CAP, Shrine of the Black Madonna/Pan-African Orthodox Christian Church
In this chapter, we focus on two of the most influential BPM organizations that espoused black cultural revolution: the Congress of African Peoples (CAP) and the Shrine of the Black Madonna, also known as the Pan-African Orthodox Christian Church (PAOCC). CAP’s Newark chapter was led by Amiri Baraka and its Midwest chapter in Chicago by Haki Madhubuti. The former harnessed black cultural revolutionary theses to urban electoral mobilization and independent political party organizing before abandoning his kawaida-based black nationalism and adopting Haywood’s Marxist political thrust. Baraka’s organization initially integrated the emergent black elected officials (BEOs) under black nationalist leadership and institutions; however, in time, Baraka was outflanked by those same BEOs for a variety of reasons, including the fact that his analysis of black cultural revolution failed to appreciate sufficiently the dynamic processes of black political and economic development taking place in the cities during a period of deindustrialization. Chicago CAP remained committed to black nationalism, especially the development of independent black institutions, in particular black schools and black publishing, while explicitly rejecting Marxism. Madhubuti’s CAP created the Institute of Positive Education and its network of independent black schools in Chicago, which were prototypes for other such schools around the country. The development of Third World Press in 1967 helped Madhubuti, more than any other activist/theorist of the BPM, lay the basis for popular conceptions of Afrocentrism. Madhubuti’s CAP also embraced aspects of reverse civilizationism through its acceptance of kawaida, and, the Afrocentrism that emerged from it tended to privilege kawaida-based misperceptions of rural African cultures that it construed as “traditional,” rather than the urban-based American industrial working-class culture of black Americans. However, Madhubuti was not simply a communicant of kawaida; he transformed aspects of it, significantly at times, at least on a theoretical level, to comport with the broader requirements of the development of the educational institutions and publishing enterprises he had established in Chicago. As a result, even after the implosion of CAP, the institutions associated with Madhubuti’s efforts in Chicago became among the most enduring of the BPM.
Although the Newark and Chicago CAP chapters disagreed on the salience of Marxism in the BPM, both distanced themselves from the Black Church. In contrast, the PAOCC, also known as the Shrine of the Black Madonna, was led by Albert Cleage (aka Jaramogi Agyeman) and was the most prominent BPM organization centered on the Black Church. The Shrine has been an enduring BPM organization espousing black cultural revolution and, along with Madhubuti’s institutions in Chicago, is the major BPM organization to have sustained uninterrupted operations since the beginnings of the BPM. The Shrine fused political, economic, and cultural aspects of the BPM into a coherent thesis of black cultural revolution. While Cleage/Jaramogi emphasized the primacy of the Black Church in cultural revolution, he did not specify which institutions should be subsequently transformed or in what order. Thus, after the church, it wasn’t clear where activists should focus, for example, on a black political party, black trade unions, black schools, or black community cooperatives. Yet, Cleage’s focus on the Black Church and counterinstitutions was one of the most influential theses of black cultural revolution in the United States and in many ways the Shrine was a culmination of the institutional expression of black cultural revolution in the BPM. In practice, however, it reflected a return to cultural evolution rather than cultural revolution. Ironically, in supporting the BEOs, the PAOCC, like CAP, helped bring to power the group that would supplant the BPM organizations of the era and help end their movement.
The Congress of African Peoples
One of the most influential theses of cultural revolution, and the most successful application of kawaida, was not in Los Angeles with Karenga’s Us, but in Newark, New Jersey, under the auspices of Amiri Baraka’s CAP. Although less prominent than Us with respect to its theoretical contributions to cultural revolution, CAP had much to offer, given that Baraka was probably the most popular literary figure within the Black Arts Movement. By his own admission, Baraka (1984, p. 232) “wanted to create a revolutionary art and a revolutionary institution to bring that art to the black masses.” By the mid-1960s he was already a noted playwright, poet, and cultural critic and the leader of Spirit House in Newark. Prior to founding Spirit House, he had organized the short-lived, though influential, Black Arts Repertory Theater and School (BARTS) in Harlem (in which Harold Cruse had been an instructor).1 Baraka viewed black culture as having its own aesthetic, as expressed in a range of forms exemplified in black music, especially jazz and the blues. He saw these traditions as given to radical, and potentially revolutionary, expression, and in the 1960s he attempted to develop black theatre and black literature in such revolutionary directions.
Like most leaders of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), Baraka advocated the propagandistic role of black art in a manner consistent with Du Bois’s argument in “Criteria of Negro Art,” but he didn’t seem to appreciate the broader philosophical significance of the Harlem Renaissance and the nuanced arguments that it had generated regarding black culture, black aesthetics, and black cultural transformation. Although Baraka (1984, p. 204) viewed both periods as emanating from “[a] rise in black national consciousness among the people,” he (1963, pp. 133–137) viewed the Harlem Renaissance primarily in class terms, with the upper-class intelligentsia projecting the “New Negro” concept, the middle class projecting a “milder form of nationalism” through the NAACP, and the lower class promoting Garveyism. This depiction ignored the variations within and across the strata evident in the organizations and institutions associated with the diverse tendencies explored during the Harlem Renaissance. Such an oversimplification of the interests and perspectives operative in the Harlem Renaissance undermined the usefulness of the era as a historical referent or an analytical point of departure by which to discern the trajectory of later attempts at cultural transformation. For the most part, Baraka, like Karenga, Neal, and many others in BAM seemed to have viewed the Harlem Renaissance largely as a localized episode of black cultural “flowering” that was overly beholden to the aesthetic ideals and aspirations of its white patrons. Instead of a “renaissance,” they proffered a “reformation,” which through its aesthetic expressions of “blackness” would facilitate the birth of the “black nation” for which they would serve as midwives. Ironically, the most divisive cultural issue for BAM advocates was one that Du Bois and Locke—and many other “New Negro” aesthetes—had already agreed upon, that is, the architecture of African American culture. Both of the Harlem Renaissance men of letters agreed that Aframerican culture was typified in black folk culture, which found expression in the “sorrow songs,” the Spirituals. Both thought that the African contribution was only tributary, while the mainstream of Aframerican culture was derived from “slave culture.” Both asserted the importance of the “migrating peasant” relocating to the cities during the Great Migration as a harbinger of a heightened expression of black culture in the urban environs of the North, such as Harlem. Both the trajectory of black social development and its cultural expression were increasingly urban and working class. However, by the 1960s, this orientation had become reversed. Under the aegis of Malcolm X’s reverse civilizationism, BAM advocates such as Karenga were focusing more on black African cultural referents than on black American ones.
Reverse civilizationists in BAM were convinced that black Africans possessed culture but that black Americans had been stripped of theirs. It followed for them that black African culture possessed greater revolutionary potential than any putative black American culture. The political objective of BAM superseded and, in major ways, circumscribed its aesthetic one. BAM members took African names, draped themselves in African garb, and projected a revolutionary pose to merge their politico-cultural project with that of their African contemporaries. Ironically, of all the major BAM advocates, Baraka was uniquely positioned to challenge the reverse civilizationism of BAM theorists, and he did as much in his critique of Karenga’s denigration of blues music. As noted in chapter 6, Baraka, like Neal, rejected Karenga’s arguments that the blues were “counterrevolutionary” and Baraka penned a learned treatise on the musical form in his 1963 Blues People. But whereas Karenga’s disdain for the blues could be associated with his maginalization of contemporary black urban working-class cultural expressions, Baraka’s analyses of black culture were not limited in this way.
Baraka celebrated aspects of the urban proletarian culture of the black industrial working class, which was evident by the onset of the Harlem Renaissance. Although the revolutionary aspect of black music often is typified in the jazz of John Coltrane, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, and Nina Simone, some of its most influential popular expressions were found in soul music or rhythm and blues (R&B). Baraka (1993, p. 168) had argued in Blues People that R&B was “a kind of blues that developed around the cities in the late thirties” and emanated from “profound changes in the cultural consciousness of Negroes” (ibid., p. 171). It was characterized by “a kind of frenzy and extra-local vulgarity . . . that had never been present in older blues forms” (ibid.). Appreciative of the role of urbanization and migration in the transformation of black culture in the United States, Baraka posed a conception of black working-class culture, as expressed in music, that informed his appreciation of black aesthetics and black cultural transformation.
Reflecting on kawaida in his autobiography, Baraka (1984, pp. 244–245) relates that Karenga’s appeal was largely in his emphasis on cultural revolution, which “as a cultural artist,” Baraka notes, “appealed to my biases.” Baraka was convinced that “[c]ulture and the arts can be used to help bring the people to revolutionary positions”; however, he was just as emphatic that “the culture of the black masses in the US is an African American working class culture” (ibid., p. 255). Therefore,
[t]he “revolutionary culture” we must bring to the masses is not the pre-capitalist customs and social practices of Africa, but heightened expression of the lives and history, art and sociopolitical patterns of the masses of the African American people stripped of their dependence on the white racist society and focused on revolution. (ibid.)
But Baraka was so intent on preventing a repetition of the failures of BARTS, which he largely associated with poor organizational discipline and the lack of a cohesive politico-cultural message, that he accepted not only the organizational example of Us but also kawaida and its reverse civilizationism. Although Baraka seemed to recognize the shortcomings of Karenga’s conception of African culture, nonetheless he adopted Karenga’s kawaida for his own use in order to acquire several of its concomitants, namely, the ostensibly traditional but, more importantly, patrimonial structures that facilitated Baraka’s greater control of his organization and its members, in order to prevent a replication of the breakdown of BARTS.2 The result was that, just as the political objective of BAM superseded its aesthetic objective, Baraka’s political objective of creating a centralized black nationalist institution led him to embrace kawaida and its cultural atavism. Later, Baraka (1984, p. 353) lamented the “idealism” and “subjectivism” of “[t]he idea that somehow we had to go back to pre-capitalist Africa and extract some ‘unchanging’ black values from historical feudalist Africa, and impose them on a 20th century black proletariat in the most advanced industrial country in the world.”
Heavily influenced by Karenga and Us—and originally the BPP, as well—Baraka transformed his Newark group into one of the most influential black nationalist organizations of the 1960s and early 1970s. Spirit House became a central component of Baraka’s CFUN (Committee For a Unified Newark), which took shape following the Newark revolt of 1967. CFUN included United Brothers and another organization, BCD (Black Community Development), which more closely resembled Us’s organizational structure. Baraka took Malcolm X’s “ballot or the bullet” perspective seriously and applied it to the political struggle in Newark. Like Us, CFUN eschewed the militant posturing of self-proclaimed revolutionaries, and instead set out to gain municipal power for blacks in Newark. In so doing, Baraka implemented several of the programs and policies that Malcolm had called for in the OAAU. Three in particular were decisive in the success of CFUN, and later CAP.3 First, he took seriously Malcolm’s argument on the importance of pursuing an electoral strategy that sought material gains for black people reeling in the desperation and devastation of the urban ghettoes. Second, Baraka took seriously Malcolm’s thesis on third world solidarity and sought alliances with other national minorities in the United States, in particular members of the Puerto Rican community of Newark. Third, largely through Amina Baraka’s (Amiri’s wife) and Malaika Akiba’s initiatives, he challenged his organization’s sexism, facilitating the politico-cultural transformation of his organization that women’s liberation necessitated. This was important to address the sexism not only in kawaida but throughout the BPM and CRM, because given the challenge of cultural revolution to transform society, the eradication of sexism is a paramount concern.
Challenging sexism is often viewed as a matter of simple morality, and clearly it is a major moral issue; however, it is an issue of power as well. Simply put, many of the community-based initiatives that nationalists developed that centered on the development of parallel institutions to perform the tasks that local, state, and federal government agencies and institutions did not provide were staffed mainly by women. The greater role of women in these community development—as opposed to paramilitary—initiatives, reflected traditionally sexist role designations whereby men assigned women to staff community service programs, alternative education facilities, and the administrative and clerical tasks that were directly related to the functioning of an organization and the recruitment of its new members. These tasks were among those that most directly engaged and administered to community folk, and thus were actually transformative. In contrast, women were relatively absent from the leadership positions of most of these organizations. Thus, the transformative aspects of the movement, as found in community-based programs, were largely reflected in and articulated through the engagement of black women; however, with the women’s voices silenced by sexist structures, BPM organizations could hardly benefit from the informed input drawn from their direct experiences with the community they serviced. As a result, the organizations were unlikely to transform along lines that reflected the learning experiences garnered from the women’s engagements with the community because the women with those experiences rarely occupied the executive positions where the policies for the governance of the organization, which might have drawn on their transformative experiences, were formulated.
One result was that BPM organizations often were ill-equipped to create the relevant cultural transformations within their own institutions, much less to propose, promote, and achieve the transformations necessary to facilitate a cultural revolution in black society. By relegating women to subordinate roles in an organization that placed them in direct, frequently intimate contact with the larger community through grassroots programs, the group’s leaders inadvertently ensured that the seeds of revolutionary change would be both found in and bound by the experiences of the organization’s women. At the same time, since its sexist practices and policies denied women leadership positions, the organization was not able to profit from any insights born of women’s experiences in these transformative processes, and was thus precluded not only from achieving its own cultural transformation but from promoting policies that might transform black society. In short, sexism was not only morally odious, it undermined the capacity of BPM organizations to realize their potential for revolutionary transformation, and in this way it neutralized them.
Seemingly in recognition of these relationships, Baraka transformed CFUN by challenging sexism within its structure, through a process largely absent from other major BPM organizations we’ve examined. This was mainly a result of the actions of women in the organization, especially following the departure of BCD, which was oriented toward Karenga’s feudal—and futile—conception of women and their sexist subjugation in Us. It was a problem of most of the CRM organizations, as well as those of the White Left and BPM organizations that professed allegiance to Malcolm X. Woodard (1999, p. 123) notes that “while Black Revolution farsightedly envisioned self-emancipation for men, it shortsightedly imagined submission for women” (ibid., pp. 123–124). In contrast, “The women in CFUN began first to experiment with their own ideas and practices about the roles of women in Black Revolution,” and “they were determined to become their own liberators.” With this in mind, “the Women’s Division began fashioning the institutional arrangements necessary for their own political development,” including, “new arrangements for the collective organization of housework, meals, and child care, so that women could be fully mobilized for black liberation” (ibid., p. 124). Amina Baraka, for example, was the founder of the African Free School and leader of the study circle, United Sisters, which, after the break with BCD
established itself as the leadership of the new women’s division of the CFUN. These women felt that CFUN should have been better organized, especially in the administration of its headquarters. . . . They introduced a number of organizational innovations, including standard operating procedures for many of the regular functions. The women’s division became the largest section of CFUN; that branch included the most original and enthusiastic activists within the organization. (Woodard, 1999, pp. 122–123)
Similarly, Muminina Salimu, a dancer and playwright, “had been involved in Newark’s black arts and jazz circles prior to the development of Spirit House” and directed work at CFUN’s central office, which developed “into the headquarters for several local, regional, and national structures” including “the Newark Black Leadership Council, Congress of African People, National Black Assembly, African Liberation Support Committee, and Black Women’s United Front.” Moreover, she trained the central staff of CFUN as it expanded, following “the new procedures developed by the women’s division” such that “[w]hen observers praised the organizational expertise of CFUN, they were commenting on the work of the women’s division” (ibid., p. 124). In fact, what CFUN had undertaken that made it so different from other BPM organizations was its concerted attack on its sexism, which unleashed the organization’s immense potential. The significance of these feminist initiatives was so great that they propelled CFUN into the most powerful BPM organization.
Woodard observed the development of “a marked difference” between CFUN and Us, largely because “there was very little parallel” in Us to the “political role of the women’s division in CFUN” (Woodard, 1999, p. 137). It was only after challenging sexism that CFUN rebounded from its previous failed attempt at electoral politics in Newark to accomplish an unprecedented feat: electing the first black mayor of a major Eastern Seaboard city. The strategy informing this project was the hallmark of black nationalist approaches in the BPM, which is often marginalized in the academic and popular literature because it is associated with “cultural nationalist” programs, as opposed to “revolutionary nationalist” undertakings such as the BPP’s survival programs, which were, typically, simply extensions of the programmatic initiatives that “cultural nationalists,” among others, had been undertaking throughout the era. As Woodard (1999, p. 115) notes:
cultural nationalism proposed a strategy of black liberation involving struggles for regional autonomy in urban centers, in alliance with oppressed people of color in the United States, particularly Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans. Tactically, this stratagem involved mass social mobilization for black self-government at the municipal level and for proportional representation at higher levels of government. From these semi-autonomous urban enclaves, the African American cultural nationalists sought to accelerate the process of black nationality formation through the rapid spread of independent black economic, institutional, cultural, social, and political development.
Woodard suggests two major “driving forces” behind these black nationalist initiatives. The first “was the increasing degree of conflict between the black community on the one hand and both the welfare and police bureaucracies on the other”; and “the highest expression of that conflict were the intrusion of urban renewal plans that threatened the physical existence of many black communities, followed by hundreds of mass urban uprisings” (ibid., p. 115). The second “was the collapse of basic government and commercial services in the second ghettos,” and in light of that,
The cultural nationalist strategy . . . was to develop parallel black institutions in that void left by the urban crisis, thereby emphasizing the failure of the American government and mainstream economy in providing basic services and offering black nationalism and cooperative economics as rational alternatives. Considerations of strategic allies revolved around other communities that experienced similar urban dynamics. (ibid.)
Importantly, Woodard points out that “[t]his black awakening was not a diversion from revolutionary nationalism; it reflected the rising political consciousness of a people mobilized in a life-and-death struggle against white racism and internal colonialism.” Moreover, it “expressed a global consciousness that led its proponents not only to identify with the independence movements of Africa, Asia, and Latin America but also to see Newark’s Puerto Rican community as a strategic ally against internal colonialism” (Woodard, 1999, p. 116).
The success of CFUN allowed the organization to heavily influence the National Black Political Assembly (NBPA) at the 1972 Gary Convention. The NBPA emerged from the Black Power Conferences of the late 1960s, and specifically from the efforts of CAP, which was established at the Black Power Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1970, which was attended by three thousand blacks from across the country practicing “operational unity” in an effort to create a national framework to forge a common strategy for black liberation. CFUN was prominent in the conference and because of its superior organization and recent electoral success, its members staffed much of the administrative apparatus of CAP, and CFUN became CAP-Newark. The conference marked the split between Baraka and Karenga, who opposed the convening of the conference and advised Baraka to cancel it (Baraka, 1984, p. 404). When Baraka refused, Karenga sent Us members to Atlanta, in what Baraka (ibid., pp. 404–416) viewed as an attempt to disrupt the conference. This was averted by Baraka’s nonconfrontational approach to Us members, who were treated as “emissaries of Maulana Karenga” and conference guests (ibid., p. 406). A major outcome of the Atlanta conference was the promotion of the NBPA, which was initially intended to develop a unified political strategy for black Americans for the presidential elections of 1972 and beyond. In pursuit of that objective, it became the largest and most serious attempt to create an independent black political party in U.S history.
The NBPA convention was attended by African Americans of diverse political persuasions, from avowed revolutionaries to mainstream elected officials, from Marxist radicals to liberal centrists, from grassroots organizers to elite politicians, from CRM and BPM activists to Democratic Party apparatchiks. The steering committee of the NBPA consisted of Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana, the convention’s host, Detroit Congressman Charles Diggs, and Baraka. The three represented the two most prominent political tendencies of the time, with Hatcher and Diggs representing the BEOs and Baraka the black nationalists of the BPM, a particularly effective ascendant strain who were demonstrating their ability to compete in the electoral arena as well as mobilizing the grassroots “in the streets.” Baraka had demonstrated the latter in the success of CFUN in Newark’s municipal elections, which brought Kenneth Gibson to the mayor’s office in 1970. Hatcher served as a moderating medium between the two tendencies, but the fact that another black elected official assumed this role was due not only to the fact that he was the host of the convention; it foreshadowed the pivotal role that BEOs intended to play at the Gary Convention and in its aftermath.
Although the relatively small in number but increasingly influential BEOs largely reflected the CRM’s integrationist orientation, it was Baraka who headed the day to day proceedings of the conference, and who most directly influenced the agenda. Baraka’s leadership reflected the fact that he was among the few political leaders who had been successful in achieving the major objectives sought by the two most prominent political tendencies among black Americans, black nationalism and black integrationism, namely, building independent black institutions associated with grassroots political power and successfully executing an electoral strategy to win major elective office.
From the perspective of black nationalists, the NBPA provided a framework for the creation of an independent black national political party, although this was opposed by many black elected officials at the convention. The creation of such a party would have serious implications for the Democratic Party, given that blacks were a major constituency, whose influence would certainly be challenged by an independent black political party but at the same time the viability of a black political party would itself be challenged by the relationship between BEOs and the Democratic Party. The creation of such a party for black Americans was a fulfillment of Malcolm X’s desire for an independent black political party (as well as the efforts of Cruse, Boggs, and Cleage, among others, in the FNP). Although there was a dispute as to its creation, the threat to the Democratic Party—at least in national elections—was real, since for many activists Democrats were no less responsible than Republicans for the disastrous ongoing Vietnam War, they were still reeling from internecine struggles related to their failed presidential election campaign in 1968, and they faced an impending defeat in the 1972 presidential election, which had already been made obvious by the convening of the NBPA. In this context, a defection of blacks from the Democrats, or the enervation of black support, was an outcome that party leaders were intent on preventing. Critically, the small but increasing cohort of BEOs represented an important constituency for Democratic Party presidential contenders vying for the black vote to buttress their probability of winning the party’s nomination and possibly turning the tide in the national election as well.
Faced with the potential threat of a third party arising largely from within its ranks, it was unlikely that the Democratic Party would stand idly by and allow such an important constituency to leave and form an independent and potentially rival “third force” in national, or even local, elections.4 Thus, the NBPA was faced with not only the diverse ideological perspectives among its members, from which it sought to articulate a “united front,” but also the machinations of the Democratic Party intent to keep, through cooptation, coercion, and a variety of other methods, one of its most reliable constituencies in the fold. Whether or not blacks, or black elected officials as their representatives, held the “balance of power” (Moon, 1948) in national elections was less clear, but what was unmistakable was that the BEOs would be critical in determining the victor of the resultant power struggle between the nascent NBPA and the Democratic Party and in recognition of their potential power, BEOs in Congress had formed the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in 1971.5
The NBPA was attended by eight thousand black Americans, including 3,300 delegates representing forty-two states. BEOs were automatically granted delegate status and major civil rights organizations were each granted ten delegates, while other delegates were nominated in statewide caucuses and represented a variety of community-based institutions, civil rights groups, and black power organizations. The all-black delegates and observers ranged from nationalists such as Betty Shabazz, Queen Mother Moore, and Louis Farrakhan to integrationists such as Coretta Scott King, Julian Bond, and Jesse Jackson, and from revolutionists such as Imari Obadele and Bobby Seale to BEOs such as Barbara Jordan and Carl Stokes, as well as artists and entertainers such as Nikki Giovanni, Isaac Hayes, and Richard Roundtree. Given its successes in mobilizing voters in Newark, Newark-CAP provided much of the administrative support for the NBPA. The substance of the policies emanating from the NBPA was an eclectic representation of the varying political perspectives of the attendees.
The policy recommendations of the resultant “Black Agenda” reflected this ideological mix and ranged from liberal reforms consistent with New Deal/Great Society initiatives such as national health insurance, welfare reform, jobs programs, and D.C. home rule, to support for proportional representation, reparations, and recognition of the RNA’s right to hold a plebiscite. Two contentious proposals focused on opposing court-ordered busing in support of black community control of black neighborhood schools and supporting Palestinian self-determination and an end to Israel’s occupation of Arab territories it captured in the Six Day War of 1967, in the name of third world solidarity. The latter included language referring to the Zionist state as “fascist” and “imperialistic.”6 These two issues contributed to the walkout of most of the Michigan delegation led by future Detroit mayor, State Senator Coleman Young. Significantly, the walkout signaled what the tripartite leadership of the convention had only superficially concealed: the BEOs would not be beholden to the black nationalists and their pursuit of an independent black politics, nor would they risk associations that put them too far afield of the Democratic Party’s liberal constituency.
Instead of demonstrating the viability of independent black politics oriented by black power, to a greater extent the Gary Convention signaled the apex of the BPM, and from there it would decline precipitously as BEOs assumed the dominant role in black politics. In fact, the CBC largely rejected the NBPA’s “Black Agenda” and a few months after Gary issued its own “Black Declaration of Independence,” which included a “Black Bill of Rights.” The latter eschewed the more black nationalist demands of the “Black Agenda” and instead mainly asserted liberal demands such as guaranteed full employment, a guaranteed national income, and a federal contract set-aside program for black businesses. Nevertheless, its more progressive elements and those focused on blacks were largely ignored by the Democratic Party and given no more than lip service by its presidential candidate, George McGovern, who would lose in a landslide to Republican Richard Nixon anyway.
It was not only in the NBPA, but even in Newark, which was the springboard for the ascendance of Baraka and CAP, that black nationalists were superseded by Democratic Party politicians in their appeal to the increasingly politically efficacious black masses. In fact, in an example of the proverbial “biting the hand that fed him,” Kenneth Gibson won reelection in 1974 after repudiating Baraka and many of the nationalist programs he sought to implement; moreover, Gibson was reelected well into the mid-1980s and other BEOs who were among Baraka’s detractors at the NBPA, such as Coleman Young, became stalwarts in the Democratic Party, and were reelected into the 1990s. Confronted with these setbacks, particularly the actions of BEOs such as Gibson, Baraka framed the problem less in his tactics or the broader national patterns of deindustrialization of the cities in which blacks were ensconced, further undermining their ability to deliver on the promise of patronage politics through their control of city budgets, and the rising conservative “backlash” in U.S. national politics that would lead national unions such as the Teamsters to support Nixon in 1972, and more in the limitations of black nationalism. Baraka rationalized his failures as the failure of black nationalism; thusly: “internal colonialism, when faced with the challenge of Black Power, had changed to neocolonialism” (Woodard, 1999, p. 254). At a point where he might have redirected his initiatives more closely with those of potentially progressive institutions in Newark’s black communities or employed different tactics toward developing such institutions, as he had with CFUN, Baraka viewed his organization’s defeat as a failure of black nationalism itself, thereby turning a tactical loss in Newark politics into a strategic defeat for his ideology. As early as 1972, he had begun to study Marxism in meetings with the African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC) in order to incorporate socialist analyses into a “revolutionary kawaida,” and by 1974, Baraka repudiated black nationalism for Marxism.
Baraka’s rejection of black nationalism for Marxism split CAP irreparably. Upon his announcement at the Midwest CAP conference in 1974 that CAP was encouraging its members to study Marx, Lenin, and Mao Zedong, both Jitu Weusi of The East and CAP’s Midwest chair Haki Madhubuti (Don L. Lee) of the IPE and TWP in Chicago resigned their positions in CAP. The loss of these two chapters was immense given what each represented as institution in its own regard. The East was born of Uhuru Sasa, a seminal organization in the independent black school movement, in Brooklyn, which was probably the largest CAP contingent. The IPE was an influential independent black school in Chicago, and TWP was the prominent independent black press headed by one of the most influential artists of BAM. The resignations of Weusi and Madhubuti from CAP’s leadership and the loss of their institutional support signaled the demise of CAP as a locus of the BPM. The ensuing debate between Baraka and his supporters, on one side, and Madhubuti and his supporters on the other was dramatically played out in the pages of The Black Scholar and Unity & Struggle, and it largely replayed debates that had ushered in the BPM, as captured in Cruse’s “Revolutionary Nationalism and the Afro-American.” Madhubuti’s critique of Baraka’s embrace of Marxism, and his grounding CAP in it, was an uabashed endorsement of black nationalism, a denial of the applicability of Marxism to black liberation in the United States, and an insistence on independent black institution building focused on schools and businesses to serve and support revolutionary initiatives.
Madhubuti’s critique was especially impactful given that unlike many other prominent black nationalists of the era, he could rival Baraka as a member of the upper echelon of BAM. Madhubuti was one of the most popular poets and essayists of BAM and, as Don L. Lee—along with Johari Amini (Jewel C. Latimore) and Carolyn Rodgers and acting on the inspiration of Dudley Randall’s Detroit-based Broadside Press (Boyd 2003)—he founded TWP in 1967, which published some of the leading artists of BAM including Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Mari Evans, Margaret Walker, Kalamu ya Salaam, Keorapetse Kgositsile, and Dudley Randall, as well as prominent black authors whose reputations had been made well before BAM, such as Ruby Dee, Sterling Plumpp, and Lee’s literary mentor and Pulitzer Prize–winning author, Gwendolyn Brooks, and important authors and essayists of black history such as Chancellor Williams and John Henrik Clarke.
Putting into effect one of the key tenets of kawaida, ujamaa (cooperative economics), Lee intended that TWP would publish the bourgeoning literature of the BPM without the editorial censorship of mainstream publishing houses while creating an institution that was black owned and politically oriented to the cultural transformation of black American society. The press generated funds that could be used to support other black institutions; and key to this institutional development was the creation of independent black schools that would teach students using a pedagogical perspective that Du Bois had labeled by no later than 1961 as Afrocentric. For Lee, who by the early 1970s had taken the Swahili name Haki Madhubuti, this would become the Institute of Positive Education (IPE) which opened in 1969 on Chicago’s south side, and eventually, TWP served as the publishing branch of the IPE, which, more than just an independent black school, was a community resource and research center specializing in education and communications.
Given Lee’s grounding in BAM and his organizational and institutional work in Chicago, it is not surprising that he became a ranking member of the executive committee of CAP and that Chicago was the Midwest headquarters of the organization. But unlike Baraka’s CFUN, which was wedded from its inception to kawaida and programmatically influenced by Us, Lee’s Chicago organization exercised relative autonomy from Karenga even as it embraced important elements of kawaida, mainly the nguzo saba, but, importantly not its sexist orientation, especially under the influence of Lee’s wife Carol (Safisha), who was an educator in her own right, and of Lee’s emerging feminism. Like Baraka, Lee was a military veteran as well as a veteran of the BPM. Born in Little Rock, raised on the east side of Detroit, and coming to the south side of Chicago as a teen, he resonated with the incipient BAM and produced and helped develop its signature style and some of its seminal poetry, but his activist roots had been planted in CORE and SNCC, especially during their black power phases, as well as Chicago’s Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), which was one of the important BAM organizations (Smethurst, 2005). His aesthetics and activism led him to realize the importance of independent black institutions and the central role that black art could play in their development. In this way, Lee’s participation in the black liberation struggle emerged prior to his massive contributions to BAM. Thus, by the time that Lee penned his response to Baraka’s unilateral imposition of Marxism on CAP to The Black Scholar in his essay “The Latest Purge,” his was among the most prominent voices of black nationalism in the United States and his essay would solidify the major fissure initiated by Baraka’s breach, from which the movement would not recover.
Lee, now Madhubuti, voiced his opposition to both the new direction of CAP, and to Marxism as an ideological guidepost to the previously black nationalist–oriented CAP. Baraka’s response, at its best, pointed to the embrace of Marxism as a necessary evolutionary development of his and his organization’s intellectual growth, but also as a strategic shift necessary to confront what he viewed as the reconstitution of domestic colonialism as neocolonialism. The debate on both sides would too often descend into the ad hominem and crude sectarianism that typified the era. In many ways, it was a repetition of the Cruse-Boggs tension that had implicitly or explicitly provided the theoretical axes of the BPM since the founding of RAM. As discussed in chapter 1, these perspectives were not irreconcilable, but in the event adherents of each so scorched the discourse and inflamed the rhetoric of BPM revolutionists that the substantive basis for either their theoretical amalgamation or transcendence was lost, as was the attention of many of those blacks and nonblacks at whom these programs were ostensibly directed.
One aspect of that resolution—or at least a perspective that might have moved the protagonists toward synthesis—was Haywood’s Black Belt thesis, which recognized both the importance of black workers and the revolutionary elements within the black petit bourgeoisie, as well as the self-determination rights of blacks as a subjugated nation under U.S imperialism and black culture as an important aspect of black nationhood. Haywood affirmed the potentially revolutionary aspects of black nationalism that emanated from the cultural assertions of the black nation for self-determination. Such claims in the context of the Black Belt thesis would have to be expansive and unifying, galvanizing blacks across classes. The workers would provide the spearhead of the struggle by asserting their leverage against the system and in that way compel it to address and resolve the political, economic, and cultural demands of the black nation. However, Haywood’s synthesis privileged political activity in the U.S South rather than the North and it’s not clear that such an approach would have resulted in a much different outcome than what Baraka experienced in Newark.
The Du Bois-Locke thesis also recognized class differences in black communities but rejected the class antagonism presumed by Marxism. It also suggested the expansive and unifying cultural claim that could galvanize blacks across classes: reparations. What was implicit in Haywood’s framework was explicit in the Du Bois-Locke thesis, that the cultural claim needed to be wedded to economic and political objectives that both appealed to the masses of blacks and also spoke to the major unresolved issues of social justice that would motivate continued political mobilization and that contained the prospect of radically transforming the systems of governance in the United States, namely, the political oligarchy, the economic oligopoly, and the white supremacist cultural system. Failing that, the issues could be readily co-opted by the array of institutions of civil society in the United States and, in the case of black American political mobilization, into the extant framework of the local political machinery and/or the national Democratic Party, with only lip service paid to the actual enduring issues of black liberation, as had been accomplished in Newark by the local Democratic Party, in the aftermath of the NBPA by the national Democratic Party, and by the Carter administration with respect to the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill by the end of the 1970s (Smith, 1996).
By the early 1970s it was apparent that as the victories of the CRM and BPM provided political and economic resources to black communities, mobilized elements within these communities were realigning themselves to take advantage of these resources to advance their own interests and claims. The sectarian and often abstract ideological disputes of black nationalists and black Marxists decreased their relevance to these struggles for material gains in both the political and, increasingly, the economic spheres, and BEOs and their patrons in the Democratic Party, often aligned with prominent church leaders, appeared to be much more able to deliver resources to their black constituents; as a result, they outmaneuvered black nationalists of whatever political stripe, and black Marxists as well, in their struggle for relevance among—and support from—African Americans. This intervention by the Democrats was made easier by black revolutionists of the BPM who were drawn to the siren song of the need for “unity” and the desire for a “national” organization to both mobilize and channel grassroots black political interests, namely, a national black political party.
Even with the qualification “unity without uniformity,” the notion that unity should be an objective of black nationalist mobilization was chimerical. The appeal of the united front was that it would unify black protest efforts under a solid overarching operational, if not organizational, rubric; but the diversity of black political interests in the aftermath of the successful overthrow of de jure Jim Crow made unity, even with respect to the main political objectives of black Americans, extremely difficult to obtain. That is, while blacks shared a common interest across regions to oppose the apartheid system of the Jim Crow South, the absence of such a uniformly regarded object of opprobrium in the post–Jim Crow era severely diminished the prospects of a unified political orientation among them. Clearly, there were national concerns about poverty, unemployment, health care, police brutality, and political representation, but even prominent national issues such as opposition to the Vietnam War found sizable numbers of blacks on both sides of the dispute.7 As long as an appeal to unity was necessary there would be sizable fractures in the organizational framework of the resulting political formation, and these divisions would be obvious and relatively easy targets for attempts by both adversaries and potential allies, such as the Democratic Party, to exploit them in pursuit of their own ends. Also, the attempt to build a single, ostensibly unified party at the outset, rather than disaggregated and more locally focused parties in selected cities such as Newark, Detroit, Atlanta, and Oakland, which had already demonstrated their ability to elect black nationalist–oriented candidates, seemed a less propitious focus of black nationalist electoral efforts. Instead of concentrating their limited resources on a few select cities, however, they sought—prematurely, as it happened—a national party organization, which was immensely difficult to build. One result was that opposition to an independent national black political entity could focus its disruptive efforts on a single organization rather than several, concentrating its resources and increasing its likelihood of successfully undermining that organization.
In addition, the desire to form a national organization should have been balanced by the realization that no single black nationalist organization had a national appeal that was grounded in both grassroots organizing and electoral success. In fact, only Baraka’s CAP had been able to succeed in a major city. A black nationalist party open to a united front orientation could not sustain itself as a national organization unless it took on those non-nationalist tendencies that had a national presence, as represented in entities such as the NAACP, the Democratic Party, and selected national labor unions; however, these types of organizations would support neither a black nationalist ideological orientation nor a separate black political party. Thus, while unity was chimerical, an attempt at creating a nationwide black nationalist political party could not survive the very constituents it would have to appeal to in order to create itself. The NBPA was saddled with both of these problems simultaneously and it failed largely because it attempted to create in a single entity a viable third party focused on electoral politics and a sustainable nationwide black organization committed to mobilizing grassroots interests around the diverse concerns of black communities. It could not deliver on the promise of electoral success because only in exceptionally rare cases had black nationalists demonstrated skills at electoral activism—many dismissing the need for it altogether—and where they did they were no match for local Democratic Party organizations. Neither could it deliver on a national party because of the need to appeal to a broad spectrum of interests, which a national party required, which reduced its ability to generate an actual black nationalist political organization that would be national in scope. As a result, the NBPA imploded under the weight of its own expectations.8
For Baraka, in particular, his turn from black nationalism to Marxism was based on his rationalization that while black nationalism may have been useful in confronting U.S domestic colonialism, it was ineffective in challenging its domestic neocolonialism. Marxism, according to this view, was a more potent ideological weapon in this context; therefore, a shift to Marxism could be viewed as progressive. This argument reflects a rhetorical turn intended to rationalize a tactical shortcoming, Baraka’s failure to compel the Gibson administration to fulfill its obligations to the program of CFUN/CAP in Newark. Baraka, however, magnified this tactical failure into a strategic one by jettisoning the ideology that was the fulcrum upon which his local and national organizations rested. Accepting, for the moment, that Baraka was correct that black nationalism had been outflanked by neocolonialism, and because of it had outlived its usefulness as an ideology for black liberation, it made little sense to replace it with Marxism/Maoism, which not only most of his membership and important allies rejected wholesale but was even more out of touch with U.S. society.
For example, Mao’s widely lauded endorsement of the CRM was attuned to black initiatives against Jim Crow but totally out of touch with the reality of white workers’ racism. This is evident in his “Statement Supporting the Afro-Americans in Their Just Struggle Against Racial Discrimination by U.S. Imperialism” of August 8, 1963, in which Mao included his observation that
[i]n the United States, it is only the reactionary ruling clique among the whites which is oppressing the Negro people. They can in no way represent the workers, farmers, revolutionary intellectuals, and other enlightened persons who comprise the overwhelming majority of the white people.
This displays an utter ignorance of the endemic nature of white racism throughout all classes of white Americans, which was no less pronounced among “white workers and farmers” in the South and the North (the latter exemplified in the Boston Busing Crisis and the “Hard Hat Riot” of the early 1970s). Mao’s 1968 statement in response to King’s assassination was similarly myopic with respect to the orientation of white workers in its conflation of the issue of black national self-determination with that of class struggle, the same rationalization that Haywood had opposed in the 1920s.9 In fact, previously, Baraka himself had argued that Marxism/Maoism was largely irrelevant to African American urban communities and the United States in general. For example, he had asserted, in a manner consistent with Cruse, the uniqueness of the black American context, which called for a unique social theory and political program:
The United States is not China nor nineteenth-century Russia, nor even Cuba or Vietnam. It is the most highly industrialized nation ever to exist, a place where the slaves ride in Cadillacs and worship their slave master’s image, as God. American power over Africans around the world must be broken before the other colonial powers are completely broken. Also, it should never be forgotten that we are a different people, want a different nation, than our slavemasters. (Baraka, 1974, p. 118)
It made even less sense to adopt Mao’s concomitant notion of cultural revolution, which was ravaging China at the time and theoretically was applicable to an immediately postrevolutionary context, which the United States during the BPM was clearly not experiencing, at least, not according to Baraka. In fact, most BPM leaders would maintain that it was experiencing, at best, a prerevolutionary or reformist context, in a Marxist sense. Baraka (1992, pp. 117–118) seemed to have recognized this earlier, as well, in his admonition that what was necessary for black liberation was the pursuit of black cultural revolution—not a purging of Party ranks such as was occurring in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China—that was focused on capturing the hearts and minds of black Americans to wage a conscious struggle for black liberation. It also made little sense for Baraka to adopt Maoism at the same time that local, regional, and federal authorities in the United States had demonstrated their ability to thoroughly undermine black Maoist groups such as RAM and the BPP. Moreover, Maoism was hardly a coherent ideology in the 1970s, even in China; it was “an amalgam of perspectives associated with different factions within the Chinese Communist Party.” Its dominant framework was associated with Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy; another, trumpeted by Lin Biao, was populist, focusing on the people more than the working class and emphasizing support for third world nationalism; while another, “Cultural Revolution Maoism,” bordered on anarchism (Elbaum, 2002, pp. 139–140). The contending perspectives within Maoism made it difficult for those who attempted to apply its precepts uniformly in the United States. Not surprisingly, the major explicitly Maoist group in the United States, the Revolutionary Union, formally disbanded in 1975.10 Finally, the irony could not have been lost on Baraka that even as he turned to Maoism as a more effective ideology to address Nixon-era domestic neocolonialism in the United States, Mao himself had turned to Nixon, with whom he sought and achieved a rapprochement with the United States, having received Nixon in Beijing in February 1972.11
In fact, Baraka was half right: the successes born of black nationalist initiatives were important in promoting the political assertiveness of blacks and therefore increased their electoral power, resulting in the ascendancy of BEOs as a counterweight to nationalist organizations, even those that had catapulted them into political leadership, such as CFUN. The logical extension of this work would have been the creation of an independent black political party; however, the national Democratic Party, through its local affiliates, provided a competitive option for mobilized black political interests by providing them access to local patronage and more extensive financial resources distributed through networks and clients honeycombed throughout Democratic Party–dominated city and county governments, congressional districts, and voting precincts. As a result, many black activists channeled their protests into electoral politics under the aegis of the Democratic Party. A more accurate characterization might be that the Democrats incorporated, coopted, channeled, or cajoled prominent political tendencies toward independent black political party organizing. The ascendancy of the BEOs and the threat posed by the Democratic Party and its resources to anyone seeking to organize an independent black political party required a revised black nationalist strategy. Such a revised strategy would have needed to center on political mobilization by utilizing some powerful indigenous institution in the black community that could rival the local Democratic Party, such as a black political party or labor union, had such an entity existed. Among the few viable candidates, the one that was not only politically efficacious but culturally grounded in the black community, was the Black Church. This was the direction undertaken by Albert Cleage, an early ally of CAP, and his Shrine of the Black Madonna, in Detroit. Cleage’s focus was not only propitious as a strategy, for the reasons just given, but it provided an opportunity to further entrench the cultural focus of the transformation that Baraka sought, rather than abandoning it; however, Baraka did not pursue this option.
Although in applying it, Baraka had taken kawaida “theory” farther than even its founding organization, Us, had been able to in L.A., he was forced to face up to the limitations of his kawaida approach to addressing the challenges of patronage politics and the hegemony of the Democratic Party in a major postindustrial U.S city by appealing to the emerging sector of BEOs who had thrown their support to the Democrats rather than the black nationalists. Baraka’s practical difficulty was a function of his inability to provide sustained pressure on BEOs through his grassroots mobilization of the black and brown vote in Newark and elsewhere. Baraka was not alone among black nationalists who failed to appreciate that the strength of their appeal to increasingly politically efficacious blacks and their increasing number of elected representatives was in their ability to exert leverage in the form of votes. It was not rhetoric about revolution and “taking it to the streets” that was most salient to this expanding “political class,” but the ability to produce desirable—or undesirable—election outcomes. The decline of Baraka’s and Newark-CAP’s influence in this regard was rapid, such that by 1974, just four years after delivering Kenneth Gibson’s victory as the first black mayor of Newark against a white incumbent, Baraka’s forces
could be safely ignored by the mayor in his reelection campaign because [Gibson] was confident that Baraka and his organization could not deliver sufficient votes to affect the outcome of the election. This is all the more telling since Baraka at the time had probably the best local organization of any nationalist leader. (Smith, 1996, p. 306)12
This development had implications far beyond Newark. For example, commenting on the failure of most black elected officials to even attend the 1974 Little Rock NBPA, which was the followup to the Gary Convention (only three of the sixteen members of the CBC at the time attended), black St. Louis congressman William Clay (D-MO), a founding member of the CBC and delegate to the Gary Convention, remarked: “My district is 49 percent black and 51 percent white and I get elected every two years. Baraka’s district is 65 percent black and they send Peter Rodino, a white man, to Congress. Now tell me, what business do I have letting him tell me about political power and political organization?” (Smith, 1996, pp. 63–64).
Baraka’s theoretical difficulty was rooted in a broader problem evident in the prominent theses on black cultural revolution in the 1960s, namely, their rootedness in a version of black nationalism that theorized the black American as a colonial subject in a domestic colonial structure. What was necessary, in this view, was to reorient this colonial subject to his/her indigenous identity and in the light of their reoriented perspective proceed toward the revolutionary objective, that is, freedom for the colonial subjects. This perspective borrowed heavily from the anticolonial struggles that were ongoing throughout Africa and Asia during the 1960s, but, as noted in chapter 1, this conception of black nationalism misunderstands the “American-ness” of white racist oppression, black American identity, and black American political development.
The availability of the colonial analogy decreased the motivation of bright black leaders to articulate a theoretical argument rooted in the peculiarities of black America, as opposed to colonial Africa. The colonial analogy offered a ready-made theoretical framework to graft onto the very different U.S. political economy and society and thus lent itself too readily to already-dated theses regarding the city and ethnic succession. No one seemed to understand this better than James Boggs, who articulated as much in his critique of RAM’s advocacy of separate statehood, which had motivated the dispute that led to his resignation from RAM’s board in 1966; nevertheless, it did not prevent him from articulating an urban-based corollary to the ethnic succession thesis in his essay “The City Is the Black Man’s Land” of that same year. The RNA’s “free the land” orientation displayed a similar myopia born of a misapplication of the colonial analogy, and although not rooted in a cultural revolution thesis, the BPP’s myriad ideological bents all seem to turn on acceptance of variants of domestic colonialism.
The colonial analogy did not fit the African American “domestic colony,” as discussed in chapter 1, insofar as it suggested a relationship between a powerful, rich Western country and a much weaker, poor non-Western country, notwithstanding that the black domestic colony was not a third world backwater, but a technologically advanced, industrialized, relatively well-educated, and politically developed nation within the borders of the most powerful country in the world. Black nationalists in search of an analogy were so preoccupied with third world revolutionaries that they ignored the greater structural similarities between the putative domestic colonialism in the United States and that found in other advanced industrialized nations, such as Great Britain with respect to Ireland—suggesting that Michael Collins may have been a more useful referent than Che Guevara. But even these were insufficient analogies, because American blacks were a minority nation in diaspora away from their ancestral homeland, which meant that they didn’t have the prior land claims that existed in every African colonial scenario and were attempting a revolution against a majority racial regime, which also didn’t apply in African colonial contexts. Actually, there was no precedent in the contemporary colonial world, or in the twentieth century, especially considering that BPM revolutionists were attempting it in the most powerful country in the world. Analogues were not to be found in the contemporary colonial world but in the prior experience of black Americans, specifically in the Slave Revolution. But BPM revolutionists did not study this black American revolution as a reference for the black American revolution they envisioned.
Further, the problems contained in the domestic colonial analogy that are evident with respect to political revolution are even more germane to cultural revolution. For example, black cultural revolution theses failed to specify the culture that was being overthrown or that which was replacing it. The most prominent theses relied too much on the analogy to third world colonialism, which largely ignored how the differences in cultural development that colonialism had impacted might affect the way cultures might develop in the aftermath of cultural revolution. That is, unlike in Africa, African American cultural development would entail much more than simply continuing extant cultural practices that had been restricted or undermined during colonialism. Instead, black cultural revolution would entail a process of cultural education, and cultural institutionalization, far more extensively in the United States than in Africa.
What is more, most black Americans were not likely to accept a vision of themselves as African, New African, or any other imposed designation given the historic fight for their rights as American citizens; therefore, approaches that were dependent on such cultural adoption or appropriation by large swaths of black Americans were unlikely to succeed. In the U.S. context, blacks were unlikely to begin learning KiSwahili or to become Muslim en masse, or even in a sufficient number of critical communities of black activists, any more than they were going to stop speaking English or attending church. In fact, many black Americans had come to even more strongly embrace their cultural roots in their churches, which were increasingly demonstrating their political salience during the apogee of the CRM. If nothing else, the CRM under Martin L. King’s influence had given new political life to the Black Church as a key to black political mobilization, including black electoral mobilization, especially following the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The contradictions facing black nationalists were based on the fact that whereas historically the Black Church stood on a black nationalist base, its programmatic and political thrust during the CRM and BPM had been integrationist. The contradictions didn’t run one way, because integrationist organizations relied on the Black Church, which even if no longer nationalist was an independent black institution, and one that blacks were hardly intent on integrating out of existence. This inconsistency provided an opening for black nationalists if they cared to engage the Black Church as it was and not as so many of them imagined it: an institution whose time had passed. But many black nationalists failed to appreciate this opportunity, as Larry Neal pointed out, until they had lost the church to the BEOs and the Democratic Party, which basically ended the BPM.
Many nationalists failed to resolve the contradictions between their domestic colonial arguments and the interest group politics that confronted them in the United States particularly with the rise of BEOs, something they anticipated but poorly incorporated into their broader strategy. Cleage was alone among prominent black nationalist proponents of cultural revolution to appreciate these contradictions in such a way as to see the necessity of centering cultural transformation on the major cultural institution in the black community, the Black Church, and to more thoroughly integrate the church’s role in the transforming urban communities in which black Americans were situated.
Black nationalists needed to wed their revolutionary theory to the level of political, economic, and social development of the society they were attempting to transform. This was especially evident given the changes underway in many of the major U.S cities in which blacks were concentrated. Kawaida approaches were ill-equipped to account for these transitioning urban contexts and, as a result, kawaida advocates such as Baraka, and many of the black nationalists in Newark, largely
underestimated the extent to which the problems of Black America are a component part of the dynamics of the political economy of the United States. As blacks and Puerto Ricans migrated to urban industrial centers like Newark, the metropolis was in the midst of a postindustrial transformation. Once they sought streets paved with promise for those who labored hard in factories; now many of them languish unemployed in the shadow of opulent corporate centers, still haunted by the horror of poverty and the violence of despair. (Woodard, 1999, p. 262)
Essentially, Baraka oriented his program of cultural revolution to a thesis rooted in the second ghetto, even as Newark and much of the rest of black urban America were being transformed into the third ghetto (Nightingale, 2003). Baraka’s organization initially integrated the BEOs under black nationalist leadership and institutions; however, he was outflanked by those officials for a variety of reasons, not least of which was their appeal to local representatives in the Democratic Party and many church leaders among them, and partly because his analysis of black cultural revolution failed to appreciate the dynamic processes of deindustrialization. Finally, circumvented by the BEOs that his organization had helped promote, Baraka abandoned black nationalism for Maoism and, as a result, ensured that the NBPA—now an avowedly communist-led organization—would be irrelevant in local, state, or national electoral politics. In this way, Baraka conceded the electoral field to the Democratic Party and their affiliated BEOs by associating the most viable major organization for independent black political party organizing with the one ideology that was anathema to most black Americans, and Americans in general: communism—and doctrinaire communism at that. With this concession, BEOs of various stripes gave their allegiance to the Democratic Party and by the time of its Little Rock convention in 1974, the NBPA was reduced to a shell. The convention was poorly attended, and was largely ignored by most BEOs, who realized that it was irrelevant to their electoral success (Smith, 1996), and in 1975 Baraka was ousted from his position as secretary general of the NBPA.13
At the same time, Madhubuti’s black nationalism remained wedded to the “revolutionary kawaida” that Baraka abandoned, although it distanced itself from its reverse civilizationism. For example, Madhubuti (1978, p. 206) did not argue that blacks had been stripped completely of their culture, but instead that “the slave-making process, in part, belittled and erased from our consciousness those positive aspects of our Afrikan [sic] selves except that which we were able to retain in our dance, music, art, religion, and family structure”; but “in our mere acts of survival we have developed a new culture that combines the Afrikan with the Euro-American.” Distancing himself from kawaida as social theory, he admonished that “[w]e Black people, at this late date, must come up with a self-conscious theory of Black Nationalism,” one that “takes into account our ‘Americanness’ and its positives, its negatives. . . . We do not need reactionary theory: we need affirmative theory” (ibid., p. 26). Purusant to this, Madhubuti called for research into Cruse’s works, among others (ibid., p. 214).
Although it continued to play an important role in the development of independent black institutions, especially black schools, the remnant of Midwest-CAP often became embroiled in competition for resources, with which they were consistently underfunded. Competitors to black nationalist institution building in black communities, such as churches linked to the Democratic Party, were often offered resources by government agencies and corporate interests to provide services to black communities sans the political education and orientation that a black nationalist framework would have demanded. These developments contributed to the officially encouraged view that the United States had already been transformed in meaningful ways sufficient to address the demands of the CRM and BPM, thereby making further changes unnecessary, gratuitous, intolerable (or all of the above), or at least of a sort that no longer necessitated a social movement “in the streets” to achieve them.
In a theoretical advancement, Madhubuti expanded the conceptual repertoire of kawaida by incorporating what would become known as Afrocentrism into its theoretical core, and ushered in the more recent phase of Afrocentric black nationalism in the broader African American discourse, namely, policy activism, especially regarding K-12 instruction, independent black schools, and university curricula, along with campus activism and black institution building, more generally. This was initiated, for example, in his introduction of the works and arguments of one of the most important modern Afrocentrists, Cheikh Anta Diop, into movement discourse, both in “The Latest Purge” (1974) and in an article and interview with Diop in one of his publications, Black Books Bulletin, in 1976, four years before the 1980 publication of Molefi Asante’s more popular, albeit atheoretical and solipsistic, articulation of “Afrocentricity” (see Henderson, 1995). Well before Karenga would turn his kawaida thesis to focus on Ancient Egypt, Madhubuti emphasized the salience of Diop’s arguments on the African origins of civilization, the cultural unity of African people, and the classical anteriority of Ancient Egypt to Classical Greece—the latter the common reference point for Western classicists—which were convergent with earlier arguments by Afrocentric historians such as Yosef Ben-Jochannan, Drusilla Houston, and Chancellor Williams. A decade before the founding of the major organization of Afrocentric scholars and activists, the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations (ASCAC), in 1984, Madhubuti instilled Diop’s Afrocentric arguments into the educational programs of the independent schools that he directed.
Although kawaidaists developed mainly short-lived, independent institutions, Madhubuti’s TWP and IPE have been exceptional in that they both continue to this day. These BPM instituions occupied a niche in the broad landscape of black political mobilization by the mid-1970s as the nguzo saba and Kwanzaa became more widely supported even among integrationists. By the end of the 1970s, kawaidaists conceded a fair portion of that niche among black nationalists, in popular discourse at least, to the retrograde theses of a resurgent NOI under Louis Farrakhan, who reinstituted Elijah Muhammad’s black supremacist teachings, which his successor and son, W. D. Muhammad, had abandoned after his father’s death in 1975 (as Malcolm X had a decade before). Madhubuti and other black nationalists in Chicago helped Farrakhan reestablish the NOI after his defection from W. D. Muhammad and his reassurance that he was not involved in Malcolm’s assasination; by the mid-1980s Farrakhan had become one of the most recognizable and prominent black nationalists in the United States, and once his prominence was established he wasted little time before renewing his slanders against Malcolm X. In fact, in 1993 in NOI Mosque #2 in Chicago he referred to Malcolm as “our traitor” and implied that the NOI “dealt with him like a nation deals with a traitor.” The irony, which eluded the flamboyant now-millionaire Muslim preacher, was that this same accusation could have been directed at him with respect to his defection from Wallace Muhammad’s NOI. Elijah Muhammad had appointed his son Wallace, not Louis Farrakhan, as his successor and leader of the NOI. Farrakhan’s defection and elevation of himself as leader of the NOI was in direct violation of Elijah Muhammad’s stated intention. Therefore, following his own logic from his 1993 speech, Farrakhan was as much—if not more—a “traitor” to the original NOI, which Wallace Muhammad renamed the World Community of Islam in the West (WCIW). If so, and again following Farrakhan’s own logic, did members of the original NOI have the “right” to “deal with Farrakhan like a nation deals with a traitor”? Tellingly, just as Baraka’s Newark-CAP inadvertently gave rise to the markedly less than revolutionary, and in some cases not even progressive, BEOs that would supplant them, Madhubuti’s Chicago-CAP contributed to the rise of the conservative, largely apolitical NOI, the very organization whose stifling millenarianism and cult of personality Malcolm had castigated and abandoned, which became among the most popular representations of black nationalism in the post-BPM era.
In practice, as the BPM waned, kawaida advocates increasingly turned their focus toward independent black institution building, especially independent black schools. But without the BPM to support it, momentum slowed precipitously, although many BPM tenets persisted in popular conceptions of Afrocentrism. Ironically, both the Marxist CAP in Newark and the kawaidist CAP in Chicago would see many of their political mobilization initiatives superseded by the efforts of the Black Church in conjunction with the Democratic Party, especially after the implosion of the NBPA. This church/party nexus gave rise to an emerging class of BEOs who would become prominent political actors in the post-BPM. One of the major BPM organizations that advocated black cultural revolution anticipated the increased importance of focusing on the Black Church as the key institution for the change BPM revolutionists sought: the Shrine of the Black Madonna, which we’ll examine in the next section.
The Shrine of the Black Madonna/Pan-African Orthodox Christian Church
By the mid-1960s, Rev. Albert Cleage of the Central Congregational Church was both a prominent black nationalist and a veteran of the black liberation struggle. He had organized with Harold Cruse, James and Grace Lee Boggs, Milton and Richard Henry (Gaidi and Imari of the RNA), William Worthy, and Conrad Lynn in groups such as GOAL and the FNP and with prominent ministers such as C. L. Franklin (Aretha Franklin’s father, friend of Martin L. King, and pastor of Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church), U.S. congressmen Charles Diggs and John Conyers, as well as state senator and future Detroit mayor Coleman Young, in whose election as Detroit’s first black mayor Cleage’s organization of the Black Slate played a prominent role. With respect to the latter, Cleage was successfully implementing the strategy employed by his ally Amiri Baraka; however, his electoral work drew less from kawaida than from his previous experience with the FNP, including his own run for governor on the FNP slate in 1964. Cleage saw himself, his church, and black institutions such as the FNP as applying Malcolm X’s thesis of the “ballot or the bullet” to Detroit politics. Successful precinct work enabled the FNP to get on the ballot in Michigan, and Cleage directed the party’s effort, which fielded thirty-nine candidates for local and statewide offices. Although FNP candidates did not win any of their races, they received tens of thousands of votes in Detroit and across the state, and while Cleage received only slightly more than four thousand votes, this was the most of any of the FNP candidates on the ballot (Ali, 2008).
Cleage had been a confidante of Malcolm X, who referenced him in his “Message to the Grass Roots” speech delivered in Detroit in 1963, and Cleage shared a podium at the historic Great March for Freedom in Detroit with King, where the civil rights leader first made his historic “I Have A Dream” speech to a Detroit crowd that some estimate as larger than the gathering at the March on Washington the following year. Cleage’s theology was oriented to black liberation and he was one of the few ministers of the black power era who wedded his theology, and not simply the rhetoric of the church or its pastor, to black liberation. There is an important distinction to make between the message of the church and the theology of the church. For example, the liberation theology of pastors such as King called on congregants to dedicate themselves to their God-inspired, and God-sanctioned duty of becoming involved in not only social welfare but social justice issues pertaining to black Americans and especially to the “least of these” in the United States and beyond. In fact, King famously called for a “revolution of values” among Americans, and especially Christians, to oppose what he saw as the triple evils of racism, militarism, and consumerism; however, after his death King’s mature message, as influential as it was, could not necessarily sustain the impact it wielded while he was alive because it was tied so closely to his personal style, his personal narrative, his personal advocacy, and the sway of an ongoing CRM. Thus, after his death, “the faithful” could be deferential to his “message” focusing on social justice and social welfare, and even the “revolution in values,” without devoting much if any effort to emulating, much less institutionalizing, King’s practice among themselves and within their individual churches. Simply put, after his death, congregants could walk away from King’s activist social justice program using a variety of rationalizations. King transformed the message of the Black Church toward social activism, but once he died, his “message” could be (and was) reframed, refocused, and recast in myriad ways to rationalize the new status quo.
By contrast, Cleage not only transformed the message of the Black Church, he transformed its theology. He was emphatic that “[t]he Black church must face the simple fact that its basic problem is a theological one” (1972, p. 183). By grounding the liberatory message within the theology of the church itself, Cleage was institutionalizing the changes that he sought in black theology. In this case, the obligations regarding social justice and social activism were not simply a matter of the personal spiritual and organizational appeal of a pastor such as King, or the prominence of the individual church, but were central to the theology of the religion; these beliefs and practices were a requirement for membership in the church. Thus, even after the death of the pastor these messages are no less influential because they constitute the theoretical core of the institution. Unlike King’s message, which, while powerful, was ultimately personal and faded with his passing, Cleage’s message was institutional and, as such, potentially timeless.
Cleage argued that the Black Church must promote a gospel of liberation rather than a gospel of salvation. A gospel of liberation insists that black liberation is the barometer of what is morally good and righteous, as Cleage stated: “That which supports the Struggle is good. That which advances the Struggle of Black people is moral” (Cleage, 1972, p. 188). Therefore, “[t]he Black church must find its new direction in the acceptance of a new theology which holds that nothing is more sacred than the liberation of Black people” (ibid.). He was convinced that “[t]he theological basis for the gospel of liberation can be found in the life and teachings of Jesus. Not in his death, but in his life and in his willingness to die for the Black Nation” (ibid.). Eschewing the Pauline Gospels as an adulteration of Jesus’s original revolutionary message to the black nation of Israel, Cleage (1972, p. 3) argued that the “New Testament reflects the primitive pagan distortions that the Apostle Paul foisted upon the early church as a self-appointed apostle to the white gentile world”; but, he emphasized, “Jesus was a revolutionary Black religious leader fighting for the liberation of Israel.” He added that
[w]e can understand Jesus more fully by looking at Moses and the Maccabees than by looking at the Apostle Paul with his pagan concept of blood redemption. The teachings of Jesus and of Israel reflect the deep spirituality of Black people. The religious ideas of Israel that shaped the ministry of Jesus can only be understood in the light of the history and culture of Africa. . . . Black Christian Nationalism finds a pattern for today’s Black Liberation Struggle in the efforts of Moses to create a Black Nation . . . to move Black men from oppression and powerlessness to a Promised Land here on earth where Black people could live together with dignity. (Cleage, 1972, pp. 3–4)
Expanding on the insights of historic black religious leaders such as AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and AOC Bishop McGuire, Cleage argued that God was black and Jesus was a black man; moreover, he argued, Jesus was a “revolutionary black Messiah.” Cleage was not interested in simply painting Christianity black. He insisted that “[y]ou can take anything and paint it Black, but that does not make it Black if it is still serving white interests and if it still comes out of the white experience” (1972, p. 14). For Cleage, “[a] thing is not Black because it is painted Black. If it is not building a Black institution it is not Black” (ibid.). This maxim was no less applicable to religion; thus, he was emphatic that “Black people cannot worship a white God and a white Jesus and fight white people for Black liberation” (ibid., p. 15). The fact that they did was a reflection of their acceptance of what Cleage called the white man’s declaration of black inferiority, which was embedded and reinforced in the major political, economic, and social institutions of the United States. Cleage (ibid., p. xxv) argued that black Americans “have been programmed for inferiority” through “[t]he white man’s declaration of Black inferiority,” which “is basic to all American life.” He emphasized that “[t]here is no institution in America, no aspect of American life that does not basically reflect the declared inferiority of all Black people”; moreover, it is “[n]ot poor Black people, not ignorant Black people, not uncouth Black people, but all Black people” that “have been declared inferior.” In his view, the “declaration of Black inferiority is the foundation on which American history has been built,” which since slavery has been “the framework within which the Black man was forced to build his existence”; and, importantly, “the Black man was not only ‘declared’ inferior but everything possible was done to make that ‘declaration’ a statement of fact.”
Blacks were compelled to maintain a separate and subordinate existence politically and socially apart from whites and to reaffirm their inferiority through supplications to whites. Both of these factors “precluded the possibility of the white man’s feeling any genuine guilt about the logical contradiction inherent in the actual treatment of Black people, as opposed to the American Dream of equality, justice, and opportunity for all men” (Cleage, 1972, p. 154). Since “Black people are deliberately excluded from participation in the American Dream by the white man’s declaration of Black inferiority,” they are outside the system as they should be; therefore, “[w]hen [blacks] demand that American institutions be restructured to include [them], or that they be destroyed as the instruments of [their] oppression, [blacks] are challenging the American way of life and ought to expect violence and conflict until the question of [their] position in American life is resolved” (ibid.). Cleage insists that “[t]he Black man is permitted to exist only if he will constantly reaffirm his inferiority by approaching the white man as a supplicant, with hat in hand” (ibid.). As it stands,
[t]he white man can withdraw his declaration of Black inferiority, thereby permitting a restructuring of his institutions, or Black people can withdraw their challenge to the status quo and accept inferiority as a way of life. Unless one group is willing to alter its position, continuing conflict is inevitable. The Black man cannot naively assume that the white man is going to give up his privileged position without conflict. The Black man must therefore mobilize the total Black community in an attack upon repressive white institutional power. This is the emerging nature of the Black Liberation Struggle to which Black Christian Nationalism calls all Black people everywhere. (ibid.)
Cleage implores black Americans that “[w]e must escape from powerlessness through the building of Black counterinstitutions and attacking the white institutional power establishment upon every front” (Cleage, 1972, ibid.). Like other BPM revolutionists, Cleage targeted the multiple fronts of white racist institutional power, but unlike the LRBW, he did not focus on attacking the point of production, instead, as Cruse suggested, he focused on a key institution of the cultural apparatus, arguably one more important than Cruse’s thesis recognized since it was the central cultural institution in the black community: the Black Church. Convinced that “[a] people cannot seriously engage in a Liberation Struggle until they have developed a revolutionary theology” (ibid., p. 15), Cleage began in earnest to transform the Black Church. He was the first major organizational leader and theorist of the BPM to focus his cultural revolution program on the major cultural institution in the black community. This should have been obvious, but it wasn’t, and the absence of focus on the church as the central change agent in a proposed black cultural revolution was one of the primary failures of theorists of the BPM.
On Easter 1967, at Central Congregational Church in Detroit, Cleage unveiled a towering painting of the Black Madonna and child in the church sanctuary. As Angela Dillard (2007, p. 288) describes it:
In this striking painting, which is eighteen feet high by nine feet wide, an imposing and very dark woman in a white headdress or veil and a white robe with a blue shawl cradles an equally dark infant swaddled in saffron cloth. The pair is posed before a blue sky standing defiantly on gray and rocky ground with a town barely visible along the horizon.
This remarkable painting is the work of Glanton Dowdell, a member of RAM, who honed his artistic talent in a Michigan prison while serving a murder sentence that began in 1949, before being paroled in 1962. Dowdell had helped to organize the 1966 Black Arts Conference in Detroit, which held sessions in Cleage’s church. Assisting Dowdell in the portrait was future LRBW leader General Baker. Cleage’s church drew many of the young Detroit activists who were organizing with the League, RAM, the RNA, and the BPP around what would become his newly renamed black nationalist church, the Shrine of the Black Madonna. This reflected the fact that it was to these increasingly radical young workers, student organizers, and community activists, many of them representative of the lower classes who Cleage was convinced maintained a “critical perspective and cultural authenticity” that “had been abandoned by their middle class peers,” that Cleage wanted the Black Church in general, and his church in particular, to be relevant (Cleage, 1972, pp. 252–253). In March 1968 Cleage had argued that “the Negro church has prospered poorly in the North because it has been unable to relate the gospel of Jesus Christ meaningfully to the everyday problems of an underprivileged people in urban industrial communities” (ibid., p. 251). His “Black Christian nationalism” was intended to change this situation and it attracted many young black nationalists, although it also led many of his congregants to leave his church.
Cleage’s (1972, p. 173) black Christian nationalism began “with the basic premise that the Black church is essential to the Liberation Struggle, because it is controlled by Black people and is capable of being restructured to serve the Black Revolution.” Cleage assumed that “a Black Revolution is impossible unless Black people are able to build an entire system of counterinstitutions, created and designed to serve the interests of Black people as all American institutions now serve the white-supremacy interests of white people” (ibid.). This was Cleage’s extension of the prominent practice among black nationalists of the 1960s to build parallel institutions to provide services and resources to black people and in so doing expose the contradiction between what was provided by government institutions and social service agencies to white communities and what was provided to blacks. For Cleage, these “counterinstitutions” were available for cooptation by government and private interests of the white establishment; therefore, it was important to ensure that the counterinstitutions not only serve the material, mental, and even martial interests of blacks, but that they provide an independent base of political, economic, and social organization for black communities, as well. These institutions were not to be created in an ad hoc manner, nor were they simply to emerge in response to the quotidian though important issues that arise in the course of the interaction of blacks with white supremacist institutions and individuals.
Cleage had learned from his earlier involvement with independent black electoral politics through the FNP that it was more advantageous for a political party to be grounded in a powerful black counterinstitution rather than have the party itself serve as the core counterinstitution from which black political organization would proceed.14 The latter may have informed Cleage’s relationship with the NBPA, given that he didn’t attend the Gary Convention, but, whether or not that was the reason, clearly subsequent developments regarding the NBPA seemed to validate his argument. Cleage insisted that in order “[t]o build a system of counterinstitutions we must first build one basic Black institution which has the acceptance of the masses of Black people, facilities and economic stability not directly dependent on the hostile white world and the capacity to spin off all the other institutions needed for the establishment of a Black Nation within a nation” (Cleage, 1972, pp. 173–174). The obvious choice for Cleage was the Black Church, specifically, a revolutionary Black Church. Nevertheless, Cleage realized that during the height of the black power era that
[t]hese basic concepts are a source of general confusion to many young Black revolutionaries who have rejected religion in general and the Christian religion in particular—because it is a white man’s religion, is counterrevolutionary, and serves to perpetuate the Black man’s enslavement by teaching otherworldly escapism and distracting his attention from his powerlessness, exploitation, and oppression. The Christian Church has served the Black man poorly, and certainly a white Christ sitting in heaven at the right hand of a white Father God could not be expected to champion the Black man’s cause against the cause of his own people, who owe their present white supremacy at least in some measure to the inspiration of his divine whiteness. White Christianity is a bastard religion without a Messiah and without a God. Jesus was not white and God is not white. Jesus was a Black Messiah, the son of a Black woman, a son of the Black Nation, Israel. (ibid., p. 174)
Cleage asserted that
[w]e have now reclaimed our covenant as God’s Chosen People and our revolutionary Black Messiah, Jesus. Slave Christianity which we learned from our white masters is counterrevolutionary and has served to perpetuate our enslavement. The revolutionary teachings of the Black Messiah commit us to revolution and Nation building. Today our task is clear. We must free the Black church from slave Christianity and call it back to the original teachings of Jesus, and we must liberate the Black church as an institution and restructure it so that it can become the center of the Black Liberation Struggle. Young Black revolutionaries who cannot put aside their ideological hang-ups (largely inherited from white people) and be about this very serious business must stand accused of frivolity and of playing games with liberation. (ibid., p. 175)
For Cleage, any other starting point to black liberation that he foresaw was either unrealistic (e.g., separate black statehood in the United States or abroad), untenable (e.g., interracial proletarian-led Marxist revolution) utopic (integrationism), or liable to be easily undermined by white supremacist forces aligned against it (ad hoc nationalist formations). He was insistent that
[w]e are trying to build Black institutions and our only possible point of beginning is the Black church. As wrong as it is, as biased as it is, as weak as it is, as corrupt as it is, as counterrevolutionary as it is, as Uncle Tom as it is, it is the only starting point we have. We have churches on every corner housed in buildings of every size, shape, and description. We have nominal control over it, but because of our confusion and psychological sickness it does not serve our interests. We have billions of dollars tied up in church buildings. If we are seriously interested in Black liberation we cannot realistically afford just to turn and walk away and leave this huge capital investment in the hands of the enemy. We must devise a way to co-opt it, restructure it, and make it the heart and center of the Black Revolution. The Black church must be programmed for Black liberation. (Cleage, 1972, p. 200)
That is why. . . . We are seriously attempting to restructure a Black church upon the basis of a Black theology. Upon this restructured institutional base we can build anything else we need. We can spin off economic, educational, political, and cultural institutions as rapidly as we can train the necessary specialists. The Black church restructured as a power base can guarantee the success of any organized undertaking designed to serve the interests of Black people. . . . The Black church must program for power. . . . Only the Black church has the potential capacity to mobilize the total Black community. (ibid., pp. 200–201)
Cleage was taking the battle for black power to the pulpit and the pews; he was taking the black revolution to church. Finally, one of the major theorists of the BPM was conjoining Malcolm X’s cultural revolution to the major cultural institution in black America. Cleage was arguing that the black cultural revolution was to begin with something akin to a Protestant Reformation. His was not going to be a “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”; it was going to be the “Ninety-Five Thesis on the Door of the All Saints Church at Wittenburg.” In fact, he characterized his movement at one point as a “Black Protestant Reformation” (Cleage, 1972, p. 184). The Black Church, in Cleage’s vision, would be the foundation for the development of parallel institutions in the black community. But not only that, its Savior, Jesus, would be a “black revolutionary Messiah.” Its Gospel would be black liberation. It would assert the religious duty to pursue revolutionary change. It would provide religious sanction for black power. In this conception, the Black Church was the central cultural institution to transform black society, and subsequently, U.S. society, as a whole.
Grounded in a black revolutionary theology, in Cleage’s view black churches would be transformed and spin-off counterinstitutions that would reflect, reinforce, and reinvigorate black power. They would assert the political, economic, and social rights of black Americans, for instance, such as reparations, among other black revolutionists’ organizations, as well. Thus, during the BPM, the Shrine was supportive of many of the major BPM organizations such as RAM, Us, the BPP, RNA, LRBW, and CAP. It had the capacity to organize community relief for striking black workers and their families; it could organize sanctuary for black revolutionists associated with the major militant groups; it could provide programmatic and curricular guides for educational and cultural centers, and the administrative and infrastructural support for subsequent counterinstitutions, including a black political party. The Shrine would participate in activities such as these and it would expand beyond Detroit, establishing Shrines in two major Southern cities, Atlanta and Houston.
Although his objective was revolutionary, Cleage averred that his religious project was oriented by “pragmatic realism,” grounded in part in an appreciation of Reinhold Niebuhr’s argument that even if individuals attempt to behave morally, the control and dominance of an immoral society often make doing the “right thing” appear morally wrong. Cleage acknowledged the centrality of the “will to power” in order to realize the objectives of his moral vision and insisted that “there is nothing immoral about our quest for power”; instead, “Immorality lies in weakness and in the fear of power. Immorality lies in the acceptance of powerlessness and the indignities which [it] forces upon a people who are created in the image of God and are expected to maintain dignity” (Cleage, 1972, p. 140). For Cleage, social relations in the United States approximated a domestic balance of power system, which blacks were compelled to acknowledge, operate within, and manipulate successfully. In this framework
Black institutions must be prepared to seek power, which means that they must inevitably face confrontation and conflict with the white power structure, because no one gives up power easily, quietly, or happily. The only way that power is transferred is through confrontation and conflict. The church is no exception. The Black church exists in a world in which the conditions of Black people will not be changed until Black people are willing to confront and accept the inescapability of conflict. (ibid., p. 181)
Implicitly, Cleage was rejecting the supposition of many black power advocates who were attempting to derive lessons for black American struggles from third world national liberation strategies such as the “war of the flea” or foco theory that emphasizes the leverage of militarily weaker guerrilla bands upon stronger conventional forces and/or advocate the spontaneous generation of revolutions even in the absence of the concrete conditions assumed to give rise to them. Instead, Cleage’s logic of struggle sought to employ the same approach that white nations had used to achieve their hegemonic positions, namely, balance of power theory, in order to bring about their downfall. Importantly, “[p]ower for Black people,” according to Cleage, “will not come from the barrel of a gun but from liberated minds willing to accept the theology of here and now expressed in the Black Christian Nationalist Creed” (Cleage, 1972, p. 188). Further, although he denounced the needless militarization of activism and didn’t articulate his approach to black revolution in military terms, he also did not eschew the militant pursuit of one’s objectives, in principle, and he maintained a paramilitary security force, the Maccabees, to provide security for the Shrine and its members.
Cleage’s emphasis was on the central role of the church in black liberation, which for some BPM activists was a peculiar focus, but one that indicated his recognition of what Du Bois and others had viewed as the peculiar situation of blacks in America and the resultant requirement of a theoretical orientation that recognized and was responsive to it. Relatedly, Cleage’s characterization of the black community in terms of its institutional underdevelopment was not beholden to the domestic colonialism thesis, nor to neoMarxist arguments suggesting the need to eradicate this perceived domestic colonialism through guerrilla warfare that was more applicable to third world contexts. Cleage’s thesis on the development of counterinstitutions was more germane to black America.
Cleage asserted the uniqueness of the black American’s situation and, particularly, what it suggested for revolutionary struggle. For example, he argued that Malcolm’s thesis, which viewed land as the basis of independence and the objective of revolution, “must be re-evaluated.” Insisting that the “concept of revolution must be developed by a people out of their particular situation” (Cleage, 1972, p. 119), in the case of Malcolm’s thesis he noted that “[i]n Africa every liberation struggle involved a racial majority fighting against a racial minority to control its own land” but that in “America conditions are different” (ibid., pp. 118–119). For Cleage, the “unique condition” of blacks in the United States makes it “foolish to talk about the struggle for land as the basis for revolution without an analysis of [that] unique condition.” Specifically, “We are a minority and we are struggling against a majority”; therefore, “Past revolutions do not furnish guidelines for our struggle” (ibid., p. 119). Further, the uniqueness of the black American context also undermines the relevance of Marxist revolution to the United States. He acknowledged that “[i]n any country where Black people are a majority and there are just a few white people trying to keep power, communism or socialism can become a philosophy of liberation. But in America there is a totally different situation.” He insisted that “[t]here will never be a communist revolution in America” because “Marxism does not suit the American condition.”
For Cleage, the “pattern of relationships between white people in a country with a large racial minority which has been structured out of the system is entirely different from the way it would otherwise be. For this reason no place in the world is like the United States” (1972, p. 158). Again, the complications born of the intersection of race, class, and demography are such that the class conflict between white elites and poor whites is mitigated by their racial alliance. Specifically, white elites are willing to make concessions to poor whites in return for the maintenance of a racial fissure between poor whites and blacks, provided and reinforced by a white supremacist system that poor whites support because it rewards them materially, psychologically, and socially in comparison to blacks of all classes. In such a context, white elites “feel compelled to make some kind of reconciliation with the poor, realizing that if they don’t Black people are going to attack all of them while they are fighting each other” (ibid.). Clearly, white elites are not expected to participate in a revolution that might overthrow white supremacy, which fundamentally benefits them, but Cleage is also convinced that poor whites, or white workers, will not either. He insists that “[p]oor whites will not revolt against a system which perpetuates their racial superiority unless driven to the wall, and intelligent whites who control the system are ever conscious of the point of no return” (ibid., p. 159). In light of this, Cleage argues that “[a]ll white institutions come together to fight against any kind of an attack on the white establishment.” Therefore,
The existence of thirty million more or less alienated Black people in America means that a framework for revolution with built in protection for white supremacy is an essential prerequisite for any serious American revolution. The fact that the very nature of revolution makes this kind of built-in protection for white supremacy impossible serves to make the existence of the Black man the most important stabilizing force in American society. (ibid., pp. 158–159)
Thus, the major reason that there will “never be a communist revolution in America,” according to Cleage, is because blacks are a safety valve against it.
Convinced of the uniqueness of the liberation struggle in the United States, and of blacks within it, his strategy eschewed Marxism while simultaneously embracing Malcolm’s focus on black cultural revolution. In fact, Cleage’s plan of action was oriented more to the logic of black cultural revolution in the United States than many of his predecessors and contemporaries may have realized. For example, he articulated the necessity for the psychological transformation of blacks to bring them to appreciate the depth of their oppression and miseducation, in a manner that acknowledges Malcolm X’s, RAM’s, Us’s, the RNA’s, and CAP’s arguments in favor of cultural revolution. In light of this, he was a chief sponsor of the Detroit Black Arts Movement, who in 1962 hosted a forum in his church that discussed the relationship between jazz and black nationalism and featured Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, following the release of their influential Freedom Now Suite, which many blacks celebrated at the same time that some notable whites criticized it—ridiculously—for “politicizing jazz.” Dillard (2007, p. 254) correctly points out that this forum “highlighted [Cleage’s] early interest in cultural struggles”; and Suzanne Smith (1999, p. 173) argued that the forum, along with the cultural revolution plank in the FNP draft platform and Cleage’s promotion of the June 1966 Black Arts Convention in Detroit, showed that “Black activists in the city were exploring the role of art in black life several years before international festivals were organized on the topic,” and even before the origination of BARTS, which most herald as the beginning of BAM. Importantly, Cleage did not share other cultural revolutionists’ dismissal of the role of the Black Church in this process—just the opposite: Cleage was taking Malcolm X to church! This is evident in his approach to the role of the Black Church in cultural revolution. He asserts that
[t]he first task of the Black Church is to liberate the Black man’s mind. It must be willing to deal with truth and stop telling fairy tales to men and women. If the Black church is to move in new directions it must learn the nature of reality and become committed to truth. The Black church must become a teaching church. It cannot be a church that says what people want to hear. It must help Black people begin to think realistically about everyday problems. This is the process by which we will move from a gospel of salvation to a gospel of liberation. We must define liberation, define struggle, analyze tactics, and develop methods for the struggle. We must look at history to find out what works and what does not work. The Black church must define liberation in terms of reality. Then we must put together the organization and structure to make it effective. (Cleage, 1972, p. 189)
He saw the black nation as “a group working, thinking, and planning together,” although he realized that “[o]ne of our basic problems is the development of a process which will make this possible” (ibid., p. 190). He eschewed the notion of pursuing unity for unity’s sake or even in the face of “valid reasons for uniting,” such as a commonality of oppression based in black racial identity or the fear of genocide, because most rationales for black unity did not suggest how unity would “make a Black Nation come into being” (ibid.); in this way, Cleage appreciated the collective action problems that kawaida, for example, ignores. He argued that “[w]e must deliberately reject the values and thought patterns of the white Western world. We must consciously create a new Black mentality and value system which recognizes the equal worth of every Black brother and sister” (ibid.). Like Jesus, who “preached to multitudes” but “did not count on the great crowds, but on the small cadres with whom he worked,” Cleage maintained that “[t]he Black Nation will be built around small well-trained cadres” who “organize and train black people everywhere” (1972, pp. 222–223). These cadres would be organized through “rigid discipline during training, highly centralized controls, and carefully standardized organization structures.” He fashioned the Shrine of the Black Madonna “to use the methods of the Essene order to train cadres capable of going out and organizing Shrines, Information Centers, and cultural centers in the Black urban ghettos and rural areas of America and throughout the world” (ibid., p. 222). Prospective members received a twelve-month catechism with advanced leadership training recommended. Cleage noted that other than the NOI, “[e]very other Black group tries to program with Black people the way they are (which is obviously an impossibility) or to readjust prejudices and misconceptions (which is equally impossible)” (ibid., pp. 212–213).
Although membership in the PAOCC focused on the theology of black Christian nationalism, the educational component of the catechism emphasized politics, history, and religion. An additionally important aspect of this training was devoted to the development of program specialists who could institutionalize the essential elements of black culture across specific program areas. Unlike theorists such as Boggs and Newton, he did not imagine that a revolutionary culture would emerge from the political revolution itself, but neither did he separate the struggle for cultural self-determination from that of political (or economic) self-determination (Cleage, 1972, pp. 222–223). Cleage argued that “[c]ulture grows out of struggle,” yet he admonished his contemporaries that “[w]e have made an artificial separation between cultural revolution and the power struggle” (Dillard, 2007, p. 254). He saw that too many of his contemporaries “are more excited about culture than they are excited about the struggle for power, because it is easier to put on African clothes than it is to struggle and sacrifice” (ibid.). Cleage was criticizing those activists who ignored the massive educational and institutional undertaking that “capturing the hearts and minds” of black people entailed. It required more than a sartorial exercise in African dress, but models of social change rooted in African American processes and not expropriated from contexts that did not apply to black America. In this way, Cleage recognized the importance of Africa, but asserted the necessity of centering on the United States, and, to this extent, rejected reverse civilizationism; however, the latter was more apparent than real.
That is, while the logic of Cleage’s approach challenged reverse civilizationism by privileging the black experience in the United States, especially noting how this experience challenged both Malcolm’s focus on land as the basis of revolution and the relevance of Marxist revolution, practically, Cleage embraced reverse civilizationism, as is evident in the training program he devised for the Shrine’s program specialists. This training utilized the nguzo saba as the representative element of black American culture, which it sought to instill across the specific program areas. In adopting the nguzo saba as a fundamental reference for black culture, and placing them at the heart of the training for the program specialists of the Shrine, Cleage was centering the cultural atavism of kawaida into his modern black nationalism. On its face, the adoption of the nguzo saba seems consistent with the Shrine’s mission to “reject the white man’s values, the values of the Western world,” to “reject American values” (Cleage, 1972, p. 241), to “develop a new value system” (ibid., p. 242), and “to create a new Black mentality and value system which recognizes the equal worth of every Black brother and sister” (ibid., p. 190). On closer inspection, it is difficult to reconcile the Shrine’s adoption of the nguzo saba as a centerpiece of its training with Cleage’s trenchant argument that “[o]ur values as Black people must be derived from the Black experience as that experience has been shaped by our continuing struggle for liberation and survival” (ibid., p. 242). Although Cleage recognized that black Americans “are not Americans in the sense that white people are Americans,” and that blacks are “an African people who against our will were brought to America,” nevertheless, he also acknowledged that black Americans “are a people because here in America common experiences have welded us together” (ibid., p. xxx). He added that “[w]e share a common background and a common cultural heritage. Our cultural heritage has been confused and modified by our experience in America, but it binds us together even when we would break apart” (ibid., pp. xxx–xxxi). The experience that Cleage is referring to in these passages is that which characterizes the African American saga in the United States, not in Africa.
The experiences of black Americans, even at their lowest, were not only a symptom to be decried but a source of inspiration, as articulated in Stuckey’s “slave culture” or the “Aframerican culture” of Du Bois, Locke, and Cruse. To facilitate black cultural revolution, it was essential, in Cleage’s view, to bring those varied experiences into the Black Church, which too often seemed to ignore important aspects of black culture, especially that which was associated with the black ghetto. In contrast, Cleage extols the cultural practices and expressions emanating from the ghetto as much as he deplores the privations suffered by its people. For Cleage,
The music, the laughter, the anger of the ghetto, the frustration—even with the horrors of white exploitation the ghetto has a beauty that white America does not have. There is the sense of people being together, the sense of fellowship, and even the bond of common misery. It is a beautiful thing. . . . The Black ghetto must come into the church and the church must build in terms of the Black experience. (1972, p. 247)
The “ghetto” that Cleage describes is not African, much less the “traditional” and “communal” Africa that kawaida invents, imagines, and promotes; it is a distinctly African American, modern, and urban condition and context. Further, the cultural characteristics he ascribes to it, its sights, sounds, smells, moods, intensity, fellowship, beauty, reflect distinctly African American experiences. This is not to argue that the substance of the ghetto is monolithic or unique; it takes many forms that are found, unfortunately, throughout both rich and poor countries, but the ghetto that Cleage describes emerged from and reflects a unique set of historical developments in the United States, with respect to African Americans, which are not reducible to, nor synonymous with, prominent historical processes in the colonial world, or Africa, in particular.
Moreover, the “beauty” that Cleage observes in the ghetto, and its values that he lauds, are not rooted in kawaida nor do they derive from the nguzo saba; instead, they are associated with the traditions of values of blacks in America—not Africa. Blacks predominantly in the South—both urban and rural—where most resided until the last half-century, created and cultivated value systems drawn from “slave culture” that generated their collective identities, practices, customs, and institutions in the United States. These were epitomized in the “invisible institution” of the black Christian religious tradition, an activist religious tradition, as well as those central elements of black culture—freedom, family, and education—that Franklin (1984) acknowledges. In fact, Cleage had already made the point regarding the distinctiveness of African American social development in his arguments regarding the inapplicability of Marxist formulations to African Americans, and his critique of Malcolm’s thesis that land is the basis of revolutionary struggle. Appreciating this uniqueness, his choice to embrace the nguzo saba and kawaida is theoretically inconsistent, at best.
The impact of Cleage’s decision to incorporate kawaida as a centerpiece of the program training of the Shrine is not simply an academic matter; it has practical implications for the program that the Shrine created, distilled, and promoted. It detached a central component of the training from the relevant history of black American cultural practices, especially those associated with revolutionary initiatives; thus, ironically, the black church, which promoted Jesus as a revolutionary black Messiah, had separated its catechism from the religiously inspired proletarians who had authored the only lasting tradition of black revolt and black revolution in the United States. Any serious examination of this history would lead inexorably to Gabriel, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and a host of black Christian revolutionaries epitomized in those who transformed the U.S. Civil War into a revolution. The values they practiced and promoted were those of the invisible institution and the consciousness of an emergent black working class, utterly unrelated to the nguzo saba. Kawaida and its centerpiece, the nguzo saba, suggested that these revolutionaries had no culture, that they left no cultural remnant greater than that which could be concocted from an African “tradition” that existed largely and exclusively in the imaginations of many BPM activists.
This ahistorical and anthropologically confused view of both African cultures and African American national development allowed Cleage to make the claim that “[t]he more highly developed, African, communal conception of man’s relationship with God had been lost when the Black man was uprooted and his history and culture stripped from him” (1972, p. 46). This conception led Cleage to declare that “we will build a Black Liberation movement which derives its basic religious insights from African spirituality, its character from African communalism, and its revolutionary direction from Jesus, the Black Messiah” (p. 16). The notion of a black God or a black Jesus was not novel but Cleage’s insistence on wedding this to African “communalism” rather than African American urbanism or cosmopolitanism (or even African urbanism/cosmopolitanism), and his focus on “African spirituality” instead of African American spirituality were unnecessary addenda that took both his theology and his program away from the actual sources of its revolutionary potential, namely, African American history, and especially the role of slave culture and the slave church in black revolutionary struggle in the United States. Ironically, reverse civilizationism, in one sense, converged with one of the most glaring aspects of white supremacism, that which denied that black Americans possessed a culture worthy of the name. Just as Moses (1978) had noted the contradictory aspect of classical black nationalism in its embrace of civilizationism, the black nationalism of the BPM created its own contradictions in its embrace of reverse civilizationism. Where Cleage could have asserted the centrality of the Black Church and its historical and contemporary values as the centerpiece of the only successful black revolution in the United States, the Slave Revolution of the U.S. Civil War, he eschewed the very basis for this contention by deferring to a feudal and futile conception of black culture, kawaida and the nguzo saba, and inserting it into the heart of the Shrine’s catechism.
The evidence of the distorted orientation away from relevant revolutionary African American history and towards much less relevant African history is evident in the “BCN [Black Christian Nationalism] Orientation Reading List,” which provided required readings for Shrine members across three general categories: political, historical, and religious. This academic training reflects Cleage’s view that “emotional involvement” is insufficient to maintain a liberation struggle; instead, “[s]erious commitment to the Black Struggle involves an intellectual understanding” (Cleage, 1972, pp. 191–192). However, a majority (thirteen out of twenty-five) of the political works on the BCN list were authored by Africans or focused on African politics rather than African American subjects. Similarly, nine out of sixteen of the historical works were authored by Africans or focused on African history. Finally, only two of the six religious references, both authored by Cleage, could be said to focus on African American religion. There is no reference to any of Du Bois’s major political or historical works, although Cruse’s two major works of the time are included, and even the Africanist studies are dominated by Nkrumah and Fanon, with one reference to Cabral. Mine is a critique less of the substance of these works, although this is a serious limitation, as well, than of their focus, in that BCN training was focused less on the actual cultural practice and institutions of African Americans and more on replicating “African” forms. In the first place, these were hardly representative of the great diversity of African cultures and often projected a singularly myopic, predominantly “communalist,” picture of a presumably monolithic “African” traditional culture; and in the second place, they were hardly representative of, or applicable to, the African American context in which the BCN members operated. One result was that in the heart of Detroit, the Motor City, the industrial core of the most advanced industrialized society in the world and the fifth-largest city in the United States at the time, in whose economic, political, social, and cultural development black Americans had played a key role, the leading black power organization promoted a conception of black people that treated them as if they were participants in a communal harvest festival from a feudal era and assumed that this was the basis for the revolutionary transformation of its people and their society.15 The incongruity was as profound as it was debilitating.
As a result, when Cleage turned his focus to revolutionary developments among blacks in the United States, he was compelled to resort to self-contradiction. For example, he lauded the slave revolts, and Nat Turner in particular, but at the same time he disparaged the “slave-church,” which was the basis of each of the major slave revolts (1972, p. 16). Cleage acknowledged the significance of slave revolts as a challenge to white power in the United States and asserted that “[t]he only time white people have really felt that their basic power institution was actually endangered was when the slave insurrections swept the South,” and that these “[s]lave insurrections could come out of no place and shake America to its foundations.” Instead of developing their significance with respect to the role of Christianity in these challenges to white power, he turned instead to the white response to them: “White people recognized the danger.” Therefore, “Slave attacks on basic white institutions,” in his view, “only served to increase the stability of the white structure” (ibid., p. 161).16 That is, “The result was not the freeing of Black people (because the insurrections failed) but the solidification of the white dominant group” (ibid.). In fact, he insisted that “[f]rom the time of the insurrections the white group said that they could never permit Black people to have the slightest possibility of launching a real attack upon the white power structure,” and that “[t]he development of the Klan following the Civil War reinstitutionalized the separation and oppression of Black people and was condoned by white people and their governmental units all over America” (ibid.). Such an interpretation ignores the role of the revolts as revolutionary expressions of black Christianity; and specifically, the Slave Revolution and the central role of the “slave church” in it. Thus, the reverse civilizationism implicit in Cleage’s thesis generates a historical myopia that undermines his ability to perceive, much less build on, previous black revolutionary engagements in the antebellum era. As a result, the black revolution during the Civil War that was Du Bois’s focus and should have served as the point of departure for black revolutionists during the BPM was hidden in plain sight for Cleage.
Cleage’s thesis suffers from additional limitations, as well. For example, although the PAOCC ordained several women bishops and promoted gender equality in its major programs and prominent practices, the church leadership remained predominantly male, as have Cleage’s successors. The issue of sexism in the PAOCC is not unrelated to its persistence in the Black Church as a whole. Cleage’s major pronouncements of his religious doctrine are largely silent on issues of gender discrimination, and he does not specifically focus on it in either his depiction of the declaration of black inferiority or his discussion of counterinstitutions. He utilizes the masculinist language prominent among Christian theologians and religious leaders, which suggests that his new direction for the Black Church did not include a challenge to its God-ordained and sanctioned patriarchy.
In addition, while emphasizing the primacy of the Black Church in the black cultural revolution that he envisioned, Cleage did not specify which institutions should be subsequently transformed, or in what order. For example, after the church had been transformed, it wasn’t clear whether it was necessary to focus on a political institution, such as an independent black political party like the NBPA, economic organizations such as consumer/producer cooperatives, as Du Bois had proposed, labor unions, such as those the LRBW pursued, or educational institutions, like the ones Weusi and Madhubuti created. It also was not clear what constituted a critical mass of counterinstitutions that would generate the revolution that Cleage envisioned. These issues were not only important because of the need for coordination, but because it was not clear how the values associated with the Church should transfer to secular political, economic, and social institutions. Consumed by the effort demanded in overhauling the church, Cleage did not delineate the order by which subsequent counterinstitutions should be developed to effectuate the changes that he sought.
There also are limitations in centering cultural revolutionary struggles on the Church. That is, if one is proposing black cultural revolution from a Lockean cultural perspective, then the Church might initiate and participate in black cultural revolution but it probably cannot lead it, given its tendency to impose restrictions on cultural expression, including revolutionary expression. The church’s limitations are a function of its inability to project a perspective and practice of black culture apart from its own theological dictates. This forces an arbitrary imposition on cultural expression, which a Lockean approach does not countenance because it restricts the inherent dynamism of culture that Locke insisted upon. Further, in Locke’s view, culture reaches its full cosmopolitan expression in democratic frameworks, and churches are fundamentally nondemocratic, and often openly autocratic.
Thus, unlike black culture, which is inherently dynamic according to Locke, the church, by comparison, is relatively static, changing at a tectonic pace but not inherently revolutionary. So, from a Lockean cultural perspective, the inability of the Church to lead a cultural revolution does not dictate that the Black Church can serve as Moses but not Joshua; it’s more like the Black Church cannot be both Jesus and Charlie Parker (who was not only a jazz saxophone virtuoso but an atheist). The point is that the Black Church may conceive of, but probably would have great difficulty projecting, a black culture, or those aspects of black culture that do not converge with the teachings of the Church. Black culture encompasses much more than the Gospel of Jesus, even a revolutionary black Jesus, because black cultural expression is potentially boundless; therefore, the cultural revolution that it inspires may reflect, require, and recommend what might appear to be some very un-Christian initiatives. Cleage’s pragmatic realism recognizes this insofar as it makes a reasoned argument as to why the church should be engaged with essential worldly issues such as the “will to power.” The appropriation of Jesus as a revolutionary black Messiah represents a similar convergence between the Gospel and the exigencies of black power. Cleage’s thesis is less engaged in asserting gender equality by challenging sexism within Christian theology, the church as an institution, and black power as a social movement.
Nevertheless, among prominent proponents of black cultural revolution in the BPM, Cleage was alone in centering his thesis on the major cultural institution in the black community. For instance, Malcolm X’s adoption of Sunni Islam, which led to a major “re-identification” by many African Americans of their religious identity, was more likely to have limited his influence on the black masses given their ingrained Christian religious identification. Moreover, while King changed the narrative associated with the Black Church by his espousal of black liberation theology, Cleage/Jaramogi changed the catechism of Scripture itself. In proposing that Jesus was a revolutionary black Messiah, he, unlike King, created a new doctrinal identity for blacks within Christianity, in light of which the religion did not simply encourage participation in black liberation struggle but required it. Given this, it is unlikely that the Shrine can be easily transformed to promote a theological framework such as “prosperity gospel” that some black clerics have begun to endorse even as they rhetorically embrace King’s theology.17
Yet, at the helm of a dominant cultural institution in the African American community, Cleage’s proposed black cultural revolution was wedded to a conceptualization of black culture distant from African American cultural practice. As an expression of reverse civilizationism, it privileged African over African American culture, history, and revolutionary praxis. Even with these theoretical limitations, however, Cleage’s application of his model of cultural change had a powerful impact on the culture and politics of Detroit. This was evident in the prominent role the Shrine played in the election of Coleman Young as Detroit’s first black mayor in 1973, before the city had a majority black population. Likewise, the prominence of its Black Slate figured in the election of Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, as well as in electoral politics in Houston (the third of the three major cities where Shrines are located today). Moreover, the Black Slate has been influential in elections of local candidates since its founding.18 Similarly, Cleage/Jaramogi’s arguments on cultural revolution have remained influential in the years since his death. Ironically, by helping support the ascendancy of the BEOs, the PAOCC helped bring to power the leadership group that would supplant the black power organizations of the era and ultimately signal the end of the Black Power Movement.
In this chapter, I’ve expanded on the examination of the historical and theoretical development of the concept of black cultural revolution in black politics through an analysis of CAP and the PAOCC, aka the Shrine of the Black Madonna. CAP’s Newark chapter was led by Amiri Baraka, and its Midwest (Chicago) chapter by Haki Madhubuti. The former harnessed black cultural revolutionary theses to urban electoral mobilization and independent political party organizing before abandoning black nationalism and adopting Haywood’s Marxist political thrust. The latter rose from similar origins but remained committed to independent black community institutions, focusing on two important counterinstitutions, black independent schools and black publishing, while explicitly rejecting Marxism. Baraka’s organization initially gathered the emergent black elected officials (BEOs) under the aegis of black nationalist leadership and institutions; however, Baraka was outflanked by those same officials for a variety of reasons, partly because his analysis of black cultural revolution failed to appreciate the dynamic processes of black political and economic development in the cities during a period of deindustrialization. Circumvented and then repudiated by the very BEOs that his organization had helped promote, Baraka abandoned black nationalism for Maoism.
In contrast, Chicago CAP, like Brooklyn CAP, maintained its black nationalist orientation and developed a critical response to Baraka’s neo-Marxism that contributed to the demise of CAP and the broader ideological sectarianism of the BPM. Haki Madhubuti established Third World Press in 1967, and the Institute of Positive Education and its network of independent black schools in Chicago, which became a blueprint for other such schools around the country. More than any other theorist of the BPM, he laid the basis for the Afrocentrism that would become prominent after the BPM. However, Madhubuti embraced aspects of reverse civilizationism, as well, and the Afrocentrism that emerged from his organizations followed two tracks: an activist course that focused on independent black organizations and a reverse civilizationist thrust that led to an overindulgence in ancient African societies instead of focusing on the largely urban-based industrial working-class culture of African Americans living in the most powerful country in the world. The former course continued on the trajectory of building independent black institutions and advocating black liberation, even as the latter course departed from the spirit and praxis of cultural revolution that Malcolm espoused.
The Shrine of the Black Madonna/PAOCC was led by Albert Cleage (Jaramogi Agyeman) and has been one of the most consistent and enduring BPM organizations espousing black cultural revolution. The Shrine fused political, economic, and cultural aspects of the BPM and, most importantly, was the most prominent BPM organization that centered on—instead of dismissed—the Black Church. The PAOCC utilized the methods of the Essene order to train cadres capable of organizing churches as well as informational and cultural centers throughout the United States and abroad. Cleage’s model of cultural change had a powerful impact on the culture and politics of Detroit, playing a prominent role in the election of Coleman Young as Detroit’s first black mayor in 1973. More successfully than the RNA, the PAOCC expanded into the South and established itself in Atlanta and Houston (as well as in South Carolina). While Jaramogi emphasized the primacy of the Black Church in black cultural revolution, he did not specify which institutions should be subsequently transformed or in what order, and it was unclear what would constitute a critical mass of counterinstitutions that might effectuate the cultural revolution that he envisioned. Thus, apart from the church, it wasn’t clear where activists should focus, for example, on an independent black political party, black trade unions, black schools, or black economic cooperatives. Although Cleage’s focus on the Black Church and the development of counterinstitutions remains one of the most influential theses for black cultural revolution in the United States, in practice it reflected a return to Du Bois’s thesis on cultural evolution rather than cultural revolution insofar as it privileged the incremental building of counterinstitutions of black civil society. Further, and ironically, in helping support the BEOs, the PAOCC helped bring to power the leadership group that would supplant the BPM organizations of the era, which ultimately signaled the end of their movement.
1. Cruse discusses BARTS in Crisis. For another perspective, see Goose (2004), especially his discussion of Yuri Kochiyama’s notes from Cruse’s course in “Cultural Philosophy” at the school.
2. Baraka (1984, 255) drew on Cabral to explain: “Cabral . . . said that the African petty bourgeoisie, because they were too often exposed only to the master’s culture and history, when they become radicalized want to identify with things African as much as possible. This was . . . my problem and Karenga’s US was a perfect vehicle for working out the guilt of the overintegrated” (p. 255).
3. Woodard (1999) suggests that in addressing these issues that Baraka “modernized” black nationalism, but this is misleading. Baraka was institutionalizing aspects of Malcolm’s Charter of the OAAU.
4. The presidential election of 1964 was a realigning election which saw a majority of blacks vote Democratic, following Johnson’s support of civil rights legislation, while more Southern whites voted Republican, following the white supremacist Goldwater, who opposed major civil rights legislation. Nixon would successfully appeal to the latter in his Southern strategy of 1968—made difficult by Wallace’s third party candidacy—and even more so in 1972.
5. These represented the Congressional BEOs—except Senator Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), who did not join the CBC—the number of BEOs at the state, county, and municipal levels was about 1,500 at the CBC’s founding. No less influential were black mayors of major cities, such as Cleveland’s Carl Stokes, Detroit’s Coleman Young, Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson, and Los Angeles’s Tom Bradley.
6. The language of both proposals would be changed by the steering committee, but the “compromise language” received less press attention than the initial language (Smith, 1996, pp. 49–50).
7. Even issues such as women’s reproductive rights found splits among blacks who viewed it not only in terms of women’s rights but as promoting reductions in black births. During the NBPA, Smith (1996, p. 302) notes that “Yvonne Day, Chair of Gary’s Committee on the Status of Women sought to have the convention go on record in favor of legalization of abortion. It never came to [a] vote” because “the male leadership (including Jesse Jackson)” “roundly condemned” it “as genocide.”
8. Smith (1996: pp. 70–71) casts greater blame on Baraka for the failure of the NBPA:
9. In 1968, Mao stated that “[t]he Black masses and the masses of white working people in the United States have common interests and common objectives to struggle for”; and that “[r]acial discrimination in the United States is a product of the colonialist and imperialist system. The contradiction between the Black masses in the United States and the U.S. ruling circles is a class contradiction.”
10. Given its controversial positions on the issue of black self-determination in the aftermath of black urbanization, as well as its rightist position on the busing crisis in Boston (RU argued that the issue in the crisis was busing not racism), the radical group had been charged with varying degrees of “white chauvinism” and racism by other leftists (see Elbaum, 2002, pp. 186–189). The group became the Revolutionary Communist Party, which split in 1978, and its leader, Bob Avakian, went into exile.
11. If black power could be labeled conservative given Nixon’s advocacy or cooptation of black power as black capitalism, as some Marxists argued, then what did it say about Maoism that Mao sought and achieved an accommodation with Nixon? Just as troubling was Mao’s relationship with Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko who was not only a puppet of the United States, France, and Belgium, but was complicit in the assassination of Lumumba and friendly with the apartheid regime of South Africa. Mao supported the FNLA, which was supported by Mobutu, and UNITA, which was supported by apartheid South Africa and the United States.
12. In poetic irony, forty years later, after winning the Newark mayor’s race in 2014, Baraka’s son mayor-elect Ras Baraka appointed former mayor Kenneth Gibson to his transition team.
13. In a broadside to Oklahoma State Representative Hanna Atkins, who resigned her post as treasurer in the NBPA citing the undesirability of serving in a leadership position with a “scientific socialist,” Baraka replied: “I ask why Hanna Atkins can be in the Democratic Party with [Alabama] Governor Wallace and she can’t be here with me” (Smith, 1996, p. 306). Baraka contended that his turn to Marxism did not preclude the feasibility of the united front approach of the NBPA, insisting that
14. Cleage’s approach had matured since the time he advocated “an organized and deliberate strategy of chaos,” which was “a deliberately conceived plan to tear up those things from which we are excluded in these United States—it either accepts us in it, or we’ll do everything possible to tear it up” (Dillard, 2007, p. 279).
15. Arguably the most widely celebrated holiday in the United States, Thanksgiving, is a harvest festival.
16. This is similar to Du Bois’s (1969, p. 12) discussion of slave revolts in Black Reconstruction.
17. That King’s children held their mother Coretta Scott King’s funeral in such a church—even as their daughter and pastor Rev. Bernice King heaped praised on the church’s pastor as one in her father’s tradition—demonstrates how a personal narrative, even one as profound as King’s can be manipulated in a way that is antithetical to the original intent of the narrative’s author.
18. Cleage’s Black Slate was influential in the election of Detroit city council members, two U.S. Congresswomen, and a subsequent, albeit disgraced, Detroit mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, who was forced to resign amid scandal and is serving a lengthy prison sentence for federal corruption charges.