Racial nationalism and the political imagination

The little-known story of how US-based Pan Africanists responded to white racism and a corrupt school system by founding their own schools in the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1976 the historian and activist Walter Rodney spoke at Howard University on the then-unfolding civil war in Angola. Noting that in the late 1960s and early 1970s many African-Americans had been compelled by the then-nascent UNITA movement’s seemingly Africanist-centered opposition to the socialist-aligned MPLA, Rodney cautioned that “we must of course admit that to declare blackness is a very easy thing to do.” “The Lessons of Angola” he suggested, were that racial solidarity needed to be tempered with ideological solidarity in order to fashion a more effective weapon. The tension between left- and race-based politics has been a constant issue in transatlantic solidarity for decades, as have issues of race, decolonization and education.

The Cornell University historian Russell Rickford examines the historical intersection of these concepts in in his remarkable new book, We Are An African People: Independent Education, Black Power and the Radical Imagination (published by Oxford University Press). Rickford’s study tells the little-known story of how US-based Pan Africanists responded to white racism and a corrupt school system by founding and funding their own schools, throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Over the last few months, Rickford and I had exchanged periodic messages about his book, historical antecedents to contemporary debates about education, and the fault-lines of Pan-Africanist and African diasporic politics. We began by considering the career of Howard Fuller, who founded the Malcolm X Liberation University in 1969.

Tell me about Howard Fuller, a.k.a. Owusu Sadaukai. 

Owusu Sadaukai (aka Howard Fuller) was one of the most influential U.S. Pan Africanists of the Black Power era. He was a community organizer who was deeply involved in antipoverty work when he founded Malcolm X Liberation University (MXLU) in Durham, North Carolina, in 1969. The post-secondary school, which eventually moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, was widely regarded as the leading Pan Africanist/black nationalist institution of the period.

Sadaukai is significant for a number of reasons. One of his main contributions was helping to increase black American awareness of and support for armed struggles against settler colonialism and white minority rule in Southern Africa and the Portuguese colonies. Sadaukai made a very influential journey to Mozambique in 1971, where he spent a month embedded with Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) fighters. The experience helped transform Sadaukai’s vision of Pan African solidarity. He began to see the fight against U.S. imperialism as the main priority for black American internationalists, because Portuguese colonialism was propped up by U.S. aid.

Sadaukai also played a leading role in founding African Liberation Day (ALD) in 1972. This annual fundraising and public education effort on behalf of ongoing anti-colonial struggles on the African continent greatly increased Pan-African consciousness in the U.S. It also accelerated the political growth of many U.S. Pan Africanists by hastening the transition from Racial Pan Africanism (a philosophy based on notions of global racial linkages) to Left Pan Africanism (an approach based more on anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, and anti-racism).

However, Sadaukai followed a very strange path in the decades after the Black Power movement. Ultimately he became a major spokesman for “school choice,” or voucher programs that enable parents to use public education funds to enroll their children in private schools. “School choice” has been a major goal of the privatization movement, and is widely criticized by defenders of public education, the system upon which the vast majority of black children rely. Thus, Sadaukai (who has now reverted to his original name, Howard Fuller) has traveled full circle from integrationism to black nationalism to Marxism-Leninism to staunch advocate of free market policies. In the closing chapters of my book I trace a larger retreat from the radical elements of Black Power politics during the post-civil rights era.

That’s quite an intellectual journey. I want to keep the “end” of Sadaukai / Fuller’s journey in mind as we continue our conversation, but for now let’s go back to the beginning. How was Sadaukai’s political activism and especially solidarity with Frelimo and other liberation movements consistent with his critique of the American educational system?

Sadaukai and other Pan-African nationalist organizers and intellectuals believed black America had been socialized for subservience and sociopolitical dependency.

They were strongly influenced by postcolonial and radical theorists who condemned Western education for “colonizing the mind” of oppressed peoples throughout the world. They joined a host of figures, from Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere to Guyana’s Walter Rodney, in arguing that subject peoples (including African Americans) needed to reject the principles of individualism, materialism and white supremacy on which Western education was based in order to reclaim their humanity and achieve cultural and political autonomy. These were guiding principles for  MXLU.

However, Sadaukai’s view of revolution changed in the early 1970s. As he traveled and interacted with revolutionary movements, he developed a more materialist vision of the reconstruction of society. Rehabilitating consciousness remained a major priority, but he began to see anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism as struggles for land and for the reconstruction of political economy. He developed a critique of global finance capital as the engine of political and economic exploitation not just in the Third World, but also in the United States.

As Sadaukai’s politics evolved, MXLU developed a more internationalist and leftist orientation. Equipping African Americans (and other black people) with technical skills so that they could assist in the modernization of developing nations (especially those seeking to travel a socialist path) emerged as the institution’s primary mission. Before it closed abruptly in 1973 amid severe financial trouble, MXLU also attempted to revive its original emphasis on serving local African American communities within North Carolina.

Could you talk a bit about the distinction you made earlier about the difference racial Pan Africanism and left Pan Africanism?

In the book I try to distinguish between a Left Pan-Africanist orientation rooted in a fundamentally anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and “Third Worldist” outlook and a racial Pan-Africanist trajectory, more wedded to principles of racial fundamentalism, cultural nationalism and the politics of all-black unity.

The complex realities of ideology often stretch the explanatory value of these categories, but over the course of the 1970s sharp conflicts erupted in black progressive and radical circles over these and other ideological distinctions.

The story of the decline of the more radical tendency is complicated. One would have to talk at length about external factors (including state repression) and internal factors (including bitter ideological feuds.) But I think it is fair to say that by the 1980s, racial Pan Africanism was more widespread. It emerged as a more inward-looking form of Pan Africanism re-emerged as a major black political alternative to integrationism. This iteration of Pan-African nationalism took a less hostile stance toward global capitalism than had the radical varieties of the 1970s. It was also more firmly based in the academy and less closely tied to ongoing struggles in Africa and the Caribbean. In my epilogue I make the case that this bourgeois nationalism entered into a kind of detente with corporate capitalism and the forces of privatization. But forms of Left Pan Africanism never fully disappeared, and continued to influence campaigns like the anti-Apartheid struggle and the Black Radical Congress.

Responding to your striking title, I’m wondering what lessons your book offers about the African Americans’ relationship to “Africa” (as a fact, as a concept) both during your time period and today? 

The question of the relationship of African Americans to Africa is a thorny one, of course. The historical relationship itself has been torturous. From the African-American perspective, I would have to say that black folk need to understand the history of what I call “Africa in the African-American Mind” (I teach a seminar on the topic at Cornell). A good place to start is by reading Middle Passages by James Campbell and Proudly We Can be African by Meriwether.

But in general, I still think some of the lessons of the Black Power era are relevant in terms of African-American consciousness. Most of the figures in my book start from a position of romanticizing African politics and culture in the context of the 1960s revalorization of African identity. My book’s title, “We are an African People,” comes from a very popular slogan of the late 1960s/1970s, which makes this point quite clearly.

As these activist-intellectuals traveled throughout Africa and the Diaspora, they were forced to confront some of the political and social complexities of societies and governments that they had previously viewed through a very simplistic lens. At best, African Americans rethought the basis of their connection to Africans, moving away from racial mysticism and thoroughly western essentialism and moving toward solidarity based on common circumstances and political perspectives/objectives. They began confronting the complex problems of neocolonialism. They began considering questions of class and gender in both African-American and African contexts. This is part of what I characterize in the book as “political maturation.” Yet, realistically, I must concede that at the end of the day, a push for African and African-American solidarity based on racial romanticism is probably superior to an outright rejection of the idea of shared political fate. The African and African-American cultural encounter seems to work best when both sides recognize multiple historical veils of stereotype and misunderstanding as well as historical ties of solidarity, inspiration, and struggle.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.