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Social Text 19.2 (2001) 1-13

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The "Autonomy" of Black Radicalism

Brent Hayes Edwards

The interview with Grace Lee Boggs and the essays on W. E. B. Du Bois and Richard Wright in this issue of Social Text are selections from a forthcoming collection of recent work on the history of black radicalism: Rethinking Black Marxism. 1 The collection is intended to fill a gap in our understanding of the politics of black radical activity during the twentieth century and to respond to a sense that the remarkable wealth of new work on the subject has marked a significant shift in historiographic orientation. More than twenty years ago, a number of historians began to revisit the participation of African Americans in the U.S. Communist Party, challenging the consensus of Cold War-period scholars, including Wilson Record and Harold Cruse, that--in the memorable phrase of Mark Naison--the story of blacks and communism was shot through from top to bottom with "manipulation, disillusionment, and betrayal." 2 The "new historians" of organized communism, working with a "willingness to acknowledge the indigenous influences on party politics," 3 offered a more sanguine view of the legacy of blacks in communism, noting in particular the sometimes subtle impact of African American radicals on party policy and practice at both the local and national levels. 4

The growing body of scholarship that has emerged in the wake of this revisionist project has extended its focus on black participation in communist movements to take up the broader and interconnected field of black radical work, whether party-based or not, especially in the metropolitan centers of the West. The orientation of the historiography has largely shifted, in other words, from unraveling the intricacies of organized communism to elucidating the complex parameters of African diasporic radicalism in all its varieties. 5 Recent work emphasizes, for instance, the common ground of radicalism inhabited in a place like Harlem in the 1920s by interacting and overlapping forces as diverse as Cyril Briggs's African Blood Brotherhood, Marcus Garvey's UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association), the socialist organizing of A. Philip Randolph and the group linked to the Messenger, W. E. B. Du Bois's nascent Pan-Africanism, Claude McKay's internationalist "vagabond" Bolshevism, and the antiracist campaigns of Walter White and the NAACP. The short-lived [End Page 1] and still-mysterious African Blood Brotherhood has garnered a disproportionate amount of critical attention in this new work, as a "classic example" of an attempt to "organically conjoin Marxism and Black Nationalism," 6 precisely because it embodies for a number of historians the quickly shifting object of study that is black radicalism. As Winston James has recently argued, if New Negro radicalism in the 1920s moved along a continuum from the vehement nationalism of the UNIA to the "orthodox" socialism of the Messenger, the African Blood Brotherhood swung productively between these poles, maintaining "a rather unstable equilibrium," but "at no point did it touch, let alone merge during its independent existence with, the politics represented at either end of the continuum." 7 There is a turn here, an attraction both to what we might term the autonomy of black radical groups and to their theoretical grappling--as fleeting or as fumbling as such work might be--toward a position and a praxis that would attend to both class and race in promoting social transformation. 8

This historiographic shift is not only a departure from party-centered considerations of radicalism; it is also a return: it indicates a renewed attention to the methodologies and strategies embedded within key works within the African diasporic intellectual tradition itself, such as W. E. B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction (1935) and C. L. R. James's The Black Jacobins (1938). 9 Du Bois and James--in elucidating the "underground history" of a black diasporic engagement with and shaping of Western discourses of American postbellum Reconstruction, on the one hand, and eighteenth-century French revolutionary republicanism, on the other--both insist on understanding the specific contours of black radicalism. As Grace Lee...


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