Black Radical archive futures

Archives Unbound: 50 years of hope, resistance and rebellion
Inaugural conference Cedric J. Robinson and Elizabeth P. Robinson Archive
University of California Santa Barbara US 01.06.2024

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Black Radical archive futures

I spoke on the final panel before the closing session, Futures of the Black Radical Tradition, with Damien Sojoyner and Gaye Theresa Johnson.

Good afternoon and greetings from late night London—it’s after midnight here.

I realise we’re getting to the end of the conference and everyone has been thanked already many times, but I would like to offer mine as well to Elizabeth Robinson, Diane Fujino, Charmaine Chua, Chase Hobbs-Morgan, Dean Charlie Hale and everyone else who has put so much work into organising both the conference and the archive. It’s great to see the archive finally come to fruition after so many conversations with Elizabeth about it. Congratulations to Elizabeth and Najda, to UCSB and NYU. As the last panel made clear, it will be an enormously important resource for students and scholars. I also want to thank the organisers for making it possible for me to appear by zoom and for the livestream, which I’ve been watching continuously. This is a bittersweet thank you as I’m also very sorry not to be there in person with so many friends and old colleagues, but pleased I can be with you at least in this virtual way. Needless to say, it’s an honour to be part of the inauguration of Cedric and Elizabeth Robinson’s archive and to share the platform with such wonderful co-panelists.

The guiding question of this panel – the futures of the Black Radical tradition – is a large, complex and speculative one. Much has been said in the last two days, some of which perhaps we will return to in the discussion. I’d like to address the question simply – and in keeping with this occasion -- by asking what directions on this matter of the tradition’s futures might be found in the archive for those who come to consult it. On Thursday evening, Robin Kelley also used the word direction – the archive is a direction, he said. Hopefully, the directions I have found will point to you to a similar place as he did. Perhaps now at the almost end of the conference, what you’ll hear is merely a brief summary or an echo of some basic points that have already been made.

Like all traditions, the Black radical tradition with which the Robinsons have been associated, what Barbara Ransby has called more accurately the Black radical internationalist tradition, is as much an invention as something already there and fully formed, even if part of Cedric’s work in excavating, creating, and naming it was in fact to make it seem obvious that it was always already there living and breathing in Western civilization’s blind field. Its future or futures as a tradition will depend on the quality of its current mode of invention or mode of production. This is its first inheritance and obligation. Much of what we heard suggests it is in good hands.

As most people here know, Cedric described the Black radical tradition as an “accretion over generations of collective intelligence gathered from struggle”: gathered from “the historical record of black collective resistance: [of] ordinary men and women taking extraordinary action.”[1] This collective intelligence harbours a critique of an entire civilization or way of life and in the Robinsons’ hands it presumes a commitment to an immanent politics in which the struggle to transform the world as we know it into something more livable takes place through means that embody and instantiate the alternative values, practices, and institutional formats we desire and for which we bother to struggle. This intelligence or radical consciousness foregrounds the intersectionality, relationality and indivisibility not merely of identities but of social struggles and the social transformations they demand.[2] This tradition foregrounds solidarity, transnationalism, and what Cedric called “consciousness in culture,” as Erica Edwards discussed yesterday. This tradition is not limited to a nation or a state. It is, as Joshua Myers put it, “global in scope, yet communal in nature.”[3]

From its first principles established in slave rebellions and in maroon society, this tradition constitutes, what Cedric called in 1984 in the midst of a major wave of anti-racist and anti-fascist struggle in Britain, an “inventory of possibilities for the present and future generations.”[4] This inventory must be assessed and identified in each historical moment or scene of struggle in which these possibilities are needed and activated. It is thus not only an invented tradition, but a living tradition that changes and takes shape as it opposes and negates racial class and gender sex regimes that themselves mutate. It is a living tradition that emerges and recedes historically in and that is answerable to what Lisa Lowe has described as the “intimacies of four continents.”[5] (#_edn5)

The momentary assessment and identification of the inventory of possibilities for the present and future will be based in a distinct historical materialism that is grounded in a “dialectic between power and resistance to its abuses,” which I’ve tried to describe elsewhere.[6] (#_edn6) From his earliest work, Cedric was adamant that it was a mistake to “find the logic of political movements … through retracing the processes of victimisation”; a mistake “to believe that the ultimate measure of social resistance is presumed to be the character and historical development of the offending structure itself”; a mistake to think that those who “mobilize …to transform their lives are best understood by understanding whatever it is that has mobilised them.”[7] (#_edn7) (Although I caution the key word here is “best” understood; that it is necessary to understand the “offending structure” should be taken for granted.) In an essay on multiculturalism written in 1992 for a conference held at UCSB that I co-organised with Christopher Newfield, Cedric made the point very directly: “We are not,” he wrote, “the subjects or the subject formations of the capitalist world-system. It is merely one condition of our being.”[8] (#_edn8)

Readers of Black Marxism will know that the historical argument about racial capitalism was made to account for the history of the making of the Black radical tradition, not the other way around. As Cedric wrote: “The Black radical tradition cast doubt on the extent to which capitalism penetrated and reformed social life and, on its ability, to create entirely new categories of human experience stripped bare of consciousness and culture.”[9] (#_edn9) If this is not clear, I always recommend as an experiment to read the book from back to front in, what I think is, its proper conceptual order.

This dialectic of power and resistance to its abuses – not racial capitalism per se – motivates the revisionist account of the rise of the West in Black Marxism. It re-appears in An Anthropology of Marxism where it rebukes Marxism on the “warrant” that “domination and oppression inspire” an “irrepressible socialism” “generated by peasants, slaves, workers, and intellectuals … in [both] the metropole [and] the periphery.”[10] (#_edn10) It opens and defines Black Movements in America which reads: “When Black resistance surfaced, its character insinuated itself into the unstable contradictions of an immigrant, slave, servant and imperial social order,”[11] (#_edn11) a “cauldron” in which slaves, Indigenous peoples, and the Euro-American poor had to be deliberately and violently pried apart.It is given expression later in that book when Cedric uses Fanon’s words to describe the cultures of Black radicalism in the U.S.: “It was not,” Fanon wrote, “the organization of production but the persistence and organization of oppression which formed the primary social basis for revolutionary activity.”[12] (#_edn12) And, it also appears in Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film before World War II where, while “capital determined the construction of successive racial regimes publicised by film in its early years,”[13] (#_edn13) it is precisely the Black radical tradition that contributes to the destruction of racial regimes.As Arun described earlier today, racial regimes, of course, are not static: they change and mutate because they degenerate. One reason they degenerate is because they exclude parts of reality that destabilize the purposes to which they are put. The Black radical tradition has consistently destabilized, or “renounced” in Erica Edward's terms, a succession ofracial regimes by creating an alternative and sometimes fugitive reality and by maintaining a consciousness of this reality in and as culture.

As its observant practitioners know, this Black radical internationalist tradition is rather demanding.As Gaye Johnson and Alex Lubin have written, it demands not “celebration” of its existence but rather a commitment to “an uncompromising liberation from all forms of oppression.”[14] (#_edn14)In other words, mere evocation of the tradition or an “ontological totality” cannot substitute for the careful diagnosis of the present moment; (and yesterday Ruthie Gilmore helpfully provided some titles for reading on the ontological totality); mere evocation cannot replace the labour of understanding precisely what social “cauldron” we are in. (I do like this image of Cedric’s.) It is hard work to know precisely what is killing us and how, to know precisely how the specific “we’s” are impacted, and to face up to it, as Toni Cade Bambara put it, with studied, moral, political, and tactical intelligence. It’s especially hard work in this historical moment in which the modern geopolitical order is shifting – but how exactly we do not know with any certainty; in which asymmetrical war on many fronts has intensified, and in which so much of what we know and don’t know is spun in and around sophisticated communication technologies that mutate ontological structures in unfamiliar ways and create very complex forms of epistemic murk.

Here, I think, future users of this archive will find perhaps its greatest untapped treasure and a model for the tradition’s diagnostic tools in the collection of Third World News Review, the over 40 year long radio and television program first started by media activist Corey Dubin and Cedric and hosted by a large collective of people over the years, including Elizabeth and Gerard Pigeon and Gary Colmenar. It contains a remarkable record of a sustained weekly diagnostic effort to see outside of mainstream media logics and their stories (as did our 30+ year radio program, No Alibis) and to take careful measure of the drift of what’s happening in the world from the vantage of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Black radical tradition, then, is a collective intelligence, a consciousness in culture, an inventory of possibilities for the present and future and it is also a mode of preparation. Cedric located the original source of the Black radical tradition in the “calculus of oppression and its overt organization” enslaved people “acquired” in their “daily encounters and petty resistances to domination,” experiences which, he wrote, were a “means of preparation for more epic resistance movements.”[15] (#_edn15) As we use this term at the Hawthorn Archive, preparation names the immanent and practical means by which intelligence and organization are collective mobilized for escalating “petty” resistance: for strike, for encampment, for rebellion, for mutiny, for seizing power.[16] (#_edn16) Preparation names too the internalization – by each one by one -- of the abolitionist imaginary: preparation for being indifferent to all the lures of power, money, property and recognition; preparation for a certain kind of faith in the past the present hasn’t yet caught up with; preparation to be ready in a moment’s notice to live the “good” right(eous) life you’re promising others; preparation for becoming, as Toni Cade Bambara put it, “unavailable for servitude, back stiff with conviction.”

The Robinsons’ archive will contain a repository of materials that can be used to create a past for the present and the future. This archive teaches that the past to be created has always been a kind of predictive horizon, a summons to catch up in the present to the possibilities and anticipations coming from the past or the future or the not-yet. In other words, this archive will situate you in a temporally discontinuous nonlinear historiography. In this historiography, the arrow of time does not fly forward only: the future can change the past, just as the present can lag behind the past. For future visitors, being alert to this situation might be helpful.

This particular archive also teaches that, despite Cedric’s love of libraries and the adoption of history as his preferred methodology and in keeping with Elizabeth’s plan for and vision of the archive, in the end, the future of or the futures for the tradition will only partially be found here in the library. And it is on this point that I will conclude.

As anyone who has worked in archives knows, the archive is only a repository of traces of this and that. Like all archives, regardless of their seeming comprehensiveness, visitors will have to imagine what’s only hinted at in its assembly of materials. Imagine the political and socio-economic conditions (the cauldron) and the local milieu in which the materials were produced and also stored, waiting for now, in a stable spacious home. Imagine the real life of community and the personal relationships in which the materials deposited were embedded: laughter and awkwardness at the dinner table; Otis’s great booming voice; warmth and generosity; competition, disagreements and fallings out. Visitors will encounter people they hadn’t expected or known lingering in the margins and will need to look for people who are missing – what Matt Harris evoked as the unacknowledged --that should be named and decide their position and standing in the scenes, the ideas, the work they are studying and discovering. This archive will have its ghosts too, its haunting reminders and remainders. None of us and none of our radical traditions are exempt from this archival “dust.”[17] (#_edn17) If there’s one radical tradition that knows this, surely it is the Black radical tradition, or at least its feminist wing.

The other more obvious reason that the future of the tradition will only partially be found in the library is that everyone who enters it seeking engagement with its predictive horizons will have to leave the library to orient their standpoint to the struggle for a more liveable life that is the core of the tradition, to do the work of being in the fight, to engage in ordinary and extraordinary acts. Today, their first responsibility – not the only responsibility but I think the first one today -- will be to make common cause – if they have not already – with Palestinians and join the fight for the survival of Palestine and for the immediate and long overdue end to Israel’s exterminationist settler colonial regime. The tradition expects this of you. Its future and the future it hopes for and anticipates requires it. Thank you.

[1] Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition [1983]. UNC Press, 2020, p. xxx; Cedric Robinson, “An inventory of contemporary Black politics.” Emergency 2 (1984), p. 22.

[2] Indivisibility is the term Martin Luther King, Jr. uses to describe the “inescapable network of mutuality… a single garment of destiny” that makes “injustice anywhere a threat to justice everywhere” in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

[3] Jenny Bourne (ed), “Out of the cauldron: lessons from Cedric Robinson.” Race & Class, 2022, Vol. 63 (3) 3-21. Edited transcript of launch for Joshua Myers, Cedric Robinson: the time of the Black Radical Tradition, including Myers, Avery Gordon, John Narayan, Colin Prescod and Elizabeth Robinson.

[4] Robinson, “An inventory of contemporary Black politics.”

[5] Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents. Duke University Press, 2015.

[6] Avery F. Gordon, “Preface” to Cedric J. Robinson, An Anthropology of Marxism, 2nd edition. UNC Press, 2019, p. xxiii.

[7] Cedric Robinson, “An inventory of contemporary Black politics,” p. 21.

[8] Cedric Robinson, “Manichaeism and Multiculturalism.” Pp. 116 – 124 in Avery F. Gordon and Christopher Newfield, eds. Mapping Multiculturalism. University of Minnesota Press, 1996, p. 122.

[9] Robinson, Black Marxism, p. 245.

[10] Robinson, Anthropology of Marxism, p. 134.

[11] Cedric J. Robinson, Black Movements in America. Routledge, 1997, p. 8.

[12] Robinson, Black Movements, p. 134.

[13] Cedric J. Robinson, Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film before World War II. UNC Press, 2007, p. xv.

[14] Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin eds., Futures of Black Radicalism. Verso Books, 2017,p. 13.

[15] Robinson, Black Marxism, p. xxx.

[16] See Avery F. Gordon, The Hawthorn Archive: Letters from the Utopian Margins. Fordham University Press, 2018.

[17] See Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. Manchester University Press, 2001.