporary Black Studies textbooks. We might rethink if this is new. While community-based scholars have always done "Black Studies," the original institutionalization of Black Studies at the height of Brown's prominence, reminds us what aspects of cultural nationalist criticism can be accepted by an institutionally racist society. Again, this process began fifty years ago not a short time ago.
It is questionable if Brown was correct that politics was already adequately defined – he believed that politics is war without bloodshed and war is an extension of politics. It is true that a politics that does not define an enemy cannot seize, overthrow, or abolish state power or overturn capitalism. But Brown perhaps did not consider more deeply the need to rethink hierarchy and domination by making projections for designing a new society by placing the actual tasks of governance, not just rebellion, in the hands of ordinary people. Still Brown was at his best when in response to the urban uprisings of 1967-1968, and he was only 25 years old then!
He recognized that this was a creative initiative of ordinary people, a measure of popular self-government that was not embarrassing or proof of degrading racial stereotypes. He could not quite see that promoting of Black Nationalism, even in a revolutionary form, might critique some forms of elite representative government and toss aside some schemers, but suggests a will toward a progressive ruling class. Still, where Brown may have been inconsistent, he also was far ahead of his time. And like Malcolm X's critique of "The Farce on Washington," Brown's heritage still informs radical questioning fifty years later. But just as Malcolm’s “by any means necessary” can be co-opted and distorted, so Brown’s insights can be reduced to deceptive paraphrasing. For example: “the white man makes the rules, Blacks must learn them, and must be ready when he changes them” in order to sustain a professional and corporate career. While this was not Brown’s concern, his historical reception could also be quite protean to admirers.
Predicting the Age of Obama
Brown’s increasing criticism of the military industrial complex, the idea that capitalist society must perennially go to war because it is profitable to do so, led him to the most neglected aspect of his archive of radical thought. Brown rejected the idea that someone could run for president or electoral office and transform society on that basis. Even if they were people of color and thought progressive and radical. He put his finger on a contradiction at the center of Black and Africana Studies today.
We are told that racism is institutionalized, which means institutions are inherently oppressive, that their character does not change because of individuals in executive leadership. Yet many continue to get excited when individuals aspire to (and sometimes succeed) to high offices in official society. It reveals that for many, Black radical politics only opposes half the ruling class and is a loyal opposition to the left bloc of capital. Further, most opponents of the terror of the white racial state will not mobilize against the brutality and murder of a more ethnically plural hierarchical government that also kills.
H. Rap Brown anticipated the fact that the Age of Obama was a great mystification, that a Black president, even with a far more radical disposition than Obama, could never embody change we can believe in.
Without surveying all of Brown’s problems with the law in the 1970s and more recently in the new millennium that find him in prison today as Imam Jamil Al-Amin, we must be clear that a historical consciousness that placed Brown as a pillar of the Black radical tradition would never be receptive to the current terms of order. It would neither find euphoria in the Age of Obama or disorientation in the Age of Trump.
Who knows what the younger H. Rap Brown may have sensationally called Donald Trump’s wife or daughter? Still, few contemporary individuals or groups to the left of the Democratic Party have found a way to popularize bad-mannered criticism of the many women and men, whites and people of color, who also claim to be genteel ladies and gentleman, philanthropic in their disposition toward the masses as they conquer.
More crucially, Brown understood that civility and genuine radical politics (in its insurgent form, as distinct from its participatory forms necessary for popular self-government) are not sustainable together. That the cult of manners is maintained by white supremacists, patriarchs, and imperialists and this cannot be successfully appropriated to new ends by some progressives whose elitism can also know no bounds, and who also subtly maintain a cult of true womanhood, whether of whites or people of color, that is a veil for the contemporary economy and its police state. Kindness and caring, like non-violence, only makes sense if we are disobedient to those who stand with institutional oppression.
Name-calling, when one is being threatened with death, is a non-violent courtesy. There is an intersection of respectability politics and admirable radicals that has yet to be fully discarded though what is deemed respectable and admirable has changed following the 1960s and 1970s counter-culture.
He wished to personify Black manhood in opposition to the state that terrorizes ordinary Blacks. If today we discard manhood confidently for humanity, and even wish to center gender more, our opposition to the state even in theorizing and projections, seems far short of the Brown of fifty years ago, save for contemporary individuals and small groups still obscure.
The sublime in the classical sense, might be defined as something beautiful. But it also is racial and gendered in a penetrating manner that disturb our emotions as we encounter it. Nevertheless, as I have tried to illustrate beyond the contours of the sublime, there is a reason why H. Rap Brown as Imam Jamil Al-Amin has an unofficial gag order placed against him even as he is in prison today. His radical contributions in history and politics are much deeper than shocking statements and disturbing encounters. We need to reconsider the profound currents of his heritage, beyond sensationalism, so we can bring closer what Brown told us long ago about where we have come from and where we have arrived, making our political criticism and activity more impactful for our future.
Matthew Quest is a scholar of the legacies of C.L.R. James. See his essay on James and the history of the Haitian Revolution in The Black Jacobins Reader.