How the Library Changed My Life: Reading the Black Radical Tradition

The police protests in America—and all around the world—have been greatly inspiring. Black Lives Matter has saliently captured the far-too-long cultural amnesia of peoples all throughout the empires of the world and their legacy of anti-Black supremacy. What happened to George Floyd was a public lynching, carried out by the state funded wing of the justice system, which is deeply rooted in the American empire’s long legacy of racism. Protesters’ response for defunding—or even abolition— of the police has become a legitimate countervailing force among those wrestling with our current era of New Jim Crow racism that sees profit from the prison industrial complex. In the streets, there continues to be a very clear delineation of the abuses of police power terrorizing Black people. These past couple of weeks, on an unprecedented scale, illuminates our understanding of what is being done in our name as citizens—via our taxes and political apparatuses—to Black bodies and to protestors of all colours, classes, and creeds. When the masses of the world are locked up, lose their job, and have time to think, irruptions occurs on the street. This post’s aim is to try to help delineate some voices for study to help you, in whatever capacity you are able, to continue to use education as the practice towards freedom.

 

The colonization process of the Americas was the first deadly sin of white supremacy. Indigenous cultures, however, continue to bravely endure and fight back against the attempted eradication project that continues to morph as capital’s profit ventures outward. African peoples were stolen and commodified in this process of colonization: Black bodies built North American industry all while the colonization process expanded as imperialism and today has metastasized as neoliberal policies. In the citizenry, too, there was a process of colonization of our minds in that this stealing of cultures, lands, and peoples (blunted lives and potential lives) became an accepted cultural narrative that few questioned inside the mainstream. However, there are documents throughout history that we can engage with to help break this spell. By reading Slave Narratives, Jim Crow rebuts, and Black freedom struggles, we aren’t in the habit of mass (re)producing the traumas and cultural narratives of the suffering African Diaspora; instead, we are engaging with the continuing process of decolonization by bearing witness and carrying on the Black Radical Tradition to greater discursive outreaches, each generation for the last, by listening to the ancestors who have been through the beautiful struggle for they can lend us their courage to fight another day. Here I’ll highlight some voices that the library has that speak to the legacy of the Black Lives Matter movement which will help us fortify ourselves for the long road ahead that has been marched on for over 400 years. This list inevitably fails at capturing the diverse and multimodal movements of the Black Radical Tradition, but I will be concise in order to engage with those who want to join in the practice of praxis.

  Slave narratives were an extraordinarily marginalized literary form, ignored among most temporary American and Canadian literary spaces—yet they still found their audience. Literacy was illegal among slaves and thus the legitimacy of the (former) slave narratives was contested as an impossible literary ontology. The dismantling of the power structure, as Audre Lorde lucidly reminds us, cannot be through the same tools as the master’s hegemonic forces. Black literacy, then, was the reclaiming of the liberation tools of oral and written freedom movements. Nonetheless, many slave revolts rightly occurred in the Americas—the Haitian Revolution being the most successful revolt (see: C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins)—whereas slave narratives personalized and legitimized the vast inhumanities by bearing witness to those who struggled for freedom. Slave narratives personal epistemology helped lead to a robust cultural anti-hegemonic narrative that is the basis for the Black Radical Movement. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs offering harrowing exemplars. By reading these texts, you enter into the necessary mode of witnessing marginalized and forgotten history.

                                                            

 The Jim and Jane Crow epoch was a white supremacist reaction to the Reconstruction Era—which found African Americans making political, material, and cultural gains. Jim and Jane Crow—I add “Jane Crow” to gesture to the particular ways Black women were opposed—saw the continued institutionalized terrorism of Black bodies through lynching and sharecropping. There were many   radical intellectuals and journalist that came out of this crucial time; a booming emergence of Black thought dealt not just with the oppressions, but taking a cue from slave narratives, the opportunities towards freedom. W.E.B. Du Bois, probably America’s most prolific and poignant critique in its history, diagnosed the sick American political body like no one else. He prophetically posited that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour-line.” The colour-line continues to be bitterly poignant in the twenty-first century. This quote comes from The Souls of Black Folk which led to my political awakening and is still my favourite non-fiction piece (you can read why here). Ida B. Wells bravely fought for civil rights in the dangerous act of witnessing, cataloguing and publishing the lynchings of Black men and women in the South.  Using statistics and powerful prose, she excavates the white supremacy public terror. This was also the time when Pan-Africanism and the exploration of the possibilities of the Black Diaspora as a political project solidly emerge with such figures as Jamaica’s Marcus Garvey. He advocated for a “Back-to-Africa” movement. He argued that the Americas could not, and would never, be a place for full Black liberation and that Africa was the only place that would enable genuine Black freedom. All these figures are worthy of your attention and highlight the diverse modes of dealing with anti-Black oppression. These figures are clear antecedents of our current conception of political activism today.

 

 

                                                                   

 The post-World War II era offered us prescient voices who continued to blaze the trail for Black liberation and self-love. Fighting and finally dismantling Jim and Jane Crow Laws was just the beginning. Black Diaspora studies and intersectionality (the consideration of race, gender, sexuality, ableism, and class etc. in concert) blossomed to become a mainstay in political and activists’ consciousness. Frantz Fanon, a Martinique psychologist who joined the Algerian revolution, has written four of the most stunning texts that went on to influence the fields of postcolonial and critical race theory studies. A great primer is Black Skin, White Masks that outlines how racism and oppression insidiously form pathologies of self-hatred in Black consciousness—this, of course, Fanon expertly dismantles. Wretched of the Earth is his magnum opus that truly tackles what it means to practise decolonization. Audre Lorde, however, voices the Black women’s specific oppression through her triumphant freedom thoughts. Sister Outsider, a collection of essays and speeches, truly injects love into the political and spiritual practice of resistance movements and is worth your study, especially today, as she famously described herself as a “Black, lesbian, feminist, mother, warrior, poet”—there is a lot we can learn from her. Perhaps America’s greatest writer, James Baldwin, is worthy of your time. I’ve watched many of his speeches on YouTube. His analysis of the failing American dream is best captured in texts like The Fire Next Time. I always feel simultaneously angered and encouraged by his words. All three authors are crucial voices to listen to when dealing with the brutality of our current time.

 

 

There are thousands of texts to dig into, to digest, to grapple with, to meditate with, to change with. I continue to push myself—to recognize my body, place in this society, and to push beyond its parameters—by critically engaging in the Black Radical Movement, among other traditions. By engaging with political and cultural forms of resistance, in all its permutations, I hope to ably ground myself and contribute through the library and as an active political citizen (the public library being the last bastion of our failing democratic institutions).  It is our own responsibility to become acquainted and then literate in Black resistance, not for those who are oppressed to teach us. In this act of agency, we can help materially improve our collective lives with the sheer consciousness that these critical moments soberly demand. Through donations, activism, and education can gains be made and lives improved—to get into John Lewis’ “good trouble.” We all have our part in this and the library is the revolutionary space that will help us navigate this march towards freedom. There are still many forms of art—fiction, music, films, paintings, performances etc.—that require your attention. The library has a lot of resistance materials for you, and the intellectual space for you to thrive and help to find your freedom.

 

 

Lonnie Freedman

About Lonnie Freedman

Lonnie from the Library is a Youth Services Librarian at Vellore Village. Pokemon Professor Lonnie (he had to pass a test for that title) is passionate about Children's Literature, Video Games, and of course, Pokemon. You can follow Lonnie from the Library's reviews, recommendations and tailored list here.

2 thoughts on “How the Library Changed My Life: Reading the Black Radical Tradition

  1. Thank you so much for this post, Lonnie! If everyone would read more of these incredible activists’ works, the world would be better for it. I have particularly been talking about Angela Y. Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? a *lot* this week. I think i learned more from that tiny book than anything else I’ve ever read, and it got me moving toward Fanon and Dubois and the rest. I wanted to re-read it, but I loaned my copy out a few years back and haven’t gotten it back yet…

    1. The prison Industrial complex financially fuels racialized policies and practices–Davis’ work was so ahead of its time, I’m quite encouraged that the public is now questioning the role of prisons and police in the greater context of health and wellness in the community at-large. These crucial conversations we’ve been having in our inner circle really impact our community’s well-being when we translate these ideas into public policies. Baldwin has a great insight about not caring if a white person has thoughts of racism–what matters to him is if a racist has the means to act upon those thoughts with impunity.

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