Scratching the surface until we bleed
September 1998

I had the opportunity this summer to visit the Black Radical Congress which was held June 19th-21st in Chicago, Illinois at the University of Chicago. All of the classic elements for a successful Congress were there. First, there was the revolutionary tradition of Chicago itself. A large number of major African-American organizations have historically been located in the city (the Nation of Islam, the Black United Front, and Operation PUSH as prominent examples), it has the largest concentrated African-American residential district in the United States on the south side (a legacy of public housing), and the legitimacy of the university would presumably incline even those somewhat hesitant to participate in something so auspiciously called the Black Radical Congress. This provided a critical opportunity for the development of ideas, their immediate implementation in one of the best natural experiential praxis labs, and the development of a truly national agenda.

Arriving in Chicago, I was again impressed with the high level of achievement by the diverse cultural communities in the city. Virtually each such group has a region of the city that it owns and operates from an economic, social, political, and theological standpoint. There was a great deal of mobility within the communities, the unfortunate exceptions being the more elite Irish neighborhoods which were known to be unsafe for Africans. We had the opportunity to dine at the most exquisite and quaint little restaurants from different cultural traditions not far from the low-income housing complex where we were staying and met wonderfully colorful people. Those who have taken the opportunity to do something as simple as travel around the country will never cease to be amazed, I think, at the level of intellect and wisdom one can find from taking to the so call "lay" people who actually populate this society. I am still amazed at the number of people who call themselves social activists who reside within the relative obscurity of the "ivory towers."

But the camaraderie and knowledge we gleaned from so many in the highways and byways of the streets of Shytown were quickly juxtaposed with the atmosphere of the Radical Congress itself. Admittedly, it was very diverse. There were Afrikans there who represented every phase of what I'll call for the moment the "liberal" part of the Afrikan liberation cause. There were reparations activists, socialists, feminists, homosexual and lesbian rights activists, homeless activists, NAACP-CORE-Urban League politicos, and academics. The glaring omissions for me were the organizations located in Chicago that I earlier mentioned which have between them one of the most enduring records of radicalism and community work. Their "official" absence as conference organizers was later to be explained in terms of a periodical distributed by the conference organizers which condemned the alleged "conservatism" of these groups. The Nation of Islam, for example, was unlikely to sign on to more "radical" feminist and multisexual initiatives at the conference. The Black United Front was seen as associated too closely with the Garveyite tradition. How one associated with Garvey, even figuratively could be perceived as "insufficiently radical" perplexed me greatly. It was at this moment that I developed my first real criticism of the conference. It maintained statements of principle emphasizing the need for unity despite different approaches and philosophies to social activism on behalf of the Afrikan community. Yet, it formally ostracized major organizations that the community recognizes as legitimate organizers and progressive organizations. My criticism related to the classical liberal "political correctness" I have always condemned.

Progressives of the "left" argue that the trait most markedly identifiable in the "right" is there intolerance and their belief that their ideological position is complete and unassailable. One is then left with a kind of assimilate or die proposition. The unfortunate thing is that the political left is often equally intolerant in its dogmatic "anticommittment." We are so committed to all the causes, that the unwillingness of a potential coalition partner to all of the causes means we can't work with them. The special tragedy in this case is that the Afrikan community, in the United States in particular, has been marked by a long tradition of radical conservatism. It is a radical conservatism that is so different from the mainstream conservatism of a Newt Gingrich that we take a risk in using the term "conservatism." It is the conservatism of a Booker T. Washington in arguing that the Afrikan community should first become a viable economic force in areas of its expertise before entering a token integration occupational market. It is the conservatism of a W.E.B. DuBois in arguing that despite all Pan-Afrikan and liberation interests, one should not forget the debts of citizenships owed to Afrikans by this society. It is the conservatism of a Marcus Garvey who says that Afrikans should focus on their own and reclaim their global power. With that power, they presumably would gain respect and equality either by a new wave of human respect or by their ability to prevent Eurocentrism from continuing to destroy them. It is the conservatism of an Elijah Muhammed who emphasized economic and social nationalism of a Garveyesque type in the domestic environment as well as self-defense. And last but not least, the Christian conservatism of a Dr. King who argued that the traditional religious and legal principles of this society were a sufficient revolutionary instrument for social change.

Now I'm sure many of you would say that's not conservatism. But we are prisoners to a language game. If you research the history of the U.S., you will find that the terms "liberal" and "conservative" were once representative of the inverse groups. People today we call conservatives would have been seen as progressive liberals working from a theological base for example. People called liberals would have been seen as trying to conserve or preserve the best of the society. Coalition cannot require uniformity, that is not coalition, but assimilationism. If we want coalition, we must be tolerant of differences, particularly if the differences do not impact on our ability to work together in selected ways for the benefit of the cause we support. We must abandon in all movements the insidious language of conservative and liberal and move to a general language of progressivism. What distinguishes us is what motivates us. When we understand that the conservative is not some demented creature from another realm, but merely one who is more motivated by a particular set of concerns than our own, we have reduced the enemy to a potential partner. You would think that a "unified" Black Radical Congress would at least have figured that out. To ignore, for example, the importance of the Nation of Islam and Islam generally in Afrikan communities in the United States today, is to walk through the terrain with conceptual blinds. And I for one would rather be confused with vision than ethically superior and blind. For the one with vision can always go about the human task of attaining greater degrees of visual acuity. The blind one can only follow the historical roads which have been set.

I challenge the feminists to sit down with the masculinists. See what the feminists want to gain and what the masculinists are so afraid of losing. Can we gain the important gains and minimize the losses so that we create friends not enemies? I challenge the pro-choice movement to sit down sincerely with pro-life. Is a pro-choice position really anti-life? And is a pro-life position really anti-choice? My point is that when we examine the historical roots of our disagreements we tend to find moments of common ground. Real social progress involves converting one's enemies into friends. It is much too easy to preach the Word to the saved. It is those outside your realm of being that are the challenge. And to reach them, you must share your sphere with those of others. Some of the best conversations I have ever had have been with radical capitalists, Klan members, Christian conservatives, male chauvinists, and others. By talking to them, I found them to be remarkably human. I found fear and ignorance. I found dreams and goals. I found historical moments where they might have taken a different path than I because they had different opportunities. I confronted our areas of agreement and found that I had more sexism, elitism, and religious bias to purge in my own soul and in my activism. I am better person for having and continuing to engage them. We still disagree, we fuss, but ultimately I believe the truth will prevail and that it lies somewhere between us and them. Ultimately, the truth may be the quest to find the truth. And maybe their "failures" in my eyes are analogous to my shortcomings in theirs. But then again, to ask socialists to sit down with committed disciples of the internet and Adam Smith is so "radical." I apologize, I thought I was going to a radical congress. My two cents. May you take all that you can gain from, and forget all that which is of no help. But by all means, share and work for the cause of progress.

Barakha Hotep
Nikitah Okembe-RA Imani
Kheb Her, Lifegiver Ministries of Amen-RA

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