As an academic I am the model of the liberal radical academic I so criticised… A semi-elite that makes a good living off talking about revolution, while reaping the benefits of racial oppression. My hands are just as soaked as anyone else’s in the blood of those who die by the second because of the relative wealth I enjoy. That realisation creates a jarring jolt of guilt, anguish and pain. I fully understand why people seek refuge in culture or religion, or convince themselves that we can be part of the system and part of the solution.
I can see why people go off the grid and try to escape Babylon by rejecting it. But deep down all of those responses are to make us feel better because we do not believe that the system can change. We have learned helplessness and either seek to escape or conclude that doing something, no matter if it makes little or no difference, is better than doing nothing. Instead of ignoring or debating our complicity, we need to embrace it. It is the feelings of anguish that will never let us be comfortable in this wicked system. We can turn the pain into anger, to fuel our constant movement towards liberation.
‘Radical’ has become a muddy term. Ask people what they understand by it, and many will say something along the lines of ‘extreme’, or, at a push, ‘new’. This shift in public understanding has been, in large part, due to the ways the media reports on acts of ‘terrorism’. As Kehinde Andrews points out in his book Back to Black: Retelling Radicalism for the 21st Century, the term ‘radical Islam’ is the perfect example of this, and a total oxymoron. Radicalism does not mean taking an ideology to the very limits of its applicability: this is, in fact, the definition of extremism. Taken right back to its etymology, radicalism simply means, in the words of Angela Davis, ‘grasping things at the root’; in other words, stripping away all the existing conventions, structures and preconceptions. And, in the context of Black radicalism, this impulse manifests itself as a drive to treat the source of racism rather than merely its symptoms.
Andrews’ books seeks not to present any new ideas, but to re-package what it could seem paradoxical to call “traditional” Black radicalism; to rehabilitate it from the corruption of decades of misuse and confusion and remind us of the very fact – and nature – of its radicalism. A great strength of Back to Black is its success in clearly and succinctly educating on how history has seen a complex web of Black thought and numerous different and sometimes conflicting Black ideologies. One by one, Andrews shows these to be either unworkable or not truly radical. Black Nationalism is one example of this. It is the idea that all Black people belong to one nation, and should resist White supremacy as part of a nationalist agenda. This, however, presupposes an investment in the idea of nationhood itself, and thus the current geopolitical system of division.
We take for granted the reality of the nation state and believe, because we are told, that the millionaire bankers in the south of Britain are connected to the poor migrant workers picking cockles on the beaches in the north. Investment in the nation state is undoubtedly an investment in imperialism, and is thus fundamentally at odds with radicalism, Andrews argues. Radicalism involves questioning the very existence of the current terms. And the terms that govern the global community have been founded almost exclusively on racism and oppression. Capitalism is not, according to Andrews, a distinct progression out of an imperialist economic model, but a direct and rational sequitur. The West still has its colonies, and its slaves. Since its independence, Jamaica has been dependent almost entirely on White Western tourism for the lifeblood of its economy, because it exists within a system where the White West dictates the terms. One child in Africa dies every ten seconds. The raw materials that the West uses to create sellable technology is mined almost exclusively on the African continent by exploitative labour. We are, as ever, benefitting off their suffering; literally profiting from their pain. As it was in the beginning, so it remains. And we, comfortable, are still deluding ourselves about the reality of this.
Crucial to the upholding of the current system, therefore, is the content and source of the messages we choose to accept. Andrews addresses this specifically in his 2016 paper entitled ‘The Psychosis of Whiteness: The Celluloid Hallucinations of Amazing Grace and Belle’. The paper has since been adapted into a documentary film, directed by Eugene Nulman, that premiered in Birmingham in October. In the paper, two big-budget British films about the transatlantic slave trade, Amazing Grace (2007) and Belle (2013), are dissected. The factual inaccuracy of the central narratives they present is exposed. Far from unusual for feature film, what is specifically disturbing about these texts is that their narratives have been manipulated to propound myths about White decision-making surrounding the “abolition” of slavery. History has been doctored specifically to portray their White characters as heroic.
Both films, instead of exposing the evil of the powerful institutions that upheld slavery until – and only until – it suited them, praise those self-same institutions for the eventual abolition. These are what Andrews calls ‘celluloid hallucinations’, and the reason that Whiteness is a psychosis – ‘a psychological disorder hallmarked by delusional thinking and hallucinations’, which, crucially, cannot be reasoned with – is because it requires hallucinations such as these to maintain the myths that prop it up. Imagine if we were all forced to truly come to terms with that fact that our nation’s policy is literally killing Black children, and has been for centuries. We are sustained by delusions about our own righteousness created by a culture so deep in psychosis it cannot see its way out. Thus, a crucial feature of the psychosis of Whiteness, as Andrews defines it, is its ability to dominate all culture, not simply that created directly by White people. The psychosis of Whiteness is not reserved for White people, it is a distortion that is rooted in Western society and can be reproduced by those of any hue. Thus is the power of the psychosis.
Belle was written and produced by two Black women, Misan Sagay and Amma Asante. The wonderful job they did in bringing this story to the fore cannot be disputed. However, when the way a tale is told propounds fundamentally false and oppressive narratives, it is worth asking to what extent we should be listening. This debate was raised recently in a twitter post by Black filmmaker Boots Riley, creator of Sorry to Bother You which is released in the UK in December. Riley posted a long document criticising the portrayal of police officer Ron Stalwart in renowned Black director Spike Lee’s 2018 film BlackkKlansman. Whilst expressing his admiration for and indebtedness to Lee, Riley explains how the film ‘is being pushed as a true story’, but that ‘it is precisely its untrue elements that make a cop a hero against racism.’ BlackkKlansman depicts the infiltration of a White Supremacist group by a Black cop in order to disrupt their activity and thus aid the fight against racism. Indeed, a Black radical organisation was infiltrated – and for three years. This is a fact. However:
[W]hen White Supremacist groups were infiltrated by the FBI and the cops, it was not to disrupt them. They weren’t disrupted. It was to use them to threaten and/ or physically attack radical organisations. There was no directive to stop the rise of White Supremacist organisations. The directive was to stop radical organisations. The White Supremacists were infiltrated to be more effective tools of repression by the state.
It would be hard to imagine a more crucial distinction. The facts have, for this film, been turned practically inside out to present an oppressive White structure, the US’s law enforcement, as heroic. A cop being black, as Riley explains, does not make them radical. It merely makes them complicit. Hence why the decision to give Ron a Black radical girlfriend in the film, and to end on a shot of them going forward together to fight racism is almost risible. ‘By now, many folks now know [sic] that Spike Lee was paid over $200k to help in an ad campaign that was “aimed at improving relations with minority communities”. Whether it actually is of not, Blackkklansman [sic] feels like an extension of that ad campaign.’
The prevalence of identity politics in current culture undoubtedly has a lot to do with confusion about the radical-ness of approaches to social change. Because representation and civil rights have been rightly pegged as crucial intermediary measures (what Malcom X termed ‘survival pending Revolution’), they have become, for many, the focus of a belief that once the symptoms are treated the root problem ceases to be an issue. On the contrary, cultural confusion such as the above creative outputs exemplifies why we need, more than ever, to understand that what is necessary is to radically derascinate the system itself.
So, the question, as ever, becomes: how can radicalism in its true form be widely understood enough to make change possible? Since the release of his book, Andrews has been talking at venues – especially educational institutions – all over the country. He has appeared on the BBC, Good Morning Britain and made ridiculous headlines in The Sun and The Daily Mail.
His primary focus outside of academia is the Organisation of Black Unity, based on Malcom X’s 1964 Organisation of Afro- American Unity, which seeks to unite Black people under the radical agenda. He has no time for people who want him to slow down and ‘take a break’. At a Tate talk in July I heard him say to an audience of people, with the deepest conviction: ‘They used to want to die for the people and now we want to protect our annual leave.’ Dedication like his can take us far, if we are willing to listen. As he argues, change may not take extremism – only radicalism, and return to and application of pre-existing ideas. No easy feat when the prevailing culture is steeped in myopia. But then, of course,
It’s called the struggle for a reason.
Art by Abigail Hodges