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Recapturing “Black Culture”

In 1970 at Syracuse University, Bissau-Guinean agronomist and revolutionary leader Amilcar Cabral delivered the speech National Liberation and Culture, as part of a lecture series memorializing Eduardo Mondlane, the first President of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) who was assassinated by Portuguese agents. Cabral concluded his powerful analysis by stating:

“In order for culture to play the important role which falls to it in the framework of the liberation movement, the movement must be able to preserve the positive cultural values of every well defined social group, of every category, and to achieve the confluence of these values in the service of the struggle, giving it a new dimension–the national dimension. Confronted with such a necessity, the liberation struggle is, above all, a struggle both for the preservation and survival of the cultural values of the people and for the harmonization and development of these values within a national framework.” 

Serving as a repository of collective memory, Black culture has at different times been a powerful vehicle for challenging oppressive systems, dismantling racial injustice, and advocating for social change. Preserving the stories, traditions, and experiences of Black communities throughout history, Black cultural expressions through art, music, literature, and activism have played a pivotal role in mobilizing and fostering a sense of identity, pride, and resilience, while simultaneously galvanizing individuals and communities to envision and actively strive for a more just society… and even revolution.

Through the arts, Black culture and the conceptualizing of a national liberation struggle have been consistently intertwined in every movement era: the emancipatory poetry of Phillis Wheatley, the workers-centered art of Charles White, the dynamic talents of Paul Robeson, the boldness of Lorraine Hansberry, the vision of Amiri Baraka, the truth-telling of Audre Lorde, the sophistication of Sonia Sanchez, freedom blaring out of the horns of Fela’s band, the sound of Mississippi crackling in Nina Simone’s voice, and many more examples..

The decades that span from the Harlem Renaissance to The Black Arts Movement remain significant because these were decades that defined the role of the artists in relationship with ongoing liberation and decolonization struggles. Literary, visual, and musical propaganda was the backbone of struggle, holding the masses upright while battling labor repression, lynchings, police repression, colonization, and even the cold-war. Culture, as Walter Rodney understood, is “a total way of life”. These works contributed to the backbone of Black struggle, instilling a national (African) identity and pride, bringing people together under a rallying cry.

However, the neoliberal turn of the late 1970s and subsequent embracement of neoliberal capitalism in so-called Black politics not only impacted Black liberation movements through misdirection, but also through the use of Black culture. This Elite Capture, as author Olúfémi O. Táíwò describes, of Black culture, wherein capitalist forces usurped what little independent Black cultural institutions existed, saw the proximity to power and concentration of resources in the hands of a select few of elite forces in the Black community, perpetually hindering the equitable distribution of opportunities and resources. The connection between elite capture and neoliberalism highlights the inherent flaws within a neoliberal economic system. As an ideology, neoliberalism emphasizes free markets, limited government intervention, privatization, and individual responsibility. As a consequence of decades of neoliberal policies, markets were deregulated, social safety nets reduced and profit maximization enabled a small group of wealthy individuals (and corporations) to exert influence over not just economic processes but political ones, as well.  Subsequently, this not only limited the “politics” of Black artistic expression, but dictated its appeal. 

No longer are people interested in being the cultural workers of the Black Radical Traditions, but “creatives” instead. No longer are people interested in creating art as cultural artifacts within a larger Black movement, but are creating “content” instead. As writer Musa Springer lays out in their essay Cultural Worker, Not A Creative:

Cultural worker has a moral positioning embedded into it, as well as an inherent accountability. To call oneself a cultural worker, as opposed to a creative, is to essentially say that your labor, or at least a particular fraction of it, occurs with the intention to uphold a certain culture. It proposes that your labor as an artist, your work in art and literature, is accountable to the idea of culture. And, if we as organizers and anti-racists and socialists and communists and revolutionaries are committed to upholding a revolutionary culture, then our labor as cultural workers is accountable to the notion of working to uphold that revolutionary culture. That is, that we are not simply creating art for arts sake, or writing for the sake of writing, but have a moral obligation to use our artistic and linguistic talents in the service of liberation. ” 

As an appeal to the neoliberalization of “Black culture”, so-called creatives have convinced themselves that they are reclaiming their stories and voices. This emphasis on individualism overshadows the communal nature of Black culture by focusing solely on personal pains, achievements, struggles, and successes. The limitations of individualism in commercialized Black culture, which heightens identity reductionism, becomes apparent when considering the unresolved impact of systemic racism and discrimination juxtaposed with the increased appeal of “Black culture”. This inadvertently reinforces a profit-based dynamic where the culture is consumable but not liberating. Black death as a commodity and trauma as profitable is evident in the function of Black culture today.

As writer TOO BLACK expresses in his piece Laudering Black Rage, “to muzzle the roar, the State dispossesses the labor of Black Rage and harnesses it into a commodity that can be consumed harmlessly as if its original potency is retained. Stated plainly, Black people do not own our rage.” The ruling class has continuously maneuvered to contain and maximize from Black reaction. ‘Black Joy’, for example, is also contained within boundaries set in place by the ruling class of society. This is most evident in the individualist and consumerist framing and expressions of “joy” (ie. soft life and self care) exasperated by a loosely defined yet uniting “Black culture.” 

Culture, art, and cultural workers are intrinsically connected to intellectuals as they each contribute to a broader intellectual discourse, shaping society’s understanding of complex issues. The connection between culture/art/cultural workers and intellectuals lies in their mutual influence and interaction. Their works not only reflect the cultural, social, and political realities of their time but also have the power to shape public consciousness and spark conversations about important issues. What does it mean when our capitalist cultural producers don’t reflect our “lives” in any way?

In ‘Left of Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones,’ scholar Carole Boyce Davies notes that our contemporary U.S.-based realities reveal two competing categories of intellectualism: (1) the commoditized intellectual and (2) the radically transformative intellectual. One working in the benefit of the state and the other whose praxis revolves around transforming social contexts of our material conditions.

The intersection of intellectualism and Black culture contribute to the ongoing advocation of people’s- centered human rights. Cultural workers draw inspiration from intellectual ideas and theories, while intellectuals engage with and analyze the artistic and cultural productions of society. They both contribute to the enrichment of society’s intellectual fabric, fostering critical thinking, promoting dialogue, and shaping collective consciousness. Their collaboration and exchange of ideas create a dynamic space where creativity, intellectual exploration, and social transformation intersect. These works reflect the cultural, social, and political realities of its time. Whereas Claudia Jones could be described as the radically transformative (secular) intellectual delving into topics of social justice, racial inequality, triple oppressions to shed light on the historical and contemporary challenges, to contribute to a broader dialogue, today’s Black intellectuals can be found engaging in counterinsurgency, using radical Black histories to profit from Black culture.

The prevailing ideas in any society is that of its ruling class. The commodification and commercialization of elements of Black culture strips away the cultural and historical context, reducing cultural elements to marketable trends and products. This particular exploitation reinforces a power imbalance that enables western imperialism to use Black culture as a tool for soft power and cultural domination. By appropriating and commodifying Black culture, imperialist forces can perpetuate a narrative that disregards the historical context, struggles, and aspirations of Africans, thereby reinforcing systems of exploitation and dominance to the benefit of imperial powers. In the midst of these dynamics, how can Black culture emerge as a powerful force of resistance, resilience, and self-expression?  How does Black culture serve to dismantle this white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal, imperialist nation? And to what extent is Black culture furthering neocolonialism and counterinsurgency? These are all questions of political power that we have yet to collectively answer.

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Erica Caines is a poet, writer and organizer in Baltimore and the DMV. She is an organizing committee member of the anti war coalition, the Black Alliance For Peace as well as an outreach member of the Black centered Ujima People’s Progress Party. Caines founded Liberation Through Reading in 2017 as a way to provide Black children with books that represent them and created the extension, a book club entitled Liberation Through Reading BC, to strengthen political education online and in our communities.

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