Black Genealogies of Power: Seven Maxims for Resistance in the Trump Years

Dan Berger in AAIHS:

Mural_Malcolm_X_-_Ella_Baker_-_Martin_Luther_King_-_Frederick_Douglass-1024x823“Power concedes nothing without demand,” argued Frederick Douglass in one of his most cited speeches. “It never did and it never will.” Donald Trump inaugurated his first Black History Month at the White House with a bizarre mention of Douglass that made clear he does not know who Douglass was, what he did, or that the legendary abolitionist died 122 years ago. While Trump’s ignorance is clear, Douglass’s words remain a prescient example of how the black freedom struggle has thought about power. The black freedom struggle knows power intimately, as it has needed to: both the effects of power from above and the experience of power from below. How can it be otherwise? Slavery, colonialism, segregation, policing, and other forms of racism are power in and over the flesh. At the same time, black radicalism has developed its own power through abolitionism, marronage, transnationalism, feminism, labor organizing, fugitivity, and other forms of communal struggle.

Black History Month occasions a return to how black radicalism conceptualizes the issue of power. A diasporic political tradition built over centuries, the black radical tradition resists simplistic notions of what power is and how it operates. It has displayed a concurrent attention to strength on the bottom and to weakness from above. Here I want to complement the efforts of contemporary organizations such as BYP100, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the Dream Defenders, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and the Movement for Black Lives by anchoring some of their historical forerunners. To that end, I present seven maxims of power as a useful but by no means comprehensive list for thinking about the revanchist assaults now underway by the Trump administration as well as the historic opposition movements now gathering force nationwide.

Don’t look to the institutions of power to resolve the problems caused by power. “O, let America be America again—/ The land that never has been yet—/ And yet must be—the land where every man [sic] is free,” Langston Hughes offered in his poem “Let America Be America Again.” Hughes’s poem centers on the contradiction of demanding “America be America again” with the recognition that “America never was America to me.” There are no halcyon days to return to, no golden era when American institutions upheld universal, intersectional antiracist policies. They have been, and remain, venues for necessary fights—both to defend existing rights and win new ones. Yet such fights are not calls to return to the past, to “restore faith” in traditional institutions, as we so often hear amidst Trumpist attacks on the media, the judiciary, and other normative branches of liberal democracy. Rather, political battles are most effective when pointing to the world that could be rather than the world that was (but wasn’t really).

More here. (Note: At least one post throughout February will be in honor of Black History Month)