To Save the World

Afropessimism and the Task of Black Struggle

July 26, 2021

“We’re the survivors / In this age of technological inhumanity / Scientific atrocity / Atomic misphilosophy / Nuclear mis-energy / It’s a world that forces lifelong insecurity / Together now.”

– Bob Marley, “Survival,” title track from the 1979 album Survival (originally planned for release as Black Survival)

“Sick minds, sad sights / Never ending sleepless nights have been accepted as an everyday thing. / Wiretapping, kidnapping… / Will the Russians push the button on? /…People, jobs don’t come no bigger than the one we’ve got to do / If we don’t give peace a chance, what do you think is gonna happen to me and you? / Think about it / It looks like mankind is on the eve of destruction.”

– The Undisputed Truth, “Medley: Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite the World)/Friendship Train,” track from the 1972 album Face to Face with the Truth

When Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966, their main organizing principle, as is well-known, was to defend Black people against police brutality. The primary tactics used for this purpose were the open-carry of firearms and cop-watching. In response to Panther activities, several members of the California legislature introduced the Mulford Act in 1967, which would go on to repeal the law allowing for open carry. After a session of the State Assembly, Bobby Seale read aloud Executive Order Mandate No. 1, the very first Party document produced after the 10-Point Platform and Program, to reporters gathered on the first floor of the California State Capitol building. It stated, in part:

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense calls upon the American people in general, and Black People in particular, to take careful note of the racist California Legislature now considering legislation aimed at keeping Black people disarmed and powerless while racist police agencies throughout the country intensify the terror, brutality, murder, and repression of Black people.

At the same time that the American Government is waging a racist war of genocide in Vietnam, the concentration camps in which Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II are being renovated and expanded. Since America has historically reserved its most barbaric treatment for non-White people, we are forced to conclude that these concentration camps are being prepared for Black people who are determined to gain their freedom by any means necessary. The enslavement of Black people at the very founding of this country, the genocide practiced on the American Indians and the confinement of the survivors on reservations, the savage lynching of thousands of Black men and women, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and now the cowardly massacre in Vietnam all testify to the fact that toward people of color the racist power structure in America has but one policy: repression, genocide, terror, and the big stick…

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense believes that the time has come for Black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late. The pending Mulford Act brings the hour of doom one step nearer. A people who have suffered so much for so long at the hands of a racist society, must draw the line somewhere. We believe that the Black communities of America must rise up as one man to halt the progression of a trend that leads inevitably to their total destruction.1Huey P. Newton, “Executive Mandate No. 1,” Marxists Internet Archive, accessed May 6, 2021, https://www.marxists.org/archive/newton/1967/05/02.htm.

Few scholars—with the notable exception of Vincent Intondi, historian of African American activism against nuclear weapons—have directly followed the narrative arc of this Party statement. While Intondi situates the Party’s mandate in the context of a genealogy of Black organizing against the bomb, I hold that the mandate formulated a new cosmology for Black organizing itself. Seale’s explicit references to “the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki” and the impending “hour of doom” may allow us to reconceptualize the stakes of Black struggle, then and now. The matter was simple: the choice was between revolution and not just genocide, but apocalypse. Activists in the mid-twentieth century understood that their efforts were taking place in an unforeseen global context in which the Cold War nuclear arms race threatened to destroy all (or most) life on the planet. To resist state violence was to dance under the light of potential Armageddon. That Seale outlined the task of Black revolution as one which had to take place “before it [was] too late” is a testament to the intellectual framework defining African American radicalism in this period. If freedom could not be won through insurgency, activists understood that a likely consequence could be global annihilation. Importantly, the gendered task of Black revolution, for Seale (as well as Newton, who was referred to in the Party newspaper as the mandate’s author), was that of forging political friendships: to “rise up as one man.”

The reflections that follow take this early BPP position seriously. What if we considered friendship—that is, comradeship, unity, familyhood—to be in dialectical opposition not to enmity but to outright apocalypse? What if the terms of struggle were to become solidarity (another word for the required terms of revolution) versus annihilation? And how would critical contemplation on these terms inform how we engage with Fanonian and Afropessimist visions of the end of the world?

Fanonian theories have greatly influenced Black thought and freedom struggles since the mid-twentieth century. The Boston Globe noted in 1971 that U.S. Black radicals were clearly “profoundly…moved by the thoughts of Frantz Fanon.”2Robert Taylor, “BOOK OF THE DAY: Fanon: A Revolutionist,” Boston Globe (1960-1989), February 19, 1971. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/historical-newspapers/book-day/docview/366611808/se-2?accountid=11311 Liberation magazine editor and activist Daniel Watts went so far as to declare that “[e]very brother on a rooftop can quote Fanon.”3Sean L. Malloy, Out of Oakland: Black Panther Party Internationalism during the Cold War, United States in the World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017), 24. Fanon was born in 1925 on the Caribbean island of Martinique, which was then a French colony and is currently a French single territorial collectivity. From a petit bourgeois family, Fanon attended the most prestigious high school on the island, where he was tutored by Negritude poet and writer Aimé Césaire. After leaving Martinique and serving in the French military during World War II, he briefly returned home before studying literature, drama, and philosophy in France. Fanon qualified as a psychiatrist in 1951, and while completing his residency, he wrote and published his first book, Black Skin, White Masks. Eventually finding himself practicing psychiatry in Algeria, Fanon was compelled by the liberation struggle there. He joined the FLN and produced several revolutionary writings in the midst of the war for independence, offering theories that have been taken up across various traditions – from Pan-Africanism to Pan-Arabism to socialist struggles in Latin America. While we are no longer in the same revolutionary moment of the 1960s and 1970s, Fanon’s work continues to inform contemporary freedom struggles. And, significantly, Fanon is a central interlocutor for many of today’s Afropessimists.

The matter was simple: the choice was between revolution and not just genocide, but apocalypse.

Afropessimism departs from classical Fanonian thought in several ways, perhaps most notably in the Afropessimist reading of Fanon as a theorist of apocalypse. Frank Wilderson, who popularized the term Afropessimism, defines it as a “meta-framework” and “critical project” which recognizes that civil society feeds on “Black flesh” itself, via the (social and literal) deaths of Black people, such that “[t]he essential antagonism…is not between the workers and the bosses, not between settler and the Native, not between the queer and the straight, but between the living and the dead.”4Frank B. Wilderson, Afropessimism, First edition. (New York, N.Y.: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020), 229. In this way, the basis of civil society is the proximity, the disproportionate vulnerability, of Black people to premature death. Wilderson and Fanon both frequently cite and riff off of Aimé Césaire’s long-form poem, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, which partially reads:

One must begin somewhere.
Begin what?
The only thing in the world worth beginning:
The End of the world of course.

For Césaire and Fanon, the illegibility of equality and Black freedom in the white world mark revolutionary activity as something that is, in a sense, apocalyptic. But in what sense? That question guides much of the following analysis.

In our contemporary moment, apocalypse is not some distant, amorphous specter but a concrete and immanent threat. While the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced in 1968 that it was “7 minutes to midnight”—a metaphor for how close humanity was to extinguishing itself with its own technologies, which at that time were mostly limited to atomic bombs—the Bulletin announced in January 2021 that, due to the compounding forces of the COVID-19 pandemic, nuclear weapons, and climate change, “It is 100 seconds to midnight,” closer to the hour than ever before. The very same forces critiqued by Black radicals in the mid-twentieth century—state violence, capitalist expansion, imperialism, war—function today toward the same potential outcome: global annihilation and the foreclosure of future possibilities for organized collective life. Many Black activists continue to conceive of political work as a matter of saving the world—from the present-day nuclear arms race and from climate change, both of which many see as impossible to address without sweeping, revolutionary transformations in political economy. Hence, the kind of apocalypse to which I am referring at this juncture is not the kind from which organized life can recover—that is, an end to a world amidst the reality that, as C. Riley Snorton writes, “worlds end all the time.”5C. Riley Snorton, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 198. Rather, I am referring to an all-out mass extinction with no wake to which any soul can bear witness.

Frank Wilderson’s Afropessimism describes and condemns anti-Black violence through a “critique without redemption or a vision of redress except ‘the end of the world.’”6Frank B. Wilderson, Afropessimism, First edition. (New York, N.Y.: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020), 174. For Wilderson, the struggle to end anti-Black violence is the struggle to end the world, but not solely in the Fanonian sense re-articulated by Snorton—that is, ending the world as we know it, in anticipation of a new, better world. No, Wilderson goes further; for him, ending anti-Black violence requires ending the world “without being burdened by a vision of a new world, such as socialism or a liberated nation-state.”7Wilderson, Afropessimism, 174. For him, “social death can be destroyed” (emphasis mine), but such destruction requires that Black people make our homes “in the hold of the [slave] ship and burn it from the inside out.”8Ibid, 323. In other words, the end of the world for Wilderson is not a metaphor for ending the world as we know it (a world defined by domination) but a concretely suicidal project. Hence, the dialectic I herein engage—between friendship and apocalypse—can also be referred to using the surrogate terminology of Afro-Optimism and Afropessimism.

Much of the current debate between Afropessimism and Afro-Optimism does not concern the end of the world, but instead the world as it currently exists. Before encountering the term Afro-Optimism in formal scholarship, I heard its sensibility expressed rather simply during a casual conversation some years ago, over dinner with a fellow young Black Studies scholar, who said: “For me, Blackness ain’t social death. It’s my social life. I feel alive when in-community with other Black people. Social death? Those are fighting words.” Within this formulation, the question at hand is how to define Black life under existing systems. Are we pessimistic or optimistic about what can be experienced under these conditions?9For an example of some of the contemporary work on these questions, see John Drabinski’s forthcoming book on James Baldwin’s Afro-Optimism, tentatively titled ‘So Unimaginable a Price’: Baldwin and the Black Atlantic. In the world as we know it, is something like faith or hope in Black social life justifiable—politically, ethically, spiritually—considering all the suffering and sickness and death that circumscribes our subjectivities? After all, Jared Sexton reminds us that:

[t]o speak of black social life and black social death, black social life against black social death, black social life as black social death, black social life in black social death—all of this is to find oneself in the midst of an argument that is also a profound agreement… Black optimism is not the negation of the negation that is afro-pessimism, just as black social life does not negate black social death by inhabiting it and vitalizing it. A living death is as much a death as it is a living.10Jared Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death,” Intensions 5 (Fall/Winter 2011): 28.

Much of the current debate between Afropessimism and Afro-Optimism does not concern the end of the world, but instead the world as it currently exists.

The way that the Afropessimism versus Afro-Optimism debate has been reduced to the question of social death versus social life—to my mind—sidelines the more crucial discussion of what is to be done: that is, how existing conditions can be transformed. But, of course, the realities of Black social death and Black social life are also related to the realities of a potential mass death event (due to nuclear aggression, a pandemic, or climate catastrophe, for example) and a potential transformation in political economy that prevents such an event (made possible by social life—relationships termed something like solidarity). The worlds torn apart by catastrophes—catastrophes like the Middle Passage, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or a heatwave—are social worlds, worlds defined by the interstitial space of the interpersonal. Revolutionary activity has always been contingent upon this social space; it is the only space capable of averting global annihilation. Hence, while my account of Afropessimism and Afro-Optimism centers the question of ending versus saving the world, I continually gesture toward the possibility that social life may hold the power of literal salvation. And at the heart of the dialectic between Afropessimism and Afro-Optimism is the concrete history, present, and future of nuclear weapons, the planet’s climate, and Black activists’ efforts to prevent such forces from truly, fully ending the world—in a manner that Dr. King described as that of “devastating finality.”11Martin Luther King, Why We Can’t Wait (New York, N.Y.: New American Library, 1968), 190.

The Atom Bomb and the Cosmology of Post-WWII Black Activism

In embarking on the project to produce the first atomic bomb, many U.S. federal officials—and their corporate counterparts in the DuPont Corporation and General Electric, who were contracted to build and operate the relevant manufacturing complexes—treated Afro-Americans as threats to national security, at first not wanting to hire any Black workers.12Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford: University Press, 2013), 26-7. It was only after a 1943 visit from the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) that project managers responded to the pressures of new anti-discrimination legislation by hiring more Black workers and—naturally, it seemed—building separate ‘colored’ barracks for their accommodations.13Brown, Plutopia, 27. To many officials, Black workers were security hazards to be treated with distrust and suspicion, ones who required “careful checks as to citizenship and loyalty before…[being] employed,” according to Leslie Groves, the then-brigadier general who directed the Manhattan Project. The usual two-day security clearance procedure used for white workers was extended to four days for their Black counterparts.14Ibid. Moreover, while much of white America celebrated the droppings of atomic bombs on Japan—reflecting the WWII cultural sensibility embodied by Admiral William Halsey’s military instructions to “kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs”—many Afro-Americans criticized the government’s decision to use the bombs.15Intondi, African Americans against the Bomb, 11. George Schuyler, the conservative Black journalist, condemned U.S. foreign policy by linking atomic weapons to race and colonialism. “The atom bomb puts Anglo-Saxons definitely on top where they will remain for decades,” he wrote in 1945. “This means that the Anglo-Saxons, led by the U.S.A., will have their way in the world until other people discover and perfect a weapon more devastating than the uranium bomb.” Schuyler noted the troubling reality that “second-rate and small-minded men filled with racial arrogance such as Truman, Tom Connally, Stimson, Bilbo, and our military naval officer clique, who believe[d] in racial segregation and color discrimination” were in control of the U.S. atomic arsenal.16Ibid, 14. After the Soviet Union challenged the U.S. nuclear monopoly in 1952, predominantly white countries—including the United Kingdom later that same year and France by 1960—continued to be the only nation-states in possession of atomic bombs until China tested its first nuclear weapons device in 1963. Hence, from the beginning, what historian Shane J. Maddock calls “nuclear apartheid” delimited and defined the Cold War era.17See Shane J. Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, University of North Carolina Press, 2010), https://doi.org/10.5149/9780807895849_maddock.

Nuclear disarmament and abolition thus became key concerns of the day for Black revolutionaries. Such issues were of concern not just to outright revolutionaries but also to reformers like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Bayard Rustin, and others. Socialist W.E.B. Du Bois was an early critic of U.S. nuclear policy. In 1946, before many movements toward decolonization, Du Bois warned that “If power can be held through atom bombs, colonial peoples may never be free.”18Intondi, African Americans against the Bomb, 22. That same year, Paul Robeson emphasized the political economy of bomb construction when he noted that the U.S. government was extracting uranium from the Belgian Congo. In the face of “the enemy,” Robeson argued that those with anti-imperialist commitments were “handicapped by lack of money, lack of powerful organization, lack of influence in state and international affairs.” But crucially, he thought it was “possible to win” if people could “understand in the fullest sense the fact that the struggle in which we are engaged is not a matter of mere humanitarian sentiment, but of life and death. The only alternative to world freedom is world annihilation.”19Intondi, African Americans against the Bomb, 23.

From Du Bois’s anti-nuclear senatorial campaign to Bayard Rustin’s Sahara Project aimed at halting French nuclear tests on the African continent (a campaign which coincided with the Algerian struggle for independence), Black activists expressed—in rhetoric as well as deeds—an opposition to what Dr. King described in 1963 as “weapons that can annihilate all humanity.”20Intondi, African Americans against the Bomb, 41, 51; King, Why We Can’t Wait, 190. Nuclear weapons loomed so large in Dr. King’s mind that he ended his book, Why We Can’t Wait, an account of the civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, on the subject of these “instrumentalities of destruction.” For him and other pacifists, the method of nonviolence was perhaps “the answer to the most desperate need of all humanity” in the face of the nuclear arms race.21King, Why We Can’t Wait, 190. For Malcolm X, nuclear weapons further illuminated that the issue was not a matter of violence versus nonviolence but of global anti-imperialist struggle. In June 1964, when a group of Japanese writers and survivors of the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki traveled to Harlem during a speaking tour on nuclear proliferation, they met with Malcolm X during a reception hosted by Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama, in her home in the Harlem Manhattanville Housing Projects. After thanking the hibakusha—the term for atomic bomb survivors—for visiting, Malcolm said: “You have been scarred by the atom bomb. You just saw that we have also been scarred. The bomb that hit us was racism.” After discussing his years in prison, his education, and Asian history, Malcolm advocated for protests against the Vietnam War and described the struggle in Vietnam as “the struggle of the whole Third World: the struggle against colonialism, neo-colonialism, and imperialism.”22Intondi, African Americans against the Bomb, 82.

In this formulation, revolution itself was a task of restoring life in the wake of the apocalypse that had already taken place.

With the weight of the world’s future on their shoulders, the sense of responsibility for Black revolutionaries in the mid-twentieth century was immense. They felt not only that they had to achieve freedom but also that they were potentially running out of time. Imprisoned intellectual George Jackson described the situation of Black people in 1970 as follows:

International capitalism cannot be destroyed without the extremes of struggle. The entire colonial world is watching the blacks inside the U.S., wondering and waiting for us to come to our senses. Their problems and struggles with the Amerikan monster are much more difficult than they would be if we actively aided them. We are on the inside. We are the only ones (besides the very small white minority left) who can get at the monster’s heart without subjecting the world to nuclear fire. We have a momentous historical role to act out if we will. The whole world for all time in the future will love us and remember us as the righteous people who made it possible for the world to live on.23George Jackson, Jean Genet, and Jr Jackson, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (Chicago: Review Press, 1994), xix.

The “historical role” for Black people in the United States—whom Jackson occasionally referred to as “the Black Colony”—was, in this formulation, beyond the matter of just fighting to achieve freedom; the task was to make it “possible for the world to live on.” The task was to save the world.

Afropessimism and Black Futures

Given that Wilderson claims Frantz Fanon as one of his primary interlocutors, I feel compelled to turn to Fanon’s thinking on the matter of apocalypse. Any of Fanon’s sensibilities which could be characterized as proto-Afropessimist ought to be contextualized by the international history of nuclear apartheid and, in particular, the nuclear weapons program in the People’s Republic of China. Of this program—the first in a non-white country—Mao Zedong publicly stated, “We have a very large territory and a big population. Atomic bombs could not kill all of us.”24“Mao’s Theory on Atomic Bomb: They Can’t Kill Us All,” UPI, October 17, 1964, https://www.upi.com/Archives/1964/10/17/Maos-theory-on-atomic-bomb-They-cant-kill-us-all/1653831424805/. Describing the U.S. nuclear arsenal as a “paper tiger,” Mao understood that nuclear weapons were dangerous, but believed that, in the (to his mind, unlikely) scenario that they were used, life could be rebuilt in the wake of the rubble.25“Mao’s Theory on Atomic Bomb: They Can’t Kill Us All.” Adolfo Gilly encapsulated this (perhaps proto-Afropessimist) sentiment when he stated, in his 1965 introductory remarks to Fanon’s 1959 account of the Algerian revolution in A Dying Colonialism, that, “There is no power, no conventional or atomic weapon that can destroy [revolutionary desire]. All the rest may disappear—nations, enterprises, cities. That, no… It is a fact that a people who went through the Algerian war do not feel intimidated by the atomic menace. Nor do the people who are living through the war in Vietnam. Nor even do those who, without experiencing actual warfare, live lives which are ‘a permanent struggle against an omnipresent death,’ as Fanon says.”26Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 15-16. For Gilly and Fanon as well as Mao, the world was already uninhabitable for oppressed peoples. As Gilly described, Chinese nuclear strategy always accounted for a kind of optimism within pessimism: what amounted to an embrace of the concrete plausibility of nuclear holocaust, while holding to the emancipatory possibilities of “reorganizing the life of the country in case of an atomic attack”—that is, recovering, or rather transforming, life in the wake of destruction.27Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 15-16.

Like many of today’s Afropessimists, Fanon viewed Algerians—just as Édouard Glissant viewed Afro-diasporic survivors of the Middle Passage—as a post-apocalyptic people.28See John E. Drabinski, Glissant and the Middle Passage: Philosophy, Beginning, Abyss (University of Minnesota Press, 2019). For them, so many worlds had already been torn apart and made to end. Fanon described a young boy, forced to watch French soldiers kill his parents and his sister, as an “orphaned child growing up in an apocalyptic atmosphere.”29Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 26. Here, colonialism itself was the apocalypse. We find resonance with this articulation of catastrophe in Malcolm X’s 1964 statement to hibakusha quoted previously: “we have also been scarred…the bomb that hit us was racism.”

Perhaps this is why Bob Marley could sing of the impending nuclear menace as fundamentally spiritually unthreatening (“Have no fear for atomic energy / ‘cause none of them can stop the time”) while describing, in 1979, Black people the world over as “the survivors”: the survivors of transatlantic exchange, of colonial dispossession, of family separations, of back-breaking plantation labor, of sadistic tortures, of unthinkable and unsayable horrors. If Afropessimists seem to view the forecast by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists with seeming dispassion, maybe it is because they hold that our apocalypse has already happened. In this formulation, the Black world was destroyed, and the white world was born of its flesh. As Barbara Omolade wrote in her 1984 essay, “Women of Color and the Nuclear Holocaust,” “For people of color, the world as we know it ended centuries ago. Our world, with its own languages, customs and ways, ended.”30Barbara Omolade, “Women of Color and the Nuclear Holocaust,” 12. And yet here we are—“the survivors”—in the wake. The problem with the Bulletin’s forecast is that next time, there may be no survivors. The Bulletin’s forecast may, in fact, reflect the end of a road that began centuries ago; in other words, the beginning of the end arrived in 1492, and the end of the end is nigh. But my question—rooted in an Afro-Optimistic sensibility—is: do we really want to finish the job initiated by our enemies?

Stokely Carmichael leaned toward Fanon and Gilly in his posture toward apocalypse. For him, the task of Black revolution was about “survival.” In his 1968 speech, “A New World to Build” (a title worthy of note here) at A&T University in Greensboro, North Carolina, Carmichael emphasized that, “We are talking about a people whose entire culture, whose entire history, whose entire way of life have been destroyed…[we] are going to restore to our people the humanity and the love that we have for each other…”31Stokely Carmichael, “Free Huey (1968),” in Stokely Speaks, (Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill Books, 1971), 126-7. In this formulation, revolution itself was a task of restoring life in the wake of the apocalypse that had already taken place.

Friendship is thus not some romantic, uncomplicated phenomenon that can magically over-power all other forces. But it is also our only option if we are invested in establishing alternative social relations through collective action.

And then, of course, for Fanon, there was the other kind of apocalypse: ending the world as it was known, which is to say ending a world defined by domination, which is to say ending domination. This was what Fanon meant when he referred to decolonization. This layering of apocalyptic forces—ending a world born of having ended so many other worlds—held transformative, reparative possibilities for anti-colonial rebels in the mid-twentieth century. Unlike Wilderson, Fanon never described the “end of the world” as the end in and of itself. Maintaining revolutionary desires for what Wilderson names as “a vision of a new world, such as socialism or a liberated nation-state” was absolutely central to Fanon’s thought. While Wilderson asks us to discard such visions—describing them as burdensome—as a means of adopting “the imagination of the Slave,” I hold that to embrace apocalyptic force without revolutionary desire is to mirror the posture of anti-Black state forces. To grieve the catastrophes of the modern world system, and to accept the reality that certain forms of further destruction may be required to overturn it, is not the same as calling to end the world “without…a vision of redress.” Both Fanon and Carmichael—who himself came closest to nuclear apologetics by defending the Chinese state’s policy of nuclear proliferation as self-defense—never saw the end of the world as a revolutionary desire. For these thinkers, even if apocalypse was inevitable, the vision was always to rebuild, or transform, life in the wake of the rubble. Carmichael’s remarks, borrowed from his 1971 speech “From Black Power to Pan-Africanism” at Whittier College, on the relationship between creation and destruction in the revolutionary imagination are crucial here:

The major preoccupation of a revolutionary is building and creating. He must destroy in order to build and create… But his major preoccupation is with building and creating. Building and creating that new system. Not destruction. Destruction is an inevitable consequence of his building… It is not the other way round. The building and creating is not an inevitable consequence of his destroying.32Stokely Carmichael, “From Black Power to Pan-Africanism,” accessed July 13, 2021, http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/blackspeech/scarmichael-2.html.

Cedric Robinson’s definition of the Black radical tradition is worth re-stating here: it is a “collective consciousness informed by the historical struggles for liberation and motivated by the shared sense of obligation to preserve the collective being, the ontological totality.”33Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2000, 171. Afro-Caribbean feminist scholar M. Jacqui Alexander has further illuminated the life-affirming character of the Black radical tradition as practiced at various sites, from slave plantations in Trinidad and Tobago to contemporary practices of brujería and santería. For Alexander, “to make freedom real”—the calling articulated by James Baldwin—first requires that one recognize that “freedom…in the first and final instance, can only be lived.”34M. Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred, Perverse Modernities (Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2005), 18. Black feminist contributions to the tradition have been especially concerned with recognition of this fact. June Jordan expressed an optimism conjoined to this Black feminist sensibility in the midst of the early 1980s “Nuclear Freeze” campaign. She stated in a 1981 interview that “because the stakes really are apocalyptic…unless you and I and all of us are suicidal…[given] the situation, people are going to choose life, and life and again life.” She continued: “If that is the case, then why shouldn’t I be optimistic?”35June Jordan et al., “June Jordan: 09-24-1981,” Writers Forum Videos, September 24, 1981, https://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/writers_videos/19, p. 12 of transcript.

 

An Ending

The only way to prevent the “hour of doom,” in the account offered by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, was to unite and rebel. These were the stakes of struggle once the world bore witness to the effects of the atom bomb in 1945. In the years since, the realities of greenhouse gases, global heating, and a capitalist economy incapable of environmental responsibility have merely elevated the stakes of the Black freedom struggle. For Motown outfit The Undisputed Truth in 1972, for whom “jobs don’t come bigger than the one we’ve got to do,” the “friendship train” was the only way forward. One may listen to their track, “Medley: Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite The World)/Friendship Train,” and laugh at the clichéd calls for unity and love, but their sensibility was matched by many other Black people in that period, who used different terms toward the same end: comradeship, solidarity, familyhood (the word used by African socialist Julius Nyerere, and quite fitting given the Afro-American cultural tradition of referring to community members as “Sister” and “Brother” and “Daddy” and “Mommy”).

Of course, exactly who could be counted on as a friend differed according to various thinkers in the revolutionary era of the mid-twentieth century. Differences of opinion on this matter continue to plague struggles today. After all, who is a friend? Who is an enemy? We ought to know. The front page of the BPP’s newspaper on October 16, 1971, functioned as a mandate to always be ready for these questions: “Know Your Enemies. Know Your Friends.”36“Know Your Enemies Know Your Friends,” The Black Panther, October 16, 1971, Vol. 7, No. 8 edition. Under these orders, on the same page, one may see a photograph of Premier Zhou Enlai shaking Huey Newton’s hand, after Newton was personally invited to visit China—before President Richard Nixon—in September of that year. Importantly, Chinese statesmen invited Newton as a friend. And yet, both then and now, Black radicals have rightfully questioned the sincerity and depth of PRC’s claims to solidarity with the global Black liberation movement.

We would all do well to study and meditate on the meaning of friendship in the face of Afropessimist provocations which illuminate the force of anti-Blackness amongst non-Black people of color, and in the face of historical realities which may challenge any simplistic notions of coalition-building. For The Undisputed Truth as well as many Panthers, multi-racial love was the answer; for Carmichael, “undying love” and friendship were to be reserved only for Black people. In his words: “Undying love does not mean only that you’re willing to die for your people, it also means you’re willing to kill for your people—which is more important.”37Carmichael, “A New World to Build (1968),” 149. To be ready to kill and die for Black people—and Black people alone—was central to Carmichael’s idea of friendship. For him, one reason Black people had to be hesitant about coalitions with whites was because of the lack of “psychological equality” present in interracial organizing spaces, where white guilt—wittingly or not—could undo the psychological liberation necessary for the cultivation of Black leadership. Newton famously disagreed with Carmichael’s emphasis on Black-only organizing spaces, which led to their falling out. As Newton summarized, in his autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide:

[Carmichael] accuses us of misleading people by our coalitions with whites, but I say he confuses people when he goes to Washington and tries to prevent a black policeman from being kicked off the force – a policeman who takes orders to kill his own people and who protects the Establishment. Stokely told me he would support anyone – he did not care who – if the person were black. We consider this viewpoint both racist and suicidal. If you support a black man with a gun who belongs to the military arm of your oppressor, then you are assisting in your own destruction.38Huey Newton, Revolutionary Suicide (New York: Penguin Classics, 1973), 157.

Aspects of Carmichael’s position are, nonetheless, worth taking seriously. After all, interracial organizing spaces are consistently plagued by white racism and anti-Blackness, and forging friendships across the intensity of contradiction and difference is no small matter.

Friendship is thus not some romantic, uncomplicated phenomenon that can magically over-power all other forces. But it is also our only option if we are invested in establishing alternative social relations through collective action. Friendship is built—with time, work, trust, and maybe also something like, in Carmichael’s terms, “undying love.”

I have not herein sought to treat thoroughly the character, the definition, the style of friendship that we ought to choose in the course of revolutionary struggle. Nevertheless, I do gesture toward the reality that conditions today may require forms of collaboration and solidarity hitherto unseen. For those of us who do not seek to join colonial and capitalist forces in ending the world, we may find ourselves answering the call of The Undisputed Truth almost fifty years later, to “shake a hand, make a friend” with, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a hundred seconds left.39The Undisputed Truth, Medley: Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite the World)/Friendship Train (Motown Records, 1972).

[1] Huey P. Newton, “Executive Mandate No. 1,” Marxists Internet Archive, accessed May 6, 2021, https://www.marxists.org/archive/newton/1967/05/02.htm.

[2] Robert Taylor, “BOOK OF THE DAY: Fanon: A Revolutionist,” Boston Globe (1960-1989), February 19, 1971. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/historical-newspapers/book-day/docview/366611808/se-2?accountid=11311

[3] Sean L. Malloy, Out of Oakland: Black Panther Party Internationalism during the Cold War, United States in the World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017), 24.

[4] Frank B. Wilderson, Afropessimism, First edition. (New York, N.Y.: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020), 229.

[5] C. Riley Snorton, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 198.

[6] Frank B. Wilderson, Afropessimism, First edition. (New York, N.Y.: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020), 174.

[7] Wilderson, Afropessimism, 174.

[8] Ibid, 323.

[9] For an example of some of the contemporary work on these questions, see John Drabinski’s upcoming book on James Baldwin’s Afro-Optimism, tentatively titled ‘So Unimaginable a Price’: Baldwin and the Black Atlantic.

[10] Jared Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death,” Intensions 5 (Fall/Winter 2011): 28.

[11] Martin Luther King, Why We Can’t Wait (New York, N.Y.: New American Library, 1968), 190.

[12] Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford: University Press, 2013), 26-7.

[13] Brown, Plutopia, 27.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Intondi, African Americans against the Bomb, 11.

[16] Ibid, 14.

[17] See Shane J. Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, University of North Carolina Press, 2010), https://doi.org/10.5149/9780807895849_maddock.

[18] Intondi, African Americans against the Bomb, 22.

[19] Intondi, African Americans against the Bomb, 23.

[20] Intondi, African Americans against the Bomb, 41, 51; King, Why We Can’t Wait, 190.

[21] King, Why We Can’t Wait, 190.

[22] Intondi, African Americans against the Bomb, 82.

[23] George Jackson, Jean Genet, and Jr Jackson, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (Chicago: Review Press, 1994), xix.

[24] “Mao’s Theory on Atomic Bomb: They Can’t Kill Us All,” UPI, October 17, 1964, https://www.upi.com/Archives/1964/10/17/Maos-theory-on-atomic-bomb-They-cant-kill-us-all/1653831424805/.

[25] “Mao’s Theory on Atomic Bomb: They Can’t Kill Us All.”

[26] Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 15-16.

[27] Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 15-16.

[28] See John E. Drabinski, Glissant and the Middle Passage: Philosophy, Beginning, Abyss (University of Minnesota Press, 2019).

[29] Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 26.

[30] Barbara Omolade, “Women of Color and the Nuclear Holocaust,” 12.

[31] Stokely Carmichael, “Free Huey (1968),” in Stokely Speaks, (Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill Books, 1971), 126-7.

[32] Stokely Carmichael, “From Black Power to Pan-Africanism,” accessed July 13, 2021, http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/blackspeech/scarmichael-2.html.

[33] Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2000, 171.

[34] M. Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred, Perverse Modernities (Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2005), 18.

[35] June Jordan et al., “June Jordan: 09-24-1981,” Writers Forum Videos, September 24, 1981, https://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/writers_videos/19, p. 12 of transcript.

[36] “Know Your Enemies Know Your Friends,” The Black Panther, October 16, 1971, Vol. 7, No. 8 edition.

[37] Carmichael, “A New World to Build (1968),” 149.

[38] Huey Newton, Revolutionary Suicide (New York: Penguin Classics, 1973), 157.

[39] The Undisputed Truth, Medley: Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite the World)/Friendship Train (Motown Records, 1972).

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